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In this illuminating and reflective study, Daniel Coleman explores a series of “migration narratives” written by Austin Clarke, Dany Laferriére, Neil Bissoondath, Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, and Ven Begamudré, whose work extends what Coleman aptly calls a “rich tradition in Canadian literature of immigrant writing.” Coleman is especially interested in the representation of masculine gender codes under stress and in transition as the male immigrant travels from a post-colonial location—India, the Caribbean, Africa, Sri Lanka—to the Canadian metropolis. Coleman’s key metaphor is “cross cultural refraction”: “Just as a wave of light or sound changes velocities and directions when it passes from one medium into another, so also a cultural form such as masculine practice will change or ‘bend’ when it enters into a new cultural environment or medium.” If the overall effect of Coleman’s analysis is, inevitably, to expose and “denaturalize the notion of a coherent, authoritative, biologically based masculine gender,” his readings are invariably subtle and press insightfully beyond the usual pieties.
In his discussion of Austin Clarke’s “A Man” and “How He Does It” from his short story collection Nine Men Who Laughed (1986), in which a Caribbean gigolo masquerades as a Bay Street banker, Coleman deploys Judith Butler’s theory of gender performance, Roger Abraham’s ethnographic research into the “man-of-words” of Caribbean Creole culture, and Julius Hudson’s sociological analysis of the African American urban “hustler” to isolate and identify the overdetermined sources and accoutrements of male immigrant performativity. Clothes and stylization [End Page 1050] of the body, citation and re-citation of mannerisms, ideologically-laden poses and gestures become the improvisational materials by which “metropolitan codes” are “bent into parody.” Yet the immigrant’s embellishment of the tropes of “Canadian” masculinity draws him back and forth across the border of impelled as opposed to innovative behavior, compulsive as opposed to creative and subversive repetition. Thus does Clarke’s protagonist “bring trouble” to the dominant culture’s “founding values even as [he] tries to adapt himself to them.”
Coleman then turns to Laferriére’s notorious Montreal novel, How to Make Love to a Negro (1987), originally published in French as Comment faire l’amour avec un Négre sans se fatiguer (1985). Here Laferriére “parodies not just the obvious figures—the white master, the white virgin, the black stud—but also the complex pathology of the discourse of racialized sexuality itself, as well as its analysts.” Coleman’s is a delicate and sophisticated analysis of Laferriére’s “implicated but subversive kind of counter-discursive postcolonial writing” in which—any liberating effects of the discourse notwithstanding—“the phallic stereotype of the black stud persists even in the site of transgression.”
Bissoondath’s novel, A Casual Brutality (1988), traces an immigrant male’s resistance to the demands and expectations of conventionally active masculinity. Hence Coleman’s guiding question: “Is it possible for a man to resist the discourses of phallocentrism or patriarchy or neo-imperialism simply by refusing to repeat their prescribed performances? Is it possible to exempt oneself from the cycle of compulsory recitation?” One needn’t be convinced by Coleman’s argument for the latent value of a certain masculine passivity and “anti-performance” to appreciate his point that “[t]he passive heterosexual man is a common male figure that either is ignored by feminist descriptions of masculine empowerment or gets elevated by gender reformers into an idealized ‘new man.’”
In Ondaatje’s fictionalized memoir, Running in the Family (1982), Coleman shows how “the predominant and wide-ranging ideologies of colonial and imperial history continue to exert their defining influences within family systems.” The interimplication of Sri Lanka’s turbulent colonial history with the social decline and emotional turmoil of the Ondaatje family over several generations renders the myth and the romance of “autonomous masculinity” radically obsolete. [End Page 1051]
In a final chapter on Mistry’s novel, Such a Long Journey (1991), and Begamudré’s Van de Graaff Days (1993), Coleman riffs impressively on Freud’s...