A friend and I were talking recently about the state of the world. It started as a conversation about her recent trip to a post-colonial, predominantly black, country. From there we moved on to the ugly hatred that’s raging around the world, and then to the great global evolution that’s happening. Yes, it was heady stuff!
But it got me thinking about the mass migration going on. Social scientists and historians say the numbers of people migrating away from their home countries have not been seen since after WW2. As the world struggles with climate change and inhabitable regions, there will only be more people needing to relocate.
Because of this, migration/immigration is a hot topic for many, mainly Western, people. I feel as Canadians we are so blessed to have been born in this country at this time in history. Most of us have never known the experience of fear and sadness of having to leave our homes to try and find another willing to take us in. What must it be like to travel to a distant country hoping to fit in? How does it feel to start over again in a strange place with a strange language, strange customs and hostile strangers? How do you reconcile the only culture you knew with the one you’re struggling to know?
Check out these books on the Immigration experience from some of Canada’s most talented writers.
IN THE SKIN OF A LION by Michael Ondaatje
One of his earliest novels, it fictionalizes a group of immigrants in the early 1900s who help build the city of Toronto but are kept outside mainstream society. Ondaatje examines the issue of language and the perception among English-speakers of those who can’t communicate in their adopted country’s official language. Class and wealth are also a predominant theme. Although written decades ago with a setting of early 20thcentury, many of the immigrants’ issues remain the same.
THE JADE PEONY by Wayson Choy
Also set in the first part of the 1900s, the story follows three children of Chinese parents as they encounter the complexities of life in Canada and the clash of cultures that all immigrants experience. It’s also a vivid depiction of the conflicting world between youth and adulthood, made more difficult by the war and the struggle for assimilation.
CAN YOU HEAR THE NIGHTBIRD CALL by Anita Rau Badami
One of my favourite authors, Badami crafts a stinging expose of the tragedy that was the Air India disaster in 1985. She deftly weaves the stories of three Indian women, follows the history of the Sikh community in Canada, and their ties to their homeland and its political turmoil. While many Canadians think of corruption and the failure of Canadian intelligence agencies when they think of the Air India disaster, Badami focuses on the Indian and Sikh communities of Vancouver and the reality of this act of terrorism.
RU by Kim Thuy
A beautiful, poetic account of one woman’s journey from her lavish life in Saigon to the horrors of a crowded refugee camp in Malaysia and then onward to her journey by boat to Canada. Thuy moves back and forth in time in a series of short powerful vignettes that celebrate life – its sorrows and brutality, its wonder and beauty. This slim novel of the immigrant experience is an engaging lyrical balance between conflicting worlds.
NO NEW LAND by M.G. Vassanji
Following Asian immigrants to their new home in Toronto, Vassanji tells the story of a man and his family caught between two worlds. His main character faces false accusations of sexual assault but finds solace in the Indian community that has replicated its East African lifestyle. It is a sympathetic and absorbing look at a transplanted people clinging to their past.
DISAPPEARING MOON CAFE by Sky Lee
This book has become a Canadian classic, even making it onto university literature reading lists. Lee chronicles the women of the Wong family as each generation confronts the same problems – isolation, racism and the clash of cultures. The story moves back and forth between past and present, between Canada and China, as each character struggles to navigate a world of divisions. A moving portrait of the loneliness of being of two cultures, but truly belonging to neither.
THE JAGUAR’S CHILDREN by John Vaillant
This book doesn’t really fit with the topic of immigrant experience but I couldn’t leave it out.
Instead of looking at what happens when they get to their new country, Vaillant’s novel is a fictional tale of a group of Mexicans trying to get to the U.S. Like his non-fiction, he shines a brutally honest spotlight on a social issue and its impact on a culture and its people. Hard to read but so worth it. This book should be required reading these days.
These books and this topic may not be anyone’s first choice for a summer read, but in the days to come, as so many people are forced to leave their homeland, compassion towards “others” will become vital. Reading another’s experience can be a first step forward.