Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions

Edited by Linda Hutcheon and Marion Richmond


372 pages

“So many Canadians have been convinced good writing comes from elsewhere.” — Linda Leith

The myth that Canadians don’s create good literature faces a formidable opponent in the form of the book Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions. This collection of stories written by eighteen Canadian authors of diverse cultural backgrounds illustrates the wide spectrum of experience and emotion that immigrants to our country encounter. Following each story is an interview with the author conducted by literary scholars and experts who also have roots in various cultural traditions. In these interviews the authors relate some of their personal experiences and offer opinions on a range of subjects related to the theme of multiculturalism in Canada.

There are two major dangers in collecting such a large number of interviews. If each interview consists of the same questions, the spontaneity of the book is stifled, and reading it becomes monotonous and soporific. On the other hand, if the questions are too scattered, the interviews risk being incoherent and irrelevant. Editors Linda Hutcheon and Marion Richmond clearly had both pitfalls in mind as Other Solitudes avoids repetitiveness as much as possible, while maintaining continuity by addressing several major themes in virtually every interview.

One aspect of multiculturalism that receives the attention it deserves is racism. Many of the authors have faced racism in their own immigrant experiences, and address the issue in their fiction as well as in their discussions. In responding to a question about white Canadians’ attitudes toward “more recently arrived immigrants” and visible minorities, Austin Clarke relates, “We all went through, more or less, the indignities of going to rent a flat and finding that it was taken and, then, using a more circuitous route, like an investigative reporter, to find out it wasn’t taken.” Dionne Brand echoes this experience when she tells of a job which was available to her over the phone, no longer available when she arrived in person, and yet available once again when she called a second time. “Every black person can tell you a similar story,” reflects Brand.

An interesting dialectic emerges, however, with the interview with Neil Bissoondath, who is of a similar cultural background to Brand and Clarke. Although Bissoondath agrees that “we always have to worry about racism,” he is equally worried about people “screaming racism” inappropriately and crying wolf. While Clarke states adamantly that “the Black cannot be racist in any meaningful sense,” Bissoondath’s story depicts a cultural environment in which “not only whites are racist.” In this book, specific problems such as racism are grappled with eloquently from many angles and points of view. Other Solitudes thus challenges one to think, to react and to re-evaluate one’s opinions and prejudices.

Multiculturalism as an official policy is another theme discussed by many of the authors. On this issue, the prevailing sentiment is that official multiculturalism emphasizes the separateness of the various cultural groups and can lead to “ghettoization.” Many authors resent being categorized as “ethnic” writers, because they want to be judged on their literary merit alone, and do not wish to carry the burden of having to represent a particular culture. Other authors contend that multiculturalism helps to combat the alienation that many immigrants feel in this country, by giving them a sense of “belonging.”

On the issue of multiculturalism, another dialectic emerges. Rohinton Mistry claims that it spreads “the message that all races and all cultures are to be respected.” Bissoondath counters that multiculturalism’s divisiveness creates “a kind of gentle, cultural, ethnic Canadian apartheid,” and he favours doing “everything one can to fit into the society at large.” A synthesis of these two antitheses seems to be offered by Himani Bannerji, who warns that one must be wary of cultural “ossification” as well as assimilation, and find self expression within the Canadian environment.

The other major contribution to this book is the stories. Most readers will inevitably discover several authors whose works they had not read before, but whose stories in the volume they thoroughly enjoy. The truly curious reader will act on this discovery and seek out the novels and collections from which these stories are taken. The stories, however, serve another purpose besides offering succulent sample tastes from the menu of Canadian literature. In the context of a book devoted to exploring multiculturalism they serve as poignant literary compliments to the intellectual discussions they precede.

The fiction depicts the reality of Canada’s multicultural environment, while the interviews often probe the theoretical aspects and possibilities of multiculturalism. Interviewer Kaarina Kailo reflects that literature is “good” when it activates “the reader’s own imagination and powers of judgment.” In this sense, Other Solitudes is a good book, because both the fictions and the discussions succeed in activating and provoking the sensibilities of the reader.