The world is currently seeing unprecedentedly high numbers of displaced peoples. Domestically, Canada faces growing tensions around immigration, race, discrimination, and systemic violence. It’s increasingly easy to forget the faces behind the numbers; human lives often get boiled down to statistics or identity politics.
A new novel published by Penguin Random House, David Chariandy’s Brother, aims to address this. It focuses on those living in marginalized communities.
Brother is set in Chariandy’s native Scarborough suburbs. Set in the early nineties, Brother follows the lives of two second-generation, mixed-heritage Trinidadian-Canadian brothers, Michael and Francis, as they navigate the violent, stifling fringes of the city and grow up understanding that almost everybody, by default, underestimates them because of the colour of their skin.
As the narrator, Michael is quiet and reflective, a natural observer. Francis, the older brother, is magnetic and strong-willed; he hopes to carve out a space for himself in the music industry. Meanwhile, their mother — single and perpetually exhausted — works multiple jobs, tireless in her ambition to provide ‘opportunity’ for her sons.
However, facing the hostile realities of being Black in a prejudiced community, Michael and Francis collide directly with the fear-driven forces of a single bullet.
Throughout Brother, Chariandy offers a sincere meditation on grief in the aftermath of careless brutality, the bonds that hold families together, and the corrosive despair of being stuck in one place and tied down by poverty. The book is longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and is a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and rightly so.
The book is a jewel. I found that along with its blatant and honest portrayal of inequality, it’s filled with moments of grit, pride, courage, and hope. Although barely longer than a novella, Brother dazzles and devastates. It’s brutal, poetic, and palpable, all at once.
The Boat People
Palpability is the strength of The Boat People too, the beating of a human pulse that readers will feel within the pages. Bala successfully weaves distinct stories together, transitioning between three perspectives: those of Mahindan, a Sri Lankan refugee and the father of six-year-old Sellian; Priya, his second-generation Sri Lankan-Canadian lawyer; and Grace, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian adjudicator assigned with the task of deciding Mahindan’s future.
Bala’s tale opens up with the quotidian sounds, sights, and smells of a refugee boat, where all sense of time is lost. When Mahindan first sees the approaching horizon of a strip of land — Canada — a singular thought floods his mind: “We are safe.” And if, as readers, we’re unable to relate to his feeling of relief, we can certainly recognize the moment the refugees are met with protest: “Send the illegals back! Go home terrorists!”
Despite representing an accepting and tolerant sanctuary to Mahindan, he soon discovers that the country is full of fear and resentment. He’s separated from his son and placed in a prison cell as he waits to be granted asylum.
In our current global climate, many refugees and immigrants are treated with the same indignation and aggressive pushback. Where The Boat People excels is in its depiction of the politics and bureaucracy surrounding refugee status, and the organization of refugees’ lives.
According to Anita Chong, Senior Editor at McClelland & Stewart and editor of The Boat People, Bala’s poignant novel “asks us to reflect on the often too-cozy image that we have of Canada as a welcoming nation, an image that many Canadians have been especially proud to burnish in 2017 in comparison to what is happening in the United States. It asks us to remember that we have never been immune to the forces of fear and xenophobia.”
“Now that the worldwide refugee crisis has begun to push against Canada’s borders, Canadians are being asked to consider who should be allowed safe haven and who should be turned away,” added Chong.
One thing can be said for sure: both Brother and The Boat People are very timely additions to Canadian literature. They show how fiction is the antidote to hate and divisiveness, because of its ability to foster empathy for other ways of life and to recognize the universality of others’ struggles and joys.
Brother and The Boat People demand self-reflection. When we sing “O Canada” and pride ourselves in being “the True North strong and free,” we must ask ourselves a few questions: is freedom in Canada an exclusive term? If so, for whom is it reserved? Through the stories of Michael and Francis, and Mahindan and Sellian, we can learn to examine the powers of the institutions that are allowed to distribute or confiscate it.