Her Mother's Ashes|
by Nurjehan Aziz,
Without a Guide:
Contemporary Women's Travel Adventures
by Katherine Govier,
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|Home and Away
by Libby Scheier
READING THESE TWO BOOKS was an intense, pleasurable, and instructive experience, making me reflect on the ideas of home, homelessness, fragmented cultures, and cultures in conflict and dialogue -- all issues that have troubled me personally and intellectually.
Her Mother's Ashes
is a collection of 20 stories by South Asian women resident in Canada and the United States. In her crisply intelligent preface, Arun Prabha Mukherjee cautions against the tendency to lump all Southeast Asian women's writing together, or worse, to create a catch-all category of "immigrant" or "ethnic" writing. She points to the diversity of cultures among Southeast Asians, a point well reflected in the formal and thematic diversity of the anthology's stories.
Among these diverse tales, several common threads emerge. One of the classic story lines can be found in Meena Alexander's poetic "No Nation Woman," in which a child accompanies her parents from India to North America, where her father has obtained a desirable job. There, she is haunted through adulthood by a vivid mental picture of her childhood home in India, but never does feel at home in North America. Towards the end of the story, the narrator writes plaintively, "I seem to have travelled always."
Another thread running through many of the stories is the traditional -- and oppressive -- situation of Southeast Asian women in their own cultures. Too often, they escape this oppression only to run into the racism, cultural chauvinism, and different variety of women's oppression found in Western cultures.
Naming is an important theme in a few stories, notably Himani Bannerji's beautifully written "On a Cold Day," in which Devika Bardhan changes her name to Debbie Barton, under pressure from an employment counsellor, and then bestows her original Indian name upon a suicide she happens upon, a woman "of South Asian origin, as the newspapers said," broken and bloody on the pavement, having jumped from her seventh- story balcony. Bannerji is a highly accomplished poet, short-story writer, essayist, and scholar who has been teaching and writing in Canada for many years. That her work is not better known here is a serious loss to Canadian letters; is it also an echo of the themes of discrimination and prejudice found in the book'?
There are many other fine stories here, such as "Love in an Election Year," by Tahira Naqvi, which interweaves political and personal themes, but the story that moved me the most was the title piece, "My Mother's Ashes," by Geeta Kothari. One of its motifs -- the distraught emigre daughter trying to scatter her mother's ashes on the Ganges but ignorant of "the proper ritual, the right prayers" -- continues to haunt me. It reminded me of my first excursion to a synagogue in Canada -- a small, egalitarian place that nevertheless observed Orthodox ritual and the use of Hebrew. Raised in a highly secularized Jewish family in New York, I was largely ignorant of what to do. At the same time, I felt a deep connection to the sounds, the atmosphere, and the people, and cried throughout the service's three hours -- saddened at what I'd lost, moved by what I'd found. In Kothari's story, the main character, Lally, stands on the banks of the Ganges, among "pilgrims and hippies," "waiting for someone to tell her what to do." Finally, she opens the urn and wades into the waters. "When all the ashes were gone, and she was left with an empty urn, she realized she was crying." Her crying is for her mother, but it also expresses a grief that goes beyond the loss of a loved one.
Without a Guide: Contemporary Women's Travel Adventures,
edited by Katherine Govier, is a collection of 17 travel pieces that are, for the most part, well written and complexly layered personal essays. There are writers as well known as Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields, and as new to the public as Michelene Adams and Irene Guilford.
Only a third of the book fits into a category one might have expected to dominate the collection: adventures of North Americans abroad. Here we have Atwood in the Galapagos, Shields in Japan, Alice Walker in China, Janice Kulyk Keefer in Spain, and Govier in Morocco. Atwood's "Islands of the Mind" evokes the atmosphere and sense of wonder of the Galapagos with little physical description; the withheld image works well in this intriguing piece. There is also a humorous
and engaging look into the daily lives of three generations of Atwood's family who have committed themselves to a hectic, crowded, rewarding life upon a small island-hopping boat for two weeks.
Other stories have non-North Americans travelling outside their native lands (the Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh goes to Cairo, in one of the most interesting of these) and immigrants or children of immigrants going "home" again (the Canadians Michelene Adams and Irene Guilford visit Trinidad and Lithuania, respectively). Defying categorization are Ann Beattie's oddly written account of accompanying a Japanese tourist group in California and Susan Musgrave's account, odd in and of itself, of accompanying her drug- and double-dealing boyfriend to South America.
Personally, I was most impressed with four essays in which the writers made risky domestic journeys, strangers within their own lands. Wendy Law-Yone writes about travelling surreptitiously across 1967 policestate Burma in an attempt to leave illegally and many her fiance. Bapsi Sidhwa tells of the Black Mountains in northern Pakistan, where the landscape is breathtaking and dangerous, and the isolated inhabitants living there have cultures and value systems the writer finds alien and dangerous, especially to women. Robyn Davidson recounts a gruelling journey alone across the Australian outback with four camels and a dog, and E. Annie Proulx contributes a nightmarish tale of what ought to have been a simple longdistance train ride, an author's tour, in Canada and the United States. These stories challenge traditional notions of home and national identity, and give new meaning to the cliche "home is where the heart is," as well as the satirical, but resonant, "home is where the hurt is." What is suggested here is that "home" has a lot to do with personal and spiritual identity developed apart from geography, and that things like love, hardship, and one's relationship with the rest of the natural world can at times outweigh other differences. Paradoxically, these stories also underscore those differences, showing that gender, social, and cultural diversities within national boundaries can be very profound.
My first expectation from glancing at these books was that one would be about women leaving their native lands to resettle in North America, largely out of necessity, and the other would be about North Americans travelling abroad, mainly for recreation and personal growth. But both books are more complicated than that, and together they provide rich insights into the crisscrossing subjects of gender, culture, and spirit.