Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

PLEASURES OF THE STRANGE

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I just finished reading Rabindranath Maharaj‘s fresh, sad, funny novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy. The story is narrated by Samuel, a teenager who comes to Canada from Trinidad to live with his father. Some years earlier, his father had decamped to Toronto, abandoning his wife and son.

Samuel’s mother has recently died. His father has been pressured into taking him in. Now Samuel uncomfortably shares — if that’s the word — a bare, squalid Regent Park apartment. In Maharaj’s handling, what’s interesting is that, to Samuel, Toronto is just as exotic, even as bizarre, as his Trinidad village might be to a Canadian who had immigrated there. The people Samuel meets tend to be gargoyles, characters lifted straight from the comic books with which he is obsessed.

Born in Trinidad, Maharaj has lived in Ontario since the early 1990s. He does what I’ve hoped immigrant writers would do more often: make their characters see Canada and Canadians through defamiliarizing eyes. He also does something I notice has seldom been done. Many of the oddballs his character Samuel meets have come to Toronto from far corners of the world: Maharaj shows not just how they bounce off the locals, but how they bounce off each other.

Many immigrant writers in English set fiction in their countries of origin. They’re writing about what they know best. But there’s also a case to be made for writing about something, somewhere, or someone you don’t know. The shock of the unfamiliar is also a creative force. I feel a little sorry for immigrants who, for many understandable reasons, gravitate to Toronto. Toronto is the country’s most populous city but by no means can it be considered Canada, or even entirely representative. Canada is much vaster, and in its history, climate, and geography, much more various.

With a few exceptions, Canadians whose families have lived here for generations tend to shy away from depicting immigrants, either because they think they don’t know enough about them to do any kind of justice, or because they’re afraid they’ll be accused of appropriating someone else’s culture. Nor do they show multiple examples of ethnic give and take, as Maharaj does. Yet long-established local writers can aesthetically profit from a dose of the polyglot unfamiliar.

Children’s writers are less prone to avoid immigrant subject matter; in fact, they’re often encouraged to embrace it. But, so a children’s librarian informed me, they are too liable to follow the tenets of official multiculturalism — or to succumb to old-fashioned didacticism. Grab a kid, teach it how suburban Hindus celebrate the Krishna festival of Holi.

I suspect that the future of Canadian fiction, adult or children’s, will belong to first- or second-generation Canadians with surnames as strange-sounding to English or French ears as those of Michael Ondaatje, Joy Kogawa (born in Vancouver of Japanese parents), and M. G. Vassanji were when they first appeared in print. I’m not sure the same will be true of Canadian poetry’s future. Because of its allusiveness, inherited forms, and subtle particularities of nation and culture, poetry doesn’t transfer easily to those who haven’t been immersed in a language since birth.

But I could be wrong. It’s happened before.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Fraser Sutherland

At last count, Fraser Sutherland has published fifteen books: one of them short fiction, four nonfiction and ten poetry, His most recent poetry collection is The Philosophy of As If. A freelance editor, he may be the only Canadian poet who is also a lexicographer. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, he lives in Toronto.

Go to Fraser Sutherland’s Author Page