Pico Iyer Journeys

Imagining Canada

The creation of a community and the creation of a work of art have a lot in common, as both these books remind us: both begin with a vision, a product of thoughtfulness and imagination, and then both try to find a structure so that the vision can be communicated to the world. That is one way in which poets can be “unacknowledged legislators of mankind,” in Shelley’s words. And in my travels, which often take me to three or four countries in a week, I haven’t come across many stirring visions of the future in Los Angeles or Hong Kong or Paris. They may be on their way, but for now there’s no South African English Patient, and no Fugitive Pieces in Atlanta. The plural and protean identities that Canadians have been juggling, if only in their minds, for decades are only now becoming realities for members of the European Union, say.

An outsider’s first obligation, when he visits a place, is to take in its moral and emotional complexities, and so appreciate the ways in which what may be so pleasing for him can be less exalting for the resident. I read Neil Bissoondath, therefore, and Bharati Mukherjee, and listen too, when John Bentley Mays, an American who loves Toronto and has chosen to live here, tells me that it has a “clannish” sense and a habit of “self-segregation” more divisive than in any other city that he knows. I hear Canadians, especially of African descent, talk of “racism with a smile on its face,” and when I visit a school in Scarborough, and learn that 70% of the students come from homes where English is not the spoken language, I am reminded that creating a common vision isn’t going to be easy. Immigrants bring rhythms and colors and books to their new homes, but they also bring suspicions and resentments and fears. The Tamil Tigers recruit for members in that high-school, and ethnic groups regularly tear up their old enemies’ flags at City Hall.

Yet the only way to begin to heal division, as I see it, is through vision; and the only way to start doing things differently is by thinking differently. Hate, as Graham Greene writes, is just a failure of the imagination: the inability truly to imagine how the world looks to that person across the table, and how we look to him. An Indian, I can say from experience, only begins to step outside the enmities and divisions of his parents when he stops identifying himself as Indian, and moves towards a larger definition—or, perhaps best of all, settles inside a space outside all definitions. He may learn how to do that—Canada has taught me—by reading the fiction of a fellow immigrant from Italy.

I say all this as someone who has spent only a few weeks in Canada, addressing those who have in many cases spent their whole lives here; but in an important sense that’s the point of this whole lecture. An outsider imports hope to a community, in part by seeing the blessings that its locals may take for granted; and he brings them the wondering and grateful eyes of someone who knows the lesser alternatives elsewhere. A newcomer also imports the determination of one given a second chance, to make one’s life something different. Canada’s particular glory to me lies in the fact that it is a country so much made for and by outsiders; and though its drawbacks are visible to us all, they must be seen in the light of a Britain, say, where, as recently as 1990, someone who looked like me was fifty times more likely to be beaten up than someone who looked like Johnny Rotten.

I end now, at long last, with a confession: throughout this talk I’ve used the highly unlovely word “mongrel” instead of the euphonious,

government-approved word, “hybrid.” I do this deliberately, in part to remind us that the process of mingling cultures is a messy one, rough at the edges and not easily soothed into placid euphemisms: every time two worlds cross, a spark of uncertainty and fear rises up between them, something visceral and primal that comes with a scent of danger. As Michael Ondaatje suggests with his use of the equally unsentimental term, “international bastards,” the process of mixing may not be pretty, but it’s no bad thing if one comes without a pedigree.

Indeed, in preparing for this evening, I went back to The English Patient one more time, and when I did so, I noticed something I’d never seen before. There aren’t just four living beings in that Tuscan villa; there’s a fifth. And as with everything in the book, the details of that fifth do not seem accidental. He is a dog, as it happens, who, Ondaatje writes, is “an old mongrel, older than the world.” And as he peeps in and out of the action, more often than I’d expected, he begins to explain why dogs suddenly appear at a dance in Cairo, and why The English Patient’s lover sees him at one point, as a “dog in clothes.” The mongrel, the book seems to suggest—and I agree— may be the herald of a new world.

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