Trajectories of belonging

“My father used to complain that he “couldn’t get anything started” in Canada. The United States, by contrast, stuck in his memory as the land of opportunity where a hard-working black man of humble origin could aspire to almost anything…” Zetta Elliott on her choice to live in America, rather than in Canada (where she was born).

“I am an immigrant. I was born in Canada, which means that I grew up “resisting Americanization;” in school I was taught to embrace the “tossed salad” metaphor rather than the “melting pot”—Canada was presented as a multicultural “mosaic,” a nation where all kinds of differences were not only celebrated but protected. Canadians often define themselves in opposition to Americans; they pride themselves on being quiet, polite, and progressive—the antithesis of their loud, boorish, bigoted neighbors. I learned at an early age to look down my nose at the United States; it’s something of a national pastime and a legacy of Canada’s colonial past. Of course, it didn’t help that my father used to slip across the border whenever life in “the Great White North” became unbearable. He would eventually return, bearing wondrous gifts (like a black Barbie doll) and for months we’d have to listen to him rhapsodizing about the US. As an adolescent, I disdained the United States yet still elected to study American History in high school, perhaps as a way of connecting with my father. I could not deny that the US had a certain allure—all the pop stars and television shows I admired were American—but I also understood that a fascination with “that country” could and would disrupt my life.

Although he came to Canada from the Caribbean as a teenager, my father spoke without an accent and felt perfectly at ease around whites. I never wondered why. Indeed, I grew up thinking of my father as a “generic” black man with no fixed ethnicity, and I was myself a young adult before I understood how the United States had shaped his identity—and mine. When my father arrived in Toronto at age 15, his stepmother indicated that he was not welcome in her home. Desperate to keep the peace, my grandfather tried to enlist my father in the army, but when that scheme failed, my great-aunt instead enrolled my father in a Christian high school—in Allentown, PA. Her conservative church handled everything; my father was sent to the United States where he finished high school and then entered Eastern Pilgrim Bible College. He was one of only two black male students on campus and in the spirit of Christian fellowship, was strictly forbidden from dating the white co-eds.

My father returned to Canada after graduation and married my mother—the white daughter of a United Church minister. Despite being groomed for the ministry, my father chose to teach rather than preach. He ran for public office—and lost. He tried to add a Black Heritage component to the Toronto public school curriculum—and failed. He had an affair with a black woman he once knew back in Allentown—and my mother divorced him. My father grew out his Afro and became something of a black militant. But there wasn’t much tolerance for militancy in Toronto in 1980. Within a few years, my father settled down, started a new family, and learned to accept the status quo. Or so I thought.

The year before I graduated from high school, my father disappeared. We all knew he’d gone to the United States again and we all assumed he’d eventually return. We were wrong. I started college in Quebec and received a letter from my father telling me he was now remarried and living in Brooklyn, NY. Not yet certified to teach there, he drove a gypsy cab along the bus route and would occasionally send me three or four crumpled dollar bills. When I graduated from college, my father invited me to spend the summer with him in Brooklyn and before long I moved all my belongings across the border. His stated goal was to have all four of his children living in the United States. But my father died of cancer in 2004, and I am the only one of my siblings who chose to pursue my own “American Dream.”

I begin with this summary of my father’s life because I see evidence in his narrative of the many forces that operate upon the immigrant generally and upon the black immigrant to (North) America specifically—forces which shaped my own life story and my young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight. My father used to complain that he “couldn’t get anything started” in Canada. The United States, by contrast, stuck in his memory as the land of opportunity where a hard-working black man of humble origin could aspire to almost anything, despite the pressure he once felt in the 1960s to lose his Caribbean accent, keep to his side of the color line, and not join the Civil Rights Movement. Though my father cautioned me against a life as a writer (and wished I had chosen a practical profession like law rather than academia), it is as a storyteller and scholar that I have learned to detect, embrace—and mount my own resistance against—the processes of Americanization.”

This is an excerpt from Zetta’s paper “The Bottom of the Pot: Blackness and Be/longing in A Wish After Midnight. Read the rest of the post on Zetta’s blog here.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus

I’d written about Heart of a Samurai a few weeks ago in the context of the lovely cover illustration by Jillian Tamaki, and since then, in the way these things happen, I’ve been seeing Tamaki’s work all over the internet, especially her embroidered covers of classic novels for Penguin. Yes, those covers, which  The Atlantic (rather condescendingly, IMO) termed “Etsy and Books Collide.”  Anyway, Tamaki is attending the Toronto Comics Arts Festival on May 7 and 8, and I’m planning to see her there, get her to doodle on my forearm, and then tattoo her work into permanency. Activating jealousy shield, now.

Onward to the review of the book, which deservedly recently won the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in the MG category. (The runner-up was the equally deserving Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins, which, in a pleasing convergence, I reviewed for the Asian Review of Books as well .)


It’s 1841 in Shikoku, Japan, and fourteen-year-old Manjiro is on a fishing boat, waiting to catch his dinner. Manjiro has always wondered what lies on the other side of the ocean, and he’s soon going to find out — when a freak storm hits the fishing boat, the crew is shipwrecked on a remote island until an American whaling ship rescues them. The Japanese now wonder if death by starvation might have been preferable: don’t the blue-eyed barbarians plan to cook them in the big pots on board?

Japan, which has long been in the grip of isolationist policies and misinformation, does not allow foreign ships to approach its shores, and the whaler hence drops the Japanese off at Honolulu. The Captain however has grown fond of the curious, intelligent Manjiro, and offers to take him to America as his adopted son. Now sixteen, now adept at whaling, and now called John Mung, Manjiro reaches Fairhaven, Mass., thus becoming the first Japanese person to set foot on American soil. But even as he develops an appreciation for fresh-baked bread and horse riding, family and homeland are never far from his mind.

Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus offers a bounty of adventure and comedy (fuelled by cultural misunderstanding), with the added bonus that it’s all true. Preus’s primary sources include Manjiro’s story, which he narrated in 1852 and which was subsequently transcribed in a four-volume book, the Hyoson Kiryaku. Thrillingly, Heart… features Manjiro’s own drawings, and the epilogue includes his real-life portrait.

Manjiro is a charming protagonist, open-minded and enthusiastic about change even when it’s thrust upon him, and Preus’s fuss-free prose invests his tale with immediacy — we’re right there in Manjiro’s soggy shoes on a drenched boat, holding on to a harpoon than “seemed no more than… a darning needle” next to a whale, or clinging to a sea-turtle’s flipper as it races through the ocean. And I could gaze for hours at Jillian Tamaki’s hypnotically lovely jacket illustration; it’s as though we’re sitting in a glass-bottomed boat with the massive box of the whale’s head passing beneath. This is a beautifully crafted book in every sense.

Very occasionally, Manjiro’s opinions on cross-cultural empathy seem a bit message-y, but Preus mostly focuses on differences between the daily business of life in the two countries, and the narrative has an intimacy that’s often absent in historical fiction. And what charged history this is. In 1853, when Commodore Perry demanded American access to Japanese ports, Manjiro acted as the official interpreter. Manjiro’s last port-of-call before he finally met his family was Nagasaki. The reader’s knowledge of the heft of events to come gives Manjiro’s story a fearful resonance; most will read this book not just to know what happened next (a compelling reason indeed for this novel), but to ponder how a single life may harbor seeds of world-changing events. And as for the history-averse — Manjiro’s whaling adventures should convert even hardened Gameboy addicts to reading. Recommended.

(This review appears in the current edition of the Asian Review of Books).

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins


If I had to use just one word to describe Secret Keeper, it’d be “unputdownable”. The other time I locked myself into a bathroom so I wouldn’t be disturbed while reading, I was thirteen and clutching a Sidney Sheldon between damp palms.

1974: Engineers are getting laid off in India, and America’s doors have recently opened to well-qualified immigrants from around the world. When Asha Gupta’s father decides to look for a job in America, the rest of the family moves from Delhi to Calcutta to live with their relatives till they can join Baba in New York. While Asha, her older sister Reet and their mother wait for word from Baba, they must learn to cope with living as dependents in a house already bursting at the seams with an aunt and uncle, three cousins and a grandmother. The one place where Asha finds some privacy is when she writes in her diary, which she calls “Secret Keeper.”

Sixteen-year-old Asha is the sort of girl anyone would want as a friend—spirited, courageous, and dependable. And oh, fun, the sort who’d invent games and make up great stories. Asha loves to read, is a champion tennis player and cricketer, and dreams of being a psychologist. Reet is sensible and good and gorgeous, Meg to Asha’s Jo, as it were. And there’s an interesting boy next door too…

Perkins, an award-winning YA writer, knows how to construct characters so real you can see them breathe and laugh and cry and fight. She hurls you right into their lives, and you come up for air only when you turn the last page, and then only just, for this book has an ending that few YA novels match for heart-stopping poignancy (or Bollywood-style drama). Weeks after reading, I’m still thinking about the characters, wondering where they ended up five years hence. In fact, Perkins, I’ll do your dishes and your laundry all of next year if you’ll promise to write a sequel to Secret Keeper. Yes, I’ve got it baaaad.

Asha’s primary struggle is with the gender expectations of the time and place. Girls from “good Indian families” aren’t supposed to go outside unescorted, or play sports, or want to be psychologists. They’re supposed to value looks over intelligence, place obedience above freedom. And this brings me to my sole problem with the book.

The draconian gender roles and hidebound traditions Perkins describes would be the norm in a rural setting, but appear a tad extreme in the context of the family’s socio-economic category—Asha belongs to an educated, urban, middle-class family. For instance, there’s an incident where seventeen-year-old Reet gets a proposal. I found it strange that the family gives serious consideration to the suit even though there’s no pressing economic or social necessity for such an early marriage. Moreover, the girls’ mother married at eighteen–surely things have changed for the next generation? Perkins’s portrayal of Indian cultural norms isn’t inaccurate by any measure, but it could perhaps have been more nuanced. The theme of poor-brown-women-needing-to-be-saved often pervades fiction set in India, and while Asha does her part, I’m afraid it might not be quite enough to kill that bogeyman.

Furthermore, Asha wants to go to America because “in America, where women were burning bras and fighting for equal rights, they didn’t need curves to snare a husband.” Umm…there were plenty of liberated women in India in the seventies, and Asha wouldn’t have had to look far for Indian role models. The real–life Kiran Bedi, for instance, won the Asian Tennis championship in 1972 before going on to join the federal police force, the prestigious IPS. India’s national airline had a woman pilot back in 1966. Although Asha’s later actions do go some way in undermining her intial simplistic notions of American versus Indian women, I found this aspect insufficiently developed for my satisfaction. Now, I’m the first to agree that the examples I’ve cited earlier weren’t the norm, and my point is not to deny the truth of Perkins’s observations about gender roles in India–I just wish an author of Perkins’s giant talent had fleshed out her Indian scenario with a few more strokes, especially because this is the rare book that truly inspires readers to learn about another culture. One reviewer on Amazon mentions that by reading this book, she learnt “what it means to be a woman in India.” Just what I feared.

Anyway—enough whining! The bottom line: Secret Keeper is excellent story-telling, and the fact that it’s YA won’t stop you passing this book on to your mom—or your grandmom, for that matter.


A much shorter, and much less India-centric version of this review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.

Perkins has written many other equally readable YA novels, and I recommend them all, especially The Not So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen. Visit her website ” a safe place to chat about books between cultures” for a generous list of writing resources.