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The Big Idea: The NGC Bocas Lecture on Human Races

The Big Idea: The NGC Bocas Lecture on Human Races
 
By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2012 Bocas Lit fest blogger

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Rabindranath Maharaj reads, with Ken Ramchand listening on.
Immigration has become more than your grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ yellowing photographs on the mantelpiece. Rabindranath Maharaj, author of The Amazing Absorbing Boy, makes the case for this in his most recent novel, in telling the story of a new type of immigrant – one who is younger, savvier, better-versed, arguably, in ways of navigating foreign systems.The generous excerpt that Maharaj read from his newest novel, which was longlisted for the inaugural OCM Bocas Prize, engages with two kinds of immigrant voices – the previously mentioned, less fettered perspective of Sam, and the more jaded, cynically mired influence of his father, with whom Sam comes to stay in Toronto for a six-month haul. The audience roared with laughter at the description of intervening force, Aunty Umbrella, who, in Sam’s comic-book-guided mind, resembles “a Dalek robot from Dr. Who”. (Not previously familiar with this image, I paused in my write-up to conduct a Google search, and now I’m giggling anew.) Maharaj’s reading is peppered with piercing observations about how the immigrant voice, both young and old, perceives Canada. Sam remarks that, in the mere act of crossing the street, it can seem that you’ve wound up in another country: not simply the next-door United States, but the countries formed by people from the world’s distant spaces, sticking together in recognition.Eminent literary critic Kenneth Ramchand was brim-full of questions and considerations to raise with Maharaj, directly following his reading. The former signalled attention to the powerful statements that the novel makes about the absence, erosion and dilapidation of the family unit, about the plight of the “nowhereian” and how that’s come to acquire a subtly shifting meaning as time progresses. Maharaj mused that the immigrant’s dialogue that his youthful protagonist conducts with Canada allows for far more give and take than it did for Sam’s father. This contemporary traveller is not merely content to absorb snippets and fragments of the country he’s landed in, no. He expects in turn that the country will reach out curiously to absorb snippets and fragments of him. He won’t settle for the stiltedness of a queue that never allows one to the head of the line. His story is meant to be a round, full table, a perpetual self-discovery of reciprocity.

I expected the conversation to turn towards the symbolism and significance of comic book imagery employed by the author in the novel, and so it did. The ways in which Sam is sustained by the strength of his comic book connections, Maharaj explained, parallels the strength he sees in the power of the human imagination, the individual creative spirit, to surmount even the bleakest of hardships. Instinctively creative souls already possess the best keys for survival, for braving a world populated by so many exiles, castaways, drifters all.

There are stories available to you other than those steeped in inevitable assimilation, vocal muzzling and despair, Maharaj’s book says clearly to the immigrants of 2012 (and beyond). Imaginary homelands can fortify; they can build a bridge, a tangible interface between dreams and reality. They are proof that no modern migration experience need ever be conducted in the dark.

Photo by Shivanee Ramlochan.