The Immigrant ExperienceCreated by 49thShelf on August 17, 2012
A young woman poses for the cover of a magazine. A Canadian soldier serving in Kandahar falls in love with her photograph and sends her an email. The Darling of Kandahar tells a story of love, loss, and displacement against the background of the war in Afghanistan, of the founding of the city of Montreal – and of a city now crowded with immigrant …
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY CHARLOTTE GRAY
Roughing It in the Bush, first published in 1852, helped to destroy British illusions about life in Upper Canada. Susanna Moodie described a life of backbreaking labour, poverty, and hardship on a pioneer farm in the colonial wilderness. Her sharp observations, satirical character sketches, and moments of desp …
Cockroach is as urgent, unsettling, and brilliant as Rawi Hage's bestselling and critically acclaimed first book, De Niro's Game.
The novel takes place during one month of a bitterly cold winter in Montreal's restless immigrant community, where a self-described thief has just tried but failed to commit suicide. Rescued against his will, the narrato …
Nicolo’s older and younger brothers seem to have their lives in focus. Nicolo works hard, saves his money, respects his parents and his nonna, but he is still living at home in his early 20s, his life as unformed as gelato. If only he knew which direction to take. His father wants him to study. His mother hints that he should to start a family o …
“Remember this night,” he said. “Mark it in your memories because tomorrow everything changes.”
One starless night, a girl’s childhood was swept away by the terrors of the Khmer Rouge. Exiled from the city, she and her family were forced to live out in the open under constant surveillance. Each night, people were taken away. Caught up …
They sleep early and rise in the dark. It is winter now. The nights are long but outside, where the leaves have fallen from the branches, the snowed-inlight comes through. There is a cat who finds the puddles of sunshine. She was small when the boy was small, but then she grew up and left him behind. Still, at night, she hunkers down on Kiri’s bed, proprietorial. They were born just a few weeks apart, but now he is seven and she is forty-four.
My son is the beginning, the middle, and the end. When he was a baby, I used to follow him on my hands and knees, the two of us crawling over the wood floors, the cat threading between our legs. Hello, hello, my son would say. Hello, my good friend. How are you? He trundled along, an elephant, a chariot, a glorious madman.
It is twilight now, mid-February.
Tonight’s freezing rain has left the branches crystalline. Our home is on the second floor, west facing, reached by a twisting staircase, the white paint chipping off, rust burnishing the edges. Through the window, I can see my son. Kiri puts a record on, he shuffles it gingerly out of its cardboard sleeve, holding it lightly between his fingertips.
I know the one he always chooses. I know how he watches the needle lift and the mechanical arm move into place. I know the outside but not the quiet, not the way his thoughts rise up, always jostling, always various, not how they untangle from one another or how they fall so inevitably into place.
Kiri is in grade two. He has his father’s dark-brown hair, he has startling, beautiful eyes, the same colour as my own. His name, in Khmer, means “mountain.” I want to run up the stairs and turn my key in the lock, the door to my home swinging wide open.
When my fear outweighs my need – fear that Kiri will look out the window and see this familiar car, that my son will see me – I turn the ignition, steer myself from the sidewalk, and roll away down the empty street. In my head, ringing in my ears, the music persists, his body swaying like a bell to the melody. I remember him, crumpled on the floor, looking up at me, frightened. I try to cover this memory, to focus on the blurring lights, the icy pavement. My bed is not far away but a part of me wants to keep on driving, out of the city, down the highway straight as a needle. Instead, I circle and circle the residential streets. A space opens up in front of Hiroji’s apartment, where I have been sleeping these last few weeks, and I edge the car against the curb.
Tomorrow will come soon, I tell myself. Tomorrow I will see my son.
The wind swoops down, blowing free what little heat I have. I can barely lock the door and get upstairs fast enough. Inside, I pull off my boots but keep my coat and scarf on against the chill. Hiroji’s cat, Taka the Old, skips ahead of me, down the long hallway. On the answering machine, the message light is flashing and I hit the square button so hard the machine hiccups twice before complying.
Navin’s voice. “I saw the car,” my husband says. “Janie? Are you there?” He waits. In the background, my son is calling out. Their voices seem to echo. “No, Kiri. Hurry up, kiddo. Back to bed.” I hear footsteps, a door closing, and then Navin coming back. He says he wants to take Kiri to Vancouver for a few weeks, that the time, and distance, might help us. “We’ll stay at Lena’s place,” he says. I am nodding, agreeing with every word – Lena’s home has stood empty since she died last year – but a numb grief is flowing through me.
One last message follows. I hear a clicking on the line, then the beep of keys being pressed, once, twice, three times. The line goes dead.
The fridge is remarkably empty. I scan its gleaming insides, then do a quick inventory: old bread in the freezer and in the cupboard two cans of diced tomatoes, a tin of smoked mussels, and, heaven, three bottles of wine. I liberate the bread and the mussels, pour a glass of sparkling white, then stand at the counter until the toaster ejects my dinner. Gourmet. I peel back the lid of the can and eat the morsels one by one. The wine washes the bread down nicely. Everything is gone too soon but the bottle of wine that accompanies me to the sofa, where I turn the radio on. Music swells and dances through the apartment.
This bubbly wine is making me morose. I drink the bottle quickly in order to be rid of it. “Only bodies,” Hiroji once told me, “have pain.” He had been in my lab, watching me pull a motor neuron from Aplysia. Bodies, minds: to him they were the same, one could not be considered without the other.
Half past ten. It is too early to sleep but the dark makes me uneasy. I want to call Meng, my oldest friend, we have not spoken in more than two weeks, but it is the hour of the wolves in Paris. My limbs feel light and I trickle, wayward, through the rooms. On the far side of the apartment, in Hiroji’s small office, the windows are open and the curtains seem to move fretfully, wilfully. The desk has exploded, maybe it happened last week, maybe earlier, but now all the papers and books have settled into a more balanced state of nature. Still, the desk seems treacherous. Heaped all over, like a glacier colonizing the surface, are the pages I have been working on. Taka the Old has been here: the paper is crumpled and still faintly warm.
Since he disappeared, nearly three months ago now, I’ve had no contact with Hiroji. I’m trying to keep a record of the things he told me: the people he treated, the scientists he knew. This record fills sheet after sheet – one memory at a time, one place, one clue – so that every place and every thought won’t come at once, all together, like a deafening noise. On Hiroji’s desk is an old photograph showing him and his older brother standing apart, an emerald forest behind them. Hiroji, still a child, smiles wide. They wear no shoes, and Junichiro, or James, stands with one hand on his hip, chin lifted, challenging the camera. He has a bewitching, sad face.
Sometimes this apartment feels so crowded with loved ones, strangers, imagined people. They don’t accuse me or call me to account, but I am unable to part with them. In the beginning, I had feared the worst, that Hiroji had taken his own life. But I tell myself that if this had been a suicide, he would have left a note, he would have left something behind. Hiroji knew what it was to have the missing live on, unending, within us. They grow so large, and we so empty, that even the coldest winter nights won’t swallow them. I remember floating, a child on the sea, alone in the Gulf of Thailand. My brother is gone, but I am looking up at the white sky and I believe, somehow, that I can call him back. If only I am brave enough, or true enough. Countries, cities, families. Nothing need disappear. At Hiroji’s desk, I work quickly. My son’s voice is lodged in my head, but I have lost the ability to keep him safe. I know that no matter what I say, what I make, the things I have done can’t be forgiven. My own hands seem to mock me, they tell me the further I go to escape, the greater the distance I must travel back. You should never have left the reservoir, you should have stayed in the caves. Look around, we ended up back in the same place, didn’t we? The buildings across the street fall dark, yet the words keep coming, accumulating like snow, like dust, a fragile cover that blows away so easily.
A moving portrait of three generations of the Chan family living in Vancouver’s Chinatown
Sammy Chan was sure she’d escaped her family obligations when she fled Vancouver six years ago, but with her sister’s upcoming marriage, her turn has come to care for their aging mother. Abandoned by all four of her older sisters, jobless and stuck in a …
At first, what frightened her about this place was the drizzle – the omnipresent grey of morning, afternoon, nighttime too. She was afraid that she would slowly be leached of colour and that, one day, while she was combing her hair in the mirror, she would see that her reflection was as grey as the sky, sea and land that surrounded her. Everything she saw as she moved about the city was filtered through the mist – dampened, weighed down, burdened.
She would come home after a day in Chinatown and find her wool pants covered in tiny drops of water – cold, as if no human being had ever touched them before. If she didn’t brush them off, they would seep into the fabric until they chilled her skin and she shivered into the night, long after the dishes were washed and everyone else had gone to bed.
In the summer, the sun finally emerged, dried up the puddles, opened flowers that had cowered in the rain. Buttercups shone in the light and multiplied in the lawn faster than she could dig them out. Children spat watermelon seeds over the porch railing, laughing at the squirrels who scurried across the lawn in fear. But every year, as winter returned, these days slipped from her memory. Too good to be true, perhaps. Too few to be important.
One morning, she woke and realized that she had come to accept the drizzle, that she had grown resigned to the squelch of rubber boots, the smell of damp wool on the bus. She walked around the park in the mornings, a film of fine water on her cheeks and eyelashes. Soon, she could not start her day without washing her face in the mist, letting the coolness do away with the bad dreams from the night.
And the halflight that lingered throughout the day let her believe that she was somewhere else, a dream-like netherworld in which anything might happen. Men could become lovers again. Women could be ageless. Children might even come back home.
But what she settled for was the cool, wet breeze that came in through the windows, the air that straightened her spine as she walked. The way the drizzle stayed with her, soaked into her hair, her clothes, her sheets. It pushed itself onto her skin, huddled with her when she cried, remained cool even as she cooked at a blazing stove. Unshakeable. Like family.
"It is time," my mother says as she pulls me from the cab, "to run that oldman smell out of my house."
As I haul my luggage out of the trunk, the smell of smouldering dust and gas fills the air, burning my nose and mouth. I follow my mother’s rapidly retreating body around the side of the house to the backyard, wondering if she has finally snapped and set one my sisters ablaze.
In the driveway off the lane, she pokes angrily at a crackling fire with a metal garden rake; I catch my breath, holding my suitcase in front of me like a shield. Piles of my grandfather’s old, woolly clothes line the backyard and spill into the gravel alley, waiting to be tossed into the gassy flames. A light rain begins to fall, generating puffs of smoke that blow into my face. I cough, but she doesn’t seem to hear me above the snap and sizzle.
Waving the rake in my direction, she shouts, "Take your suitcase upstairs and go help your sister." As I turn back toward the house, she slaps down a stray spark that has landed in her permed, greying hair.
Once inside, I scan the front hall. The same rubber plant behind the door. My old slippers by the stairs. I breathe out, and cobwebs (suspiciously familiar) sway in the corners.
My mother steps through the door after me, her hands on her wide hips. "What’s taking you so long? I thought I told you to run upstairs."
"I’m jetlagged," I mutter, kicking off my shoes.
She inspects my face closely, staring at me through her thick glasses. "Jet-lagged? Montreal is only three hours ahead. Go. Penny is waiting." She spins me around with a little push and pokes me in the back with one sharp fingernail.
I trudge up the stairs to my grandfather’s bedroom, where my sister is on her hands and knees, ripping out the nubby red carpet he brought over from his small apartment in Chinatown. Her long black hair drags on the sub-floor.
"Samantha," Penny says, pushing her bangs out of her eyes. "I feel like I’ve been waiting for you forever."
My hands shake. I try to tell myself that it’s only the dampness in the air that’s causing this deep bone shiver. But, really, I am simply afraid. When I was sitting in the airplane, the idea of coming home didn’t seem so real or so final, and I could pretend that I wasn’t passing over province after province. Standing here, in my grandfather’s old room, with my mother’s footsteps coming up quickly behind me, I know that I have irrevocably returned.
"We have to get rid of your grandfather’s junk before the wedding. We’ll need his bedroom for the tea ceremony," my mother says, pushing me aside to inspect the closet. She turns to Penny: "I don’t know why you have to get married so fast. I’m too old to run around like this. Inconsiderate girl." She lets out a loud breath, punctuating her rapid, angry Chinese with a huff.
"Grandfather’s been dead for ten years, Mother," Penny says quietly in English, as usual. "And we’ve been engaged for almost a month. You’ve had plenty of time."
She waves her hand. "Why do I think you’ll understand? I’ve had other things to do, like look after all you girls by myself."
Penny looks at me with her round, seemingly innocent eyes and shrugs.
From the Hardcover edition.
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