Postnational coming of age in contemporary Anglo-Canadian fiction.
What We All Long For
So much has been made of the happy home-coming that it is time to do justice to the stories of non-return to the place one has never been.
"On Diasporic Intimacy"
We must then bite the hand that feeds us, because what it feeds us is neither enough nor for our own good.
Dark Side of the Nation
TWO CONTEMPORARY ANGLO-CANADIAN NOVELS, Dionne Brand's What We All Long For and David Chariandy's Soucouyant, are examples of how trans- or post-national sensibilities are being reimagined in stories about second-generation immigrant youth. These narratives explore their protagonist's ambivalent and conflicted ties to the past, to culture and language, and to place. Set in the multicultural city of Toronto, they point powerfully to the necessity of engaging with the entanglements of relational histories through a focus on transhistorical and translocal relationships and by evoking intergenerational transmissions of affect as a form of haunting. Exploring the tensions between disappointment and belonging for youth growing up in Toronto, the novels disrupt what Daniel Coleman has called the "trance of Canadian civility" ("From" 25) in spectral, indirect, and often non-narrative ways. Specifically, given their parents' disappointing experiences of migration, both novels can be read in light of what Marianne Hirsch has called "postmemory," a structuring dynamic of second-generation memories of cultural or collective trauma. The forms of unconscious and unwilled transmissions of affect signaled in these narratives are not limited to an engagement with family photographs, however, and also feature the recuperation of suppressed translocal histories, a haunting of dominant structures of language, and ethical acts of relational storytelling. I explore the narrative productivity, or afterlife, of these forms of intergenerational relationality for what it means to come of age in urban Canada and look at what modes of sociability emerge as a result. I suggest that What We All Long For and Soucoyant are novels about crafting a new relation to complex origins that, in turn, potentially generates new possibilities for social relations. The protagonists of these novels refuse to identify with simple narratives of (parental, diasporic) origins while at the same time being unable and unwilling to identify simply as "Canadian," allowing for the possibility of belonging as informed by planetary consciousness. (1)
Both novels feature young adult protagonists in their early twenties who are caught between adolescence and uncertain adult futures in the city. An aspiring artist, a university student, an entrepreneur, and others who are seemingly frozen with indecision, these protagonists reflect the anxious yet also cautiously hopeful attitude of contemporary youth. Joseph Slaughter argues that postcolonial coming-of-age stories have historically performed a double movement, signaling a tension between plotting oneself into normative values (and implicitly into citizenship status) while at the same time critiquing patterns of historical, economic, and cultural exclusion. If the Bildungsroman tradition has typically been about "education for citizenship" (Slaughter, "Enabling Fictions" 1410), I would suggest that the citizenship claims in these contemporary Anglo-Canadian coming-of-age stories are not necessarily recuperative but are in fact contestatory and critical. (2) In her critique of official multiculturalism as a way to co-opt and contain difference, Himani Bannerji suggests that "we must bite the hand that feeds us, because what it feeds us is neither enough nor for our own good" (118). Given that "biting the hand that feeds us" can be understood in a double sense, contradictorily referring to both the host nation and the parental hand, I argue that both of these novels perform just such a hand-biting. (3) Lily Cho suggests that, for today's youth, "citizenship in the form granted by the nation-state cannot fully encompass the multiple modes of belonging that are actually practiced" (468). Not only do Brand and Chariandy's novels draw attention to intergenerational relationships, but they also signal the importance of forging new forms of intra-generational relations, pointing toward a need for the second generation to come to some sort of new terms with itself. Echoing Cho's insight about the growing need to think about postnational forms of citizenship, I suggest that the relational narrative strategies that these writers employ allow them to critique exclusionary notions of "home" and nation, renegotiate relationships to diasporic family histories, and to imagine alternative forms of belonging.
Toronto in these texts figures as what Saskia Sassen has called a "global city," an urban space that is not distinguished by its national status but rather from its connection(s) to other places in the world. It is a space that belies how the Canadian nation is not only haunted by the spectre of its own colonial history but by its historical and ongoing relationships with other nations as well. The vision of Toronto presented in these novels invites readers to recognize the limits of discourses of belonging, potentially disrupting a comfortable reading that makes Canadian multiculturalism seem like a conflict-free achievement. (4) They explore the intergenerational effects of colonialism, racism, and neoliberal globalization, not in the "service of nationalization" (Slaughter, "Enabling" 1416) but in order to imagine planetary conceptions of solidarity and belonging. They move beyond typical gestures toward a cosmopolitanism that often centres upon individualized notions of consumption and mobility and instead urge the reader to consider the need to reimagine national and transnational forms of belonging simultaneously.
Cultivating (Second-Generation) Disappointment
Why couldn't they have planted a good tree anywhere here ... why had it been so hard for the city to come up with a bit of beauty?
What We All Long For
The second-generation protagonists of these novels experience deep ambivalence with respect to their family heritage, caught between the demand to perform one's heritage on the one hand and a refusal to reproduce their parents' struggles on the other. Soucouyant is narrated in the present tense, set in 1989 in the wake of the "Multiculturalism Act passed over a year ago" (Chariandy, Soucouyant 33). (5) The family home is a "heritage house" on a "lonely cul-de-sac in the midst of a 'good neighborhood' " near the Scarborough bluffs, a neighbourhood that holds a yearly "Heritage Day Parade" to celebrate their traditional community--"traditional" in this case explicitly meaning "distant from the growing ethnic neighborhoods to the west" (58-60). This parade is a physical enactment of what Eva Mackey calls "pedagogies of patriotism" (59-60), pedagogies that both celebrate and perform national identity. Despite outwardly espousing the ideals of official multiculturalism--"The flyers explained that everyone was invited to participate, since the Heritage Day parade was being revamped these days, to recognize 'people of multicultural backgrounds,' and not just 'Canadians'" (Chariandy, Soucouyant 60)--the participants are dressed up in traditional settler garb, in effect (re)producing the difference between multicultural Canadians and "traditional" Canadians. The novel explicitly references how, official multiculturalism notwithstanding, national culture in English Canada is still defined in terms of a presumed core "Canadian-Canadian" identity (Mackey 19-22)--as opposed to Caribbean-Canadian, Native-Canadian, or Somali-Canadian identities, for example. Reversing the characterization of non-white immigrants as invasive threats, the "noises of Heritage" (Chariandy, Soucouyant 61) are experienced as invasive, confusing, and threatening by Adele. The narrator is horrified to find that his mother has wandered outside dressed in nothing but her bra and pantyhose, along with several pairs of underwear layered on top of one another. The semi-nakedness of his mother, the impropriety of her (hyper)visibly-raced presence, interrupts the Heritage Day celebration and exposes it for what it is: "Aperformance, Mother. Just a performance" (60), explains the narrator.
The young protagonists of What We All Long For are each called upon to "perform" their heritage in different ways. In this novel, the third-person narratives of four Canadian-born children of "visible minority" parents--Tuyen, Carla, Jackie, and Oku--are intertwined with the first-person narrative of a man who might or might not be Tuyen's lost older brother, Quy. Each of the young protagonists is significantly "born in the city from people born elsewhere," and it is their "friendship of opposition to the state of things, and their common oddness" that "held them together" (Brand 20, 19). Unlike their parents, these young people weren't willing to "twist" themselves "up into the requisite shape" (47) even if they could successfully enact such a performance. What holds them together is their common desire not to be like their parents, who all suffer to varying degrees from disaffection and paralysis stemming from their unsuccessful attempts to feel at home in their adoptive land. For example, Tuyen's parents are "defined by the city" as purveyors of "Vietnamese food" even though they are highly educated and cannot even "cook very well": unable to pursue their professions in Canada, the "eager Anglos ready to taste the fare of their multicultural city wouldn't know the difference" (66, 67).
In Soucouyant, "everything seemed wonderful" to Adele when she first comes to Canada; opening her mouth to take in falling snowflakes, she is "disappointed at its tastelessness when it fell upon her tongue" (Chariandy 48). This sense of disappointment is echoed the "two-ness" of the lemon meringue pie--acid and sweet, tart yellow and fluffy white--the bittersweet irony of a promise that is not meant for her as a West Indian immigrant in Toronto (53). Despite being "intoxicated with possibility" in the beginning, the "magic of this place" quickly fades for both Adele and her husband, Roger (72, 48). Unable to name the systemic, everyday racism that they face in their new home, they can only blame themselves for their repeated "disappointments," thinking they stem from private failures rather than public systemic barriers (74).
In both novels parental disappointment is strategically yoked to the urban landscape to which they have immigrated. Images of failed gardening circulate throughout both novels, drawing attention to the relationship between urban spaces, public policies, and private failures. While in both novels the trope of failed cultivation is tied to the private realm of the family, it ultimately points to a stinging disappointment in the failed promise of public institutions. For example, even though they are "suspicious about medical institutions and offices," Adele's family is eventually compelled to take her to the doctor. After this disappointing visit to "the specialist's office" they make a trip to buy plants in order to extend "'the small garden in our front lawn ... we wanted to plant more flowers,'" she added. 'Vegetables too. And flowers'" (Chariandy, Soucouyant 39). The double emphasis on Adele's desire to grow "flowers" in her garden signals a tension between cultivation as useful or necessary and gardening for the sheer pleasure and beauty of it, something that has not historically been linked with working-class immigrants: in the end, the family leaves the store "buying pansies and a sweet potato vine and promised to come back soon, ignoring the giggles from a salesclerk" (39). The failures of botanical transplantation emblematize the disappointment of immigration and the failure of cultural memory. Adele repeatedly mistakes Lake Ontario for the Caribbean, wondering in her Trinidadian-inflected voice how the "waves loss it salt and smell and the jellyfish done melt away," and she has her heart set on planting the "tropical plant" hibiscus in her new Canadian home (112, 39). Like an introduced botanical species (or perhaps a weed) Adele experiences her body as out of place in Canada, as having somehow crossed a line of propriety--"the oddity she had become in this land" (49). Despite her hard work and desire, Adele's attempts at recuperating memory through the space of her garden in Scarborough ultimately fail: the couple who eventually buy the old house "admits that they're planning on razing the property and building anew" (145). The "heritage house" that had become the home of a transplanted Trinidadian family is destroyed, its history obliterated so that it can be overwritten.
Imagery of failed gardening also circulates in What We All Long For, in which Oku becomes aware of his father's intense and paralyzing sense of disappointment while "looking back from the window and the carcasses of Fitz's plants and cars" (Brand 86). Trapped within the confines of both her depression and her high-rise apartment building--"this was not a home where memories were cultivated, it was an anonymous stack of concrete and glass" (110)--Carla's mother Angie plants a balcony garden, with potted "impatiens and marigolds and morning glories," and even a "grapevine" (104), before she eventually plummets to her death from the very same balcony. Later, even though she tries to encourage "reluctant branches to grow," Carla's stepmother Nadine's "rose bushes" were perpetually "stunted" (248), just as Carla herself "had grown lank and long as if from too much rain and small portions of strong sunlight" (279). Yet perhaps the most significant garden of the novel might be the one that is a failure because it is, in fact, completely absent. Jackie wonders why there are no plants or trees in the public housing unit where she grows up:
Yes, why not a plantation of rose bushes all along Vanauley Way, millions of petals growing and falling, giving off a little velvet. It's amazing what a garden can do. And Jackie could have sure done with a place like that ... they tried to make the best, but then had it been a garden instead of that dry narrow roadway, Jackie's childhood might have been less hazardous.... The sense of space might have triggered lighter emotions, less depressing thoughts, a sense of well-being. God, hope! (261)
Since the city planners do not have the "good grace to plant a shrub or two," Jackie is forced to "cultivate it with her own trees and flowers .... In her mind" (264). The interiorized vision of the garden that she cultivates in her imagination represents a failure, in that it is implicitly contrasted to the idea of sharing public space with other members of the community, which would transform a "shadowy" place into a space full of "laughter" and "music" (260-61). This alternative vision of planetary relationality--a positive vision of everyday intimacy in the wake of global transplantation--is denied. The sense of "hope" is a promise that remains unfulfilled.
"Minorities" can only be "visible" in a culture in which whiteness is always already the norm: both of these novels explore the way that in "multicultural" contexts what Oliver calls the "pathology of recognition"--the "one-way gaze of the judging subject" (46)--fosters an internalization of hatred and the projection of that hatred onto others. The disappointment of systematic exclusion, specifically the "difference between being white and being black, in control or out of control" (What 177), is especially enacted upon the bodies of black men and boys. In Soucouyant, Roger's body is paralyzed, scarred, and mutilated while working at dangerous and underpaid factory jobs. Both of Adele and Roger's sons quietly drift (or are driven) away from school, attesting to the fact that even public school systems that are officially multicultural tend to fail black boys: "What exactly was so funny about seeing a young man read a book?" (Chariandy, Soucouyant 27-28). In What We All Long For the second-generation youth are "abandoned" to "rough public terrain," relegated to being "spectators to the white kids in the class," having "very early realized, as early as grade three, that nothing there was about them" (Brand 19-20). The young black protagonist, Oku, attends university, yet (compelled by forces he does not fully understand) he opts to abandon his university education in favour of an education on the streets of Toronto. (6) Despite his desire to escape his father's weary fate, as well as the fate of "the guys from the jungle" (167), Oku himself has little control over the way he is (mis)recognized by society. (7) He seems caught between his father's past of exclusion and disappointment--"striving makes you bitter" (187)--and the future that is prescribed for him as a young black male in Toronto. Similarly, in contrast to the "better houses and properties" on the other side of the train tracks, in Soucouyant the family home is on a "cul-de-sac" (Chariandy 9), which is, of course, just a fancier term for a dead end. The sense of disaffected un-belonging on the part of second-generation boys in these novels is tied to the difficulty of moving past the disappointment of previous generations, as well as to the destructive pathology of recognition--as illustrated by Oku's encounter with the police--by the dominant culture.
Gender difference complicates these challenges for the second-generation women in these novels. For example, in What We All Long For, Jackie is determined to avoid the pitfalls that snag her parents, and (at least as far as Oku is concerned) this in part involves a rejection of blackness: "Hence the white boy" (265). (8) In Chariandy's novel, the centrality of the mythical figure of the soucouyant points toward the gendered nature of pathologies of recognition: the reader eventually learns that a soucouyant is a vampire-like creature of Trinidadian folklore, in the form of an old woman who lives alone at the edge of the village. By night she sheds her skin and flames across the sky, and the way to discover her is to beat her with a stick: "In the morning, you'll only have to look for an old woman in the village who appears to be beaten. Bruises upon her. Clearly the one to blame" (135). Another method is to find out where she keeps her skin and sprinkle salt onto it so that she cannot put it back on in the morning. The image of misfitting skin echoes recurrently in the book, most notably in the song that the soucouyant (and Adele) quietly sings to herself in the morning: "Old skin, 'kin, 'kin/You na know me,/You na know me" (134). Adele repeats the song throughout the story, and it also features as an epigraph to the book, echoing the importance of gender, identity, memory, and (mis)recognition as narrative themes that weave through the novel. (9)
Adele's son must somehow interpret the importance of the memory of the soucouyant that haunts his mother. Eventually, he uncovers that the real monster that his mother comes across as she walks along the path on a fateful morning of her childhood is not in fact the soucouyant as old woman/vampire, but something else altogether: "The creature smiled and beckoned her to horrors" (173). I suggest that the "creature" that beckons to Adele, the monster that she (and, by extension, her son) is forced to confront, is in fact the horror of her own self-hatred and shame. In the box full of gifts that the white American soldier gives her, young Adele finds an apple, which she understands as "a promise that something else is possible" (188) even though this promise eventually leads to an act of hate. Adele later realizes that the apple is in fact "chalky and turned" (188) on the inside, but the irresistible promise of possibility draws her in. Like the shiny new cigarette lighter (also a gift from the soldier) that she uses, tragically, to set her mother and herself on fire, this promise becomes symbolic of the destruction wrought by self-hatred and the projection of that hatred onto significant others.
In Soucouyant as well as in What We All Long For, the internalization of the pathology of recognition is directly related to a second-generation rejection of parental origins. This leads to various forms of self-disavowal that--like a symptom which is buried but manifests nonetheless--are transmitted physically, emotionally, and linguistically in both of the novels. For example, the young narrator of Soucouyant is somehow proud that he "didn't say tank you, like my parents. I said thank you" (Chariandy 150). His pride in the correct pronunciation of these words is ambivalent: earlier in the narrative the reader has already witnessed his difficult introduction to the racialization of accents when as a child he physically learns to pronounce this English diphthong with help from a special needs teacher: "'Thhhhhh,' she said in demonstration. 'Thhhank you. ThWhhhhhank you.' Bubbles and flecks of spit blew out of her mouth .... It was the most disgusting sound and gesture an adult had ever made to me" (102). (10) It is significant that, in both novels, second-generation rejection of parental origins involves a rejection of two of the most primal, nourishing elements imaginable--food and one's maternal tongue. In What We All Long For, Tuyen (who as a child calls herself "Tracey" and refuses to speak Vietnamese) will only eat plain white "potatoes" and white "milk," even though her "stomach reacted violently to it"; she thinks of this self-inflicted and "violent response as something to be conquered, like learning a new and necessary language" (Brand 130). At the reception of his mother's funeral, the narrator of Soucouyant "gorges" himself on "the most delicious food" that he has ever tasted: "I gorge and gorge and gorge, and then hurry to the bathroom to retch endlessly into the sink ... and then return to the table to gorge some more" (Chariandy 143). Like his too-late realization of the beauty of the steel pan music played at the funeral, it seems as though he cannot get enough of the "jerk chicken and roti and dal and rice" that is served after his mother is gone, despite his rejection of her while she is alive (142, 143). (11)
At the same time that these novels thematize the second-generation protagonists' need to claim their own subjective place in the world, they also signal the dangers of wanting to forget about or deny the past in the process. Immediately after uttering his ironic, carefully pronounced "Thank you" to Mrs Christopher, the narrator of Soucouyant hands over every penny from the sale of his mother's house to her, even walking out of her apartment without his own shoes. If Mrs Christopher can be read as a representation of first-generation disappointment, what are we to make of his giving absolutely everything over to her? By the end of the novel, the narrator has either given away or thrown out the entire contents of his mother's home: "I planned on saving some of the photos, but at the last moment I put them in a grocery bag to throw out" (153). At first glance, this extreme rejection of the familial past appears to be strategy to avoid the disappointments of the generation before and start anew, but memory is a strange and unpredictable thing and, as Meera notes, "never seems to abide by the rules of time or space or individual consciousness" (166). There is a tension in these narratives between the necessity of actively forgetting, what Y-Dang Troeung calls the "value of forgetting" as a kind of defence strategy--"Mother began to forget in far more creative ways" (Chariandy, Soucouyant 12)--and the spectral insistence of memories that will not be forgotten. The protagonists in these novels find themselves compelled to address the diasporic memories that haunt them and their families in an unconscious transmission of affect. I suggest that this intergenerational transmission importantly shapes and qualifies how they understand and pursue their multicultural or cosmopolitan futures, complicating their dreams of borderlessness by making them accountable to ethical demands that carry over from the past. Relational histories, though overwritten by dominant narratives, have a tendency to haunt the present, and constitutive relationality has a tendency to reassert itself despite the protagonists' assertions of self-mastery.
Diasporic Memory, Relational Histories
Knowing the history of this place means knowing the history of other places too. History is about relations.
Aren't we all implicated in each other?
Map to the Door of No Return
The young protagonists of Soucouyant and What We All Long For expose and reject the constitutive limits of belonging by attempting to make their own ways within the anonymity and heterogeneity of the city. Soucouyant s narrator flees from the suburb of Scarborough (and the pain of witnessing his mother's descent into dementia) to downtown Toronto, a "place of forgetting," in search of "anonymity" in a place where he meets "others who were fleeing their pasts, the discontents of nations and cultures, tribes and families" (30). At the same time, the rejection of origins goes hand in hand with the temptation to forget difficult histories and a tendency to deny relationality: "Anonymity is the big lie of a city" (Brand, What 3). The divide between particularity and universality is in part what these young protagonists must negotiate in order to grow up. In What We All Long For, Tuyen refuses to live in her family's suburban home in Richmond Hill: "Not that she hated her family. She just didn't want to be in their everyday life" (Brand 303). She tries to escape into the public and autonomous world of her art, but in the end her family's history returns, haunting her "again and again" (149). Despite having "abandoned everyone" from his past (Chariandy, Soucouyant 106), a package in the mail from the librarian with a "passion" for history who made an impression on him in his childhood compels the narrator to return to his Scarborough home.
These novels reappraise dominant history and diasporic memory in their exploration of the relationship between unspoken (yet unbearably present) family stories and the recurrence of family photographs. As a form of memory, postmemory describes the "relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but that were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right" (Hirsch, "Generation" 103). In What We All Long For, Tuyen is called back to her family home by a photograph that she has taken of a man she suspects might be her older, long-lost brother, Quy. When Tuyen was little, mysterious photographs of the lost boy "littered the house. Their subject was the source of strange outbursts and crying" (225-26). Even though her parents never explicitly mention their missing first-born son to Tuyen, she "couldn't bear overhearing anymore" (64). When Tuyen develops the photographs that she has snapped of the stranger, she senses that she has a connection of some kind to this man. She "realizes that there is one interpretation that she needed to catch: the one that had led her memory to her mother's photographs disappearing and reappearing" on the mantel of the family home (224). In Soucouyant, a box that the narrator discovers in the basement of his childhood home is full of forgotten old family photographs, "lost images" of "relatives that I cannot name, although their moods and postures seem strangely familiar to me" (Chariandy 114). The traumatic experiences that preceded the protagonist's birth continue to shape lived experience and relationships, refusing to be consigned to the past in their ongoing effects. This is something very different than biological or genetic inheritance.
The protagonists of these novels are drawn to these "lost images," which are at once strange and familiar. Even though the narrator of Soucouyant feels unconnected to the photographs he finds in the basement, they trigger uneasy memories of his grandmother from his visit to Trinidad as a small child; Tuyen's self-composure begins to disintegrate as she makes the connection between the face in the photographs from the mantel of her childhood and the face in the photographs she has snapped of the stranger. For these young protagonists, "when it came to their families they could only draw half conclusions, make half inferences, for fear of the real things that lay there" (Brand 21). In his own reading of Brand's novel, Chariandy suggests that:
Tuyen and her companions encounter their ancestors' legacies of displacement and disenfranchisement not through official histories or even family tales, but through a doubly-willed circulation of feeling .... [T]he second generation awakens to its diasporic legacy not through a conscious communication but through an unconscious transmission of affect. ("Fiction" 826)
Having inherited their sense of nostalgia, the second-generation protagonists experience their parents' affective pasts both consciously and unconsciously. The uncomfortable and unwilled experience of postmemory crosses various boundaries in the novels--then/now, here/there, me/you, male/female--spanning geographical places as well as historical epochs, and intersecting spatial, relational, and temporal modes.
The intergenerational effects of postmemory suggest both that "our memory is never fully ours" and that photographs are never "unmediated representations of our past" (Hirsch, Family 14). In an interview, Chariandy insists that he deliberately structured Soucouyant in order to reflect and embody the theme of spectral memories:
[D]ementia also became, for me, a way to explore the fragility of cultural memory, and how difficult it can be for us to know the past .... [It] is about a mother who is forgetting the past, and her son who finds himself rather reluctantly piecing it all together. As such, the novel progresses in a non-linear and associative fashion--through seemingly random evocations of feeling, touch, memory and official history. Admittedly, this is a risky way of structuring a novel; but to structure it differently would likely have missed the point entirely. (quoted in Demers)
Extending the figure of Adele's dementia to encompass larger social relations, Chariandy argues that his novel is written out of an "urgent responsibility to rethink what the past means, to read 'history' more carefully or 'against the grain,' and to attend, more rigorously, to what may have been omitted from official records--oftentimes very deliberately by those who stand to benefit from such amnesia" (Demers). As Adele notes, "[T]hey does always tell the biggest stories in book" (Chariandy, Soucouyant 175). In the novel, Adele's Caribbean-inflected voice challenges the official voice of history. Historical sources on the one hand--"American engineers had whole libraries at their disposal" (176)--are contrasted to the kind of alternative recuperation of the past that is figured by Miss Cameron and the old "woman with the long memory and the proper names of things" (23), on the other. Near the end of the novel there is a jarring interruption of the narrative voice, which suddenly shifts from personal and poetic to official and detached. In a tone that strikes the reader as either bluntly patronizing or coolly ironic, the ultrarational voice explains that the locals of the Caribbean island are "not mentally equipped to understand the logic" of the military operation and that some of them "had even come to imagine that they had some sort of right to live there" (178). This voice is starkly juxtaposed to the main narrative tone and presents a parody of an objective historical perspective on cultural genocide and forced removal: "The legacy of the base might in fact be rather more complicated and ironic than some have supposed. People trapped in the aftermath of slavery and colonialism had the chance to encounter the modern world, and to find their place in it" (179). Of course, the only thing that is "ironic" here is the fact that the "place" that Adele and her mother are able to find within postcolonial Trinidadian structures represents very little improvement over slavery and colonialism.
Alluding to the haunting of historical narratives, Miss Cameron's "passion for local history" contrasts with other neighbourhood residents who have "little genuine interest in the past" (Chariandy, Soucouyant 105). She is the one who draws the narrator's attention to details of Canadian history, such as the "'Toronto Purchase' of land from three Mississauga chiefs in 1787" (103). Yet Miss Cameron's passion for Canadian history is not enough to teach the narrator about the truths of his own family's past in Trinidad. In Canada, he feels that his own family is reduced to "a travel guidebook" a "creature nobody really believes in," or a "foreign word" (137). Aside from sending him the package that becomes the catalyst for his return to his mother's house, the most important thing that Miss Cameron teaches the narrator is that "History is about relations" (106). By the end of the novel, the reader has experienced a retelling of the tale of the soucouyant from the perspective of the disenfranchised, drawing attention to ghostly trans-Atlantic slave ships--the sea with its "endless floors of bone" (182)--and neo-imperial military operations in Trinidad that "cut through layers of prehistory" (176). Like the (post)memories that haunt family photographs, the voices of the dispersed "still haunted the place" (181). The overwritten colonial history of Canada is signaled only in the names on road signs that Adele and Mrs Christopher pass on their "adventure north" (87)--for example, "Tyendinaga" and "Long Sault"--while at the same time they refuse to stop and give a ride to "the first Indian they had seen in this country" (89). Similarly, in the opening chapter of What We All Long For, the narrative voice muses that all of the people riding the morning subway train "sit on Ojibway land, but hardly any of them know it or care, because that genealogy is willfully untraceable except in the name of the city itself" (Brand 4). The relational re(dis)covery process in these novels works through kinship and personal history but opens up beyond it to encompass wider social relations.
For the young protagonists in these novels, rereading history in order to uncover that which has been elided requires a reconsideration of the dominant structures of language used to describe the past, the present, and the future. In Soucouyant there is a poetic "investment in naming the world properly and a wariness of those moments when language seems to spill and tumble dangerously" (Chariandy 127). The narrator refuses to identify with the condescending medical language used in the information on dementia given out by the doctor: "I put the pamphlet back and joined Mother in the living room, determined to see her my own way" (41). At one point in the novel the narrator fantasizes about his brother becoming a well-known poet, saying that he "understood the need for poetry because language can never be trusted and what the world doesn't need is another long story and all the real stories have become untellable anyway" (129). The inadequacy of language is especially reflected in Adele's grasping for forgotten words. While heartbreaking, her hybrid Caribbean-English-mixed-with-dementia ironically often gets closer to the truth than established expressions can. For example, Adele's insistence on using the word "eyestache" instead of eyebrow is echoed and thus validated by Meera on the very last line of the novel (92, 196). The linguistic dominance of English in ostensibly multicultural (geographical or imaginative) spaces is belied by this second-generation affirmation of Adele's alternative linguistic framework, unmasking the presumed neutrality of language and exposing it as a site of racialization and enculturation. As Peter Hitchcock argues, the "Caliban clause in English" is the "delegitimation of the race- and class-bound hierarchies of appropriate language use ... the weak spot in cultural hegemony where language is appropriated for ends not altogether English as a posited norm" (761). While maintaining a sense of suspicion when it comes to official versions of English, it is important to recognize multiple modes of expression and to pay attention to moments where the cracks in monolithic English show that there are, in fact, many Englishes that carry their histories with them.
In contrast to the dispassionate narration of official history, the language that Adele uses functions as "a way of telling without really telling" (Chariandy, Soucouyant 66). In this way, Chariandy suggests that the "unspoken ... past emerges in spectral forms, in uncanny moods and actions, in stories or even individual words that remain haunting or seductive, but are not, in fact, fully decipherable" (quoted in "Words"). What this story suggests is that, bombarded by dominant versions of history, one might remain open to reading otherwise. Even if it is impossible to truly know the past, there are always signs to be read and fragments to be put together if only in a partial or incomplete way. For example, the narrator of Soucouyant "couldn't always control the signals that my body gave off" (101); Adele continually runs her fingertips along the "lacy script" of her scars, "A Braille, it told a story" (35, 24); the story of Roger's socioeconomic disappointment is told through "his hacking cough, his body stinking of chemicals and mapped with heat blisters and funguses" (78); and he bequeaths the mole on his wrist--a "period," a "full stop"--to his son, the narrator's older brother, who sits at the dinner table "preoccupied with the task of arranging the macaroni on his plate into a series of commas without words" (25). The older brother murmurs, "exclamation point," as he sits "mesmerized by a streak of bird shit on the office window" (26). This is the mysterious punctuation that is inscribed upon the unnamed narrator and his similarly unnamed brother in non-linguistic ways. Adele "told, but she never explained or deciphered. She never put the stories together. She never could or wanted to do so" (136) for her sons.
Adele's face is described by her son as simply "a question" (35). What I want to foreground here is the ambiguity of these signs, along with the material insistence of their presence: What does the persistence of these signs, particularly understood as a form of questioning, entail? The mother's injunction to her son on the very first page--"You should step in" (7)--introduces Soucouyant as a deeply relational narrative. I suggest that the narrator of this novel embodies Cavarero's idea that "who" someone is can only be "known" "through the narration of the life-story of which that person is the protagonist" (viii). Because the "unifying meaning of the story, can only be posed by the one who lives it, in the form of a question," it is only when the story is told by another that "the meaning of what otherwise remain an intolerable sequence of events" is revealed (2). This is quite literally the case when the person who is living that life is suffering from dementia. Perhaps the young narrator remains unnamed to the very end of the novel because he is not, in fact, telling his own story. The son is, quite simply, the narrator of his mother's story: "There was once a girl named Adele," he begins a story in third-person voice, but by the end of the telling their voices have become almost indistinguishable (Chariandy, Soucouyant 180)--"'Mother, how can I tell the story if you don't listen to me?'" and, "'Child?'" she shouts, "'Is I telling this story or you?.'" (190, 45).
Soucouyant is a narrative exploration of how memory is affectively and wordlessly passed on to others, silently seeping through the generations. Meera "doesn't understand" why memory "never seems to abide by the rules of time or space or individual consciousness" (166). The narrator recognizes that "when you live with anyone that long, they tell you all sorts of things without ever meaning to do so" (82). An intergenerational (and transnational) transmission of affect makes it so that "something seeped" into Adele's son, "some mood or manner was transmitted" (101). This "something" affected not only his pronunciation--"I picked up my parents' accent, including the inability to pronounce 'thhh'" (101)--but is also responsible for his "eternal" sadness (119). In a porous, boundary-crossing manner, the narrator literally "steps in" for his mother. He is attempting to make sense of her life story before it is completely lost. However, in the process of narrating her life story, he is also himself being narrated by her: "I caught her reading me all the way through. The person I'd become, despite all of her efforts ... a boy moping for lost things, for hurts never his own" (194). This is "the heaviness of a history that wouldn't leave" (115). There is a certain ambiguity surrounding narrative agency here: the task of narrating is at once unchosen and chosen by children of diasporic subjects caught in the "complexities of constructing identity against transnational backdrops" (Petty 6). It is something that the narrator is steeped in but also has to deliberately "step in" to.
The second-generation youth in both novels try in vain to break away from their parents' pasts, not wanting to repeat their mistakes and unable and/or unwilling to identify with their failures: "There's obviously no ... hope of reasoning with that whole idiotic generation before me," concludes the narrator after his exasperating encounter with Mrs Christopher (Chariandy, Soucouyant 149). For her part, Tuyen had "wanted as far back as she could remember to not be" like her parents (Brand 69). Given that she is an artist who attempts to bridge the public and the private in her work--"the city was full of longings and she wanted to make them public" (151)--it is especially significant that, until her world and work is shaken by her photographs of the man who might be her brother Quy, Tuyen is self-absorbed and, at times, quite unsympathetic to those around her. (12) When it comes to her family, Tuyen tries to avoid being "tangled up in their presences" (126). Yet in spite of her efforts, she is consistently unable to separate her preoccupations about her family from her preoccupations about her art (155). Her desire for mastery in work and love amounts to a denial of the contingency of birth: "'Alike'--the word revolted her; it gave her some other unwanted feeling of possession. To be possessed, she thought, not by Binh only but by family" (157). Whether Tuyen likes it or not, she is tied by an "invisible string" to her family, and, even though she "fled" from their history, in the end it finds her (267-68). It is not until the end of the novel, when she seems to find comfort in her "commonality" with her brother Binh (307), that Tuyen is able to successfully envision her art installation. (13)
The man she thinks may be Quy is a physical manifestation of a ghost that Tuyen inexplicably experiences as a threat. Even though the face that appears in the photograph is the "face of a boy," of a "baby, innocent and expectant," she immediately senses that there is "something wrong about it" (Brand 208). Tuyen is intensely unsettled by her own act of visual consumption; this man "was a ghost in her childhood, the unseen, the un-understood, yet here he was, insinuating himself" and just as he had "looked at her from every mantel, every surface ... now she thought she had looked at him" (268). The word "insinuating" carries the connotation of unsolicited contact with another, but it also emphasizes the fact that one has no choice but to respond somehow to this unwanted provocation. Importantly, in the act of looking back, Tuyen finally recognizes herself-in-relation.
Importantly, not only do these novels draw attention to intergenerational relationships, but they also signal the importance of forging new forms of intra-generational relations. In Soucouyant, the absent-presence of the narrator's estranged older brother is an important catalyst for his own coming of age. The discovery of the "red metal toolbox" containing his brother's old notebooks in the basement occurs at a climactic moment in the narrative. It is the startling visual representation of his brother's "poetry," coupled with the stuttering, stunted, crossed-out attempts to spell the word "soucouyant," represented in handwriting at the start of every chapter ("su," "so," ssooouccooo," "souku," "souuoyawn," "soucuy") that force the narrator--and by extension the reader--to confront the possibility of his brother's learning disability. He is called upon to interpret his brother's desperate attempts to make sense of the world, and this moment in the text resonates powerfully with the wor(l)d-making power of relational narratives. The call of obligation to the sibling's similar but unique experiences is also reflected in What We All Long For, with Carla and Tuyen each shouldering the weight of fraternal responsibilities in different ways. Perhaps representing a commentary on the limits of anonymity and individualism in the global city, complex sibling relationships point toward a (narrative and ethical) need for the second generation to come to some sort of new terms with itself in both novels.
Given the focus on familial narratives, what prevents these novels from devolving into a privatized logic of grievance rather than analyzing the injustices that condition the lives of contemporary youth? The disturbing figure of Quy makes visible the way lives are managed and contained like other flows of goods and information. Interestingly, Quy alludes to the predatory nature of photographic representations of suffering that participate in the circulation of commodified images of tragedy, images which are easily consumed by privileged and fickle viewers: "'Other tragedies have overshadowed mine,'" he says (Brand 74). He is wryly aware of the global commercial dynamic whereby one tragic portrait of anonymous victims is quickly superseded by another. The fact that the narrative in fact never confirms that this man really is Tuyen's lost older brother, Quy, leaving just a hint of doubt in the reader's mind, contributes to this sense of generic/ interchangeable suffering. This crucial ambiguity haunts the novel to its very end and prompts the reader to wonder if it makes any difference to our reading of the novel to know for sure whether or not this man is Quy. In a sense, Quy is not only meant to appear as a (private) threat to Tuyen but is meant to feel like a (public) threat to us all, a threat that is dormant but as "penetrating as the winter wind" (215). (14) The intimate, first-person voice of this narrator (who may or may not be related to Tuyen) not only disrupts the crowd-pleasing consumption of photographic images, but also--as a figure for global dispossession and (im)mobility--urgently and insistently interrupts the third-person omniscient narration about the four main protagonists. (15)
Yet despite the potential threat of Quy's resentment, in the end it is the "temperamental bundle" (Brand 278) that is Carla's younger brother who is the biggest threat of the novel: "[D]anger was what Jamal was in at birth and what he had always gravitated toward" (237). Unlike Oku, who restrains himself from "sleepwalking" into the stereotype he is presumed to be, Jamal embraces criminality. Close to the end of the novel, Jamal takes a joyride with his buddy Bashir to the well-to-do suburb of Richmond Hill and, in a terrible twist of irony, beats Quy until he is "half dead" in a carjacking outside of Tuyen's parents' home, just moments before he is ostensibly to be reunited with them (317). What does it mean that in this novel the ultimate threat is once again the black male youth? What is the effect of this decision to end the story so abruptly, with the tragic encounter between Quy and Jamal, instead of offering the reader a happy family reunion? These two figures are both clearly maligned by fate, not fully responsible for the dreadful things that happen to them that may contribute to their becoming criminals at the same time as they steadfastly refuse to be cast in the role of innocent. Quy knows that the aura of innocence "makes a story more appealing to some" (288), but he refuses to be viewed as such: "'Don't expect me to tell you about the innocence of youth, that would be another story, not mine'" (139). That this refusal of innocence is also echoed by Jackie in her determination to steer romantically clear of Oku (91) might point toward a narrative suggestion that it is important to accept responsibility for our ability to respond even (or maybe especially) when our entanglements with others are unwilled or unwelcome. Read in this light, Chariandy's narrator's bewildering and seemingly rash gesture of giving all of his material possessions to Mrs Christopher might reflect a desire to take responsibility: he tells her, "'You think I've had it easy. You think I haven't paid any price at all. And so you want me to pay for what you've experienced. You want me to pay for all the things that have happened to you'" (Chariandy, Soucouyant 149). Although Mrs Christopher's carefully written record of "debt owing" might seem ridiculous to the reader, as if one could quantify or make an inventory of suffering in this way, the narrator's radical and seemingly incomprehensible gesture suggests a willingness to finally own up to the "carpet stain that nobody would confess to" (148, 14). Even though "'Justice don't never make anyone happy. Is just justice?'" (149), there is still an ethical claim in this willingness to accept responsibility for the debt and to avoid the easy excuse of innocence.
The figure that might be Quy engages in a relational (albeit imaginary) act of storytelling when, hearing laughter on the subway, "he rouses himself from going over the details of his life, repeating them in his head as if to the woman reading a newspaper next to him" (Brand 4). A sense of interconnectedness is emphasized in this passage given that the reader later comes to learn that the laughter he hears on the subway is that of Tuyen and her friends. " 'I have these moments,'" he says, "'very dangerous, I feel scattered. But I'm here, and I feel like telling you the rest. Not because you'll get it, but because I feel like telling it'" (74). Even though it is a "dangerous" act, Quy feels compelled to tell his story, to be witnessed by another (even a complete stranger) in order for the fragments of his tale to cohere, in order to "battle lightness, non-existence" (74). Perhaps it is significant that Quy, an antagonistic anti-hero, is the only narrator in this novel to make use of the second-person "you," which directly implicates the reader him/herself in his narrative act of self-making. As Michael Warner points out in his reading of Althusser, "public speech," in the form of direct address in the second person, can be an act of world-making: "[I]n singling us out it does so not on the basis of our concrete identity but by virtue of our participation in the discourse alone and therefore in common with strangers" (77-78). What is being demanded by the narrator in this structure of address is more than an aesthetic experience of empathetic identification: unable to ignore a global web of relations, the reader is called upon to recognize his/her own position of complicity within the system. Addressed as a potential witness, the reader of this text "personifies the public demand that" the narrator "give an account" of himself, and "serves as a synecdoche for (the shared assumptions of) a more general ... society of readers" (Slaughter, Human 292). The way that the narrator addresses what Slaughter calls "the implicated reader," while simultaneously taking the liberty of claiming membership in the society of readers that s/he addresses, calls attention to the exclusions and contradictions that structure that community. Quy says, "'If you were a boy like me, you'd wise up soon enough to the way things get told and what the weight of telling is'" (Brand 283). The reader of Brand's text is called upon to respond to the weight of Quy's story through an imaginative act of empathy: more than sentimental self-projection, this is self-reflexive empathy would ideally go beyond the kind of multicultural tolerance or recognition that these narratives work hard to unmask.
In Soucouyant and What We All Long For, individual, community, and national desires for self-containment and closure are challenged by the haunting of history and the force of intergenerational narrative. As Hirsch points out, postmemory is a "diasporic aesthetics of temporal and spatial exile that needs simultaneously to (re)build and to mourn" (Family 245). I suggest that, rather than understanding mourning as a "compensatory" and "aggressive action of normalizing closure" (Brophy 21), these narratives emphasize the melancholic and open-ended hauntings of the remnants of what has been lost. More than just explorations of the diasporic (Caribbean, Vietnamese, Africadian) communities of the protagonists' parents, they draw attention to the multicultural city itself as a site where people with multiple relationships to global history converge and relate, offering a vision of community with much wider identifications but one that is not afraid to call discourses of universality to task. The process of growing up entails a separation from origins, on the one hand, and a reworking of self-other relationships and the establishment of new kinds of ties, on the other. They prod the reader to contest, scrutinize, and redefine our understanding of multiculturalism, addressing the absence/suppression of racial histories in the nation's fantasized past in order to potentially imagine alternative future possibilities.
The experiences of the protagonists in these novels illustrate that multiculturalism in Canada should not be understood as a "thing" that has been achieved, but as a "site for struggle" (Bannerji 120). This unsettled and unsettling view of multicultural contestation and lack of unity is destined to "fail" (Kamboureli 130), but as Brand's and Chariandy's cautiously hopeful narratives suggest, this failure might lead to new and more genuine ways of relating to otherness. Toronto is the mise-en-scene which provides the space where, through the accident of birth or migration, "people ... turn into other people imperceptibly, unconsciously, right here in the grumbling train ... there's so much spillage ... lives in the city are doubled, tripled, conjugated.. It's hard not to wake up here without the certainty of misapprehension" (Brand 5). At the same time that they produce a sense of alienation, fragmentation, and "misapprehension" (understood as misapprehension, or the failure to apprehend, capture, or contain), multicultural cities like Toronto expose the fiction of individual self-containment and the chanciness of social relations, especially given that intergenerational relationships actually exceed the space of the city. Brand's use of the word "spillage" in the above passage points toward an openness that resists closure. Like the jazz music that Brand's protagonists listen to--where "every horn is alone, but they're together, crashing" (229)--the young people's movements through the city streets expose them to others in unpredictable physical and sensory ways. Athough, by the end of What We All Long For, even Quy has allowed himself to imagine a future in Toronto--"'I'll find someone to tell this story to'" (312)--the reader is left doubting if he will ever find a place in the city or a witness for his story, if his identity will be corroborated, or even if he will survive the beating. How are we to understand the unexpected, violent, and final silencing of the only first-person voice in the text? Given the unpredictability of our encounters with others, the sense of hope offered in these narratives is fragile, open-ended, and far from guaranteed.
Reading these narratives as contestatory coming-of-age narratives invites us to reconsider discussions about what Chariandy has called the "waning of belonging on the part of Canadian second-generation minorities" ("Fiction" 818) that is evidenced in recent media discourse and public policy (see Cho; Jimenez; Reitz and Bannerji). Instead, perhaps it is more important to remember two things: first, that "the second-generation is Canadian--intimately so" (Chariandy, quoted in Dobson, "Spirits" 811) and, second, that there is "no outside to the Canadian nation anymore" (Brydon 997). As narrative explorations of multilayered forms of engagement with otherness as an ethics of misapprehension, novels such as What We All Long For and Soucouyant offer ways to keep the productive unsettling of national (and transnational) epistemologies open and unfinished. According to Brydon, remaining open to the experience of critical intimacy when it comes to reading literature requires "openness to others" in "imaginative co-presence" (997). Again invoking the opening scene from Brand's novel, I suggest that this imaginative openness to others can be construed as a metaphorical and planetary version of bumping into difference on the subway train without turning away too easily.
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(1) Here I am relying on Gayatri Spivak's notion of "planetarity," first outlined in Death of a Discipline, as a new mode of political and ethical consciousness.
(2) While, strictly speaking, these novels stray significantly from the traditional Bildungsroman form (for example, centring on several main protagonists who are all well into their twenties), I suggest that there is a need for alternative ways of exploring contemporary coming of age than the conventions of the genre allow. Perhaps the focus on the interrelationships between these youth, instead of centring on the development of one individual, as well as the belated nature of their independence, might better reflect the realities of growing up as a second-generation youth in the twenty-first century.
(3) This trope can be extended to encompass a third sense as well: in terms of literary production, the relative success of "multicultural literature" in Canada is in large part due to the commitment of public funding agencies which have played an important role in ensuring heterogeneity in Canada's publishing industry in the name of official multiculturalism, even though the resistant potential of such literature continually runs the risk of being co-opted by neoliberal, or "banal" (Dobson), multicultural discourse. The critical and commercial success of both of these novels suggests that, as a "booming otherness industry" (Moss 17), the institutionalization of "racialized cultural production" makes literary institutions both "prisons or reservations" and "pathways and avenues," as Coleman and Goellnicht argue (23).
(4) The failure of belonging that is experienced by the young, visibly raced protagonists in these novels urges the reader to confront that the challenges and failures of multiculturalism cannot be disconnected from the processes of neoliberal globalization that prompt "postracial" racisms and promote deepening inequality.
(5) The Multiculturalism Act was passed in 1988, a revised version of the 1967 "new Immigration Act" (Chariandy 72) that allowed the narrator's mother, Adele, to come from Trinidad as a domestic worker, given that it changed race-based exclusions and ostensibly made it easier for non-white immigrants to come to Canada.
(6) In particular, Oku considers places like "Kensington Market" and the barbershops on Eglinton Avenue to be "universities of a kind and repositories for all the stifled ambition of men who were sidelined by prejudices of one sort or another" (189). The novel does not romanticize the heavy consequences of this alternative education for black boys, though. Perhaps the fact that Oku is poised to go back to school to complete his ma at the end of the novel points toward the promise of combining heterogeneous forms of education.
(7) On his way home late one night, Oku's body is misread as a criminal black body by police officers: that this encounter feels painfully intimate, an "accustomed embrace" or "perverse fondling" (165), offers him a glimpse into what may await him if he does not forge his own alternative to the models of black masculinity that are available to him.
(8) The novel seems to warn against reading Jackie's relationship with "the German boyfriend" as some kind of pathology, however, by offering a complex rendering of her interiority: the description of her tumultuous feelings for Oku are fraught with conflicted feelings for her parents, while Reiner is described as predictable, safe, and separate, which suggests that her desire to be with him stems from more than just an idealization of whiteness. Jackie is arguably the most enigmatic of the young protagonists in this text; the fact that she is often not present in the narrative, but is instead being talked about by the other characters, affirms her independence. However, despite her separateness, Jackie does not seek to run away from the past entirely, refusing to cut her ties to Vanauley Way and her parents while at the same time owning her own store and refusing to give in to paralysis, thus negotiating the impossible space between independence and responsibility in her own way.
(9) As Jennifer Bowering Deslisle points out in her reading of Chariandy's text, the "image of fiery soucouyant 'gloving on' its skin (190)" also "reflects the description of Adele's mother's horrible burns with her skin 'gloving off' (8)" (4).
(10) In Soucouyant, the narrator's disgust resonates both with Adele's disappointment with the apple and with his own obsessive hand-washing after touching the bump of burned and imperfectly healed flesh on his "beautiful monster" of a grandmother during his one-time visit to Trinidad (116).
(11) In What We All Long For, in contrast to Oku who had "learned to cook lovingly," Carla rejects her father's "language" and despises shopping for, preparing, and eating Jamaican food (131). Arguably, though, Oku's cooking is in itself a form of rebellion against his parents: "[H]is father would probably not approve, preferring the monoculture of Jamaican food, but Oku's tastes had expanded from this base to a repertoire that was vast and cosmopolitan" (133). Here, the rejection of parental origins, while involving a self-destructive internalization, also points to an important desire to envision more positive spaces of communal identity. In evoking Oku's "cosmopolitan" culinary repertoire, Brand is alluding to the way that these second-generation protagonists reject both national and parental stories of origins in favour of larger community identifications, exploring both the limits to and the tensions within the cosmopolitan impulses of the second generation.
(12) For example, she is described in almost predatory terms when it comes to her longing for Carla, unthinkingly abusing her with her artwork and interpreting Jamal's arrest as "grabbing" all of Carla's "attention" (43, 231, 52). She "virtually destroyed" Mrs Chou's apartment for the sake of her artwork, steals money and food from her emotionally debilitated parents, deliberately misrepresents and mistranslates in her dealings with them, and verbally abuses her siblings (25, 56, 61, 68, 60). Although her brother Binh is no less self-interested (to the point of embodying the market ethics of global capitalism in his own business dealings, which include the illegal traffic of goods and people), he is not totally mistaken in his assessment of his sister: "[Y]ou're always pretending. People are real, eh? They're not just something in your head" (156). Binh "always wanted some kind of touching, even if it was painful. He always sought out the rawness of human contact, the veins exposed. She wanted to leave well enough alone ... content to witness at a distance" (147).
(13) Tuyen's desire to pick and choose her relationships reflects the contemporary notion of "cosmopolitanism" as a matter of mobility and choice, representing a denial of unchosen relationality (kinship relations) as much as an act of agency.
(14) More than just a return of the repressed of his own family's history as Vietnamese refugees, throughout the novel Tuyen's brother Quy stands in as a larger figure for contingency: "'I didn't have a hard life. It was simply a life. A life like millions of lives. We may pretend to have control of things, but we don't'" (200). Importantly, he serves as a reminder of the ruthless nature of global inequities: "'For some of us the world is never forgiving'" (285). "'I'm doomed to boats,'" he claims, signaling the simultaneously mobility and immobility of the world's most disposable populations. Echoing Thy Phu's critique of "detention photography" in which the "indignity of the camera's scrutiny ... does not merely document but also may even intensify the sufferings" of detainees (337), Quy is wryly critical of the photographs taken for the consumption of the seemingly endless chain of "stupid new humanitarians" at refugee camps (Brand 288). Rey Chow suggests that "engagement with otherness almost always involves some kind of imagistic objectification (of the other)" drawing attention to the fact that presumably natural acts of looking are mediated by mechanical, cultural, and narrative processes (676). Quy wonders, "Was it us or was it the photographer who couldn't make distinctions among people he didn't know? Unable to make us human. Unable to help his audience see us, in other words, in individual little houses or suburban streets like those where he came from" (Brand 9). Chow identifies "iconophobia" as a contemporary distrust of the visual image to represent the other (679). Instead of refusing to engage with otherness in the name of ethics, she suggests that perhaps there might be an "ethics" in the "capacity to produce aesthetic rupture, that critical distance from within the bounds of what comes across successfully as a conventional and crowdpleasing story" (687).
(15) Abandoned in an unintentional yet radical way, the lost child is a symbol of the failure of adult responsibility for the protection of youth in this global system and the violent exclusions that delimit who is to be viewed as human enough to count. The vague threat of global antagonism that Quy represents at the same time represents a positive energy in the novel, an idea that is embodied in the World Cup celebrations in Toronto. Oku conveys this ambiguity, this simultaneous sense of threat and hope: "Days like this are a warning. A promise ... some world shit is coming down and some of us are ready and some not.... I think it's visionary. That guy just saw possibility" (Brand 210).
ALLISON MACKEY received her PhD in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in 2011. Her dissertation--nominated for the Governor General's Academic Medal--examined contemporary coming-of-age narratives reflecting a broad geographic and linguistic range, from second-generation U.S. Latino/a to Anglo-Canadian diasporic and African child soldier narratives. She is currently working in South America and is also a Research Associate in the Department of English, University of the Free State, South Africa.
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2012|
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