It’s a familar theme in the Canadian landscape of letters, and it was also the topic of Adrienne Clarkson’s recent Massey Lecture. “What does it mean to belong? And how do we belong? Who do we belong to?” These are the central ideas discussed in the series and they are at the heart of these three works of non-fiction as well.
M.G. Vassanji’s And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa is written in the same engaging and personable tone which readers have come to expect from the author’s fiction. The shape of the work is structurally more organic, however; it feels like having a series of conversations (in contrast with, say, the more formal Masseys) about the experiences which he has had, revisiting the lands he lived in as a boy.
Primarily the focus is on Dar es Salaam and Kariakoo, but the author wanders, literally, and readers become acquainted with a variety of places. The focus is primarily on the past, but the past as viewed from the present, an ever-changing thing.
The cover of the book, for instance, raises some interesting questions. It is a beautiful image. And,yet, what does one make of that beauty when one reads and learns more about it. “This, then, is the slave road, planted periodically with mango groves where the caravans rested.” It is no less beautiful. But that beauty is complicated by a bloody and painful history.
In combination with the author’s curiosity and reflective tone, this focus on questions increases readers’ engagement.
So, yes, it is a personal story: “Surely everyone inhabits his own space within a city, a space crowded by its characters and coloured by its stories.”
But it is also a reader’s story: “The shelves of Bgoya’s bookstore have fattened recently, the titles are fascinating. I can recall the dusty wooden skeletons of only a few years ago. Where else would one see Soyinka’s take on the new Africa, so abundantly displayed? Or a study of Ebrahim Hussein, the nation’s iconice modern playwright, who suddenly went silent? Or the full set of the gritty urban novels of the Kenyan Meja Mwangi? A history of Dar es Salaam, a dictionary of Nyakyusa?”
And an observer’s story: “In the white settler world of Kenya, described in many books, most famously by Elspeth Huxley, Beryl Bainbrdge, and Isak Dinesen, and romanticized by Hollywood and British television, the Asians hardly existed if at all.”
The story of a writer concerned with filling a gap where the record has omitted stories: “Who tells our stories, he said, who tells about what we have been through? This exhibit was an attempt to do just that .But there was a telling irony to it in the fact that more than half of the Asians had already gone away by the time it opened, taking their untold stories with them.”
It’s the story of a man who questions the rights of a storyteller: “: It is easy for me, in the comfort of my situation in North America, to condemn the nation’s reliance on foreign aid. To which I answer that leaving a place does not sever one’s ties to it, one’s feeling of concern and belonging. We are tied to our schools, our universities, our families even when we’ve left them – then why not to the place of our childhood, of our memories? Surely a returnee has some claim to the land which formed him – which is not in some godforsaken corner of the globe but in the centre of his imagination. And surely distance lends objectivity, allows one to see a place as the world sees it.
And a storyteller’s responsibility: “What risks do I take, who simply watch and listen?”
On many levels, readers can become engaged with this meditation on home, as a personal story and a human story. “But the African night is unforgettable; it sits forever on your heart.” The story of a man whose heart bears the weight of Africa, just as each of us bears the weight (be it a pleasure or burden to carry) of home on our hearts.
The epigraphs of Michael Winter’s Into the Blizzard suggest that this work, too, gathers its power from a combination of personal and historical sources.
The words of Major Arthur Raley, General Henry de Beauvoid de Lisle, and F. Scott Fitzgerald also suggest that the author will create a space alongside the historical record for fictional truth, affording the opportunity for personal reminiscence to mingle with the official record, for memories to share a page with facts.
“When I was a kid my grandfather sent us comics from England, wrapped in a roll of butcher’s paper. This was my first mail. I carefully tore off the postage stamps and soaked the scrap in a glass of water overnight. Then I slipped the stamps from the paper and dried them on a windowsill so that I could later insert them, with the lick of a glue hinge, into my stamp collector’s book. And this is what I am doing here, collecting a gallery of individual scenes that matter to me, into a scrapbook of what I think has survived of an antique war.”
Along the way, the author poses some difficult questions to readers, some lines of inquiry subtle (as is more often the case in And Home Was Kariakoo) and others direct.
“How does the past ambush us? How can we be accurate about what happened, how can we be true to it?”
Philosophical truths and observations are explored within the context of the experiences of Newfoundlanders in WWI.
“The spirit of the individual does not good in war. It is not one army against another; here is a third element involved in the machinery of war: the turning of men into the machine, and the functioning of that machinery.”
Often, expectations are subverted, not only for the author in his research and travels, but this is part of a broader legacy of disappointment and suprise.
“Richard Cramm, who wrote the first history of the regiment, says this of the Newfoundlanders at Gallipoli: ‘The soldiers had come expecting to find in war a life of excitement. They found it, on the contrary, duller than the most dreary spells of lonely existence in the back woods of their own island. The heat, the hard work, the flies, the thirst.’”
And, yet, the emphasis is on what is shared, across time and space. Not only in terms of the individuals’ experiences in wartime: “Newfoundlanders like to mythologize their losses, but everyone suffers. There is no massive difference.” But also in a humanistic sphere of experience: “Under the soil everything is holding hands and never dies.
Like M.G. Vassanji’s memoir, Michael Winter’s Into the Blizzard also includes a extensive endnotes, and suggestions for further reading and online resources. Into the Blizzard, however, offers an array of images, artwork and photographs on the endpapers and between the sections of the book, including a map which indicates the “Trail of the Caribou”, the Newfoundland Regiment’s key places and dates between 1914-18.
In contrast, Alan Doyle’s Where I Belong is a personal memoir and, yet, even it is rooted in a wider community — although much smaller than East Africa and the regiments engaged in conflict during the Great War, that of Petty Harboour.
“The houses back then in Petty Harbour, and most every house in Newfoundland, actually, were made of wood – clapboard on the outside. The way most North American lumberyards manufactured clapboard was with one smooth, sanded side and the other rough – full of cracks and splinters and grooves. The rough side was meant to face inward, while the smooth, finished side was supposed to face out. But us Newfoundlanders, being unique in our ways and far more practical than most, would often nail the clapboard rough side out because paint would stick to it better. Come to think of it, that’s the way most Newfoundland houses and Newfoundlanders themselves are built: rough side out.”
The sense of community comes through vividly and readers will feel as though they could walk into Petty Harbour and navigate, even say hello to a few of the residents, who must be as vibrant in real life as they are on the page.
“For most of my young life, there were two convenience stores in Petty Harbour. At different times a third or even fourth one came and went, but mainly there was one on the Catholic side and one on the Protestant side. The Protestant store was run by the Weir family, and it was called Herbie’s. We Catholics had Harbour Grocery, or Maureen’s, as we all knew it.”
Perhaps readers from Petty Harbour or Newfoundland beyond would find this dull reading, but for readers “from away”, it’s interesting to compare and contrast impressions from afar with Alan Doyle’s experiences growing up there (the work only covers his years until Great Big Sea’s earliest big-city shows).
“You know the tourism myth of the Newfoundland kitchen party and how everyone thinks we Newfoundlanders just sit around a big kitchen, drinking and playing music almost every other night, like it’s all a perfect postcard? Well, it was never a postcard for me. It was my reality. It’s how I grew up. It’s everything I knew.”
Certainly readers will find a great deal of Newfoundland “flavour” in this memoir, and sometimes it does feel a little like a tourist brochure.
“During certain weeks in the Newfoundland summer, millions upon millions of small fish called capelin washed ashore in Petty Harbour and the nearby coastal towns. Capelin look pretty much like sardines, but bigger. You can catch them from a boat in larger nets, as you might codfish or any other schooling groundfish, but the real fun was that magical time of year when you didn’t have to fish for them at all. All you had to do was collect them as they rolled ashore.”
But, ultimately, for all that readers might be increasingly aware of their visitors’ status (for needing an explanation of capelin perhaps), the intent of the work is to welcome readers.
And on this level, Where I Belong definitely succeeds. Alan Doyle is a storyteller and his voice on the page is just as it is in interviews and performances: warm, authentic and often humourous.
Even a caption on a photography can make readers chuckle: “Here I am, Montreal Canadiens colours ablaze, trying my best to be the centre of attention at a gathering of high school friends at a cabin. I’m sure I was thinking, ‘I bet that girl on the couch to my left is super impressed by this bar chord.’”
Each of these works considers different layers of belonging — M.G. Vassanji’s And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa, Michael Winter’s Into the Blizzard and Alan Doyle’s Where I Belong — and even those readers who prefer fiction will find themselves engaged in these tales on multiple levels.