THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

2 posts from August 2018

17 August 2018

Canada and Its Literature: A Tale of More Than Two Cultures 2/2

Language has inevitably played a significant role in Canada’s immigration patterns. Reflecting the country’s colonial history and occupation by both the French and the English, the two most commonly-spoken languages in Canada remain English (the mother tongue of 56% of Canadians) and French (that of 21% of Canadians). Of course, other factors influence human relocation, but it is easy to see the attraction of such a linguistic context for immigrants from former colonies. The Haitian-Canadian community is an especially good illustration. According to the 2011 Census, 97% of Haitian immigrants live in Quebec – the second most populous region of Canada, but more crucially, home to the largest French-speaking community in the country, and with French as the official language. The attraction is clear for people from Haiti, a former French colony that has retained French as the language of education and bureaucracy. And the Haitian community in Quebec has produced a significant amount of prominent migrant writers, such as Emile Ollivier, Marie-Célie Agnant, Gérard Etienne, Joël des Rosiers, Gary Klang and Anthony Phelps, many of whom are published by Mémoire d’encrier.

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Dany Laferrière. Wikimedia Commons. 2014.

 

But the best-known of them worldwide is Dany Laferrière, a political refugee of the Duvalier regime who has lived in North America since the 1970s. Born to a politician and an archivist, Laferrière worked as a journalist before fleeing Haiti soon after a colleague and friend of his was found murdered on a beach – most probably by the government. His autobiographical novel, Le Cri des Oiseaux Fous (2000) [The Cry of Mad Birds] narrates this event, its impact on him and the horrors of the Duvalier dictatorship in more detail. After moving to Montreal as a 23-year-old, he spent several years scraping a living from insecure jobs, living in cheap flats and reading novels. His first novel, provocatively entitled Comment faire l’amour à un nègre sans se fatiguer (1985) [How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired] was a resounding international success. The story followed the lives of two Haitians sharing a flat in Montreal, and satirically engaged with racist stereotypes. A film adaptation followed four years after but was censured in the U.S, revealing the country’s continuing discomfort with racial issues. Over thirty years on, and with over thirty books to his name, Laferrière will be honoring the Institut Français of London with a visit on 24/09/2018 as part of the British Library’s French Caribbean Study Day.

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Kim Thúy at the Salon international du livre de Québec 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

 

Another important migrant writer from Quebec is Kim Thuy. Born in Vietnam, her family escaped the communist regime in her homeland when she was ten years old and she spent several months in a refugee camp in Malaysia before being relocated to Quebec where she had to learn French, the language in which she now writes. First working as a translator and later as a lawyer, Thuy never severed her links with her homeland. As a lawyer for example, she went on an advisory assignment to Vietnam with a group of Canadian experts. Back in Montreal, she also opened a Vietnamese restaurant called Ru de Nam. She then turned to writing and explored themes such as Vietnamese immigrant women, the culture shocks of immigration, the mother-daughter relationship and Vietnamese food. Her latest publication, Le Secret des Vietnamiennes (2017) [Vietnamese Women’s Secret] is actually a cookbook of Vietnamese recipes handed down from mothers to daughters. Her first novel, Ru (2009) was a bestseller in Quebec and France, won prestigious awards worldwide and was translated into over twenty-five languages. It tells the story of a family’s journey from Vietnam to Quebec and their difficult adaptation to Canada. Loosely based on her experiences, it tackles the Vietnamese “boat people” refugee crisis involving dangerous escapes from Vietnam on over-crowded boats to refugee camps. Significantly, more than 50% of the Southeast Asian boat people came to Canada as a result of a government program.

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A small selection of our holdings by French-language Canadian migrant writers (from left to right): Mona Latif-Ghattas (from Egypt), Abla Farhoud (from Lebanon), Hedi Bouraoui (from Tunisia), Ying Chen (from Shanghai), Naim Kattan (from Iraq), Régine Robin (from France), Sergio Kokis (from Bresil), Kim Thuy (from Vietnam), Blaise Ndala (from Congo), Marco Micone (from Italy), Dany Laferriere (from Haiti) and Aki Shimazaki (from Japan).

 

As you can see, Laferrière and Thuy are just two of the many French-language Canadian writers and the British Library holds books many more Canadian multicultural writers than I can even allude to in this post. Now let’s have a quick look at what we hold in terms of English-language migrant writing:

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A small selection of our holdings by English-language Canadian migrant writers (from left to right): Kim Fu (of Chinese descent), Esi Edugyan (of Ghanaian descent), Austin Clarke (from Barbadia), M.G Vassanji (from Kenya, of Asian descent), Shani Mootoo (from Trinidad), Michael Ondaatje (from Sri Lanka), Madeleine Thien (of Chinese descent), Shauna Singh Baldwin (of Indian descent), Dionne Brand (from Trinidad and Tobago), Olive Senior (from Jamaica) and Neil Bissoondath (from Trinidad).

 

Although technically speaking still a newcomer to the international literary scene, Lebanese-born writer and photographer Rawi Hage has been particularly in vogue since the publication of his first novel in 2006.  Hage witnessed the civil war in his homeland and moved to Canada in the early 1990s where he had to work as a security guard and taxi driver to pay his way through university. Hage wasn’t the only person to relocate because of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). In fact, as the war dragged on, Canada and Australia were the only Western countries to set up special programs to welcome Lebanese refugees. The 2011 census shows that Lebanese-Canadians still form the largest Arabic-speaking group in Canada. Language certainly had a role in this too, as 45% of Lebanese nationals can speak French. While Hage writes in English – his third language – up to quite recently he lived in Francophone Montreal, like about half of the Lebanese-Canadian population. His award-winning debut novel, De Niro’s Game (2006), tackles the hard choices that young Lebanese people faced during the civil war. His second novel, Cockroach (2008), charts the trials of an impoverished Middle Eastern immigrant in Montreal through his sessions with his therapist after a failed suicide attempt, leading the reader to question the success of Canada’s multiculturalism ambitions.

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Rawi Hage at Quebec Writers Federation, 2012. Vimeo.

 

Hage’s colleague writer and common-law partner Madeleine Thien has rightly argued that the Canadian literary prize-awarding establishment generally prioritizes white writers over nonwhite ones). And when “multicultural”/minority writers are included, they generally tend to be men. Evoking the prestigious Giller Prize, she remarks that only 12 nonwhite writers were shortlisted over a ten-year period, and that “this number includes twice each for Rawi Hage, M.G. Vassanji, and Michael Ondaatje”. Thien’s point is all the more significant considering the extent of nonwhite and multicultural women’s writing in Canada’s literary history. The Caribbean feminist and/or queer women writers Dionne Brand, M. Nourbese Philip, Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison, Shani Mootoo, Makeda Silvera and Nalo Hopkinson are only a few examples.

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Esi Edugyan. A portrait by Johann Wall, reproduced with his kind permission.

 

But in 2011, Esi Edugyan made history by being the first black woman to win the Giller Prize. Her novel, Half-Blood Blues, followed the lives of Afro-German and African-American jazz musicians fleeing the Gestapo in 1930s Berlin and Nazi-occupied Paris. Edugyan’s parents left Ghana in the 1970s, during a period of drastic change and political unrest following independence. Like many of their compatriots, they moved to Canada, where Ghanaians became the second-largest African immigrant group. Her family’s first-hand experiences of racism and difficulties adapting to life in Canada has inspired much of her writing. Her first novel for example, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (2004), shows the disillusionment of a Ghanaian immigrant living in Alberta in the late 20th century, a character loosely based on her father. In the past few weeks, Edugyan has made the news again, by being long-listed (for the second time!) alongside Ondaatje for the Man Booker Prize. Her competing novel, Washington Black (2018), is an unconventional slave narrative which charts the life of a twelve-year-old slave working in a Barbados sugar plantation before fleeing an unjust execution in the 1830s, travelling to America, Canada, England, the Netherlands and Morocco. Good luck to her!

Laura Gallon.


Laura Gallon is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex which is looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers. Her placement is supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.


01 August 2018

Canada and Its Literature: A Tale of More Than Two Cultures 1/2

On July 9th, Michael Ondaatje was awarded the prestigious Golden Man Booker Prize for his international bestseller, The English Patient, voted the readers’ favourite winner in 50 years. Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka of Dutch-Tamil-Sinhalese descent, and moved to England as a twelve-year-old before settling in Canada eight years later. His novel, written in 1992, moves between Egypt, Italy, India, Canada and England and marked a turning point for Canadian literature. Not only was it the first Canadian book ever to win the Booker Prize, but by instantly becoming an international bestseller it arguably paved the way for fellow migrant/multicultural Canadian writers on the international scene. Its seemingly never-ending success underlines our contemporary – and apparently unwavering – fascination with migrant writing since the 1980s.  Given the current context of global migration, the related refugee crises and the fact that 3.3% of the world’s population currently lives outside the country of their birth, Ondaatje’s achievement is a useful opportunity to explore the importance of immigrant writing in Canadian literature.

Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje speaks for the Tulane Great Writer Series presented by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English. Dixon Hall; October 25, 2010. Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, much attention has been given to migrant literature from the United States. You may have come across some critically-acclaimed and award-winning migrant bestsellers such as Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers (2016), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013), Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003). Experiences of migration have proven to be creatively inspiring for writers and lucrative for publishers, and fiction writers from both migrant backgrounds and others were encouraged to give the genre a try.

There is some debate over the definition of migrant literature, and many writers are uncomfortable with the label, but for the sake of clarity I will define it as the literature produced by first- or second-generation migrant writers. Odds are, whether in conversation, in the media or online, “migrant literature” almost always refers to books produced in the English language and on U.S territory, with only a few exceptions. The United States are, after all, the birthplace of the “American Dream”, “the nation of immigrants,” the “melting pot” – take your pick.

Canadian Map
Map of French Canada by Pierre Du Val, 1653. Maps 70615.(8.)

But Canada is also a settler colony; in fact it is the country which takes in the largest number of immigrants yearly: since 2001 it has welcomed an average 220,000 to 260,000 immigrants per year, and as a result more than one person in five is foreign-born. Inevitably, each newcomer brings with them a suitcase full of stories, and migrant literature is bound to flourish in such a context. Canada’s immigration patterns have changed considerably in the past hundred years, and so has its literature. The post-war period was especially important as the borders were opened to increase the workforce and expand Canada’s growing economy.

In 1966, 87% of the newcomers were European, and many others were Americans escaping the Vietnam War. But by 1970, following a change in immigration law intended to end discriminatory policies against non-Western immigrants, 50% of new immigrants came from Third World countries. They were either economic migrants (like Ondaatje for example) or people fleeing repressive dictatorships and wars.

As the years went by, the latter group included Asian Ugandans (a minority expelled after Uganda gained independence from colonial rule); Haitians fleeing the repressive Duvalier regime;  Chileans fleeing Pinochet’s military dictatorship; people from Hong Kong worried about their freedom in the run-up to the transfer to Chinese rule; Salvadorians escaping their civil war; and South-East Asians from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos seeking refuge from the Vietnam war. This changed the Canadian demographic make-up significantly and led to a new policy-making paradigm: multiculturalism.

Contrary to the American "melting pot", where newcomers are expected to merge into the American Way of Life through assimilation policies, Canadian multiculturalism is often compared to a mosaic where different cultures live alongside each other, retaining their specificities inside a single country. While this paradigm has been widely criticized both by migrant and non-migrant Canadians, it has nonetheless played a substantial role in shaping Canadian federal government policies and influencing the publishing industry.

Canadian Mosaic
Canadian Mosaic Wall, 2013, photo by Tim Van Horn. Wikimedia Commons.

President Pierre Trudeau implemented multiculturalism as a policy in 1971 and appointed a minister specifically in charge of multiculturalism and launching cultural initiatives. Once such instance was the Writing and Publication Program.  Set up in 1977, its aim was to encourage writing and publishing by migrant minorities in any language and to bring the literary establishment to consider such writing part of mainstream Canadian literature. This program provided grants for writing, translation, conferences and research.  Meanwhile, French-language cultural periodicals promoting migrant writing offered a parallel channel for writers and magazines.

 

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Dérives, first issue X.0958/169


Derives 1987
Dérives, final issue X.0958/169

 

Dérives ran from 1975 to 1987 and is accessible in the BL’s collections. The archives of the multilingual Vice Versa (1983-1996) are all available in pdf form on its website.  And the British Library is actively seeking to add the feminist magazine La Parole Métèque (1987-1990), which gave a voice to migrant women at a time when they were generally overlooked, to its holdings.

While migrant writing (like immigration) was nothing new in the 1980s and subsequently, critics from Quebec often point to this period as the beginning of critical engagement with Canadian “migrant”/”multicultural” literature.

- Laura Gallon

 

Laura Gallon is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections.  She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex which is looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant writers.  Her placement is supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

 

References/Further reading

Carriere, Marie and Catherine Khordoc. “For Better or For Worse: Revisiting Ecriture Migrante in Quebec.” The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, edited by Cynthia Sugars, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 621-638.

Jaggi, Maya. “Michael Oondatje: The Soul of a Migrant.” The Guardian, 29/04/2000. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/apr/29/fiction.features

Kamboureli, Smaro. Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Kamboureli, Smaro (ed.). Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kenyeres, Janos. “Aspects of Canadian Multiculturalism: History, Policy, Theory and Impact.” Revue d’Etudes Canadiennes en Europe Centrale, vol. 9, 2014, pp. 27-44.

Krauss, Clifford. “For Canada’s Top Novelists, Being Born Abroad Helps”. The New York Times, 05/11/2002.

Loschnigg, Maria and Martin Loschnigg (eds.). Migration and Fiction: Narratives of Migration in Contemporary Canadian Literature. Universitatsverlag Winter Heidelberg, 2009.

Morgenstern-Clarren, Rachel. “The Vagaries of Exile: Migrant Literature From Quebec”. Words Without Borders, October 2017. https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/october-2017-quebec-the-vagaries-of-exile-migrant-literature-from-quebec

Simon, Sherry and David Leahy. “La Recherche au Québec Portant sur l’Ecriture Ethnique.” Ethnicity and Culture in Canada: The Research Landscape, edited by J.W. Berry and J.A. Laponce, University of Toronto Press, 1994, pp. 387-409.

Troper, Harold. “Immigration in Canada.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 09/19/2017. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/immigration/