Vol. 5 Num 575 Sat. January 07, 2006  

Letter from Toronto
Thoughts on Diasporic literature

In my Diaspora Studies class a comment that a student made had me thinking. Tawn Marshall, a minor in Indigenous Studies, remarked that the authors of the best books of the year category in The Globe and Mail were still predominantly white and male. Her comment was all the more ironic as we sat in a class reading fictions and theories from diaspora writers with South Asian roots. Things haven't changed much, I thought. When I started out as an M.A student in Texas, just over thirteen years ago, I wrote my thesis on Walker Percy, a white Southern writer. To me American literature largely connotated that, male and white. My American literature syllabus at Chittagong University was entirely devoid of femininity in that it consisted entirely of the stalwarts of Modernism-- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Frost, Miller and Tennessee Williams. In Texas, I became familiar with more Southern writers but contemporary ones, Barrie Hannah, Shelby Foote and James Autry. But most importantly, I read a host of women writers--Carson Mccullers, Flannery O'Connor, Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Paula Gunn Allen and others.

As I moved on to doctoral studies at a different university, it was with the intention of continuing on to American literature. My graduate advisor, however, had other ideas. In one of our meetings she suggested that I read Bharati Mukherjee, a writer I had never heard of. Coming from her, the proposition appeared suspect and I was immediately put on my guards. I was not about to be made into the token in-house postcolonial scholar of the Department. I had no intention of being molded into a living stereotype. Being the only South Asian in the department, actually the only Asian, I felt that I was being set up to serve a purpose and I deliberately disregarded Professor Hughes' advice for as long as I could. Then my media studies professor, who is from Hyderabad, suggested that I read Meena Alexander, a fellow Hyderabadi, now teaching at Hunter college, Columbia University. Coming from another South Asian this time, his motives seemed less dubious. Of course, the fact that he was one of my favorite professors helped too. Out of curiosity I did read Alexander's Nampally Road and I loved it. I went on to read Mukherjee as well but my sentiments for her were different. I was soon into minority writers, not only the South Asian variety but all the hyphenated ones. Cristina Garcia from Cuba, Edwidge Danticat from Haiti, Julia Alvarez from Dominican Republic and Judith Ortiz Cofer from Puerto Rico. I found them all exhilarating.

I could empathize with so much that they wrote about. When Alvarez wrote about her struggles with Americanization in the face of parental objections, it struck a familiar chord. How true to life, I thought, as I myself dealt with the rapid Americanization of my own daughter. The conservative Mom that I am, I often had to curb her exuberant enthusiasm into assimilation. When Alexander looked nostalgically towards home and felt almost physical pain, I understood. As her heroine Sandhaya flew thousands of miles to be near her dying father, I relived my own experience. I had found a whole new world and immersed myself into it.

Yet, most often, these books did not come from leading publishers. Along with Latina and Native American writings, most South Asian fictions were published from smaller and mostly feminist presses such as Aunt Lute Press, Mercury House or Kitchen Table--Women of Color Press. But at least the books were seeing the light of day and were gradually being incorporated into minority literature categories. It was finally with the winning of the Pulitzer Prize by Jhumpa Lahiri, who was a second generation Indian- American writer born in the United Kingdom, that minority literature was officially legitimized into mainstream American literature status.

Within Diaspora literature we usually see three trends, the teary- eyed nostalgic laments for home, the exuberant assimilation into the new culture and the conflictual negotiations into a dual identity of culture sharing. The third is more relevant for the second and subsequent generations with assimilation becoming more prominent with the passing of times. I, too, believe that the third trend is more legitimate a position to hold. In the contemporary world of globalization and transcultural mobility, traveling is often as easy as getting on to a plane. Unless one is forced into exile for reasons beyond one's control, political or otherwise, lamenting over home is somewhat hypocritical. One can always take the plane back. It is a conscious choice one makes and one has to adjust to it. Salman Rushdie put it succinctly when he described memories of home as "broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost." But he also added hopefully: "The broken glass is not merely a mirror of nostalgia. It is also, I believe, a useful tool with which to work in the present." Why not, I ask myself, make the most of the cultural mélange?

In my second stint of diaspora, in Canada this time, I see hybridity in a whole new light. It's neither the unapologetic assimilation of a Bharati Mukherjee nor the sorrowful backward glances of a Meena Alexander but an empowered state of cultural affinity. This is exactly what Homi Bhabha has mentioned that the "passage between fixed identification opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity that entertains difference without an assumed or imposed hierarchy." As I ride the Toronto subway line, I marvel at the heterogeneity of the people around me. I believe I can see a representation of the four corners of the world in one single compartment. The Somali women in their colourful saree like outfits, East Europeans who would, by all aspect, be deemed native white Canadians, that is, until they open their mouths, our very own Desis, Chinese, Philippinos and many others who keep me guessing. On Danforth Avenue, depending in which section I find myself, I can buy Bangladeshi food, Greek food or Caribbean. A few more miles to the West is the China town and North West from there is the Indian section. Actually the whole of Toronto is dived into sections, or ghettos, to be more blunt, of ethnic diversities replete with food, cuisine, clothings and artifacts.

Canadian Diaspora writing is equally varied. Interestingly, with the ease of traveling, many now are doubly diasporan in the sense that they have dual homes. Dionne Brand lives in Toronto but travels to her native Trinidad as well as to other places to work or lecture. Olive Senior lives alternately in Jamaica and Canada. Rohinton Mistry is more at home in his fictional "Bombay" than in Toronto. Such flexibility is yet another reflection of the Canadian mosaic that Canadians are proud to attest. Yet Canada is not free from social problems such as gun related violence, for instance. In the coming January election gun control is undoubtedly one of the debated issues. Much of this violence is attributed to social tensions arising from severe economic challenges of certain minority groups and racial disintegration. This has been more meditated on in the wake of the recent French race riots. Canada, as a nation of immigrants, is now taking stock of its own national policies. As one reader expressed in the letters to the editor in the Canadian edition of Times: "We must make sure that Canada's educational system imparts a sense of shared values and that there are real opportunities for all." Talking about educational institutions, let me end with an anecdote told me by Sherene Razack, a professor and a well-known writer on race and human rights issues at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Sherene, by the way, is of Indian origin and had immigrated from Trinidad with her family when she was fourteen. While teaching at U of Toronto, Sherene had noticed that Jewish students got days off on their holidays whereas students of other faiths did not. On one particular Eid day she had pasted a hand written "Eid Mobarak" on her door. Soon after an open-mouthed colleague rushed in. "Sherene," she gasped, "I didn't know you were related to Hosne Mobarak."

This had happened a few years ago. I am sure things have changed since then. For example, at the start of Ramadan this year, my daughter was impressed on hearing her Principal announce over the school speaker about the reverence due to the occasion and the significance of the month for the Muslim students. The school itself is a multicultural hub. A very good friend of my daughter is from Turkey and wears the hijab. But the biggest revelation of the Canadian cultural diversity dawned on me when I discovered Wal-Mart selling all kinds of lentils, something I had not seen in the U.S.

Rebecca Sultana teaches postcolonial studies at McMaster University, Canada.