Melting Plots

Two recent novels illuminate immigrants’ different experiences in English and French Canada

Illustration by Leanne Shapton

Expatriates often long for their homelands, so it’s no surprise that Rabindranath Maharaj’s fictions have focused on his native Trinidad. He lived there for the first four decades of his life, until he moved to Canada to pursue a literary career in the mid-’90s. His first book, Homer in Flight (1996), takes place in his new home, but then he turned his attention to the place he left behind, setting his subsequent novels, including the celebrated A Perfect Pledge (2005), against the backdrop of his island origins. His latest effort, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, returns to his earlier inspiration. Released in January, the book migrates along with its narrator, Samuel, from the warmth of the Caribbean to the cold streets of Toronto’s Regent Park.

Mourning his dead mother in an alien land, Samuel recalls an apposite childhood fantasy. He once knew a boy who lived in a swamp, and he came to imagine that this poor wretch possessed abilities found in the comic books they read. As the swamp dweller held a piece of chalk, he grew ghostly pale; touching mahogany, he became even browner than his true complexion; and dipping his finger into a drop of ink, he’d turn as dark as Samuel’s current predicament. A virtuoso chameleon, the swamp boy effortlessly approximated the world around him.

Like the multinational, cricket-playing New Yorkers in Joseph O’Neill’s recent novel Netherland, Maharaj’s comic-tinged fantasy serves as a particularly apt metaphor for aspects of the modern immigrant experience, one straightforward enough to immediately strike readers as such, yet sufficiently complex to reveal greater depth as the narrative develops. In Netherland, a Trinidadian immigrant named Chuck Ramkissoon longs to build a cricket stadium in Brooklyn, his zeal and industry echoing the pioneering spirit that drove generations of newcomers. Through Ramkissoon’s quixotic quest to sow native soil in his adopted land, O’Neill touches on themes of self-reliance, outsized ambition, and ultimately disillusionment—in short, the joints and fissures of the American dream. Canadian literature has made a cottage industry of similar narratives in recent years, and for understandable reasons. In many ways, our multicultural nation is defined—and constantly redefined—by immigration. While such books often flatter this cherished self-perception, they can also illuminate the troublesome process of adapting to a new, disorienting, and complicated Canada.

Maharaj’s shape-shifter and O’Neill’s cricket pitch recall two better known metaphors, the melting pot and the mosaic, the dominant modes of self-perception for the two nations (the US and Canada, respectively) that absorb immigrants better than most. These contrasting tropes suggest that Canada’s kaleidoscopic shards form a culture more overtly variegated than America’s comparatively homogeneous stew, but they also elide both nations’ colonial pasts, a history that has particularly important implications for Canada’s complicated approaches to assimilation. The truism that everyone here came from somewhere else obliquely acknowledges that English and French imperialism supplanted existing cultures.

Modern Canada is as much a palimpsest as a mosaic, a truth perhaps engrained somewhere in our national consciousness—and one that manifests itself in two divergent traditions of immigrant assimilation. In English Canada, the fraught legacy of cultural imperialism—whether the slaughter of native tribes or the injustice of residential schools—results in a reluctance to impose a uniform Canadian culture on newcomers; whereas Quebec, ever afraid of diluting its francophone heritage, demands that immigrants conform to an atavisticconception of French-Canadian culture. Maharaj’s noveloffers awindow into the former predicament, while few give as dark a view of the latter as Rawi Hage’s Cockroach (2008). Taken together, these books deliver a harrowing examination of the ways in which these approaches falter.

Among the world’s most ethnically diverse cities, Toronto provides an ideal if unsurprising setting for an assimilation story, and Maharaj expertly captures the varied carols of its urban multiculture. Samuel’s initial exposure to the city is bewildering, as he’s overwhelmed with sensations as seemingly foreign as the subjects of his favourite comics. In a way, this is only fitting. Toronto did, after all, inspire the comic book city Metropolis, and Superman, created by a pair of immigrants’ sons, is, in its idiosyncratic way, an assimilation story. But the Toronto of 2010 isn’t 1938’s model city, and rather than a lone alien in a uniform world, Maharaj’s Samuel is just another part of an urban mélange that would have confounded even the rechristened Kal-El.

>Encouraging immigrants to hold on to their cultural identity while they embrace Canadian life can help ease their transition, and binary immigrant identities certainly enrich our national culture. But in The Amazing Absorbing Boy, this well-intended approach complicates acclimatization, as new arrivals become trapped in ethnic enclaves, lost amid a sea of alien cultures. “Just cross the street, and you are in a completely different country,” a fellow immigrant tells Samuel, who finds this confluence of the newly arrived as perplexing as it is comforting. He must negotiate not only the exotic social norms of a foreign Canadian society, but also the vagrant fragments of every nation on earth: there is no monoculture to absorb, no single body to become attached to.

At one point in the novel, Samuel’s uncle, preparing to visit Toronto, asks his nephew to list typically Canadian characteristics he should adopt. Though Samuel easily describes a quintessential Trinidadian, his uncle’s query stumps him: “There was no such creature as a regular Canadian.” This sentiment captures the singular wonder of our pluralistic society, but also the immigrant’s struggle to grasp our amorphous national identity.

At one point, Samuel meets a homeless immigrant planning to write a comprehensive history of the Americas from 1492 to the present day, detailing the scraping away of earlier peoples—one of the ways in which the novel connects contemporary Canada to the continent’s history of cultural usurpation. Elsewhere, this anxiety surfaces in the concerns of the older immigrants who Samuel hears lamenting the influx of fertile newcomers—men who embrace dark rhetoric about counter-colonial immigrant hordes that will leave Canada unrecognizable. This sort of paranoia is often voiced by native-born Canadians, but by attributing it to previous generations of immigrants, Maharaj at once emphasizes the irony of non-indigenous people decrying immigration and illustrates the factionalism that can arise in isolated pockets. Believing themselves to be well assimilated, these older immigrants would shut the door on newcomers whom they imagine are less malleable.

English is Rawi Hage’s third language, and, like Joseph Conrad, he uses his tertiary tongue to map the darkest corners of the human psyche. His first novel, the IMPAC Dublin Award–winning De Niro’s Game, charted the ravages of war in his native Beirut; his latest, Cockroach, follows an anonymous Arab as he struggles to adjust in an unwelcoming Montreal. While Maharaj’s vision of immigrant life is cast in shadow, Hage’s is nearly pitch black.

Ontario attracts more than half of Canada’s immigrants, with the majority settling in Toronto. In contrast, Quebec draws less than one-fifth, and Hage’s portrait helps illustrate why. In a way, Quebec’s problems are the inverse of Toronto’s. Whereas Toronto lacks a clearly defined culture for new immigrants to join, Quebec is intent on maintaining an increasingly untenable homogenous identity. In this sense, it is the country’s largest ethnic enclave, and its tireless efforts to preserve its unique culture can breed xenophobia in ways a less ossified culture might not. Hage’s negative depiction of immigrant life results from numerous factors—authorial sensibility, specificity of characterization—though Quebec’s commitment to cultural preservation is clearly a major one.

Cockroach’s unnamed narrator faces hardships similar to Samuel’s, though far more severe. While Samuel finds solace in his transmutational daydreams, Hage’s narrator embraces a darker fantasy, imagining himself transformed into the novel’s eponymous insect (if, indeed, he’s imagining). Maharaj and Hage are both talented fabulists, but just as the absorbing boy is inspired by the tetrachrome stipples of his creator’s youth, Hage’s metaphor has obvious antecedents. And like Maharaj, Hage adapts it to his consideration of immigrant life with great success. Beyond suiting his narrator’s febrile misanthropy, it cuts to two issues inextricably linked to his experience of Canada: the dehumanizing feeling of marginalization, and the nativist fear of foreigners breeding like vermin.

While Maharaj’s Samuel encounters outrage at immigrant birth rates, he doesn’t live in a province that actively courts one particular race and nationality to mitigate the demographic threat minorities pose. The experiences of Hage’s narrator are far more negative than those of the privileged white Parisians so “highly sought after and desired by the Quebec government.” Immediately after envying “their inherited knowledge of wine and culture” that allows them to prosper in Montreal’s restaurant scene, he recounts his interest in becoming a waiter at the restaurant where he works as a busboy. His boss mocks his swart skin: “You are a little too well done for that… the sun has burned your face a bit too much.” In response, he unleashes a jeremiad designed to aggravate Quebec’s cultural anxiety: “Infertile filth!… Your days are over and your kind is numbered… no one can barricade against the powerful, fleeting semen of the hungry and the oppressed… Doomed you will be, doomed as you are infested with newcomers!… All shall be changed to accommodate… ”

That last word carries an allusion to Quebec’s struggle with reasonable accommodation, the notion that our Charter’s equality rights demand allowances for ethnic minorities. Clearly, Hage’s narrator finds the city insufficiently accomodating. And despite Montreal’s various religious communities, he laments that “there is only one god left” because one “is all we are allowed.” While an Indian doctor complains to Samuel that he’s saddled with Torontonians’ expectations of a mystical subcontinent, Hage’s narrator finds “the exotic has to be modified… not too authentic.” The opposite of Samuel’s multicultural centre, Hage’s narrator lives in a society that tries to be “flat, square, and one-dimensional.”

Hage’s narrator expends considerable energy defying what he sees as oppressive powers in a world he can “neither participate in nor control.” Little surprise, then, that Cockroach deals more explicitly with colonialism’s legacy than The Amazing Absorbing Boy. Hage’s misanthropic narrator harbours particular antipathy for those who escape the “dictators and crumbling cities” of old French colonies only to mistreat their fellow exiles in Quebec: “They consider themselves royalty when all they are is the residue of colonial power.” Of course, these immigrants generally occupy a higher socio-economic realm and are better adjusted to their new homes; the very act of integrating into a society becomes a submission to colonialism.

“We come to these countries for refuge and to find better lives,” says an Iranian cab driver, “but it is these countries that made us leave our homes in the first place.” He particularly objects to Western support for the brutal Shah, whose ouster led to the mullahs who plague Iran to this day. A Canadian-Iranian arms deal near the end of the novel emphasises that the West’s imperial intrusions are no relic of the past, and Hage leaves us wondering how we’d feel joining a society that helped ravage our homeland. (Those looking for an anodyne affirmation of immigrant gratitude are better off rereading the American section of The Kite Runner.)

Upon Cockroach’s release, Hage wondered if he would be seen as a thankless immigrant. Such a perception would be unfair but understandable. Some of the novel’s immigrants profess gratitude for their new home, but these moments are tempered with colonial subtext. “I am here now. And that’s what counts,” says Farhoud, a gay man who fled Iran’s Islamic revolution. “I am here now, alive.” However, Farhoud enters Canada thanks to a diplomat who takes him as his lover and then targets him with xenophobic insults. The narrator also expresses thanks for the country he inhabits, but not to the nation-state or the descendants of Europeans who comprise the bulk of its population. Seeing an aboriginal cook working at a diner, the narrator considers thanking him not only for the meal, but “for the trees, the mountains, and the rivers.” The novel’s Quebec is a colonial construction, ever afraid of erasure by subsequent supplanting. Its culture wasn’t imprinted on virgin slate, and the immigrants in Cockroach, like so many immigrants in Quebec, are merely added inscription.

National literatures speak to the core of their society’s self-perceptions. They are narratives that expound on the larger narratives, fictions that address deeper fictions. Neither The Amazing Absorbing Boy nor Cockroach forms a sustained argument, but, by exploiting the singular strengths of their form, each peers into the fissures in Canada’s multicultural veneer. Literature has the unique capacity to expand our awareness of the infinite variety of human experience, and when a narrative is as deeply rooted in a particular consciousness as these two novels, it offers even more: a glimpse, however fleeting, of what it is to inhabit a foreign perspective. These characters’ thoughts commingle with our own, and as we’re allowed a first person view of these new places and challenges, we’re permitted access to these immigrants’ experience of the world. In this sense, reading is itself assimilative, an act of enmeshing and defamiliarization through which we’re absorbed into another consciousness as the peculiar nuances and inflections of our own voices are momentarily aligned with—even subsumed by—those of another. In this way, we are able to step outside ourselves, to emigrate, briefly, into an immigrant nation. As representations, these books offer an image of our society, and as readers entering them we add yet another layer to the palimpsestic makeup of contemporary Canada.

“Canada is not so much a country as a holding tank filled with the disgruntled progeny of defeated peoples,” writes Mordecai Richler in Solomon Gursky Was Here. “We do our damn best to exclude more ill-bred newcomers, because they remind us of our own mean origins.” That first sentiment captures the downside of Toronto’s model, while the latter exposes the irony of Quebec’s attempts at cultural preservation. Even though their assimilative traditions differ, both grapple with similar problems, as The Amazing Absorbing Boy and Cockroach help make clear.

Literature offers no solution to these problems, but the intimacy, insight, and sensitivity with which these books bring us into their protagonists’ perspectives illustrate the complexities of assimilation in ways mere statistics and anecdotes can’t. Just as Samuel eventually becomes “a patch of every amazing thing” he has absorbed, so too are we left with lingering remnants of these borrowed viewpoints, these new ways of seeing something both familiar and unknown—the appeal of a Toronto that is both home and foreign land, the dark alleys of an unrecognizable Montreal, “a dust here and a dust there” of the myriad peoples that make up our mongrel nation.

Leanne Shapton