Book: My Undiscovered Country /Author: Cyril Dabydeen – Critic, Glenville Ashby PhD

Canada … Fear and Anxiety over Multiculturalism Exposed

Feb 18, 2018- Kaieteur News –Book Review by Glenville Asby, PhD

Book: My Undiscovered Country /Author: Cyril Dabydeen
Critic, Glenville Ashby, PhD

Guyana-born writer, Cyril Dabydeen, has produced his finest work to date. My Undiscovered Country’ is a searing social commentary that unfolds in Canada. Capturing the anxiety that comes with social change, it captures the shifting sand upon which once dominant cultures stood. It raises the spectre of racism and ethnocentrism. It delves into the ambiguity of identity and the trauma of adaptation.    

And throughout, we grapple with the thorny issue of nationalism. Questions persist. Who is the real Canadian among us? Is there really strength and unity in diversity? Does multiculturalism destroy nationhood? Flummoxed, we offer little in the way of an answer.

From the opening salvo, Dabydeen presents a township torn by the influx of new cultural mores. Callers bombarding a radio talk show are divided on how to address a practice hitherto alien to Ottawa. The thought of live animals sold at the marketplace has disheveled many. Councilman Rosenbaum concedes that he too didn’t “like the way fowls, ducks, rabbits and small pigs were locked in cages all day on Saturdays in the summer heat,” [but] he is resigned to the fact that “it’s an ethnic thing.”

He rationalizes, “It’s tolerance I am getting at. This city should be one where Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, East Indians and Jamaicans feel that they belong.”In reference to Chinese immigrants as Chinamen, the caller is cautioned: “You can’t use that word on public radio…We are living in culturally sensitive times,” to which the caller retorts, “I won’t be politically correct, dammit!”

Another caller maligns Somalians. “Let them go back to Ethiopia where they can eat live chickens and snakes all they want.”And the culpability, if not subtle complicity of Jews in every social discord is exposed. “If it isn’t the Jews, then it’s the poor Vietnamese Commies who’re getting the blame.”And some exchanges shoot unapologetically from the hip. “How come the Jews are always trying to make the rest of us feel guilty about the Holocaust?”

But there are always mavericks who are undeterred and determined to keep the door to immigration fully ajar. They trumpet an open door policy, eager “to invite people everywhere to come and see how it’s done in Canada, some even to settle, because good governance is all.”Still, there is unease. The immigrant is ‘poked.’ “Where d’you come from? You are a newcomer because of your…colour?”And the exchanges continue as discombobulating as ever. “Hey, where d’you come from?” The immigrant is nonplussed.“Why are you here anyhow…Don’t bring your troubles here. We are a peace-loving country.” The immigrant finally becomes assertive identifying himself with members of the community.

And amid the social cauldron, he manages to hold sway for an emotionally conflicted young lady in the nondescript town of Garson, Ontario. She fantasizes about the tropics – Nevis, St. Kitts, Grenada, St Lucia, Montserrat.“Come on…tell me more.”The immigrant strives, yearns to adapt, to fit in…to become a member of his new tribe. But is he? Still, the burgeoning global village is the new social dynamic, a kind of zeitgeist that has flustered the old guard. Not much can be done, though. The horse has already left the barn.

Dabydeen indirectly speaks to centuries-old institutions that have shored up the status quo but are now buckling under the weight of change. Migration, acculturation, enculturation, multilateral trade and mass communication are changing the face of societies. And those who understandably resist are written off as relics, ghosts of a conservative, cold, racist system choking on its own vomit. Dabydeen makes a statement with élan and a healthy dose of figuration. He immediately grabs our attention as he forays ever so stealthily into the tumultuous debate over immigration. His thesis is sound and incisive and couldn’t be timelier.

There is a dark uncertainty that shadows his narration, a kind of existential peril that haunts the psyche. No one is truly grounded. And as the scene shifts to the lonesome world of a boy amidst a gnawing caricature of tropical labourers, the confluence of the past, present and future seems bereft of hope. Indeed, the fabled El Dorado is an illusion. So, what comes next? Dabydeen begs a response.

My Undiscovered Country by Cyril Dabydeen
Copyright (c) Cyril Dabydeen 2017
Publisher: Mosaic Press, Ontario, Canada
ISBN: 978-77161-282-1
Available at Amazon
Ratings: Highly recommended

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  • guyaneseonline  On 07/10/2019 at 7:03 am

    My Undiscovered Country – Book Review/July 1, 2019
    By Himmat Shinhat–
    Montreal composer and musician and past Director, Multiculturalism Policy, Himmat Shinhat, loved reading My Undiscovered Country while on vacation in Cuba with his mother at the resort where she has been going for the last 25 years. He particularly enjoyed how Dabydeen relates the internal tensions about origin, identity and belonging that his characters harbor, and how these tensions have impact on their interactions along the path towards mutual understanding and acceptance.

    My Undiscovered Country by Cyril Dabydeen, Mosaic Press (2018), 129 pages

    Cyril Dabydeen is a Canadian writer born in Canje, Guyana, where he worked as a teacher. He came to Canada in 1970 to study at Lakehead University and later at Queen’s University. He is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his work has been included in numerous anthologies published in Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., India and New Zealand. Dabydeen was appointed Poet Laureate of Ottawa from 1984 to 1987. He worked for many years in the areas of human rights and race relations, and later taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He now teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa, and lives in the nation’s capital.

    Dabydeen has been associated with the idea of multiculturalism, both for his writing and for his work in race relations and human rights as a consultant and an expert on Canadian diversity. Like many Canadian writers, artists and cultural workers with roots in or links to minority communities, Dabydeen’s position on multiculturalism seems to have evolved over time. While he has been critical of multiculturalism in the past, he and others have contributed, through their art and cultural work, to the evolution of multiculturalism away from essentialism or a focus on “origins.”

    One could perhaps argue that the focus on culture of origin that was at the root of the ideal of multiculturalism also contributed to the sense that Canadians did not have a common identity. Our collective identity was characterized as a “mosaic” of communities, each defined by the state, using perceived distinguishing and immutable characteristics, seen as exclusive to each community. While superficially celebrating difference, this approach inevitably resulted in the creation of static cultural or racial profiles that simply perpetuated a sense of dislocation and erected systemic barriers to the evolution of mutual understanding and exchange across and between communities and larger Canadian society.

    Over time, with the efforts of writers like Dabydeen, as well as aware artists and cultural workers from minority communities, we can see a shift happening towards a more dynamic understanding of multiculturalism as a reflection of Canadian society as it exists and evolves as a whole, and the recognition of the cultural diversity that exists and evolves therein.

    In My Undiscovered Country, Dabydeen continues this journey of discovery with a series of short stories that explore the question of who is a Canadian and what it means to be a Canadian.

    Dabydeen is very much at ease with characters and identities that are complex and multi-layered. This collection includes stories that juxtapose motifs from life in Guyana with those of life in a big city in Canada. He eschews the need to deconstruct or analyze with a heavy hand, but rather lets his characters be. They are living, breathing individuals who interact with each other and with the state. It is through their sharing memories, regrets, pains, hopes and dreams that we get to know them and understand their realities. It is also through this process that Dabydeen communicates his vision of a multiculturalism that is more dynamic and inclusive and allows for cultural values and identities that are fluid and adaptive to the realities of a culturally and racially diverse society.

    His vision also moves us away from a superficial sense of “this” or “that” – the binary duality – towards a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of individuals across Canadian society. While recognizing individual differences, the focus is shifted to places where we interact with each other and share experiences, good or bad, and to how these exchanges affect our evolution as a society, and ultimately our humanity.
    “Undiscovered Country,” the story that shares its title with the book, is a first-person narrated look at “Dacana,” a country, part imagination, part reality, where Dabydeen explores notions of belonging in a country with which he is engaged in an ongoing process of discovery.
    “Let me tell you straight, Dacanians are not an insecure people; and, they’re tolerant of others. They’re often generous to newcomers, what’s deep in their spirit. But from time to time you hear on the TV and radio talk-shows people railing against…who?

    “Dacanians like newcomers to express gratitude for being here, for it makes them feel good about themselves, especially with the great big maw to the south still opening up. In the harsh winter months with the cold in my bones, I will say thank-you! Oh yes, “always work hard,” said the immigration officer handing me the official papers.
    “I will.”

    The stories in the collection touch on a variety of themes. The societal impact on collective understanding of minority identities based on static cultural profiling, including the emergence of a movement of intolerance and the undercurrent of racism, is explored in “Being Canadian.” In “Life with Ming,” he appears as himself in a dialogue or interview of sorts with one of his created characters, Ming, a Chinese woman, who was once an English teacher in China and now works as a clerk in a government department. In addition to sharing their respective histories, Ming is curious about being a writer. This device allows Dabydeen to reveal aspects of his identity and his vision. The story also explores the paradox for him of writing in English, the language of the colonizer.

    “The Committee” is perhaps the story that deals most explicitly with multiculturalism and the debate surrounding its perceived strengths and shortcomings. While the social and cultural analysis is engaging in and of itself, the depth of the story and the insight that it presents to the reader come from the skill with which Dabydeen communicates the discomfort that members of cultural minorities can experience working within state structures.

    The remaining stories explore related themes with narratives drawn from Dabydeen’s personal and professional experiences as a writer and a teacher. With each story, whether through the narrative or the dialogues between characters, Dabydeen shares his reflections about Canadian society and the social and cultural dynamics it harbors. His is a style that is lyrical, engaging and insightful. My Undiscovered Country is a must read for anyone interested in the evolution of multiculturalism in Canada!

  • guyaneseonline  On 10/02/2020 at 12:51 am

    Book Review
    Dabydeen, Cyril. (2017). My Undiscovered Country: Short Stories. Ontario: Mosaic Press. ISBN: 978-77161-282-1

    There are maps to the Door of No Return. The physical door. They are well worn, gone over by cartographer after cartographer…But to the Door of No Return which is illuminated in the consciousness of Blacks in the Diaspora there are no maps. This door is not mere physicality. It is a spiritual location. It is also perhaps a psychic destination. Since leaving was never voluntary, return was, and still may be, an intention, however deeply buried. There is as it says no way in; no return. (Brand, 2001, p. 1)

    According to Cranny-Francis et al. (2003), identity “enables people to discuss their common experiences of the world with others whom they regard as like them; that is, others who share what they see as crucial features of their social positioning” (p. 33). This allows people to negotiate and recognize their positioning to their surroundings, and was a tool that privileged and authorized European, colonial identity over the colonized “other”. Ethnicity, to literary scholar Sollors (1995), involved contrast. It rested on “antitheses, on negativity, or on…‘dissociative’ character” (1995, p. 288), and ethnic identity became a mechanism during colonialism to justify difference. In colonial discourse and literature, difference connoted a removal from European practice, therefore it marked the perceived “other” as subordinate (Gilbert & Tompkins, 1996). For post-colonial writers, identity is complicated. Their histories yield lessons to “double conscious” (Gilroy, 1993) identities in which they occupy the space between the European colonizer’s and their ethnic identities. Due to the contestation of this in-between space, postcolonial writers use ethnicity as a means to decolonize text and offer, what Gilbert and Tompkins (1996) term, a counter-discursive strategy to colonial literature and identity. But the in-between also creates diasporic identities. As a poststructuralist feminist scholar, ethnicity and difference are key terms to understanding diasporic literature in which storytelling becomes an anti-colonial tool.

    Cyril Dabydeen teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa and is a former poet laureate of Ottawa as well. Called the “short story master” (Curry, 2017), My Undiscovered Country is Dabydeen’s eighth collection of fictional short stories, and this volume centres around his life as an immigrant from Guyana and the Caribbean, interspersed with the urban landscape of Canada – particularly Ottawa. This collection compliments well with post-colonial texts, like Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return and Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill – texts that are grounded in particular diasporic contexts and that engage in storied approaches to understanding identity.

    The book draws attention, through stories that focus on place, identity, and longing, to a simple but highly contested question in contemporary Canadian contexts: who is Canadian, what does this mean, and who defines this? This question requires a cross-cultural analysis of which Dabydeen’s stories supply. Dabydeen’s narratives, therefore, mix fantasy and reality, ethnicity with culture, and ancestral, tropical roots with cold, Canadian urban landscape. His narrative reflects, in other words, a diasporic psychological map between his tropical and Canadian identity. In an interview with Stanford (as cited in Canadian Literature, n.d.), Dabydeen discussed his writing process as:

    I work with an image, mostly: something that comes to the mind or which touches one’s feeling, or what I might have seen, or something I might recall. With the latter I tend to go back into memory. Memory is the mother of the imagination, the mother of the Muses, as has been said.

    The way that Dabydeen contextualizes imagery with memory is important here. In pointing to memory, he grounds his text firmly in the ongoing work of diasporic literature and identity – the commingling of social, cultural, and colonial contexts in understanding one’s place and future. In utilizing a storytelling approach, Dabydeen creates imagery, narratively and metaphorically, that confronts his diasporic condition. His characters are deep and psychologically complex, conflicting and not conflicting with the natural and human environments encompassing them. Through first-person narration, the reader is allowed to delve deeply into them, while simultaneously being given the tools to explore for ourselves who we truly are and what Canadian identity means to us. For Dabydeen literature is undiscovered country (Mosaic Press, 2018) and his text works as an unmarked map, inviting the reader to connect their lived experiences with the book’s content – and Dabydeen himself.

    To do so, Dabydeen organizes the text into three parts. The parts map Dabydeen’s journey as a Canadian immigrant in Ottawa, back to his Indian, then Caribbean-South American roots. This organization maps the structural and cultural dynamics of interrelationships and interconnectedness among the three parts within the contexts of answering what makes someone a Canadian. Within these three sections, the book is organized into fifteen chapters. The first four chapters focus on the metaphor of Ottawa as a symbol of multiculturalism and ethnic/cultural harmony. Chapters five through fifteen concentrate on Indian culture, education and prejudice within other cultures, alongside metaphors of hot, sticky landscape. The sections exemplify how prejudice and racism can dictate politics, giving the reader complex narratives with characters that must contemplate what constitutes civilized and uncivilized Canadian behavior in a country where “refugees and immigrants were taking over…You know, everything’s about minorities these days” (Dabydeen, 2017, p. 8).
    The narratives, and the mingling of tropical and temperate settings, highlight that landscape is not a neutral concept but is itself a mechanism through which cultural translation is enacted to construct place and enforce power relationships. Landscapes, like the tropical and temperate, are products of social, political and economic forces. They serve to enforce a particular worldview while intentionally omitting what it interprets as a threat to itself or what it considers to be wrong. Natural places are inextricably connected to the way a particular worldview is produced and the way that it precedes to construct its society, and interact with the natural world around it, a process that is always dynamic and fluid. Dabydeen’s text draws attention to his connection to his ancestral, natural places – Canada and India, Caribbean-South America – and the particular worldviews that are inscribed on those places. Each landscape inscribes particular identities onto the characters, and reflect the complicated lens of Canadian identity and what “constitutes” this.

    195 Fritz Cultural and Pedagogical Inquiry, Fall 2018, 10(2), pp. 193-196 ISSN 1916-3460 © 2018 University of Alberta

    Dabydeen’s text exemplifies that place and identity are complicated not only by race, class, gender, immigration, settlement, and diaspora, but also by increasing placelessnes and transience. Through a critical, pedagogical, and cultural lens, Dabydeen’s text contributes to diasporic Canadian literature and with questions of identity and longing that plague most contemporary conversations of Canadian identity – particularly amidst the increasingly racialized violence in the global community dictating who belongs and who gets to define this. The book engages the reader with questions of racism, prejudice, equality, multiculturalism, and ethnicity within Canadian society while also providing a creative, storytelling approach to intimate and enhanced experiences to place and identity. In suggesting the complexity of diasporic identity, Dabydeen highlights Canada’s multiculturalism while also drawing awareness to issues of diversity and inclusion within this multicultural society.

    My Undiscovered Country is a prominent book for readers interested in post-colonial literature, literary criticism, critical race theory, and cultural studies. It offers genuinely interesting stories that look intimately and vulnerably at Indian, Caribbean-South American identity, and Canadian identity.
    The juxtaposition reveals synergies and tensions within content, format, and concepts important to diaspora and post-colonial literature by highlighting that place and identity are intertwined. They are simultaneously produced when people begin the process of translating where they live, shaping the natural environment and in turn shaping themselves by their environments. Dabydeen’s text, in essence, provides a juxtaposition that reveals the tensions and converges when looking at place, longing, and identity to answer the overarching question: what does it mean to be Canadian?

    Taryn Fritz Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary
    Book Review 194
    Cultural and Pedagogical Inquiry, Fall 2018, 10(2), pp. 193-196 ISSN 1916-3460 © 2018 University of Alberta

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