South Asian Writers in Canada
by John Last
Some of the most exciting English language writers active in the 21st Century have roots in South Asia. Many don’t live in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka but are progeny of the diaspora that deposited them, or their parents, in the UK, the USA, Canada, or elsewhere far from the wellsprings of their rich and variegated cultures. One thing they have in common is mastery of the English language – which they use more lovingly than almost everyone else now engaged in the art and craft of writing. They have shaped the English language and made it their own, just as these South Asian nations have adopted cricket, the civil service and the institutions, structures, and functions of the English parliamentary form of governance and judicial systems.
Between them, these writers have collected an impressive array of Man-Booker, Pulitzer, Governor General’s, Giller and other literary awards; and those who haven’t actually won an award have often appeared on short lists. This isn’t a chance phenomenon. They have in common their love of the English language and ability to use it, love of education, love of the culture and traditions of their ancestral homelands, desire to preserve these traditions and cultures in their adopted homelands in the UK or North America, creative imagination, and desire to blend into the customs and culture of their adopted homelands. This is easy to see in the published works of English-born, American raised Jhumpa Lahiri, of Bengali heritage: her short stories and the plots of her novels (especially The Namesake) explore the merging, mingling, shaping and adaptation of the traditions and culture of her characters’ ancestral homeland as they confront the brash, often shallow customs and behavior of their own or their children’s peer groups in North America. Similar clashing values and customs are sensitively probed in the works of other writers of South Asian heritage who have come to rest in UK or USA, or Canada.
We have several of these exciting, fascinating cultural transplants among the top tier of contemporary Canadian writers. We have lost at least one to the USA: Bharati Mukherjee seems to have departed permanently. But Rohintin Mistry, Anita Rau Bhadami, Michael Ondaatji, M G Vassanji, and several others call Canada home. Padma Viswanathan whose roots are in Delhi, was on this year’s Giller short list. Her first novel won several awards and the excerpt of her second one that was published as part of the publicity for the televised awards ceremony, is enticing.
It’s unfair and unwise to generalize about these writers. Apart from their sometimes rather tenuous connection to South Asia, they don’t have a lot in common. Mistry’s novels have been described as Dickensian, and several, notably A Fine Balance and Such a Long Journey, are decidedly evocative of Dickens. M G Vassanji has ancestral roots in India but came to Canada from Tanzania, whence he was expelled during the terrifying period of Idi Amin’s dictatorship in neighbouring Uganda. He came to rest in Toronto but his Giller prize winning novels often poignantly dwell on the identity enigma of the rootless, dispossessed victims of 20th century wars, collapse of colonialism and upheavals and migrations that followed. This is all sensitively portrayed in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Anita Rau Bhadami gets inside the minds of her characters with surgical precision, reminding me a little of George Eliot. She does this to great effect in Hero’s Walk, in which one important character is an orphaned little girl. The little girl and her grandparents, who must bring her up in a village on the Bay of Bengal after her parents who had migrated to Canada are killed in a car crash in British Columbia, are brilliantly portrayed. All that the little girl has to remind her of her dead mother is her mother’s winter coat, a garment too hot and heavy to use in India. Her grandmother sells it for much needed cash, just as the little girl is beginning to recover from the loss of her parents. Losing the coat is like losing her mother all over again.
The scarifying aftermath of the Air India atrocity in which 329 mostly Indian-Canadian passengers on an Air India flight from Toronto to Delhi were murdered, forms the backdrop to several haunting novels, notably Badami’s I Heard the Night Bird Singing (and most recently in Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao). The cultural contrast between the vibrant colours, and the sectarian and caste divisions of India, and the callow newness and harsh climate of Canada, are fertile soil for imaginative writers.
It is good for other Canadians to learn from the works of our South-Asian-Canadian neighbours. We can learn a lot from them, gain insight into their culture and values, that make it easier for us all to get along better with each other. I’m confident that we can look forward to a continuing flow of exciting literature from our Canadian share of writers who have roots in South Asia. The future of Canadian letters looks rosy.