Toronto gives foreign writers a sense of home 'Newcomer's experience': Immigrant authors speak of finding great acceptance in a city whose love affair with things foreign is combined with a passion for books.

Sun Journal

January 13, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

TORONTO -- The street life seems like an international festival. School classrooms are like mini-United Nations meetings. While other cities -- Washington, Los Angeles or the extreme case of Sarajevo -- find ethnic diversity a source of strife, Toronto whistles along, often oblivious to its diversity.

"There's a tremendous acceptance in this country," says M. G. Vassanji, a Toronto author who emigrated from East Africa and whose family traces its roots to India. "The U.S. seems different -- xenophobic."

If what's on a person's bookshelf says a great deal about that person, what's in a city's bookstores says a lot about a city. Toronto's tastes are turning it into an international literary salon.

Mr. Vassanji's novel about colonial life in Africa recently won one of Canada's premier writing awards; a volume about Bombay by another foreign-born author is on the best-seller lists. The city's reigning literary figure is a Sri Lankan educated in England.

The internationalizing of Toronto's writing has followed the trends of immigration: Almost half the 230,000 immigrants who enter Canada every year settle in Toronto, and the city today is nearly half foreign-born.

For many foreign-born authors, writing is a way to express "the sense of loss, the alienation, the urge to re-create the things you've lost," says Mr. Vassanji, who studied and worked as a scientist in the United States before settling in Canada.

And to express, too, the dilemma of the homesick voyager: "There's no going back. If you go back, it's a different place."

The city inevitably is compared to New York. But if New York is raucous, Toronto is notably courteous -- sometimes described as "New York run by the Swiss."

Reading encouraged

Toronto's love affair with things foreign and with books is more than the confluence of welcoming immigration policy and proliferating bookstores -- it seems part of the city's psyche. Reading has been encouraged by festivals and strong government support of the arts. Many of the country's most prestigious and lucrative writing prizes are state-sponsored.

Toronto's 1995 International Festival of Authors drew 150 writers -- and 12,000 people who paid to attend.

It seems to matter little where an author is from or what his subjects are -- a recent best-seller, "A Fine Balance," by Rohinton Mistry, is about the Parsi community in Bombay.

bTC "Nobody is categorizing the novel as an 'immigrant' book," says Ellen Seligman, an editor at McClelland & Stewart publishers. "The country is proud to claim Rohinton as a Canadian writer."

Shyam Selvadurai, whose recent book, "Funny Boy," made him the latest in a string of foreign-born authors to appear on &L best-seller lists, agreed. "The policy of multiculturalism is what allows a writer like myself to be considered Canadian," he says. "You can maintain your distinctiveness in the melting pot."

Mr. Selvadurai's book is about being gay and growing up in Sri Lanka amid an explosion of ethnic conflicts and civil war. "[The book] wasn't exorcising, but a desire to understand. It fundamentally changed my life. You have to know your history to go on."

Iris Tupholme, editor-in-chief at Harper-Collins Toronto, says, "A common thread is the newcomer's experience, the newcomer looking back."

In Mr. Vassanji's recent novel, "The Book of Secrets," which won Canada's $25,000 Giller prize for fiction, the author traces a story of colonial life around Dar es Salaam during World War II, as the British and the Germans transform placid African villages into a theater of war.

'The story is the teller's'

In one passage, the narrator of the story, a historian piecing together the past from the personal diary of an English administrator, admits that the memories and events he finds trace his own life: "Ultimately," he says, "the story is the teller's. It's mine."

"The fact is," Mr. Vassanji says about his emigration from Africa to the United States and later to Canada, "your leaving is connected with historical forces.

"For me, moving was a condition of life. There's no 'home' -- that's why you keep moving."

Ayanna Black, a Jamaica-born poet, says the writers' backgrounds breathe through their writing. "It gives the audience a different space," she says. "It allows them to travel."

When Ms. Black began writing poetry in 1970s Toronto, breaking into the mainstream and getting published were an uphill task. It is much easier today. Both those conditions are reflected in her work.

"I don't think I set out to write for a black audience," she says. "In my earlier work, I was a black feminist. Now I'm a feminist writer."

'Canada is home'

Like most of the writers, Ms. Black writes in English, but like others who have grown up with different languages, she can dip in and out of her Jamaican patois, in and out of her past.

"Jamaica is birth," she says, "but Canada is home. Canadians want to see us as being Canadian writers."

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