Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #25: Neil Bissoondath (1988)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of CJRT-FM's On the Arts
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

In 1984, Paul Mazursky made Moscow on the Hudson, a poignant comedy about exile and homesickness, which starred Robin Williams as a Russian musician touring with the Moscow circus who spontaneously defects in New York City. The movie ostensibly deals with the complex set of emotions set loose when he finds his freedom. His actions trigger a mixture of homesickness, sadness, and the longings for a sense of place that come when (for political and ethical reasons) you are forced to leave home. With those themes in mind, I devised a chapter called Exiles and Existence where a number of artists (including Jerzy Kosinski and Josef Škvorecký) examined what it means to find yourself in a new land while looking back at the home you abandoned.

Neil Bissoondath
Author Neil Bissoondath, the nephew of authors V.S. Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul, is from Arima, Trinidad and Tobago. Although he came from a Hindu tradition, he was schooled in a Catholic high school. During the seventies, political upheaval brought him to Canada where he initially settled in Ontario and studied at York University achieving a Bachelor of Arts in French in 1977. But Bissoondath went on to teach English and soon became an award-winning author. When I spoke to him in 1988, his first book of short stories, Digging Up the Mountains, was just being published. In the book, he examines (as Mazursky did in Moscow on the Hudson) the pain endured when people are uprooted from their homeland.

Curiously, in 1994, he would stir up a significant amount of controversy with his book, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, which called into question the validity of Canada's 1971 Multiculturalism Act. There are noticeable hints leading to his views towards defining ethnicity in our opening remarks. 

kc: Considering our preoccupation with the notion of what it means to be a Canadian, do you find it interesting that whenever you come from another land, it's hard to be defined as a "Canadian" writer? 

nb: When people say I'm not really a Canadian writer...I don't know...what is a Canadian writer? Is Mavis Gallant a Canadian writer? Alice Munro, maybe. But it's not an easy thing to define, as many things Canadian are not easy to define.

kc: Well, it is interesting to discover when reading your recent short stories that the world isn't just perceived solely through your own ethnic view but instead from many cultural viewpoints.

nb: (laughs) But you know, when I wrote the stories, I never really thought of the characters as "ethnic." They're people. Ethnic is not a word I really like. I reject it because I don't know what an ethnic writer is. I like to think of myself as being a writer who writes about people. 

kc: Many of those people you write about in Digging Up the Mountains are from somewhere else, much like yourself, looking for a new world. Did you feel enclosed in Trinidad?

nb: Oh yeah. It's a very small place with just over a million people. Trinidad is also pretty far from anything. I didn't get the kinds of things I needed. I got books from my parents. As I grew older, though, I wanted to read more widely but it was impossible. When I was last there in 1980, I felt at one point that I wanted to read something and I hadn't brought any books with me. So I went looking for some in the local stores and I found all of these Harlequin Romances. There were titles like Wild Rose and Passion with women in various states of undress on the cover. Finally I found a bookstore where they had a little corner with some classics and I found a copy of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I picked it up and I had to blow the dust off of it. That's a true story. The romance stories impress people more. 

kc: When you talk about dust on Dostoevsky, it seems that the things that once had lasting value are getting usurped by a more transitory kind of popular culture. Does that also account for the desire to leave home?

nb: Oh yes. There's an undeniable sense of having to flee. People are preparing to leave the island. Things are not good. So when you start living day to day with the idea that the place you've grown up in is not going to support you, it creates a schism in the mind, except for that day when you get up and leave. As a result, people stop reading. What's popular in Trinidad now is scandal sheets that make the National Enquirer look very good. There's now a lack of serious thought because people are too busy preparing to flee.

kc: That's interesting because in one of the stories in Digging Up the Mountains, a man comes to Canada, makes a lot of money, and then goes back to enlighten his homeland - but he can't. They have different interests and desires than him now.

nb: It's not possible to go back is what it comes down to. One of the things that happens often in Canada is that people will come here and establish themselves always with the thought of returning to the homeland. They try to preserve their ways of being and their ways of thought, and all of their attitudes. They think they are actually doing it, but then they return for either a holiday or for good, and they find out that despite themselves, they've changed. Trinidad became very rich in 1973 since it has oil. So people here uprooted themselves, sold everything, and returned to Trinidad. A lot of it was because there was money floating around. It was easy to enrich yourself and folks talked about encouraging growth. Yet people ended up leaving Trinidad because they have been changed by immigration to this country. I know more people who have gone back and returned than those who have actually stayed. It is simply impossible. You change. Therefore you can't go back.

kc: In the title story of this collection you suggest that it may be harder on men to adjust to these types of changes than women. Why do you think that is so?

nb: It's not possible to take with you those things that have made you what you are. That's very difficult to accept. And it's more difficult for men because they have their families, their houses, their businesses, and they have to leave that all behind to go somewhere with nothing and adapt. It's terrifying for men who are used to holding certain positions in a society. A woman isn't tied that way. In the old country she is tied to the home and raising the family. So to transfer to a new country doesn't mean the same because her responsibilities continue. But if the husband isn't capable of providing as he did before, then someone has to bring in the money. And in my experience, the woman seems to be able to dredge up the strength to do it and to be the center of what is necessary to do. The men often can't pull it off. They are used to having a framework provided for them with given values by the society. It's a framework beyond the home. Women aren't dependent on that framework for their sense of self.  

kc: Why do you think Canada has become such a haven for immigrants?

nb: The major reason that Canada is a centre for refugees is that it's a fairly harmless country. It's a society at ease with itself, at least on a day to day level. There is no violence here with people hunting you down. It also makes room for the newcomer. So it's like going to a place that will welcome you. It's an easy place to fit into, therefore it's an easy place to run to.

kc: If Thomas Wolfe was right in saying that you can never go home again, where then do you go?

nb: You go exactly where you are going and you establish yourself there. I'm very wary of fantasies. When people talk of the places that they left, often they fantasize about leaving paradise. I think, well, if it was so wonderful, and everybody was so nice and kind, why did you ever leave? It's frightening when you see the tricks that the mind will play on people's visions of themselves, on the places from which they've come, and the places in which they live.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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