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Emerging Imperatives
by Janice Keefer

READERS WILL FIND much of interest and delight in No New Land, M. G. Vassanji`s account of a "particular East African Asian community" in contemporary Toronto. The denizens of 69 Rosecliffe Park Drive, an apartment building "just this side of dissolution," are linked by a common place of origin - Dar es Salaam - and a common condition, that of the first-generation immigrant trying to make good in an often bewildering, begrudging land. Vassanji introduces us to various representatives of this community: a middle-aged "failure," Nurdin, still cowed by an extraordinarily harsh and holy father; Nanji, a gentle existentialist, whose unhappy love affair is resolved at the novel`s end by a dea ex machina; Jamal, a rough-edged, pragmatic immigration lawyer on the make (and on the take, we may presume); and several minor characters, including a baker, Esmail, who, having had his shins broken by a teenage gang, takes up painting and returns to "Dar" to found a profitable artists` colony for rich (and credulous) Americans. By and large, Vassanji`s treatment of female characters is peripheral: Nurdin`s high-minded, low-libido`d wife, Zera, is sketchily, though affectionately drawn, and one of the most intriguing characters of the novel, the Hindu widow Sushila, pops into and is as abruptly plucked out of the narrative, leaving us to surmise that she may reappear in a sequel. Vassanji`s Shamsi community goes to the mosque (a temporarily converted high-school gymnasium) and to Honest Ed`s; it rallies round those who have become the victims of racist abuse and extends generosity to those left in the lurch by love or poverty. Thus the characters of No New Land are presented as human beings and not as exotically mysterious "others"; they are also particularized as variants of that socio-economic reality, the "New Canadian," explored in such novels as The Sacrifice and The Luck of Ginger Coffey. As in Wiseman`s and Moore`s novels, one of Vassanji`s protagonists accomplishes his rite of passage into Canadianness by a traumatic encounter with The Law; Vassanji`s innovation in this area is to show how accuser and accused are both enmeshed in the immigrant imperative -to "make good" whatever the cost to one`s human obligation to be or do good. What the narrator refers to as "multivulturism" gets short, yet subtle shrift in No New Land, which shows how complex a matter ethnicity is. Vassanji reveals the hierarchies within groups shar. ing the same religion and racial origins: for example, members of the Shamsi community are incensed at being taken for "Pakis," and the chasm that divides Nurdin from his niece Nermine has everything to do with social class and economic "difference." Only when Vassanji tries to force his narrative into the mould of the traditional novel, enforcing closure, or at least the tidying up of loose ends, does our pleasure in No New Land diminish. For the strength of Vassanji`s text lies in an indeterminate, decentred quality that forces our attention away from the plight of a central character and draws it instead to the richly diverse and problematic nature of community - in this and other ways the novel forms a rewarding complement to Neil Bissoondath`s A Casual Brutality. At its best, No New Land, like Nino Ricci`s Lives of the Saints and Sky Lee`s Disappearing Moon Cafe, redefines and extends our sense of the possibilities, not of multicultural literature in Canada, but of Canadian writing tout court.

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