Escaping the Cultural Imperative

A conversation with Neil Bissoondath
By Ali Lakhani

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Neil Bissoondath was interviewed by Ali Lakhani on Saturday, October 24, 1992 at the Vancouver International Writers' Festival.

Ali: Societies often identify individuals in terms of their ethnicity, in terms of characteristics such as race, religion, and culture. Are you troubled by this in any way?

Neil: I am troubled by it when these divisions are used to highlight and therefore to isolate people. I think it is the grand flaw in multiculturalism as we have practised it in this country. I think that the policy, as enunciated, is agenerous one. It is an interesting approach to creating a new kind of society, but it may be inevitable that because of the various forces that do try to manipulate society in its constituent parts, people will start finding themselves put into their little ghettos, into lots of pigeon holes created by those who have an interest in creating pigeon holes. Nothing is more convenient for a politician then to be able to identify an ethnic group for an election and turn up with a cheque in his hand. I believe that this is divisive and it is a policy, a way of approaching society, that is bad for society. It is bad for the country because it means that we develop a patchwork of people who do not know each other and fail to engage with each other in society. It is bad for the individual because it turns the individual into a kind of representative, into a kind of exotic exhibit, and that is immediately a narrowing of the human possibility.

Ali: You once referred to the Canadian policy of multiculturalism as "a gentle form of apartheid." Do you see the proposed treatment of aboriginals and French Canadians under the Charlottetown Accord also as a gentle form of apartheid?

Neil: I differentiate between the two.The Québec situation; having lived in Montréal for three years now, I am approaching the entire debate as a 'Quebecker' and this is a new discovery for me. I understand the situation and the needs of the Province of Québec. I speak French. I have lots of friends who are separatists, nationalists, federalists, both Anglophone and Francophone. I have come to realize that Québec really is, to use the phrase, a 'distinct society' within Canada.The Province of Québec is different, it approaches life differently, its attitudes towards life are different. Its reactions are different from the mass of English Canadians. It has special requirements for the protection of its language and its culture, and its culture is a way of life. That is what we are talking about. The way of life is different.

There are similarities between 'Quebeckers' and the rest of Canadians. There is a certain larger outlook towards life and an attitude towards politics that are similar. We have a shared history that we cannot deny and that has shaped us in certain ways. Yet these are not all of the differences.

Because Québec is different, because it has special needs, I think it needs special powers to deal with them. I think of it in terms of the family. I am driven to distraction sometimes by this simplistic interpretation that we hear from individuals, from ordinary people, from politicians, as to the meaning of equality. A lot of people seem to assume—and I think this is simplistic philosophy—that equality means sameness. Equality is never sameness. Every parent will treat his or her children equally, but differently, because every child has specific needs. We recognize the individuality of those children and we treat them equally but not in the same way. This is only normal.

Ali: What about the argument that other provinces should be treated as distinct?

Neil: We already do. We already do. The principal of distinct treatment has long been practised in this country, otherwise you wouldn't have things such as transfer payments from the richer provinces to the poorer provinces. We don't treat people the same way in this country. No province is treated the same way. We have to be careful when we start saying this. If we were to be consistent with the idea that every province is to be treated the same, then we must withdraw the transfer payments to the poorer provinces, and we must let every province deal with its economic realities in its own way. That is sameness. We don't believe in sameness for this country; we believe in equality, and we believe in treating people according to their needs, such as they are in their particular circumstances and in their regions and provinces. I fail to see why people—I think it is a kind of ignorance about just how different Québec is—fail to accept that Québec needs special powers. We use such loaded language here. Different powers.

Ali: At the root of all of this is a fear, is there not, a sense that by defining a society as distinct we are really driving wedges between communities in Canada?

Neil: There is possibly that fear I don't think it is a fair fear. I don't think it is informed. But no fear is ever informed. I think that if people were to know Québec more, it would make a difference...Too much of what I hear seems to be informed by ignorance.

Ali: While you are not a fan of multiculturalism policies, you don't subscribe to the American melting pot theory either.

Neil: No. Each one is false.

Ali: What is your view of the treatment that governments should accord to ethnically diverse societies?

Neil: Get the hell out of it.

Ali: Is there any role at all?

Neil: The role of the government is in combatting the things that divide us. Take racism for example. I would like to see more money put into the education system, encouraging people to see what unites us, not what divides us. Let's not highlight the differences. The differences are obvious to everyone. Those are interesting differences and sometimes they are divisive differences. What we have to highlight is the humanity that does unite us. And that has not been done. That is the only role for government. Beyond that, we are already too subject to government manipulation. We have to be very careful. I think government has used multiculturalism to manipulate the ethnic communities. Let's face it multiculturalism is prompted, in part—in great part—by an intent to co-opt the ethnic communities for the Liberal Party. It is a way of buying their loyalty, and it worked for many years. So, recognizing that, let's make the necessary changes.

Ali: Do you have a sense of personal identity that is linked to notions of ethnicity?

Neil: Not particularly.

I know who I am. I know where I have come from. I know as much as is possible to know. It is true of my family that a lot has been lost over the years. I am secure of who I am and I suppose from that point of view I do have a certain...identity, and I am comfortable with it,l know what it is. But it isn't particularly linked. It is as much linked to ethnicity as it is to being born where I was, into the family which I was born, and to what I do. The ethnicity itself plays no major role. It's simply part of who I am.

Ali: You shy away from linkages to particular groups.

Neil Yes.

Ali: And yet to some extent when one talks about identity, one has to think in terms of reference points.

Neil: I always think in and talk in terms actually, of my family, rather than of civilization. This is honestly how I think about it; on a fairly, I suppose, individual level. The only collective I'm comfortable with is the collective of the family. Beyond that, I am uneasy with any kind of larger collective, whether it be religious, ethnic, political. I have never—cannot even—join a political party. I haven't even been able to bring myself to join the Writers' Union. This is simply part of a personal distrust of any kind of collective identity.

Ali: And linked with that, I suppose, is a danger in stereotyping that can occur when one thinks in terms of larger groups.

Neil: Exactly. The stereotyping by others, but also a kind of theatre in your own personal life. They begin acting their ethnic role. And I have seen this too often. It becomes very sad.

Ali: Are you conscious of this as a writer, and do you try to avoid or even expose stereotypes in your writing?

Neil: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I am an enemy of ideology of any kind, political, racial, religious. All ideology depends on stereotypes, and human life is not so simple.

Multiculturalism constantly throws your ethnicity at you, thereby putting you at arm's length from society at large.

Ali: In what sense would you say that your own Indian-ness or West Indian-ness has shaped your writing? Has it been a defining factor in your writing?

Neil: It is very hard for me to say. And I suppose it is because I have not really thought about my writing in those terms. I am too close to the writing. I tell my stories and I learn from others what is in my stories. I am often asked how much influence, for example, did my uncle have or does my uncle (VS Naipaul) have in my writing, and I cannot answer that question. These are questions for an academic to answer; someone with a greater distance, who can look back and compare things and come to conclusions. As far as my writing is concerned, I am fairly instinctive. There are a lot of questions that I can really not honestly answer.

Ali: I would imagine that you would resist labels such as an 'Indo-Canadian style of writing' or 'Indo-Canadian novel.'

Neil: I wouldn't reject it, but I wouldn't be sure what it means. I have no idea what that means.

Ali: People speak of 'Canadian literature' and 'Canadian novels.' Do you think there is such a thing?

Neil: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, and in fact, it is the only label that I am happy with —'Canadian Writer.' I will tell you why; because it means everything and it means nothing, because it includes Rohinton Mistry, Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, Neil Bissoondath and MG Vassanji. It is such an open concept: 'Canadian Writer.'Canadian literature now accommodates such a variety that it is very comfortable to be called that.There is no label, there is no stereotype to be attached to it any more. There was a time when to be called a 'Canadian Writer' was to have elicited groans and, "Yes, tell me once more about your growing up on the damn prairies." That is no longer so. And that makes that label comfortable.

Ali: I suppose at some point the group becomes so large that it affords you anonymity.

Neil: Exactly. Because I distrust stereotypes so much. Labels will often create a stereotype in the mind of the potential reader. They will come to your work thinking that you are, let's say, an Indo-Canadian writer. People will pick up a book expecting a kind of eastern mysticism or exoticism. They won't necessarily find that in my work. They will judge my work based on its failure to provide them with the expectations that the label had created, and my work goes well beyond them, and so I want to avoid that.

Ali: Criticism from a prejudice.

Neil: Exactly. You get enough of that from academia.

Ali: In your novel, A Casual Brutality, the dilemma of Raj on one level is that he cannot embrace the ways of the past—what you've also termed the 'cultural imperative'—and yet he cannot flee these ways either. He vacillates between different choices of identity. He speaks of 'the theorem of race that informs every attitude of this society' in Casequemada. He instinctively rejects the racial definition of identity that characters like Surein and Madera have embraced, and yet he finds no comfort when he leaves Casequemada to come to Toronto. In Toronto he encounters a racism, and at the same time shrinks away from what you have termed the 'stares of racial inclusion' of his fellow West Indians. Do you believe that for an individual it is possible to escape from the culture imperative?

Neil: I like to think that it is possible. I like to think that one can take control of one's own life and of this fear. Certainly of one's internal life, and this is what the cultural imperative is in the end.

Ali: But it is not something purely subjective, there is an objective outlook to it as well. You need to be in an environment where you are accepted otherwise you are constantly reminded of differences. It is natural that you will have a sense of being apart.

Neil: Which is why I am an opponent of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism constantly throws your ethnicity or exoticism at you, thereby putting you at arm's length from society at large. I believe that an individual can—and I know lots of people who are like this—can be informed of who they are, of their background and the cultural imperative can be part of them but it doesn't necessarily control them. It's a wonderful freedom.You are not manipulated by the past, and this frees you to create your future as much as any society can allow an individual to create a future. But you haven't got that baggage or, at least, the baggage is a comfortable one.

Ali: There is an issue here of entrapment and the need to be detached. To what extent do you feel that we build the prisons that we live in? There is a tendency for people in life to hold onto things, to try and control things, ratherthan to let them evolve. Could you comment on how you explore this theme in your writing?

Neil: I basically come to it, whether it be questions of the Third World, to use that phrase, or of immigrants to this country— it seems to me that all change has to start inside. On the level of Third World problems, for example, a corrupt society—and there are many of them—will not stop being corrupt until the people of that country decide that they will in their personal lives stop practising corruption. It is not enough to be horrified at the politicians' corruption if you live a corrupt life yourself. And so the change has to be internal. And I think the same is true for immigrants.

You have to come with the attitude of 'you are coming to something, you are going to make something of your life,' and not allow yourself to be entrapped by your prejudices, by your fears, by your assumptions. I have seen too many people lead very sad lives, having arrived in this country and having wrapped themselves in their cultural baggage, creating their little worlds in their apartments, never engaging in society. Yet they believe that they know the society, judging it on misconception and usually judging it negatively, and therefore leading lives that go nowhere, leading lives that in which they eventually entrap themselves. They weave a little net for themselves, and the only ones who end up losing, in the end, are themselves. I think that all change has to come from inside, that's basically it. I think the individual responsibility is where everything starts.

Ali: And yet it is very difficult to escape that. I think for example of the ending to the story The Cage. The way the Japanese girl feels at the end that she has to go back to her society and the hold that her family seems to have over her. In a sense, the same sort of tension is one that you find in the character Raj in a A Casual Brutality.

Neil: It is never easy. I never claimed that it was easy. In fact, it is the most difficult thing. The easiest thing of all is the surrender. To surrender to those fears, to surrender to those assumptions, to those stereotypes that present themselves so easily, is comforting. It requires very little effort. What requires much more effort, intellectual and emotional, is to take that step beyond, because it means having to take a clear-eyed look at yourself. It means being honest with yourself about not only what you feel, but also about the origins of what you feel. It means questioning, sometimes, your very basic assumptions about yourself. So it is not easy, by any means, and it is easy to be dragged along, but I don't think it is impossible.

Ali: When I think of 'traditional societies,' by which I mean the societies with extended families, societies in India and perhaps the West Indies that you knew, I think of a greater emphasis on responsibility rather than on freedom and I think of the opposite when I think of what we call 'modern' (western) societies.

Neil: More freedom and less responsibility?

Ali: That's right. I get the impression that you would lean more towards freedom rather than towards responsibility.

Neil: Absolutely.The reason being that traditional societies impose their concept of responsibility on the individual. I believe the only responsibility that is worthwhile is the responsibility the individual is prepared to accept. In order to do that, you have to have the freedom to question everything and then to decide for yourself what is important. There are rules, there are certain limits of course, but I would rather take the chance on excessive freedom then excessive shaping.

Ali: And what aspects of oneself does one call upon to give the right balance, to achieve the right balance between the two?

Neil: Everything that makes you human, but most particularly, your critical sense. Having the courage and the strength to question everything, even your most basic senses of yourself, who you are, what you acquired and what you think you know. I think it is true to say that we almost always know a great deal less than we think we know. That's what you've got to keep in mind.

Ali: The two quotations at the beginning of A Casual Brutality suggests to me two different extremes. The quotation from Brel suggests helplessness, an inability to shape one's destiny. The other quotation from the interrogator of Timerman suggests an inflated sense of one's power to shape one's destiny. Between these two extremes lies hope, which in the first line of your novel you refer to as, 'but a synonym for illusion.' In a sense, I think the book is about a struggle against 'the illusion of control.' The threat of the casual brutality emanates from the pervasive presence of fear and greed in the various characters and communities that you have described in the book. When you consider human nature and the forces that underlie society, are you an optimist?

Neil: That is a very good question. I consider myself to be an optimist. But not on the level of society. On the level the of society, I am a pessimist. I think society will inevitably always corrupt. But it is up to the individuals. I think that is where I am an optimist. I think individuals can go a long way in creating options for themselves. It seems to me that the thing we must try to create always in life is options. To have no options is to have no hope. And to surrender to that is to surrender to life.

Ali: And, at times, too many options can paralyse.

Neil: Too many options can paralyse, but that is only if there is a lack of courage. But to have some options and to be able to decide which of those options you will try— because there is no guarantee of success— is part of the essence in life. And just to get back to the quotes at the beginning for a moment, I think that the novel is an exploration of the perilous path between those two extremes; of the dangers of trying to control, of seeking that control, but also at the same time the necessity of having it, because either extreme is perilous in some way or another.

Ali: I just interviewed Rohinton Mistry and suggested to him that one of the themes that I saw in his novel Such a Longjourney is the theme of detachment. Yet I found that in his book, what was suggested by the resolution of Gustad Noble's dilemmas was very much a sense of compassionate detachment. On the one hand, a kind of detachment drove one to escape from the world, and on the other hand, compassion anchored one down in the world. There seemed to be a balancing involved between the two. Do you explore the same sort of themes in your writing?

I am an enemy of ideology of any kind, political, racial, religious. All ideology depends on stereotypes, and human life is not so simple.

Neil: I suppose I do but in a very different way of course. I mean these are all the basic questions of human life. That is one of the reasons I like Rohinton Mistry's writing. I think he does explore those themes, and in very gentle terms. Also, I like Gustad Noble. I remember him very well from experience of the novel. The way he leads his life is interesting. The way things resolve themselves is I think very realistic. I'm not sure there are any answers there but of course no one looks to a novel—and one should not look to a novel—for answers. Just to get back to your previous question, would you consider Such a Long Journey an optimistic novel or a pessimistic novel?

Ali: Very much an optimistic novel for me, because in the end, it was an affirmation of the choices that one can make in life. The journey is, for me, similar to the idea of a river. It is something that is there and yet, at the same time, constantly moving.There is a passage in Such a Long Journey where the pavement artist identifies the source of sorrow as the yearning for permanence, and at that point in the novel, he speaks of the importance of the journey— 'unplanned, uncharted'—and I think this is the realization that Gustad Noble comes to in the end. It is a sense of having to detach himself from all the conflicts that have plagued him and to rise above it.

Neil: Yes. And to continue living his life. I agree with you. It is an optimistic novel but it is not an easy optimism, is it? I am often accused of being a pessimistic writer, but I believe there is a kind of optimism in my writing to a certain extent. I think maybe some of the situations I have written about are harder, in a way, because people living in smaller societies get caught up more easily and that is part of the difference, I think. It is a much larger society that Rohinton has written about. In small places, it is very hard sometimes to escape and to live a kind of detached life. Everything has an impact on you, a very direct impact. It is not easy to step out of the way of a roaring train. I think that is one difference, but I consider myself to be an optimistic writer.

Ali: A few moments ago, you talked about Third World countries and that brought to mind the way you deal with the issue of colonization of Third World countries in A Casual Brutality. The character Grappler in this novel describes Gasequemada as 'a failed experiment in nationhood! Has the 'politics of greed' created a new type of colonization for Third World countries, moving from colonization by the outsider to a colonization from within?

Neil: Precisely Because the essence of colonialism was rape—rape of these lands that the colonial powers took over What seems to have continued beyond independence in so many of these countries is the attitude of rape, the attitude of enriching oneself. No idea of contributing to a country, but taking from it.This often always has been the case for many of the politicians who led these countries to independence, who pretended to be sacrificing their lives and their ideals for a much higher ideal—the ideal of freedom. And yet, when you come right down to it, you go through the countries of the Third World, so many of them have simply become the treasure house of their so-called leaders. And that attitude has transmitted itself down to the people of these countries, too. I mean, corruption is not exclusive to the political masses. Corruption in a corrupt society goes down to the lowest, meanest levels. That is part of my despair for these places.

Ali: But in a sense the old colonial powers in the West are also to blame.

Neil: Of course. I have never said that they are not to blame, although there are those who have claimed that I have said this. Not in the least. Of course they are to blame. They agreed to the situation in the first place.

Ali: And they create a sense of dependency rather than self-reliance.

Neil: That is it. People have grown accustomed to this, it seems to me, so many generations after independence in so many countries. This is where the internal revolution is necessary, what I started talking about in the beginning—the change that is necessary inside for people to say "we have had enough of this" instead of continuing, as so many people do, to simply blame Britain, blame France, blame the colonial powers. That is not good enough any more. That is simply not good enough any more. You must start taking a look inside yourself, at yourself, and until people are prepared to do that nothing will change.

Somalia is a wonderful example of the kind of thing that makes you despair. Where you have got children starving in the streets, you have got aid agencies flying in tons of food, and you have got other Somalis with guns stealing that food for themselves. You have got other Somalis with guns taking blankets from dying children, pulling them off. These people are doing it to their own people. You cannot blame anybody else; only the internal situation in that country. These Somalis with the guns have to start thinking of their attitude. Until those attitudes change and raping their own country or stealing from their own people stops, nothing will change.

ALi: Could you speak about your new book, The Innocence of Age? What are the themes that you deal with in that book?

Neil: The primary theme is the relationship between a father and his son. The relationships between parents and children is one that has interested me for the last little while and this novel grew out of that, grew out of my father's death and my own becoming a father Lots of questions; it was a strange time. A lot of questions came out of that. And a fair amount of work has also come out of those two events. One of them is the novel. It is a story of a father and a son,

people very different from myself, who have appropriated white, WASPfaces. It is a difficult relationship, as so often. It is a search for what unites them in all their differences, I suppose. Which, in the end, seems to me to be often the struggle between parents and children.

ALi: Does your having recently become a parent enable you to appreciate your own parents a lot more?

Neil: Yes, it helps me see my parents more clearly. It also raises more questions about myself, about my parents, about the kind of life that we lived. Questions that cannot be answered any more because my parents are dead.

Ali: What sort of questions?

Neil: Questions about, I don't remember what life was like when I was five. I don't know what my parents were particularly doing. I want to know where some of my insecurities come from, what might have created them. I tried sitting down with my father and discussing these things, and he couldn't answer my questions. He wasn't the kind of man to communicate on that level. My mother would have been, but she died at the age of fifty. And it would be wonderful to sit down with her over a glass of wine and simply talk about what life was like for her when I was born, when I was growing up. The years of struggle that they went through—because they did go through years of struggle financially—and simply what it was like. I know almost no stories of my childhood.Things that many young people don't think about. I suppose part of it is I am seeing my own insecurities and trying to deal with them and hoping I don't pass them on or procreate them in my daughter. I suppose in wanting to be as good a parent as possible to my daughter, I need to find out what was the background that created me as a son, as a boy, as a young man. But there are no answers now because my parents are dead.

Ali: The theme of the relationship between my parents and children is also one that you explored, as I recall, in one of your short stories called The Power of Reason in the collection On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows. There is a kind of love there that is submissive and open to abuse. And another that is more directed, more demanding. Could you speak about this?

Neil: It is difficult for me to speak about it because it is all part of my learning process, I suppose, exploring this complex relationship that takes so many forms. I am still learning. I am looking at myself and my reaction, I am looking at my daughter and the changes that come to her by the day.

Ali: This again calls to mind the passage in Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey, where there is a tension between Gustad Noble and his son, Sohrab. Gustad obviously has certain aspirations for his son, and his son resists these. I suppose in the years ahead you will probably feel the same sort of tensions as Gustad.

Neil: Probably. I am already anticipating them...My father was a businessman and in his family they are business people, doctors, lawyers, that kind of professional life. My paternal grandmother wanted me to become a doctor—'It would be wonderful to have a title'—and none of this appealed to me. I am not sure if my father understood my desire to be a writer. My mother did, coming from a literary family she understood that drive, and she, while never actively encouraging me, quietly encouraged me by, I suppose, in a way helping resist the demands of my father's family...There is a kind of link between us, an unspoken link that we both knew was there, that we never spoke about because I was too young, and because we were living in different countries. But that was there, and I would like to be able to ask her how she recognized that.

Ali: What about future projects. I understood that you were planning to write a book on Spain.

Neil: I started writing a book on Spain, but otherthings keep intervening. I had planned, in fact, to write a book on Spain when we got back from a trip to Spain a few years ago but instead what happened was this novel. The Innocence of Age started writing itself so I had no choice but to follow. I have, since then, started writing a book on Spain but I found that in the last couple of months or so, a new novel has begun to take new shape in my head. I have taken notes and there is no time right now to start writing on the road, so I will probably write that while continuing to work on the book on Spain. That is an ongoing thing. I have no particular deadline for it.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Neil Bissoondath
Neil Bissoondath contributed to Rungh Volume 1 Number 4, and Volume 3 Number 2.
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Ali Lakhani
Ali Lakhani is a lawyer and a writer living in Vancouver.
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