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North of the Equator

by Cyril Dabydeen
138 pages,
ISBN: 0888784236


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Steamy Conversations
by Heather Birrell

The title story of Ottawa writer Cyril Dabydeen's seventh collection of short fiction, North of the Equator, is set in the sauna of an Ottawa health club¨and rarely has such a seemingly banal setting proven so rich in metaphorical possibility. The narrator of the story, Ravidar, has somewhat ambivalently engaged in a conversation with his fellow sauna-sitter, a French Canadian woman named Monique, and their small talk becomes the impetus for Ravi's reflections on place and belonging. As the heat from the sauna simmers and shimmers around him, so do images prompted by Ravi's reflections on his roots in the Caribbean and his sense of Canadianness. Meanwhile, a snowstorm is "kicking up outside". Dabydeen is adept here at presenting the underside of conversational exchange, exposing Ravi's inner life without resorting to relentless psychologizing. This he achieves through the juxtaposition of dream-like sequences with what happens in the "now", and the insertion of Ravi's italicized thought into the narrative.

This technique is used throughout the collection to depict the immigrant experience, evoke landscapes both near and far, and deconstruct notions of the exotic. Sometimes, as in "North of the Equator", it not only succeeds in these goals, but also sets a unique tone. In "Kindred Spirits", wherein a "visible minority" poet approaches a government bureaucrat for a job, the slightly odd, sometimes naive quality of the protagonist is mirrored in the prose, which gives the story an appealing surreal quality. And in "Deconstructing Castro", the deadpan prose makes for an absurd tale of international intrigue, full of paranoia and shifting realities. There are times, however, where the stories' overlapping images succeed only in blurring rather than clarifying their meaning. In "Canine Sun", for example, a shepherd and a boy watch a lamb being killed by a hawk, and the implications of this act spin out around them. Although the images here are arresting, the piece ends up reading like a prose poem; it seems cryptic and closed by comparison with other works in the collection. At other times, Dabydeen's italics, with their conspicuous insistence on a reader's attention, seem intrusive. This is particularly true in "Canadian Shaman" where they are used to represent not only the main character's thoughts, but also the taunts of his co-workers, and the (possibly) imagined jeers of his tour guide.

The use of interior dialoguing is taken to its extreme in "Island Memoir Fictional Space" wherein any notion of story is overwhelmed by the narrator's constant political questioning and rhetoric. This foregoing of traditional story conventions is perhaps Dabydeen's point¨the post-colonial "masala" of the Caribbean may very well lend itself to meta-fiction¨but for this reader it only led to confusion. Still, Dabydeen should be commended for staking out his very own fictional space, where ideas, as well as geographical settings, clash and merge, and politics are played out not only in a bureaucrat's plush office, but also at street level, whether it be in a wannabe trendy hair salon, in the ramblings of a vagrant, at a rally in Guadeloupe, or in an Ottawa health club's sauna. ˛

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