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Neil Bissoondath Biography

toronto trinidad canada canadian

Nationality: Canadian (emigrated from Trinidad in 1973). Born: Devindra Bissoondath, Trinidad, West Indies, 1955. Education: York University, Toronto, B.A. in French 1977. Career: Teacher of English and French, Inlingua School of Languages, Toronto, 1977-80; teacher of English and French, Language Workshop, Toronto, 1980-85. Awards: McClelland and Stewart award for fiction, 1986, and National Magazine award, 1986, both for "Dancing."

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

A Casual Brutality. Toronto, Macmillan, 1988; New York, Potter, 1989.

The Innocence of Age. Toronto, Knopf, 1992.

The Worlds within Her. Toronto, Knopf Canada, 1998.

Short Stories

Digging Up the Mountains. Toronto, Macmillan, 1985; New York, Viking, 1986.

On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows. Toronto, Dennys, and NewYork, Potter, 1990.

Other

Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. N.p., n.d.

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Neil Bissoondath's writing takes readers into marginalized social and geographical territories, without ever moving far outside the conventions of literary realism. This combination of the exotic and the familiar has attracted a wide readership extending from North America to Europe, where his works have been translated into French and German.

Given his family history of double migration from India to Trinidad to Canada, it is not surprising that his narratives often focus on migrant experiences of displacement, uncertainty, isolation, cultural dislocation, and adaptation. These themes dominate many of the stories in Digging Up the Mountains and On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows. Of particular interest in such stories as "Christmas Lunch," "Veins Visible," "Security," and "The Power of Reason" is Bissoondath's alertness to the complexity of gender relations in multicultural contexts, and to differences between women's and men's respective experiences of migration and cultural adaptation.

Episodes of apparently random violence witnessed by Bissoondath in his early years in Trinidad find a place in his first novel A Casual Brutality. Narrated in the first person, the novel is a colonial Bildungsroman. The protagonist's inner journey towards maturity and understanding is bound up with a physical journey from a small Third World island to a metropolitan center of Western culture. Although the fictional island of Casaquemada resembles Trinidad in certain respects, Bissoondath's aim is not to recount a specific epoch in Trinidad's history, but rather to draw on episodes that took place in various West Indian countries. This desire to internationalize and universalize his stories, and to avoid analysis of specific historical episodes and political struggles, has attracted severe criticism from certain quarters.

Over time, Bissoondath's focus has shifted away from Trinidad toward his Canadian experiences and concerns. The title story of On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows penetrates the limbo world of a diverse group of fugitives from political violence and economic oppression who anxiously await the outcome of their applications for refugee status in Canada. "Uncertain Tomorrows" exposes the ethnocentricity of the legal criteria for granting refugee status, and the biases institutionalized in the court process. "The Power of Reason" emphasizes the gender-specificity of migrant experiences. Because equality of opportunity for women is often contingent upon their race and nation of origin, Canada's vertical mosaic has its own distinctive pink ghettos. Monica, an immigrant woman who cleans house for a white professional woman, has daughters who also work hard to take advantage of the opportunities gained through migration. Monica's sons, by contrast, either laze in front of the television or hang out on the street, mimicking the young Black American males they see on television. To Monica, her sons are complete strangers. The cultural gulf that opens up in many migrant families between the generations is compounded by a gap between gender roles.

Yet as The Innocence of Age suggests, migration is not a necessary prerequisite either to intergenerational conflict or to cultural alienation within the family. In Bissoondath's second novel, a father and son live in entirely different worlds, although both have always resided in Toronto. Except for the fact that its two main characters are Anglo-Canadian, and have no familial connection with another country, The Innocence of Age conforms in virtually every respect to the thematic and structural paradigms of "ethnic fiction." This would be a quintessential immigrant novel, were it not for the fact that its central characters are not immigrants. By writing an "ethnic novel" centering on people customarily perceived as "non-ethnic," Bissoondath effectively "ethnifies" Canada's dominant cultural group.

With each successive publication, it becomes increasingly clear that Bissoondath's novels and short stories occupy a place beside his interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, and his book on multiculturalism, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada—all contribute to the debate on Canadian multiculturalism. Irrespective of their geographical settings, which range from Trinidad to Europe and Japan as well as Canada, Bissoondath's works comment on the conditions under which the category of "multicultural writing" is constructed, and they critique the institutional circumstances under which "multicultural texts" are produced, interpreted, and evaluated. Bissoondath's literary practices and aesthetic values are entirely consistent with his critical stance on Canadian multiculturalism. By exploring what he sees as universal human themes, emotions, and experiences, Bissoondath endeavors to build and strengthen forms of mutual understanding and social cohesion that he would like to see asserted more strongly throughout Canadian society.

—Penny van Toorn

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