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Culture And Identity In Canadian Short Fiction

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1915 words Published: 27th Apr 2017

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Canada is home to many immigrants from all over the world; this country has many ethnic groups, it is in close relation with the United States and with Europe as well, so it is obvious that identity and culture are crucial themes in politics and literature as well. These are manifold issues which are entwined with many other typically Canadian traits, such as humour, self-depreciation, homelessness and the conception of failure. [1] 2I will present identity and culture, these unique characteristics of Canadian literature, throughout the works of Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Jack Hodgins, Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro, Rohinton Mistry, Tamás Dobozy and David Bezmozgis.

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At first, we should look at identity as something which is determined by the color of skin, cultural heritage, language and education. This means that one’s identity is determined by the outer world and not by the self. This concept is very well described in Margaret Laurence’s Rain Child. This short story also shows how preconceptions can affect your everyday life. This work shows a quite pessimistic attitude, for you one can not hide one’s identity, especially if it is represented by the color of one’s skin. It follows that your identity can be subjected to racism and discrimination. But even if other’s preconceptions are not meant to be offensive, they can be sources of misunderstanding. A good example is the following passage from the text: “I suppose I imagined she would pick up her own language easily, once she returned here, as though the knowledge of one’s family tongue was inherited.” Furthermore, “we are all so anxious that people should not think us different,” (Rain Child) for one’s different identity itself can establish mistrust. A good example for that is the part in which Dr. Quansah is talking about the difficulties of working together with other Africans in the laboratory. They do not trust him because he has changed during his stay in England. Again, it also exemplifies that the outer world can have a large impact on your behaviour and identity. Another typically Canadian trait pervades this short story, the trait of failure. The failure to assimilate, to find home and not to be totally different. The story ends with a decision on moving back to London but this is not promising because they do not feel at home there either.

A slightly different situation might occur when one is not from a different country but belongs to a minority group. It is exemplified in the novella of Jack Hodgins’ Over Here in which Nettie Tremblay has a native heritage. It describes the attitude of the others that they do not want to reveal the truth about his origin, which is quite obvious for her skin’s color. Although people around her try to avoid the appearance of racism, children are more open about these issues and they often say things adults would not say. These things are often stereotypes which can be offensive to the minorities, like the narrator’s exclamation: “I bet you’ll have eighteen kids and some of them will die.” Of course stereotypes are not always in correspondence with reality. It is recognized by the young narrator too, but he is disappointed about it for he firmly believed in the romantic idea about mighty Indian warriors. “She wasn’t like an Indian at all, not the Indians we’d read about in books.” In consequence it can be attractive to belong to somewhere but try as he might, he can not change his identity. In this respect it also worth mentioning that one has to prove being worthy of being different. As the child put it: “She didn’t know how lucky she was” and “She could be descended from Big Bear. She could be Sitting Bull’s niece. But she didn’t deserve to know. Let her think she was just an ordinary girl who looked silly in glasses and stupid wearing lipstick.” The story has another implication, more precisely that she can try to disregard her difference but it does not result in the disappearance of the difference; others will notice it.

As it could be seen, identity is largely determined by many factors, like cultural heritage. Margaret Atwood’s The Man from Mars elaborates on the line between cultural difference and crime. In this short story, a man from an Eastern country, probably from Vietnam, [3] comes to Canada and starts to follow Christine. At first his strange behaviour is accounted for his different culture. After a while it becomes suspicious for her that he follows her all the time and thinks he is her friend. Although she finds it weird but she persuades herself that he is just alone and feels lost in a totally different country. Later on it turns out that he followed other women as well, so the police deport him back to Vietnam. This man represents how odd can one be when one is in need of friends. He is desperately trying to find friends, which makes his strange behaviour even more strange. Although the appearance of this man opens up a new perspective for her. She starts to enquire about new cultures, reading articles about the war in Vietnam. Of course she does it for a different purpose, but the reader might think if she was better informed about foreign cultures it could not have happened. She would have realised that the strange behaviour of this man can not be accounted for his different background. The hidden moral of the story emphasizes the importance of knowing other cultures. Of course it works vice versa; had he learnt the normal behaviour patterns, he would not have been deported.

Another short story on immigration shows the difference between Indian and Western cultures. Squatter, written by Rohinton Mistry, entwines humour with self reflection. Depicts how people from eastern countries aspire for the material wealth of the western countries, such as Canada. It also shows the Indian spiritual attitude towards material interest. “I’m a travel agent, that my interest is to convince them to travel. Instead, I tell them: don’t give up, God is great, stay and try again. It’s bad for my profits but gives me a different, a spiritual kind of satisfaction when I succeed.” This attitude shows their respect for spiritualism and benevolence. Meanwhile, it is a self reflection on Canadian or rather on Western “materialism” with the eyes of a different nation. Of course from the point of culture it is more important to raise these questions: To what extent can someone “master” a culture? Is total assimilation possible? The story says it is not possible to completely change one’s identity. It presents this theme in a rather humorous way but the moral is very serious. The protagonist of the story expected too much from himself, so he was bound to fail. The absurdity of this mission caused constipation, but not just in the literal sense. It represents how his life got stuck, got fired and had to move back to India. He could not succeed in life; he could not reach the “Canadian Dream.” There is another important topic which is touched by the author; racism and xenophobia. Even the slightest differences can trigger hostility towards strangers. This is well exemplified, again in a hilarious way, by the following passage: “But there was not much he could keep secret about his ways. The world of washrooms is private and at the same time very public. The absence of feet below the stall door, the smell of faeces, the rustle of paper, glimpses caught through the narrow crack between stall door and jamb-all these added up to only one thing: a foreign presence in the stall, not doing things in the conventional way. And if the one outside could receive the fetor of Sarosh’s business wafting through the door, poor unhappy Sarosh too could detect something malodorous in the air: the presence of xenophobia and hostility.” This novella too, just like Over Here, shows the “polite” racism, that is, how government differentiates between people with diverse ethnic origin. “If you ask me, mosaic and melting pot are both nonsense, and ethnic is the polite way of saying bloody foreigner.”

So far, identity was something that separated people from each other. In Tamás Dobozy’s Four Uncles it is establishing connection. The four uncles do not want to assimilate. They are simple political refugees escaping from the communist regime. They keep old Hungarian mentality and it cuts them off from the outward world even from their own families. They fail to realize that they can not continue their previous lifestyle which leads to tension throughout the story. In general, the message of Dobozy’s stories is that you can’t find home; home is something you create. [4] He presents another aspect of culture, namely its openness towards other cultures. It is shown how the old Hungarian immigrant dislikes the different ethnic lovers of the girl. They make another mistake; they expect their surroundings to accommodate to them. They try to shape their milieu by writing offensive articles to a newspaper, which can be quite repulsive for the open-minded Canadians.

In David Bezmozgis’ The Second Strongest Man Latvians emigrate from under Soviet rule. Their escape is not a solution, since they can not forget the old fear of being caught by the KGB. This world is a different world, they have to face different difficulties, and they have to struggle to earn a living. They still see how much they have to toil just to somehow make ends meet. This is made obvious in the discussion with the Soviet friends:

” – Don’t be fooled Grisha. I often think of going back.

Are you insane? Look at what you have. Take a walk outside. I saw beggars on the street wearing Levi’s jeans and Adidas running shoes.

Three days out of five I’m afraid I’ll join them.

Roman, come on, I’ve known you for thirty years. You don’t have to lie on my account.

I’m not lying. Every day is a struggle.

Look. I’m not blind. I see your car. I see your apartment. I see how you struggle. Believe me, your worst day is better than my best.”

In this short passage almost every hardship on both sides are presented.

Of course it has not been mentioned yet, that identity and culture can be disregarded. In the work of Mordecai Richler, Some Grist for Mervyn’s Mill, the Jewish origin is presented but not emphasized. This implicates that culture and identity have no role in real life either. These do not make the essence of the man different just the formalities are affected by them.

As we could see, identity and culture is a prominent part of Canadian literature but they are perceived differently by different people. These perceptions include the role of identity and culture as connection, barrier, or as a simple formality.


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