Sleep on, Beloved

by Cecil Foster,
352 pages,
ISBN: 0345390156

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From Here to There
by Uma Parameswaran

MANY FIRST NOVELS BY Canadians born elsewhere record with authenticity and nostalgia the story of growing up at another time, in another land. In doing so, they enrich the Canadian mosaic with another landscape. Sam Selvon's A Brighter Sun, M. G. Vassanji's The Gunny Sack, Balachandra Rajan's brilliant and forgotten The Dark Dancer, Harold Sonny Ladoo's No Pain Like This Body, and Cecil Foster's first novel, No Man in the House (1991), belong to this category.

Foster's second novel, Sleep On, Beloved (again, I like many others' second novels), links "here" Canada, to "there," which in Foster's case is Jamaica. It is the story of three generations of Jamaican-born women, Grandma Nedd, Ona Nedd Morgan, and Suzanne Morgan.

Dance runs in the blood of the Nedd women. Grandma Nedd danced for her Christian God at the crossroad of her Jamaican village, re-enacting the customs of her African forebears who gathered at crossroads, where the human and spirit worlds come together. Ona danced for two years with the National Dance Troupe in Kingston, an honour that turned to shame when she came back pregnant by the troupe's lead dancer, who had kept from her the fact that he was married. Suzanne moves another step away from her Caribbean-African and Christian heritage when she becomes a table dancer in Toronto. Suzanne is the most rebellious of the three, and also the loneliest, a Canadian child lost on the streets of seductive Toronto.

Ona's story is that of countless young domestics who come with dreams of a new life to a new land and get sucked into an endless loop: financial and sexual exploitation by employers leading in turn to delay in immigration paperwork, illegal alien status, an escape to the underground, and back to financial and sexual exploitation by employers. It has been documented in immigration files and in Makeda Silvera's Silenced, in sociological texts and in protest plays. It has been written about by earlier Caribbean Canadians such as Austin Clarke. Foster's noveI adds a few other dimensions to the collective experience of this particular immigrant group. His descriptions of Caribbean-Canadian life show intimate knowledge of the community in the 1970s: the Hole "was an affectionate name for the long narrow basement of St. Mark's Church on Queen Street West," where West Indians had all-night dances. Though a "drab pit" in reality, the Hole "was a refuge of imported nostalgia," a place of their very own. The newest immigrants stick out, with their "shirtjacs" (a combination of a shirt and a regular suit jacket) and their loud voices.

The novel records many "documentary" details, some of them dated, such as the average salary and working conditions of a domestic. There is double victimization in that the employer holds the power of deportation over her head. The garment factory, to which Ona flees, is even worse in its working conditions, and the threat of deportation is even more constant. This is the ultimate shame, to have "the Air Canada plane ... deliver her like a piece of tainted meat insultingly thrown back at the butcher," to return without even a doll for her child.

But Foster is intent on being optimistic. Friends and the system are shown in a favourable light: the waitress at the coffee shop helps fleeing Ona find lodgings with Mrs. King, who becomes a second mother to Ona; the school principal who has to confront Ona with her daughter's misdemeanours is tactful and sympathetic; the social workers are efficient and Ona's co-workers are helpful. Even the "bad guys" have some redeeming features: the employer who made a habit of raping Ona helps out with legal problems; the stepfather who carries on with Suzanne is made out to be lonely and loving. And brattish Suzanne turns from her irresponsible ways and takes charge of her little stepbrother, Telson. I found these transformations rather sudden. For instance, it was rather incredible that the former employer would fear his reputation was at stake and so come to stop Ona's deportation; the author might just as well have used the banal but more realistic ploy of having him, rather than Ona, become a born-again Christian whose revived conscience spurs him to the good deed.

Sleep On, Beloved speaks from the inside of the community, and some details are disturbing. Were the author an outsider, we'd be crying bloody murder on him for "stereotyping": marriages of convenience to circumvent deportation, smuggling people across the border, "changing the price on cans of food in the supermarket," buying a dress for a Saturday night dance and returning it on Monday for a full refund, and, most disturbing, sexual flirtation between a teenager and her stepfather.

The novel's merit lies in being a record of Caribbean experience in Canada. Nonetheless, I was somewhat disappointed with it. Though I admit I am no linguistics expert, I sensed a dissonance, an inconsistency in the use of the Jamaican-Canadian dialect. Also, Foster tells but does not show us how and why relationships unravel; he maintains a steady pace of narration that is disappointingly monotone in situations that call for getting into the hearts and guts of his characters.


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