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Run J Run, by Su J Sokol, Renaissance Press, 2019

 

Run J Run, Sokol’s latest novel, was published in May this year by Renaissance Press, a publishing company whose roster features writing that doesn’t fit into a standard genre, niche or demographic and which hopes to uplift marginalized voices. Sokol’s beautifully detailed and poignant writing fits perfectly into the mandate that Renaissance has established.

Sokol describes herself as an “activist and a writer of speculative, liminal, and interstitial fiction.” She immigrated to Canada with her family in 2004 from New York City, where she was a legal services lawyer. She now makes Montréal her home and it is here that she practises both her art and her activism. In addition to her writing, Sokol works as a social rights advocate for a Montréal community organization.

Cycling to Asylum, Su’s debut novel, was long-listed for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her short fiction and reviews have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies. Su also curates and participates in readings and literary events in Canada and abroad.

On her web site, Sokol describes the novel as “a riveting tale of friendship, love, and chosen family. Using the tools of psychological drama and erotica, it presents a compelling critique of both the treatment of mental illness in our society and the false boundaries we construct in our personal relationships.”

We follow three principal characters who are close friends, as they navigate the challenges that life presents to them. Jeremy, a high school English teacher, grapples with a failed marriage and the loss of his brother. Through the processing of this grief he unexpectedly falls in love with his best friend, Zak. Attractive, wildly unconventional, seemingly happy in an open and loving relationship with his partner Annie, Zak seems to embody everything missing from Jeremy’s life. The arrest and death of a marginalized student at the Brooklyn high school where they both teach trigger Zak’s mental breakdown and slow descent. Jeremy and Annie are compelled to cross boundaries, both external and internal, in a desperate attempt to save him. Run J Run celebrates the day-to-day heroism and the humanity of ordinary, flawed individuals faced with trauma, loss, and marginalization.

I really liked the depiction of a non-traditional family in a way that honoured their journey. We learn of the struggles that face them, from daily challenges to the ongoing fight with mental health issues. In addition to all this, as individuals and as a family, they suffer the attitudes of society and are marginalized simply because of their family structure. The novel explores how society can react to marginalized identities, both individual and collective, in ways that are not accepting or are even oppressive, and how we can sometimes internalize such oppressions and turn them on ourselves. The lesson emerging from the story is that family structures and the relationships that characterize them, whether traditional or not, are fundamentally human, and hope lies in our individual and collective search for our authenticity and our compassion at a human level.

While not articulated expressly, the social and political conscience that emerges from the story is perhaps best represented through the character of Annie. Her individual narrative, her reassurance, the compassion and the quiet strength she brings to the challenges that her family is confronted with, ultimately help us identify and understand the structures and values that exist beyond those that patriarchal and hetero-normative societies impose.

As someone who lives in a non-traditional family structure myself, the story resonated in profound ways for me. Such eloquent narration and representation of the story of this fictional family provide valuable images and models that are not broadly expressed or represented. This narrative, these images, legitimize and celebrate the triumphs of this non-traditional family as it navigates through the maze of life overlaid with the additional challenges of mental illness, depression and a desire of one of its members to take his own life. The story leaves us with hope and the sense that if we are to evolve, it is the attention to our humanity that will move us further, and compassion is the light that will guide us along this path.

Brilliant and compelling with moments of rare beauty, I found this novel hard to put down. Highly recommended!

 

 

My Undiscovered Country by Cyril Dabydeen, Mosaic Press (2018), 129 pages

 

Cyril Dabydeen is a Canadian writer born in 1945 in Canje, Guyana, where he worked as a teacher. He came to Canada in 1970 to study at Lakehead University and later at Queen’s University. He is a prolific writer of poetry and prose, and his work has been included in numerous anthologies published in Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., India and New Zealand. Dabydeen was appointed Poet Laureate of Ottawa from 1985 to 1987. He worked for many years in the areas of human rights and race relations, and later taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa. He now teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa, and lives in the nation’s capital.

Dabydeen has been associated with the idea of multiculturalism, both for his writing and for his work in race relations and human rights as a consultant and an expert on Canadian diversity. Like many Canadian writers, artists and cultural workers with roots in or links to minority communities, Dabydeen’s position on multiculturalism seems to have evolved over time. While he has been critical of multiculturalism in the past, he and others have contributed, through their art and cultural work, to the evolution of multiculturalism away from essentialism or a focus on “origins.”

One could perhaps argue that the focus on culture of origin that was at the root of the ideal of multiculturalism also contributed to the sense that Canadians did not have a common identity. Our collective identity was characterized as a “mosaic” of communities, each defined by the state, using perceived distinguishing and immutable characteristics, seen as exclusive to each community. While superficially celebrating difference, this approach inevitably resulted in the creation of static cultural or racial profiles that simply perpetuated a sense of dislocation and erected systemic barriers to the evolution of mutual understanding and exchange across and between communities and larger Canadian society.

Over time, with the efforts of writers like Dabydeen, as well as aware artists and cultural workers from minority communities, we can see a shift happening towards a more dynamic understanding of multiculturalism as a reflection of Canadian society as it exists and evolves as a whole, and the recognition of the cultural diversity that exists and evolves therein.

In My Undiscovered Country, Dabydeen continues this journey of discovery with a series of short stories that explore the question of who is a Canadian and what it means to be a Canadian.

Dabydeen is very much at ease with characters and identities that are complex and multi-layered. This collection includes stories that juxtapose motifs from life in Guyana with those of life in a big city in Canada. He eschews the need to deconstruct or analyze with a heavy hand, but rather lets his characters be. They are living, breathing individuals who interact with each other and with the state. It is through their sharing memories, regrets, pains, hopes and dreams that we get to know them and understand their realities. It is also through this process that Dabydeen communicates his vision of a multiculturalism that is more dynamic and inclusive and allows for cultural values and identities that are fluid and adaptive to the realities of a culturally and racially diverse society.

His vision also moves us away from a superficial sense of “this” or “that” – the binary duality – towards a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of individuals across Canadian society. While recognizing individual differences, the focus is shifted to places where we interact with each other and share experiences, good or bad, and to how these exchanges affect our evolution as a society, and ultimately our humanity.

Undiscovered Country,” the story that shares its title with the book, is a first-person narrated look at “Dacana,” a country, part imagination, part reality, where Dabydeen explores notions of belonging in a country with which he is engaged in an ongoing process of discovery.

Let me tell you straight, Dacanians are not an insecure people; and, they’re tolerant of others. They’re often generous to newcomers, what’s deep in their spirit. But from time to time you hear on the TV and radio talk-shows people railing against…who?

Terrorists?

Dacanians like newcomers to express gratitude for being here, for it makes them feel good about themselves, especially with the great big maw to the south still opening up. In the harsh winter months with the cold in my bones, I will say thank-you! Oh yes, “always work hard,” said the immigration officer handing me the official papers.

I will.

The stories in the collection touch on a variety of themes. The societal impact on collective understanding of minority identities based on static cultural profiling, including the emergence of a movement of intolerance and the undercurrent of racism, is explored in “Being Canadian.” In “Life with Ming, he appears as himself in a dialogue or interview of sorts with one of his created characters, Ming, a Chinese woman, who was once an English teacher in China and now works as a clerk in a government department. In addition to sharing their respective histories, Ming is curious about being a writer. This device allows Dabydeen to reveal aspects of his identity and his vision. The story also explores the paradox for him of writing in English, the language of the colonizer.

“The Committee” is perhaps the story that deals most explicitly with multiculturalism and the debate surrounding its perceived strengths and shortcomings. While the social and cultural analysis is engaging in and of itself, the depth of the story and the insight that it presents to the reader come from the skill with which Dabydeen communicates the discomfort that members of cultural minorities can experience working within state structures.

The remaining stories explore related themes with narratives drawn from Dabydeen’s personal and professional experiences as a writer and a teacher. With each story, whether through the narrative or the dialogues between characters, Dabydeen shares his reflections about Canadian society and the social and cultural dynamics it harbors. His is a style that is lyrical, engaging and insightful. My Undiscovered Country is a must read for anyone interested in the evolution of multiculturalism in Canada!