Multicultural Fiction & Interviews
by Linda Hutcheon, Marion Richardson,
Canadian-Jewish Short Stories
by Miriam Waddington,
All My Relations
Post Your Opinion
by W.H. New
Multiculturalism may be social and political gospel,
but it doesn`t necessarily result in first-class literary anthologies
TOGETHER, THESE THREE anthologies collect short stories, oral tales, excerpts from novels and plays, biographical notes, interviews, and a copy of Bill C-93, an act "for the preservation and enhancement of multiculturalism in Canada" If nothing else, they demonstrate that generalizations about the connection between literary form and multiculturalism do not mean very much. The excerpt from Michael Ondaatje`s In the Skin of a Lion in Other Solitudes reveals Ondaatje`s skills, but not enough is included to show his merit as a novelist; the excerpt from Tomson Highway`s The Rez Sisters in All My Relations, in parallel fashion, calls attention to the difference between writing a scene and writing a play, though that`s probably not the editor`s intention. Among the more than 50 stories, half a dozen or so stand out for their arresting way with words: Rudy Wiebe`s "Sailing to Danzig," Marilu Mallet`s "How Are You?," Rohinton Mistry`s "Swimming Lessons," Dionne Brand`s "Blossom: Priestess of Oya, Goddess of Winds, Storms and Waterfalls," Yeshim Ternar`s "Ajax-la-bas,"" (Other Solitudes); Thomas King`s "The One about Coyote Going West," J. B. Joe`s "Cement Woman" (All My Relations); Henry Kreisel`s "The Almost Meeting" and Adele Wiseman`s "On Wings of Tongue" (Canadian Jewish Short Stories). Each of these stories takes the reader on an adventure -- sometimes into fantasy, sometimes into unhappy corners of personal experience, always into the wonderful intricacies of language.
Many of the other stories read more like animated sociology, and as several of the interviews in Other Solitudes pugnaciously assert, that`s the point. To call them the "other" stories is to set them apart from whatever criteria have isolated the first group, and one ought to ask -- about aesthetic criteria as well as about sociological discriminations -- whether such differentiations are fair. Some of these stories are written to make it clear, inside a particular ethnic community (though the word "ethnic" comes in for repeated attack here, the claim being made that it now functions as an excluding term, and is therefore a slur), that the values of such a community do not have to be apologized for. Other stories recount the realities (whether joyful or sad) of Native and immigrant family life, the fact and the fear of dislocation. Still others pierce the placid surfaces of Canadian life to document horrific -- or sometimes petty and unintentional -- acts of racism, violence, and cruelty, showing how such acts engender further violence, racist reprisals, desperation, and despair.
Neil Bissoondath`s story, "Dancing" (Other Solitudes), makes the point that it isn`t just "white society" (a neat but indeterminate category in its own right) that is racist; all societies are racist. But this observation can scarcely be taken to justify the status quo. Many of the stories in Miriam Waddington`s anthology of Canadian Jewish stories appear to accept "the way things are" as an inevitability, yet inside the fictions the humour and the crankily loving family relations declare a persistent faith in the power of cultural survival. The contemporary Native writers represented in All My Relations also collectively emphasize the force of community, often through an earthy humour and an appeal to an extended relationship with the natural world and the common motifs of the oral tale, the result being that any perceived need to defer automatically to "European!` standards comes to be seen as irrelevant. The impulse in Other Solitudes, however, is to reform -- in different ways. Although some of the stories seem to be using the fact of an encounter with cultural discrimination to validate a sweeping dismissal of all so-called WASP values (an example of reverse racism, which, because it is widely tolerated, is paradoxically used as another reason to condemn Canadian "liberalism"), not all of them so blatantly espouse absolutism as a solution. Throughout, the desire to be noticed, to be taken seriously, even to be praised for being different, wars with the desire not to he set apart, not to be dismissed, not to be noticed as "different" and consequently identified as "other." Margins preserve, perhaps; but they can also exclude. And that`s the difficulty.
It`s in this context that Canadian multicultural policy comes in for repeated comment. The interviewers in Other Solitudes (all identified by their own ethnic background, until the whole book starts to read like a competition in minority-ness) ask recurrently whether Canadian multiculturalism is a good thing. Yes, say some writers; no, say others. It emphasizes the possibility of alternatives, say those who approve; it keeps minorities from ever getting power, by dividing them into "other families," say those who oppose. At the moment there`s
little productive communication between these positions, and the anthology will serve one useful purpose if it begins a fruitful dialogue.
Unhappily, Other Solitudes (starting with its time-worn centralist title) contributes by its very structure to the antagonisms that most of the fictions themselves seem to want to resolve. Towards the end of their book, Marion Richmond and Linda Hutcheon (who claim their respective Jewish and Italian heritages as their authorization to assemble the volume) devise a section made up of three interviews (no stories, as in the case of the preceding 18 writers; just the interviews) called "The First and Founding Nations Respond." The interviews are with Robertson Davies, Jacques Godbout, and Tomson Highway, who are made somehow to "represent" in their entirety three complex streams of Canadian history. They can`t do that, just as the Japanese-, Greek-, Chilean-, Chinese-, Caribbean-, South Asian-, and other hyphen-Canadian writers cannot and do not "represent" the "whole" cultures out of which they speak. But represent, for heaven`s sake! It`s a word that assumes and intensifies division. It constructs and reiterates solitudes. It serves a version of Canadian society that makes ghettos out of cultural sources, even as social reality is devising community and connectedness out of the processes of change.
In their separate prefaces to the anthology, Richmond and Hutcheon survey the history of multicultural writing in Canada and review existing commentary on it. In neither case is the survey satisfactory. The critical review ignores, among other works, J. M. Bumsted`s A/Part, with all its enquiries into the role of minorities in Quebec, the function of ethnicity in children`s literature, the notion of "cosmopolitanism," the dialectic between first and second languages, and the impact of notions of national identity on the writing of literary history. And the anthologists` city-centred claim that it was only with Montreal`s A. M. Klein that "multiculturalisrn" entered Canadian literature conveniently overlooks much of Western, Maritime, and regional Ontario literature: the work of Salverson, Stefansson, and Knister in the 1920s, the Atlantic anthologies of black folk- tales, and three centuries of GaelicCanadian writings. The editors may be right that multiculturalism has until recently been ignored or distorted by Canadian literary institutions, by school curricula and histories; the accomplishments of 19th-century Haida writers such as John Sky, and of Punjabi- and Chinese-language writers who were publishing in Canada at least as early as the 1920s, are only just now being brought to the notice of the culture at large. But that`s different from suggesting, by the implicit assumptions of anthological form, that literature in Canada has never before questioned its cultural biases. Social attitudes are not fixed; and one of the things that Canadian literary history does demonstrate is how biases come into existence, how they affect cultural expression, and how they change.
Perhaps anthologies like these under review function well if they remind readers and writers that all fixed systems of cultural organization -- including "multiculturalism," if it`s ever presumed to be an absolute social solution -- define margins and therefore construct potential scapegoats. And that scapegoating may appeal both to those with power, who seek to retain it, and to those without power, who seek to wrest it from those who they claim have it. In either case it`s a dangerous self, indulgence, which an extended sense of relationship -- of family, a repeated motif in all three anthologies -- could do much to defuse.