Reimagining the Canadian Multiculture: the Alienation of the “Immigrant” Other in Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For
Academic Essay by Helen Wagner
When Canada’s Multiculturalism Policy first emerged in 1971 it was primarily reactionary in nature, seeking to define Canada’s multicultural identity in opposition to two cultural models familiar to the Canadian public: the first, the American “melting-pot” mentality and the second, Canada’s previous cultural structure, biculturalism. However, the Canadian multiculture long predates the policy, stretching back, theoretically, to the nation’s establishment; as a nation of First Nations, Anglophones, Francophones, and various immigrant diasporas, Canada has long found its identity in diversity. The Multiculturalism Policy, then, attempted to enshrine in law what had long been established in culture, by “[acknowledging] the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage” (Multiculturalism Act).
Recent discussions of multiculturalism in politics, academics and mainstream Canadian culture have often emphasized the complications and problems presented by a country which strives to define itself by its diversity. In these discussions it becomes clear that it is the “newcomers” to this nation, members of what Patricia E. Roy deems Canadian culture’s “Fifth Force” who get the short end of the multicultural stick. Roy uses the term “Fifth Force” to distinguish Canada’s African and Asian diasporas from other “immigrant” diasporas (the Fourth Force), Indigenous peoples (the First) and Anglophones and Francophones (the Second and Third Forces, also notably technically “immigrant”) (Roy 200). The voices of Canada’s Asian and African Diasporas are often silenced or limited in mainstream media and culture, a marginalization that persists despite official multicultural policies.
The recent Canadian literary tradition is rich with volumes discussing the alienation of the Fifth Force in the Canadian multiculture (Roy 204-205). Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For is an outstanding example of the ways in which Canadian culture in modern-day, transnational Toronto proves alienating for the second-generation children of immigrant families. In this essay I will perform a close reading of two of Brand’s characters, Vietnamese-Canadian siblings Tuyen and Quy Vu, in order to demonstrate the alienation of the “immigrant” other in the present-day Canadian multiculture. Through this close reading I will also discuss the models that Brand’s novel presents for overcoming alienation in multiculturalism and critique Toronto for its failure to create cultural homes for children of the the Fifth Force.
Through the lived experiences of Tuyen and her three friends, all second-generation immigrants to Toronto, Brand begins to demonstrate the limitations of the traditional narratives of Canadian multiculturalism. Tuyen and her friends “shared everything… [e]verything except family details.” (19). They did not fit in at their school, nor did they conform to the expectations their families had for them, Brand describes her protagonists as “loners,” sighing at their parents’ requests that they “fit in and stop making trouble” (19). Later, she also describes Tuyen and her friends as “skimming across high school, all bored with the adolescent prejudices of classrooms” (20). The friends were anxious to graduate, “they couldn’t wait to get out of school, where they had very early realized, as early as grade three, that nothing there was about them” (20). They felt abandoned by their parents to the “rough public terrain,” which their parents were themselves unable to handle, but expected their children to emerge from well-adjusted and as engaged members of Canadian society. Brand notes that due to their exclusion from the narratives taught in their classrooms, Tuyen and her friends “settled in as mainly spectators to the white kids in the class (20).”
Here readers begin to get a glimpse of the ways in which a predominantly Anglophone and Eurocentric Canadian identity excludes members of the Canadian multiculture. As Kit Dobson has noted, “the daily reality of being non-white within Canada gives [Brand’s characters] strong anti-national political consciousnesses,” (Dobson 88), forcing them to seek belonging in places other than the mainstream Canadian multicultural narrative. According to Dobson, Tuyen and her friends must “think themselves into being within contemporary Toronto and the world,” (89) neither choosing to wear the prescribed narrative of “immigrant” Canadians nor fitting into the mainstream culture their parents so desperately want them to join. Here we see that Tuyen and her friends choose not to subscribe to their parents’ stories, finding identity in their ties to their family histories, which they agree are “boring and uninteresting and a general pain, and best kept hidden” (19). However, they are also unable to identify with the things they are forced to learn in school, as “nothing there [is] about them” (20). Their relation to Canadian culture alienates them from their cultured pasts, but their ties to family and heritage alienate them from the Eurocentric Canadianism taught in school. Instead of being able to engage in the construction of the Canadian multiculture as active participants, Tuyen and her friends become “mainly spectators to the white kids in the class” (20). Still, in their ability to navigate their postnational identities within the Canadian multiculture and urban Toronto, Tuyen and her friends share a degree of freedom that her estranged and absent brother, Quy, does not possess.
The first time readers meet Quy in Brand’s novel, he begins by sharing his name with them: “Quy. It means, well, it means “precious,” and people underestimate me all the time because of my name” (Brand 6). As Carrie Dawson indicates, the manner in which Quy goes about introducing himself at the beginning of the novel closely mimics the manner in which refugees to Canada are asked to weave a narrative in which they describe “the significant events and regions that have led [them] to claim refugee protection in Canada” (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada quoted in Dawson 61; Dawson 67). Dawson describes Quy’s passages in the novel, delivered in first-person directly to the readers as “a complex and powerful indictment of the reader’s desire for a particular kind of narrative about a particular kind of refugee” (Dawson 67). As Quy continues, he makes it clear that he is not entirely comfortable with the genre of refugee narrative he is forced to conform to, saying, “How do I start to tell who I am? Talking is always a miscalculation, my father, Loc Tuc, used to say” (Brand 6). As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Quy refers to talking as a “miscalculation” with good reason; his story is unlike that of most refugees, failing to follow the typical dishonesties of emphasizing one’s own innocence and victimization, and admitting his own implication in the less than savoury scenes and cities he has left behind. But even before Quy acknowledges the risk in sharing his story, he does something else in these few lines: he emphasizes the limitations of narrative as a way to convey truth. By stating that his name causes people to “underestimate” him and musing about the difficulty of knowing how and where to begin telling his audience who he is, Quy demonstrates that he knows that stories are limited. Something is inevitably lost in translation when one tries to convey oneself through words. In the same measure that a refugee narrative strives to make an individual knowable to their readers, it also renders them unknowable, that is, foreign, other.
Both Dawson and Joanne Leow note that Quy is vital to Brand’s novel as a foil to the otherwise palatable, more cosmopolitan characters she puts forward as representatives of the diversity in multicultural Toronto. As Leow puts it, “Brand’s literary portrayal of the bleaker undercurrents of a globalized world through Quy challenges more celebratory, insular, and delineated ideas of what it means to call Toronto a “Global City”” (193). Dawson and Leow both note that Quy is, to many readers, less acceptable as a member of the Canadian multiculture than Brand’s other protagonists (Dawson 69-70, Leow 209-210). Although she does not make the link between Quy and the other refugees she writes about, Dawson describes refugees who only narrowly fit the perceived narrative of those who come to Canada as victims fleeing desperate circumstances, who arrive in Canada without the necessary papers, only to be filtered through the prison system before returning to the outside world (66). Quy, as one such “illegal” refugee is the ultimate Canadian “other.” Not only is he not white, he also does not speak fluent English, has a history in the Canadian prison system, and did not immigrate to Canada through any of the acceptable routes, as either a landed immigrant or a traditional, documented refugee. In other words, Quy is the antithesis of the ideal Canadian, even for one belonging to the Fifth Force of the Canadian multiculture. Though Tuyen and her friends feel alienated from the traditional Canadian mainstream culture and its narratives, Quy’s alienation is still more pronounced.
Rather than trying to disguise his alienated nature, Quy spends the majority of his narrative drawing the readers’ attention towards it. If the ultimate Canadian citizen is, as Dawson puts it, “unimplicated” and innocent (69), Quy goes to great lengths to inform the reader that he is neither: “What am I doing here, anyway? Well, I lost the compass for knowing where I was long ago, I suppose. So it’s useless asking who I am. You’re more interested in how I got off of Palau Bidong. How I got here and how grateful I am” (283). Gratitude is constantly demanded of refugees, a response that a Canada that sees itself as magnanimous seeks in order to validate itself (Dawson 68). If Quy is to come across as the consummate refugee, he knows he cannot tell his audience “how [he knows] the alleyways that lead to the backdoors of Chinatown in this city, if he does then they will “want to know how a person like [him] could get into such esoteric matters” (283). Still, Quy cannot ignore that he is too world-wise to be innocent, he says: “Get this, a person like me gets to know things. And if you were a boy like me you’d wise up soon enough to the way things get told and what the weight of telling is. (283)
Here Quy continues the theme of emphasizing how unknowable he is, as far as his audience is concerned, his identity is irrelevant, even to himself. However, Quy points out that his audience does not care to know him, instead, he insists, they are more interested in the story of his escape from Palau Bidong, and in hearing him voice his gratitude. Quy emphasizes that whether or not he is innocent or grateful, his audience would rather focus on these aspects of his story, rather than acknowledging his implication in bringing international crime into their city. Still, Quy will not let readers escape the truth of his duplicity, asking them “What if I told you there’s a web of people like me laying sticky strings all over this city?” (283). He forces readers to acknowledge his lack of innocence, asserting that if they had been in his place, they too would have wised up “to the way things get told,” forcing their own stories to fit into the acceptable narrative of a refugee grateful to be in Canada, whether or not that narrative actually reflected the truth.
Oddly enough, it is Tuyen, also alienated by the traditional narratives of the Canadian multiculture that is most conscious of Quy’s alienness. Her initial response to him as they meet for the first time in her brother Binh’s shop is not one of trust or acceptance. As someone also excluded by the traditional, sanitized narratives of Canadian culture, Tuyen recognizes that there is something inherently dishonest in Quy’s story; she understands that he is more alien and “unacceptable” than he is trying to appear:
Tuyen was propelled by Binh’s hand and an ineffable dread toward the man. She reached involuntarily for his shoulders. He felt like nothing, a ghost. She sensed something malevolent and withdrew her arms…
No coherent thoughts came to her except that something was wrong. Her brother couldn’t be this man. This man had a contained tightness, a light presence; this man she was sure could harm you coolly, arbitrarily. But what had she expected? Why shouldn’t he be such a man? After all he had been through? Why shouldn’t he be ferine and cold? He was entitled. He could not simply live in their imagination perpetually innocent, perpetually pure. Things had happened to him. Probably bad things. She—they were all transfixed in the past, but he had been living. Living out their distress as well as his own. (298)
Again, Brand returns to the theme of innocence, this time highlighting that we can only perceive someone as innocent in the absence of true understanding of them. Quy remains innocent only as long as he is unknown to Tuyen, in real life, “he [cannot] simply live in [her] imagination perpetually innocent, perpetually pure” (298). Confronted with the reality of Quy, who she realizes may or may not be her brother, who she perceives him to be; Tuyen realizes that it is impossible to sustain the illusion of her brother’s innocence if she actually pertains to get to know him. The unimplicated refugee narrative lasts only as long as it is held at arm’s length. At the same time, Tuyen acknowledges in this passage that she cannot truly know for certain if Quy is her brother—she may choose to get to know him, to embrace both the aspects of him that are easily palatable and those that are not, but she is simultaneously incapable of truly understanding them. Here Brand reflects a principle outlined by Martha Nussbaum, that our imagination has its limitations, and “that we are not all brothers under the skin, that circumstances of oppression form desire and emotion and aspiration. Some [people] feel like us, and some repel easy identification. But such failures to identify can also be sources of understanding. Both by identification and by its absence, [readers] learn what life has done to people” (Nussbaum 151). When Tuyen is faced with her brother, she realizes that there is a boundary between them that neither can cross, forged by radically different experiences, which render him unknowable. The hardships Quy has faced have made him unknowable to Tuyen—she cannot simply reduce him to an innocent child, nor can she begin to understand him as he is now by deconstructing his projected persona in an attempt to perceive his true identity. Quy’s potential place in the Canadian multiculture is complicated by the degree to which he is unknowable, either as an innocent victim or an experience-hardened criminal.
In the end, the landscape Brand paints of multicultural belonging in Toronto is bleak. As second-generation members of the Fifth Force, Tuyen and her friends are alienated by the dominant narratives of the Canadian multiculture, but as an illegal refugee, a criminal and a foreigner, Quy is still more alien, unknowable even to his own sister and implicated in a host of criminal ventures. As Brand’s characters try to navigate postnational Toronto, finding belonging in its multiethnic but unintegrated neighbourhoods, it is clear that they do not find their identity in being members of the idealized Canadian multiculture. Yet Roy offers a unique suggestion for how readers can reconcile postnational Canada with the Canada written and described by the Fifth Force, maintaining that “If Canadians can listen to new creative voices” and “distill [our] experiences of Canada through a variety of rich cultural heritages,” [we] may yet devise a distinct, diverse, and vibrant culture that will be [our] common identity” (209). Roy argues not that the differences between Canadian subcultures and identities will drive us apart, but that those things which make us different can alter the way we see one another (209). The key, Roy suggests, is to learn to see the other through new lenses, and not only through the limitations of our own, we can do this, Roy indicates, by “distilling” our own experiences of our nation through the contrasting experiences of others, and in so doing, arrive at a more complete sense of identity than the one we have on our own (209). Twenty-first century, “postnational” Canada is, after all, an implicated Canada. The past narrative of Canadianness as innocently multicultural no longer rings true. If Canadian multiculturalism is to be meaningful at all, it must make room for narratives like Tuyen and Quy’s. However, a multiculture which simply tries to encompass all of these narratives is still a limited, naïve multiculture. Roy’s conclusions suggest that we must use other narratives to reinterpret our own—the Canadian narrative which so alienated Tuyen and her friends cannot be truthful without first being understood through Tuyen’s eyes, or refracted through the darker picture that Brand paints of Canada through Quy’s experience.
If the Canadian multiculture is left as it is, then Toronto is indeed, as Dobson puts it, “postnational,” a place in which people are left in constant motion, seeking belonging and unable to find it unless they construct it for themselves, outside of the mainstream, idealized Canadian multiculture (93). This Toronto can only be a place of frustration and alienation for the members of the Fifth Force represented in Brand’s novel. Yet there is still hope for Toronto as a both a postnational city and a Canadian, multicultural urban centre—if Canadians can learn, as Roy puts it, to distill our experience of Canada through other narratives, particularly like those found in Brand’s novel, it is possible that the Canadian multiculture will succeed in its aims of constructing a truly inclusive Canada, one in which the voices of Canada’s Asian and African Diasporas are no longer marginalized, but are instead privileged as an invaluable lens to help Canadians understand the limitations of their own, individual and alienating perspectives.
Brand, Dionne. What We All Long For. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 2005.
Dobson, Kit. ““Struggle Work”: Global and Urban Citizenship in Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For.” Studies in Canadian Literature 31.2 (2006): 89-103
Dawson, Carrie. “On Thinking Like A State and Reading (About) Refugees.” Journal of Canadian Studies 45.2 (2011): 58-75
Leow, Joanne. “Beyond the Multiculture: Transnational Toronto in Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For.” Studies in Canadian Literature 37.21 (2012): 92-212
Nussbaum, Martha C. “Democratic Citizenship and the Narrative Imagination” in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. 85-97, 111-112
Roy, Patricia E. “The Fifth Force: Multiculturalism and the English Canadian Identity.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 538 (1995): 199-209