Thomas King on finding humor in intolerable situations

Before starting this piece, let me clout myself on the head for not reading Thomas King all these years. There.

Thomas King is a Canadian (Cherokee) writer and broadcaster who advocates for First Nations causes. Now, I believe the First Nations people got one of the shittiest deals in the history of the world. Like, EVER. The story of their colonization makes the British occupation of India seem like dinner guests who stayed a tad too long. I’d reach the end of my natural life span before I could finish reading the list of crimes committed against these peoples.  (I’ve written earlier about residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996.) And this is not just ancient history–this is the stuff of our present lives. If you are a red-blooded organism, you should be very very angry.

King is indeed angry, but the first thing you notice about him is that he’s funny and affable.  Well, King explained that Native American issues are very harrowing for a general audience to engage with, and that he resorts to humor so as to keep his audience. In his radio show, for instance, in the segment titled 10 Reasons Why It’s Good to Have Indians in Canada, he listed the first reason as “they give the RCMP live targets to practice on.”  Smile. Wince. And…what’s the second reason?

King, who was born in California, spoke last night in my city–which  I learnt  is built on unceded Indian land (see stuff, present lives).  Happily, I seemed to be quite alone in my ignorance of his work.  King spoke in a gallery-style lecture hall designed to house several hundred skinny undergraduates, and the room was PACKED (and oh, those mingy chairs with those flip-top tables gave me a reminiscent chill). He was visiting for the launch of his new book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, which explores what it means to be “Indian” in North America.

The cover shows an old advertisement for an European cruise ship line, and even my untrained eye can see so much going on here–the pink-white-beige ship, the flag fluttering as it plows through the boiling water, the black and red evocative of the devil…oh, I could go on and on. King began the evening by reading two excerpts from his book. He first talked about the apology issued by Canada (Harper) and the USA (Obama) to the native people of these two countries. It was a “disingenuous” apology, he said, in that they were willing to admit guilt but  no liability; the history of colonization and genocide was sought to be portrayed as “a no-fault fender-bender.” Besides being personable and inspiring and witty–oh, can he WRITE. He then spoke about the 1969 Native American occupation of Alcatraz, in which he was an active participant.  [Correction: he wasn’t at Alcatraz, though he did set out (unsuccessfully) for Wounded Knee]. What if there were a do-over? Well, there’d be cell phones, they’d make sure they had a doctor in the group, and oh, they’d pack plenty of toilet paper…

King then took questions from the audience, some very moving. Asked if things have improved for Native Americans over the past hundred years, he replied in the negative–things might have changed but nope, they haven’t improved in his opinion. He said their single biggest achievement was that despite the years of genocide, despite systemic efforts to make the native people disappear by the end of the 21st century, they are still around. Then there was a gentleman whose daughter was a newly minted social worker in Whitehorse. Did King have any advice for her? Yes he did, and of the soundest variety: Pay attention, be respectful, don’t be a savior on a white horse (ha!). And on his next book–could it be called The Convenient Indian? As in: conveniently demonized to suit the settler agenda? King replied that he was almost seventy, so his book would likely be called The Incontinent Indian, and no, that wouldn’t be convenient at all. King recently retired as an (English) Professor; oh to have been a student in that class.

I’m too old for seriousness, he said, his face deadpan, and then brought the session to an end to a round of prolonged applause.  Quick, someone do a PhD on King’s use of humor as bait-cum-weapon-cum-alarm clock to alert us to the ongoing resistance of the First Nations people.

Seeing Salman Rushdie talking Joseph Anton

It’s hard for me to overstate the eminent position Salman Rushdie holds in my reading of (postcolonial) literature, but I’ll give it a shot–my feelings on seeing him in person were akin to those of a Regency Romance convention beholding Jane Austen. I bought my battered 1982 Picador edition of Midnight’s Children second-hand,  back when I was a penniless high school student, and I’ve read over a dozen times and love it unequivocally despite having written two papers on it in grad school.

I’ve read all but one of Rushdie’s novels, and all his essay collections, and while I’ve followed his writing for over two decades, I’ve stayed triumphantly uninformed about his personal life.  But Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton is as much about the man as his writing, and heck yes! I wanted to know more about both.

The book’s main focus is Rushdie’s underground existence starting 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeni sentenced him to death for insulting Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. When asked to assume another identity, Rushdie chose the name Joseph Anton, a combination of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov (his first choice Ajeeb Mamooli, which translates to strange everyman, was rejected by his police team as too-Asian).  But Rushdie also covers his schooldays (at Rugby) and university years, his love life, his relationship with family back in India and Pakistan, his friendships (many with noted writers), his son, and much more in this enormous book.

I was about halfway through Joseph Anton when I attended Rushdie’s talk  at the Lincoln Alexander Center in Hamilton last Friday, October 26.  The 334 pages I’d read had impressed and  frustrated  me in near-equal measure. Much of the time, I was indeed reading, as the jacket copy said, a work “of vital importance in its political insight and wisdom”, a story of “why literature matters”.  Moreover, there were thrilling (to me) revelations about the genesis of Midnight’s Children–Rushdie noting how he decided not to “write his book in cool Forsterian English. India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he would try and find that language.” Oh, yes.  Other times, I was struck by Rushdie’s fascination with celebrity, and the pettiness of his long-cherished, carefully-nourished grudges.  In person, I imagined, Rushdie would be an entertaining if occasionally  infuriating amalgam of Gandalf the Wise and George Costanza insisting he paid for Elaine’s big salad.

Well, there was no sign of George on Friday night, which began with a reading from the book, followed by a Q&A with Charles Foran.  Rushdie obviously loves to talk–Foran sometimes (c)would interject a question when Rushdie paused for breath. Fortunately for the audience, Rushdie proved a wonderful speaker.  So very articulate,  always witty,  succumbing at times to the seduction of the sound-bite, yes, but often brilliant, occasionally moving (his honest pride at how his young son coped with his exile was lovely to watch)–he had the audience eating out of his hand.

Foran’s questions about Rushdie’s life and writing were mostly answered in the book, so I’m not going to describe that conversation here (read the book, folks!)  Rushdie then took questions from the audience. He spoke about his friendship with Christopher Hitchens and the literary games they’d invented along with other friends (btw, when he talks about friends, he’s referring to Martin Amis and Ian McEwan).  He spoke about his love for P.G.Wodehouse (yes!) and Monty Python and the Bombay film industry and his gossipy mom. Asked which books he most enjoyed writing, he mentioned Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Moor’s Last Sigh–the former written for his young son, and the latter because it was the first book he wrote while underground, proving (to himself) that despite everything, he still had it in him to write.

At the end of the event, my blood was zinging–I wanted to walk a picket line and defend Literature, hang out with writers and invent literary drinking games with clever sexual innuendos , and write a novel that would change the world.  I was brought back with a bump when the organizers announced that Rushdie would speed-sign books because there was a time constraint–he needed to catch a bus back to Toronto.  A bus, repeated Rushdie, sounding a tad bemused. Oh, damn, those budget cuts in publishing are getting quite serious.

And now seems a good time to set down my appreciation of Bryan Prince Bookseller  and  A Different Drummer Books (and IFOA) for making this evening happen–it’s not often an event of this magnitude occurs in my backyard. During the talk, there was a brief mention of how vital these stores are to fostering the literary culture in this region, and really, it can’t be said often enough–we need to cherish our indie bookstores. I feel freakin’ LUCKY to live minutes away from two of the best indies in Canada. May they live long and prosper.

And do click  here for a note by Rushdie in praise of indies.

Disclosure: Review copy of Joseph Anton from Random House and event ticket from Bryan Prince Booksellers.  Excessive emotion in this post solely mine.

Want to lose yourself in some good books?

Then do visit this giant labyrinth (in London), constructed from 250,000 remaindered, used and new books.

From the site Colossal, a blog on Art and Visual Ingenuity, “…this enormous book maze [was] designed and built by Brazilian artists Marcos Saboya and Gualter Pupo (and over fifty volunteers) at Southbank Centre. The stacked and twisting labyrinth [is] based on a fingerprint belonging to writer Jorge Luis Borges…”

Oooh, I’d be so tempted to pull out a title that caught my eye.

All pictures from  http://www.thisiscolossal.com, and lots more where they came from. Their other posts are quite stunning as well–this is a brilliantly curated site, and one whose aesthetic I love.

Canada Day Book Giveaway!

UPDATE: This giveaway is now closed.

It’s Canada Day on July 1, and along with a host of other Canada-based  bloggers, I’m giving away a Canada-themed book to mark the day. Huzzah!

I’m giving away the acclaimed YA novel Karma (2011), by Calgary-based author Cathy Ostlere. Karma is a 2012 Canadian Library Honour book, a 2012 Booklist Editor’s Choice, a 2012 South Asia Book Award, Highly Commended Book, and is shortlisted for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award.

About the book: Fifteen-year-old Maya and her father Amar arrive from their home in Canada into a seething moment in India’s history.  On October 31, 1984, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two Sikh bodyguards, and the assassination leads to Sikh families being killed in retribution; Amar and Maya are Sikh. “Karma is the story of how a young woman, straddling two cultures and enduring personal loss, learns forgiveness, acceptance and love.”

Reviews: “With its sweeping, even soaring reach, this novel contains a range of earthly experiences and emotions as well: love and death, hatred and evil, joy and engulfing sorrow as perceived and experienced by its two beautifully drawn teen protagonists…” (from The Globe and Mail)

“In her YA debut, acclaimed adult author Ostlere offers a riveting, historically accurate coming-of age tale of gutsy survival, self-sacrifice, and love. Set during a six-week period, the novel in verse makes the most of its lyrical form with lines of dialogue that bounce back and forth in columns across the page and singularly beautiful metaphors and similes that convey potent detail and emotion.” (from Booklist)

If you’d like a spanking new copy of Karma–let me know in the comments! This giveaway runs from June 28 to July 1, and is open to US and Canadian residents. I’ll pick a winner on July 2 using Random Number Generator.

Do check out the other giveaways too! This Blog Hop is hosted by Aislynn of Stitch Read Cook, Chrystal of Snow Drop Dreams and Carmel of Rabid Reads. Please click on the linky to see the full list of participating blogs–I don’t know how to post the list here.

(All book-related information in this post is from the author’s website.)

Update: Thank you to all who entered this giveaway. The winner as picked by random.org was #15 — Shannon of Giraffe Days.

 

Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami

Tell it to the Trees begins with a richly suspenseful scene where thirteen-year-old Varsha Dharma discovers a frozen body outside her home in the town of Merrit’s Point, BC. Who is the dead woman? How did she arrive at her death? (And: what a solid opening hook.)

The Dharma family consists of the grandmother Akka, who came from India to Canada upon her marriage and the father Vikram, whose abuse drives his first wife to flee leaving behind their  young daughter Varsha. Vikram subsequently marries the docile Suman, and Varsha, who fears abandonment by this (new) mother as well, vows to keep the family together despite the fractures caused by the father’s violence.

Frustratingly, the impact of Badami’s valuable message about domestic abuse–the complicity of those who look away, the conspiracies of silence in abusive marriages and the resulting damage upon children, and violence in turn begetting violence—is diluted by her prose. One of the pleasures of reading an accomplished novel is the sense the author trusts us to meet her halfway, and compared to Badami’s prior work (three novels  including Tamarind Mem, which I liked very much, and The Hero’s Walk, which won the Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), this fourth novel often feels curiously heavy-handed and repetitive. For instance, Varsha remarks,  “Nothing makes him [her father] more heartbroken than to beat my naughtiness out of me…He is doing it for my own good, after all, he has no desire to see me turn into my mother.”  And a few pages later, “Poor Papa, it’s not his fault that he has to be hard with me sometimes. I know he’s worried I’ll turn out like my real mother.”

Furthermore, Tell it to the Trees breaks no new ground in analyzing the cultural scripts of South Asian immigrants, who often prioritize social status and family cohesion over personal happiness; instead, we are treated to elementary lessons on arranged marriages, dowry deaths and subjugated women, all in overwrought yet unsatisfying detail. Consider this paragraph where Suman describes her friend Lalli’s marriage.

“…Lalli was packed off with a dowry of five lakh rupees and two dozen gold bangles and a Godrej refrigerator and a motorbike for her husband, only to end up hanging from the rafters of her new home, the mehendi from her wedding still wet on her palms. Her in-laws wailed and beat their breasts and said that a mentally ill girl had been passed on to them without their knowledge, but the rumors that swept around the gullies were that her mother-in-law wanted more gold bangles and her father-in-law wanted an air conditioner and her new husband wanted a car instead of a scooter. When Lalli’s father refused to oblige, her in-laws strung her up like a criminal hung for murder. “

Upon reading this, I wrote “too easy” in the margin of my text.

Also contributing to my disenchantment was the dreaded explaining note (infesting so much immigrant writing) creeping in. “…to celebrate a  festival called Karva Chauth when prayers were sent up to the god Shiva…”  Surely we’ve passed the stage where readers must be told Karva Chauth is a festival? That Shiva is a god? (And doesn’t sending a prayer imply a god at the other end anyway?)

In all fairness, the scenes set in India (that so aggravated me ) comprise less than a fifth of the book, and Badami’s  descriptions are far more measured and sure-footed when the narrative takes place in Canada–she nails  the novel cruelty of a Canadian winter for the newly-arrived, for instance. And in the second half, when Badami stops educating the reader and gets on with storytelling, the book comes alive.  The characterization takes off,  the tension picks up, and the narrative acquires a satisfying momentum leading to a an emotionally charged, vibrant finish. When Varsha repudiates the impotency of childhood with a steely determination to prevail, it made me shiver.  Tell it to the Trees is  an adeptly plotted, beautifully structured work about an important issue, but in the final reckoning, I was unable to embrace it fully. Sigh.

***

Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami
Knopf Canada, 2011

A much shorter version of this review appears in Herizons magazine.

A reading with Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston and James Bartleman

I attended the World Literacy Canada reading at the Park Hyatt Toronto earlier this week to see these three authors.  There was a line-up, of the sort you’d expect to see at a samizdat store selling discounted iPads; literature isn’t dead, you doomsayers.

(L to R: Johnston, Bartleman, Mistry. Pic from worldlit.ca)

First on stage was James Bartleman, whom I’d never heard of prior to this event: the more fool I. Bartleman is a former career diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, Bangladesh, and Israel, so he must have been awfully good at his job. He was then Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2002-2007, and yes, I should have known this.

Bartleman talked about the background of his novel As Long as the Rivers Flow, about First Nations kids entering suicide pacts and killing themselves at age thirteen because their future lives seemed to be pointless. It was heart-breaking–I found myself tearing up, and I’m not a crier. The parents of these children were mostly survivors of residential schools, where they’d faced years of racial (and often, sexual) abuse.  Obviously, if you’d been plucked away from your parents at age six and then returned to them at sixteen, after undergoing ten years of barbaric treatment, you’d have little knowledge about how to provide a supportive atmosphere for your own children. And this isn’t comfortingly ancient history–according to Wikipedia, “the last residential school, White Calf Collegiate, was closed in 1996.” WTF. WTF.WTF.

I’m a little fearful of reading the novel–I think I’ll wait for the fall, by which time I’ll hopefully have gathered up my courage. Oh, and  Bartleman (who is a member of the Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation) has advocated for many years to build literacy in First Nations communities, and to date, he’s gathered over 2 million books for this initiative. Holy wow.

Next up was Wayne Johnston, who spoke about injecting fiction into historical nonfiction for narrative balance–and the consequences  of that decision when he began the publicity for his book, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (which deals with the history of Newfoundland). I don’t know much about the subject, so I’ll just say that Johnston is an excellent raconteur with a fine repository of accents, and leave it there.

My blog giveaway winner Mayank and I were both madly excited to hear Rohinton Mistry, whom we count among the best writers in the world. (I spent twenty minutes with a flat-iron in Mistry’s honor before setting out to the event. No, nobody noticed.) Mistry read from his short work The Scream, which was originally available back in 2006 in a limited edition of 150 copies, and sold exclusively by World Literacy Canada to raise funds for them.  The original edition was priced at $500, and the proceeds went to literacy efforts in South Asia; the book is now available for $15.68 on Amazon for us cheapies.

Mistry’s intense, dramatic reading had me glued to my chair, but sadly (for me, that is), his session was confined to his book–he didn’t talk about his writing process, and there was no Q&A after, so I have no news or insight to offer about his work. He did however mention he was working on a new book, so we can all breathe easy and cross off Christmas presents for an upcoming year. I’d planned to buy The Scream and get it signed, but the booksellers ran out of copies, so I had to content myself with his signature on my program. Which I’ll treasure forevah!

And finally, a big shout-out to World Literacy Canada, for all their work in bring people and literature together, both here in Toronto and all over the globe. There was so much positive energy in that room that night, the sort of energy produced when you are having a good time and doing something good. That combination doesn’t occur often in my life; I can’t wait for next year’s Kama!

The Big Dream by Rebecca Rosenblum

I don’t spend much of my present life thinking much about my former career, but some books take that choice away. Rebecca Rosenblum’s The Big Dream (Biblioasis, Fall 2011) is spectacularly adept at evoking the surreality of working for a big corporation. Read this book, do.

***

(This review appears in the current issue of Herizons magazine.)

Long ago, I worked as a banker; of course I planned to milk my experiences for a novel. Everyone but my mother is glad that the manuscript is dead, and in any case, there would be no point now that I’ve discovered Rebecca Rosenblum’s The Big Dream, which unravels the cat’s cradle bridging the work and personal lives of cubicle dwellers with enviable precision. If you’ve ever been an ill-fitting cog in a Giant Wheel, much of your joy in this book will stem from the discovery that Rosenblum has it exactly right.

Set in the Toronto office of a lifestyle magazine publisher, the interlinked stories in this collection showcase CFOs, cafeteria workers, marketing executives and customer service representatives all struggling to remember what’s real and important, even as their work lives corrupt their judgement. Professionalism has come to signify a deliberate absence of emotion; the inevitable concomitant is the amplification of trivialities and the forcible suppression of our primal preoccupations. “Rae only knew all cubes on the window row were occupied: hers, Hamid’s, Amelia who had bone cancer, weird silent Mallick, Andrew who sometimes whistled.” A terminal disease is reduced to a handy identifier listed in the company of quirks and idiosyncrasies; Rosenblum is masterly at identifying the mutations in our thinking resulting from our buying into a consumer culture that emphasizes marketing and spin. The characters in this book often define themselves by singularities (usually banal), deliberately whittling away at any hints of personality that might mark them out as less-than-corporate material. “Don’t do anything that could draw attention. Your goal should be to be anonymously indispensable (like a photocopier that never jams)” says the unnamed narrator in “How to Keep Your Day Job”. But the corollary of such suppression is a disconnection with reality; we lose our sense of what’s natural. In “Complimentary Yoga”, an incompetent, prickly worker dreams up a romantic relationship with his supervisor, even as he’s getting fired.

Each of these stories also pulsates with the awareness of the globalized world that the characters interact with, albeit reluctantly. In one story, employees learn their jobs have been outsourced to India, and the impersonal tyranny of the organization frees them to articulate long-suppressed bigotry, with life-changing consequences. We are mostly inured to the weirdness of our working lives; The Big Dream is a wise, witty wake-up call.

END

If not for the magazine’s word limit,  this piece would be ten times as long. Visit Rosenblum’s  site to learn more about her writing.

One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four… and Five

I’ve been seeing this fun (and undemanding) meme around the blogosphere, and thought I’d join in.

1. The book I’m currently reading:

The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor.  “Spontaneous forests, polygamy, strange insects, Nigerian 419 scammers, really really fast cars, a different kind of Sahara Desert, male beauty contests, the apocalypse, life, death, sword fights, fat chiefs, assassins, this novel is kind of nuts!”says the author.

So…when I find an author I like, I tend to obsess over her backlist.

2. The last book I finished:

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor.   “Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. She looks West African, but is so sensitive to the sun that she can’t play soccer during the day. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.
Then she learns why.
Her classmate Orlu and his friend Chichi reveal that they have magical abilities- and so does she. Sunny is a “free agent,” overflowing with latent power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.”

3. The next book I want to read:

Who Fears Death by … you know the drill.  This book just won the 2011 World Fantasy Award, and it’s waiting for me at the library. Unlike Okorafor’s previous novels, this one is adult, not YA.

4. The last book I bought:

Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin, for my son.  It’s a picture book featuring identical twins who have very different personalities. One is fidgety, the other calm,  one eats with chopsticks while the other prefers a fork, and so on. It’s very cute!

5. The last book I was given:

A review copy of Marina Endicott’s  The Little Shadows. “The Little Shadows revolves around three sisters in the world of vaudeville before and during the First World War. We follow the lives of all three in turn: Aurora, the eldest and most beautiful, who is sixteen when the book opens; thoughtful Clover, a year younger; and the youngest sister, joyous headstrong sprite Bella, who is thirteen. The girls, overseen by their fond but barely coping Mama, are forced to make their living as a singing act after the untimely death of their father. They begin with little besides youth and hope, but Marina Endicott’s genius is to show how the three girls slowly and steadily evolve into true artists even as they navigate their way to adulthood among a cast of extraordinary characters – some of them charming charlatans, some of them unpredictable eccentrics, and some of them just ordinary-seeming humans with magical gifts.”

Meme Maker: Simon at Stuck in a Book. Join in, why don’t you?

The Temple-Goers by Aatish Taseer

UPDATE: As you may have read, a few days ago, Taseer’s father Salman Taseer was assassinated for opposing Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. The gunman was a twenty-six year old religious fanatic. Aatish Taseer writes about his father’s death in this piece ‘The killer of my father, Salman Taseer, was showered with rose petals by fanatics. How could they do this?’

***
The protagonist of Aatish Taseer’s novel is a privileged, westernized young writer who comes to Delhi from London to revise his novel, and whose name is Aatish Taseer. Check, check, and CHECK; fact and fiction mesh tantalizingly in The Temple-Goers, and some readers will derive much pleasure in trying to prise them apart. But the more interesting feature of this blurring of truth and illusion is the sharp contrast it presents against the writer’s near-obsessive meticulousness in documenting his perceived reality.

But first, the story.

Aakash is a middle-class, high-caste gym trainer who aspires to the big time. When Aatish Taseer joins the same gym, the two men fall headlong into friendship, and something more. Aakash feels genuinely validated by a writer’s interest in his life, and besides, is eager to vicariously experience Tasser’s affluent lifestyle and to garner acquaintances amongst Taseer’s friends, who include prominent politicians and mediapersons. Aakash’s overfamiliarity is accepted by Taseer, who, in a typical instance of self-doubt, fears he might be holding on “to an imported idea of propriety.” Moreover, Aakash’s family history maps perfectly on to India’s socio-economic changes, and he seems to symbolize the “real” India Taseer wants to comprehend. The two men thus make use of each other for their own ends, but one is soon revealed to be considerably cannier than the other.

Taseer is an excellent observer, missing no detail in his chronicle of modern Delhi’s fault-lines, and his note-taking style works especially well in the first third of the novel, which focuses on the narrator’s attempts to understand middle-class Delhi. (In a key incident, Taseer dresses in Indian clothes for a visit to a Hindu temple, only to find that Aakash, who does not need to try, is in jeans and a T-shirt.) There are penetrating insights into Delhi’s rich and powerful, into gender imbalances and the sense of entitlement with which Delhi males belittle women, and most of all, into the city of Delhi itself. Here’s a description of a block of state-owned apartments: “In a country which couldn’t even standardize nuts and bolts, they were a rare achievement. Their squalor lay in their homogeneity and was not the Indian squalor, which was various and surprising.” Anyone who has been to Delhi is nodding appreciatively here.

But Taseer’s attention to detail results in digressions and asides being assigned the same significance as the essential parts of the story, and the result is an exhausting read. The author’s journalistic eye coupled with his over-weaning adherence to factual description results in the loss of a certain emotional warmth to the story — the reader is distanced further and further from the narrative, and inevitably questions the end towards which such hyper-observation is directed. The prologue mentions an interesting plot hook, but the incident in question takes place in the final sixth of the book, and may come too late for the reader, who has probably long lost patience with the narrator’s maddeningly-slow realization that he’s out of his depth in the India he seeks to grasp. In the final analysis, Taseer’s undeniable gifts as a writer don’t quite compensate for his lack of interest in the art of story-telling.

END

This review appears in The Asian Review of Books.

TOK5: Writing the New Toronto

(A slightly revised version of this review appears in the current print issue of This magazine).

Diaspora Dialogues, a Toronto organization dedicated to fostering diversity in literature, recently published the fifth book in their Writing the New Toronto series. TOK 5 consists of eighteen stories and poems by established writers such as M.G.Vassanji and Nalo Hopkinson, as well as first-timers. The pieces seek to capture the world of the immigrant, the double take at the banal that signals his newcomer status—and Toronto’s reaction to the same. The characters in this collection are never mouthpieces for their communities–their larger selves are reflected both in their will to make the new land home and in inconveniently seductive memories of their homeland.

Some of the pieces are less successful–Shyam Selvadurai’s novella excerpt doesn’t really work as a stand-alone piece, while Mayank Bhatt’s story of a South Asian Muslim youth’s involvement with terrorism, although well-written, has a predictable feel. But overall, TOK 5 offers a satisfying range of voices and narratives. In Anthony de Sa’s “Words, Dancing on My Skin”, a young girl from Little Portugal strikes up an unusual friendship with Miss Sweden 1951 who, despite having won the Miss Universe title, lives in a ratty apartment by a dumpster. And there’s Chang Liu’s realization, while reading a menu of coyly named vegetarian dishes in a posh Thai restaurant in Danforth, that he’d “give away his visa-studded passport /to see a drunk labourer/ from one of Thailand’s have–not provinces/” roar out an order with true hunger.  I was also glad to see Emma Donoghue in this collection; too often, immigrants are narrowly defined as visible minorities, while the truth of course is that they come in all shades and guises. The new Toronto, like the new immigrant, resists classification.

***


TOK: Writing the New Toronto
by various
Zephyr Press
$19.95

You can buy the book online here.