Asian Heritage Month: South Asian-Canadian literature

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Throughout May, CBC Books will be highlighting great works of Asian-Canadian literature as part of Asian Heritage Month. CBC producer and Asian-Canadian history enthusiast Adrian Ma looks at some novels he found to be influential and inspirational.

adrian-headshot-70.jpgThis week, I'd like to focus on the great literary contributions of South Asian-Canadians. South Asian-Canadians (including people with origins in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indian diasporas from Africa or the Caribbean) are a major part of our country's cultural mosaic. In fact, South Asian-Canadians make up the largest visible minority group in this country, according to the 2006 census.

The majority of South-Asian Canadian citizens are foreign-born and recent immigrants, much like the majority of Canadians of East Asian descent. But there are unique qualities in this group that make their experience of "becoming Canadian" quite different. For one, South Asian-Canadians come from very diverse religious backgrounds, including Sikh, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. And while most Canadians of South Asian heritage can speak one of our official languages, the majority have another mother tongue, the most common languages being Punjabi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujurati and Hindi.

Culturally, religiously and linguistically, many South Asian-Canadians maintain strong bonds to their community and their heritage, while navigating the social conventions in this country. As I mentioned in previous weeks, family, duty and cultural clash are recurring themes in novels by East Asian-Canadian writers. These themes also appear in South Asian-Canadian literature, although with different cultural and historical contexts. The following novels are just a few of the works I'd recommend checking out.

Tamarind Mem
by Anita Rau Badami


tamarind-mem-100.jpgAnita Rau Badami was born in India, but has lived in Canada since 1991. Her first novel Tamarind Mem is inspired by the sounds, smells and sights of her childhood. The book primarily follows Kamini, who has a younger sister named Roopa, and their somewhat severe, sharp-tongued mother Saroja. As a young woman, Saroja was entered into an arranged marriage with an older man, a high-ranking employee of the Indian railway company who spends most of his life away on business. Having to give up her dreams of finishing her education and being forced to commit to a neglectful husband who dotes on his two children, Saroja has grown increasingly sour in mood and temperament, kind of like the tamarind fruit itself. The years pass by, and each woman chooses her own path, testing familial bonds and cultural expectations, while trying to make peace with the past and each other.

Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai


funny-boy-100.jpgThis is a coming of age story set in Sri Lanka around the time of the country's civil war. Arun ("Arjie") Chelvaratnam is a teenage boy growing up in an upper middle-class Tamil family coming to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality. Throughout his life, Arjie has been described as a "funny boy" who prefers cross-dressing over cricket. It's a troubling time for Arjie because of his inner turmoil but also because of external events, as Sri Lanka churns with violent political upheaval. This novel is actually a series of six interrelated stories that explore the complicated connections between sexual identity, personal identity and national identity. It's also a book that examines the context in which many immigrant choose to come to Canada -- to find acceptance.

Chanting Denied Shores by Tariq Malik

Tariq Malik was born and raised in Pakistan before immigrating to Canada in 1995. He currently lives in Vancouver. Chanting Denied Shores is his second book, and it's a fascinating work of historical fiction about the arrival of the Komagata Maru in 1914.

chanting-denied-shores-100.jpgThe Komagata Maru was a steamship that carried 376 passengers from Punjab, India, to Vancouver's shores. They came to Canada looking for a better life, but the social climate of the time was very hostile to the newcomers. As I mentioned in previous blog posts, this was the era of head taxes being imposed on Asians, and anti-Asian protests weren't an uncommon occurrence. The ship's journey was actually something of an intended challenge to Canada's exclusionary policies.

When the Maru landed, it sent a shockwave through the community. The federal and provincial authorities refused to allow the passengers to leave the ship and demanded the ship turn around. Local Caucasian mobs tried to get on board but were fought off with flying bricks. Some South Asian-Canadians in the community managed to get food and water to the passengers. The standoff lasted for about two months before the newly created Royal Canadian Navy sent a ship out and fixed its guns on the Maru. Some of the passengers who already had resident status had been allowed to embark, but the majority left with the ship.

Through several fictional personal narratives, Malik's book dramatizes the incident and how it affected the passengers and the community years afterwards. 

Everything Was Goodbye by Gurjinder Basran

everything-was-goodbye-100.jpgGurjinder Basran is an up-and-coming writer and in her first novel, she looks at the dual cultures that many first generation Canadians have to straddle. Meninder, or Meena to her friends, is a bright, headstrong teenager, and one of six daughters living in lower mainland British Columbia. Her sisters have gone through with arranged marriages and mostly accept the traditional expectations placed upon them, but Meena struggles to reconcile her devotion to her community and the life she wants for herself. Her situation becomes even more complicated when she falls for a Caucasian classmate named Liam, who represents the independence and freedom she yearns for. Throughout her life, Meena is forced to make heartbreaking choices between duty and desire, fealty and freedom.

So many books, so many writers! Thanks for your suggestions, everybody, and keep them coming. I'll compile your recommendations into a nice long reading list for anyone interested in learning more about Asian heritage. We can sit in the shade this summer with a pile of books and a nice cup of green tea or chai.

Adrian Ma is the author of How the Chinese Created Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @adrianma.


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