Happy Canada Day! To Celebrate: Great Works by Canadian Immigrant Writers

"A Canadian novel does not necessarily take place in Canada .... Canada is a state of mind. Canadian is whoever says that he or she is Canadian."

Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi (source: New Diasporic Literature in a Post-ethnic Transcultural Canada, by Igor Maver).

There's no chance of providing comprehensive or even fair representation to the great number of excellent Canadian authors born elsewhere writing in our country today. We know that. But here's a selection of some notable titles by Canadian immigrant authors in the hopes members can add to the list via Twitter or Facebook. Writers like these have expanded the scope of CanLit and brought into it an astonishing range of cultures, cities, history, and perspectives. Happy Canada Day, everyone!

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thehungryghosts

The Hungry Ghosts, by Shyam Selvadurai (born in Sri Lanka): In Buddhist myth, the dead may be reborn as "hungry ghosts"—spirits with stomach so large they can never be full—if they have desired too much during their lives. It is the duty of the living relatives to free those doomed to this fate by doing kind deeds and creating good karma. In Shyam Selvadurai’s sweeping new novel, his first in more than a decade, he creates an unforgettable ghost, a powerful Sri Lankan matriarch whose wily ways, insatiable longing for land, houses, money and control, and tragic blindness to the human needs of those around her parallels the volatile political situation of her war-torn country. The Hungry Ghosts is a beautifully written, dazzling story of family, wealth and the long reach of the past. It shows how racial, political and sexual differences can tear apart both a country and the human heart—not just once, but many times, until the ghosts are fed and freed.

A Fine Balance, by Rohintin Mistry (born in India): Set against the emergency measures imposed by Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s, A Fine Balance follows the lives of four unlikely people as they struggle “to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.” Originally published in 1995, A Fine Balance is both a warning about the human terrors that await a society without compassion and a testimony to the enduring greatness of the human spirit.

ossuaries

Ossuaries, by Dionne Brand (born in Trinidad): Dionne Brand’s hypnotic, urgent long poem—her first book of poetry in four years, is about the bones of fading cultures and ideas, about the living museums of spectacle where these bones are found. At the centre of Ossuaries is the narrative of Yasmine, a woman living an underground life, fleeing from past actions and regrets, in a perpetual state of movement. She leads a solitary clandestine life, crossing borders actual (Algiers, Cuba, Canada), and timeless. Cold-eyed and cynical, she contemplates the periodic crises of the contemporary world. This is a work of deep engagement, sensuality, and ultimate craft from an essential observer of our time and one of the most accomplished poets writing today.

The Magic of Saida, by M.G. Vassanji (born in Kenya): The Magic of Saida tells the haunting story of Kamal, a successful Canadian doctor who, in middle age and after decades in North America, decides to return to his homeland of East Africa to find his childhood sweetheart, Saida. Kamal's journey is motivated by a combination of guilt, hope, and the desire to unravel the mysteries of his childhood—mysteries compounded by the fact that Kamal is the son of an absent Indian father from a well-to-do family and a Swahili African mother of slave ancestry. This complex, revelatory, sweeping and shocking book is a towering testament to the magical literary powers of M.G. Vassanji.

The Tiger, by John Valliant (born in the US): It's December 1997 and a man-eating tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia's Far East. The tiger isn't just killing people, it's annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. To their horrified astonishment it emerges that the attacks are not random: the tiger is engaged in a vendetta. Injured and starving, it must be found before it strikes again, and the story becomes a battle for survival between the two main characters: Yuri Trush, the lead tracker, and the tiger itself. Beautifully written and deeply informative, The Tiger is a gripping tale of man and nature in collision, that leads inexorably to a final showdown in a clearing deep in the Siberian forest.

The Book of Revenge, by Dragan Todorovic (born in Yugoslavia): To a young boy growing up poor but happy in an industrial town in Serbia, politics means many national holidays that result in parades, piglets roasting on a spit, and getting to see both his hard-working parents at the same time. An observant child, Dragan Todorovic quickly learns the power of words. This love of words eventually takes Dragan to Belgrade, as editor for a cultural magazine. He hopes to inspire and support the young and innovative artists of the time, but soon discovers that naughty articles do not yield the same results as limericks, and he finds himself constantly clashing with the system. His many questions get only one answer: he is drafted into the army. Dragan survives his tour of duty, but his return to Belgrade is unsettling. Everything is changing, rapidly. Friendships are collapsing, conversations are guarded, nothing is as it seems. Bit by bit, the country he knows and loves is being torn apart. The Book of Revenge is a superb duet of a citizen and his country, a universal exploration of just what it is that inoculates the human spirit from dangerous ideologies and toxic nationalism.

De Niro's Game, by Rawi Hage (born in Lebanon): "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide." In Rawi Hage's unforgettable novel, winner of the 2008 IMPAC Prize, this famous quote by Camus becomes a touchstone for two young men caught in Lebanon's civil war. Bassam and George are childhood best friends who have grown to adulthood in war torn Beirut. Now they must choose their futures: to stay in the city and consolidate power through crime; or to go into exile abroad, alienated from the only existence they have known. Bassam chooses one path: obsessed with leaving Beirut, he embarks on a series of petty crimes to finance his departure. Meanwhile, George builds his power in the underworld of the city and embraces a life of military service, crime for profit, killing, and drugs. Told in the voice of Bassam, De Niro's Game is a beautiful, explosive portrait of a contemporary young man shaped by a lifelong experience of war.

Room, by Emma Donaghue (born in Ireland): To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It’s where he was born and where he and his Ma eat and play and learn. At night, Ma puts him safely to sleep in the wardrobe, in case Old Nick comes. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it’s the prison where Old Nick has kept her for seven years, since she was nineteen. Through ingenuity and determination, Ma has created a life for herself and her son, but she knows it’s not enough for either ofthem. Jack’s curiosity is building alongside Ma’s desperation —and Room can’t contain either of them for much longer ... Told entirely in the inventive, often funny voice of Jack, Room is a celebration of the resilient bond between parent and child, and a brilliantly executed novel about a journey from one world to another.

The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak (born in Poland): Behind every great ruler lies a betrayal. Eva Stachniak's novel sweeps readers into the passionate, intimate, and treacherous world of Catherine the Great, revealing Russia's greatest matriarch from her earliest days in court, where the most valuable currency was the secrets of nobility and the most dangerous weapon to wield was ambition. Two young women, caught in the landscape of shifting allegiances, navigate the treacherous waters of palace intrigue. Barbara is a servant who will become one of Russia's most cunning royal spies. Sophia is a pretty, naive German duchess who will become Catherine the Great. For readers of superb historical fiction, Eva Stachniak captures in glorious detail the opulence of royalty and the perilous loyalties of the Russian court.

The Best Place on Earth, by Ayelet Tsabari (born in Israel):In illustrating the lives of those whose identities swing from fiercely patriotic to powerfully global, The Best Place on Earth explores Israeli history as it illuminates the tenuous connections—forged, frayed and occasionally destroyed—between cultures, between generations and across the gulf of transformation and loss. In the powerfully affecting opening story, “Tikkun,” a chance meeting between a man and his former lover carries them through near tragedy and into unexpected peace. In “Casualties,” Tsabari takes us into the military—a world every Israeli knows all too well—with a brusque, sexy young female soldier who forges medical leave forms to make ends meet. Poets, soldiers, siblings and dissenters, the protagonists here are mostly Israelis of Mizrahi background (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent), whose stories have rarely been told in literature.

*Book descriptions are pulled from jacket copy on file with 49th Shelf.

July 1, 2013
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