Books

Words from the world

Ethnic voices helped draw Canada’s literary map

DONNA NURSE July 29 1996
Books

Words from the world

Ethnic voices helped draw Canada’s literary map

DONNA NURSE July 29 1996

Words from the world

Books

Ethnic voices helped draw Canada’s literary map

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: CANADIAN MULTICULTURAL LITERATURE

Smaro Kamboureli, editor (Oxford University Press, 547pages, $24.95)

In her comprehensive anthology, Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature, Smaro Kamboureli tackles the “two founding nations” definition of Canada with gusto. The University of Victoria English professor has collected previously published stories and poems of 71 Canadians representing a host of ethnicities, including Japanese-Canadian Joy Kogawa, Bombay native Rohinton Mistry and Barbadian-born Austin Clarke. Indeed, Kamboureli gathers together so many established authors from the socalled margins that it calls into question just what is meant anymore by mainstream. But then that is just the point Kamboureli sets out to make in the book’s thoughtful and thorough introduction. At a time when the word “ethnicity” grows ever more synonymous with the term “visible minority,” Making a Difference is a reminder that the vast majority of Canadians, whatever the color of their skin, originated somewhere else.

Kamboureli regards the French and English cultures as just two of a number of groups that established themselves early in the country’s history. “The land we now call Canada was already multicultural and multilingual before the arrival of the first Europeans,” she writes. The poems and stories of contemporary aboriginal writers often refer back to that precolonial age, demanding acknowledgment of their people’s historical presence. In “Bertha,”

B.C. aboriginal author Lee Maracle draws a parallel between the emotional and physical dissipation of an aboriginal woman and the deterioration of a First Nation culture at the hands of European traders.

And Ontario Mohawk Beth Brant offers a creation myth for the birth of North America in

“This is History.” Meanwhile, Nova Scotian George Elliott Clarke, a seventh-generation black Canadian, vows to write in what he calls an “Africadian” voice, a “blues-scoured, saltspray-andrum-tinctured” voice that traces an African-Canadian tradition in the Maritimes back to the 1700s.

To further emphasize Canada’s multi-ethnic roots, Kamboureli organizes the anthology chronologically by the authors’ birth dates. Frederick Philip Grove, born in Prussia in 1879, travelled across Canada in the 1920s holding lectures on the difficulties that new immigrants encountered. His story, “The First Day of an Immigrant,” which opens the collection, depicts the unsettling effects of a steady stream of new immigrants on a turn-of-thecentury prairie town.

Other selections, such as the excerpt from Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan, explore the clash of val-

DONNA NURSE

ues between the Old World and the New, particularly between parents and children. The emotional burden of collective cultural memories figures in the Holocaust-haunted poems of Jewish-Canadians A. M. Klein and Irving Layton, particularly Layton’s poignant and disturbing ‘Whom I Write For.” Ukrainian-Canadian Janice Kulyk Keefer occupies herself with issues of acceptance and acculturation. In her story, “Nach Unten,” a child narrator explains that “English people, you understand, are not necessarily from Britain; they are simply those who are born with the language like a silver spoon inside their mouths, who say Winnipeg instead of Veenipeg, Thunder not Toonder Bay.” Trinidadian-born Dionne Brand’s addresses the cultural and political implications of language in her long poem, “No Language is Neutral.”

Kamboureli prefaces each work with a biographical sketch, many of which include the author’s comments about the experience of being labelled a multicultural writer. Poet Mary di Michele finds the notion discriminatory and limiting: “My status as an ethnic writer is conferred, right?” she asks archly. Meanwhile, Rohinton Mistry, whose novel A Fine Balance won the $25,000 Giller prize last year, emphasizes that all writers reflect a cultural viewpoint: “I am determined to write good literature. But to write well I must write about what I know best. In that way, I automatically speak for my tribe.”

Mistry is only one of several awardwinning authors in the anthology. Nino Ricci, M. G. Vassanji, Michael Ondaatje and Evelyn Lau are others who have also garnered national and international acclaim. But Kamboureli is not especially concerned about ethnic writers’ ability to win prestigious literary prizes. The aim of her anthology is to broaden the definition of what constitutes Canadian culture, and the sheer diversity of the selections attest to her success. At the same time, the consistently high quality of the stories and poems, and Kamboureli’s provocative essay, make for an entertaining, engaging read.