Neil Bissoondath 1955–
(Full name Neil Devindra Bissoondath) Trinidadian-born Canadian novelist, short story and nonfiction writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Bissoondath's career through 1996.
Neil Bissoondath's writing typically focuses on the lives of characters displaced by political violence. In addition to immigrants and refugees, Bissoondath also explores the lives of those marginalized within their own societies, people alienated by their own culture. As Jim Shephard writes, "That spectrum of human response, from the selfless to the despairing, is what Neil Bissoondath writes about. In doing so, he speaks for the silenced voices that continue to fill the margins of our societies, the voices of those so overworked and under rewarded that the term 'disadvantaged' is inadequate to describe them."
Born in 1955 in Arima, Trinidad, Bissoondath comes from a literary family: his uncles are V. S. Naipaul and the late Shiva Naipaul. His family lived in the town of Sangre Grande, where his father worked at the family store, until Bissoondath reached the age of fourteen. At that time his father built a house in Port of Spain, to be closer to the high school Bissoondath would attend, St. Mary's College. Although Bissoondath was from a Hindu tradition, he was able to adapt to a Catholic high school. Bissoondath describes himself as not very religious and distrustful of dogma. In the early Seventies, political upheaval and economic collapse had created a climate of chaos and violence in the island nation. In a situation similar to Germany in the Thirties, wherein Jews became a convenient scapegoat for the disintegrating economy, the East Indian merchant class became the target of persecution in Trinidad. In 1973, at the age of eighteen, Bissoondath left Trinidad. He settled in Canada, where he studied at York University, receiving a B. A. in French in 1977. Bissoondath taught English and French at the Inlingua School of Languages and the Toronto Language Workshop. He won the McClelland and Stewart award and the National Magazine award, both in 1986, for the short story "Dancing."
Bissoondath's fist book was the short story collection, Dig-ging Up the Mountains (1985). The title story is set on a Caribbean island which recently gained its independence and is in the throes of political and social upheaval. The story's protagonist, Harry Beharry, wants only to work in his garden and die in his own home. But the escalating violence forces him to flee. "Dancing," told in an autobiographical style, is the story of a Caribbean maid who voyages to Canada with the hopes of bettering herself. Through her a bewilderingly different world is revealed, with skyscrapers, automatic doors, and a coldness of climate and spirit. In "An Arrangement of Shadows," a white schoolteacher from England finds herself, after many years in the Caribbean, suddenly made an outcast by political changes. No longer comfortable but unable to leave, she finds herself stereotyped by others with many traits she despises. Bissoondath's first novel, A Casual Brutality (1988), is again set in a troubled Caribbean nation. Casaquemada, the island nation in the book, is a mixture of the politics and history of Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Grenada. Dr. Raj Ramsingh studied and married in Canada. But friends convince him that the intelligentsia owe something to their homeland, and although he knows the political situation is volatile, he returns to Casaquemada. Growing violence claims the lives of his wife and son, and he returns to Canada. Bissoondath's next book is another collection of short stories, On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows (1990). In the title story, a group of refugees from various parts of the world wait together in a boarding house for decisions on their requests for political asylum in Canada. "Security" is a sequel to the story "Uncertainty" from Bissoondath's first collection. The principal character of both stories, Mr. Ramgoolam, has become alienated from his family. His wife now works outside the home, and his sons have become accustomed to the Canadian culture, even eating pork and beef. Seeking a sense of belonging, Mr. Ramgoolam retreats into his religion. But the more he immerses himself in his religious practices and listens to the Hindu radio programs (which he does not understand), the more alienated he becomes. In "Goodnight, Mr. Slade," the caretaker of an apartment building is being evicted and placed in a nursing home. The experience reminds him of his previous displacement, when he was sent to Nazi concentration camps. Instead of once again surrendering his life to the will of others, he commits suicide. The culture conflict of the immigrant is also the subject of Bissoondath's novel, The Innocence of Age (1994). The middle-aged Pasco, still grieving over the death of his wife, longs nostalgically for the past. But his son Danny rejects the past, seeing life only in terms of money and power. Danny works for a greedy slumlord whom Pasco despises. Their conflict is brought to a head when Danny begins to renovate Pasco's home, thinking more in terms of future profit than Pasco's comfort. In his nonfiction book, Selling Illusions (1994), Bissoondath argues that governmental promotion of a Multiculturalism policy actually harms those it hopes to protect. He suggests that government intervention focuses on superficial differences, at the expense of the more profound similarities people share. Bissoondath makes the case that cultural heritage is best protected by individual efforts.
Early criticism of Bissoondath's work often compared his work to the writings of his uncles V. S. Naipaul and the late Shiva Naipaul. Most agreed that he shared their sense of linguistic style and attention to detail. Several critics felt Bissoondath's precise attention to surface details was subverted by an emotional detachment to his characters' inner lives. David Evans referred to this in his criticism of A Casual Brutality, saying that the narrative style is "replacing emotion with a near-photographic rendering of surface detail." Several critics laud Bissoondath's use of contrasting past and present to illuminate a character's inner conflict. As Merna Summers stated, "Present and past repeatedly illuminate each other in Bissoondath's stories, and the meaning often comes out of the tension between them." Although Bissoondath's stories often focus on the themes of the marginalized and dispossessed, he is frequently praised for the broad range of protagonists. Not surprisingly, the controversial thesis of Selling Illusions generated criticism that examined the policy of Multiculturalism more than treating Bissoondath's ideas. However, many critics appreciated Bissoondath's courage for taking on a politically-charged, complex issue.
Neil Bissoondath's Selling Illusions. The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada: 20 Years Later
As the subtitle of Neil Bissoondath's book says, multiculturalism is a "cult" in Canada, not a typical cult in which a small group of very devoted supporters worship something or someone, but a cult officially endorsed by the elites across the nation, seemingly accepted by the majority, inscribed in the legal system, the media, schools, textbooks, historical narratives, and endorsed by all the political parties. Published in 1994, this became one of the most controversial books in 1990s Canada; in the revised edition published in 2002, Bissoondath recounts the "roller-coaster ride" he experienced upon publication, the many reviews, promotion circuit across the country, rounds of media interviews and talks at universities and community colleges, phone-in shows on local television, and addresses to "audiences in one packed hall after another".
But he soon noticed that the "unduly critical" responses were coming not from the general public, but the established media, political parties, and university professors. The many Canadians he encountered in his talks were either sympathetic or quite willing to discuss the arguments of the book. The "cult" of multiculturalism has been, indeed, a state-sanctioned ideology imposed from above without democratic consent. Bissoondath refers to a survey conducted in 1993 in which about 72 percent of the respondents stated that Canadian multiculturalism was not working and should be replaced by the cultural melting pot policy of the United States. The argument of Selling Illusions is in line with the feelings of these respondents: multiculturalism encourages immigrants to hold on to the habits, values, and ethnic identities of their former homelands rather than assimilate into the culture of Canada.
Multiculturalism is more Realistic than Assimilation
My position is closer to the multicultic view of the elites — but for diametrically opposite reasons. The general public senses that something is amiss in Canada but misses the target in believing that the problem is multiculturalism. The problem is not multiculturalism as such; it is the policy of mass immigration from non-European cultures. Will Kymlicka, and other communitarians such as Charles Taylor, are right: individual fulfillment is not something that can be achieve in isolation but only as a member of a community; a constituent component of a community is the cultural and ethnic identity of the members belonging to it. One of the key goals of multiculturalism is for "mainstream" Canadians to acknowledge the attachment of minorities to their respective ancestral communities; hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving from non-European lands every year cannot be expected to brush aside their customs and ethnic identities; they must be given recognition; to demand that immigrants relinquish their beliefs and traditions for the "mainstream values" of Canadians is a form of cultural supremacism, for it amounts to the belief that the "Western ways" of the majority of Canadians are better than the ways of immigrants.
The policy of multiculturalism, of course, does not call upon immigrants to create a new political order with illiberal institutions but expects them to accept freedom of speech, representative government, and cultural pluralism, that is, tolerance of the day-to-day habits, languages, foods, music, dressing styles, and many other aspects that make up the day-to-day lives of different ethnic groups. Multiculturalism encourages immigrants and mainstream Canadians, everyone, to accept a multiethnic and a multicultural life-world (if I may use the language of sociological theory), at the same time that everyone agrees that liberalism offers the best political framework for the existence of this life-world of coexisting and interacting lifestyles, rather than a common or uniform (Eurocentric) life-world.
In many ways, what makes Canada the most interesting example of multiculturalism in the world is that it was the first country to come to the political (and theoretical) realization (however implicit the arguments may have been) that you can't have mass immigration from non-European lands without multiculturalism. Mass immigration from non-European lands calls for multiculturalism — whether this is recognized officially or not by the central authorities. The American melting pot model is anachronistic; it made sense when the vast majority of immigrants into the U.S. were from Europe. But in recent decades, as I suggested in Multiculturalism is better than Assimilation,
with the mass entry of Mexicans, there is little melting going on in many areas of the United States. While the United States does not have an official policy of multiculturalism at the federal level, one finds, under the pressure of relentless immigration and political correctness, a multiplicity of pro-diversity policies and programs at the state and municipal levels on matters related to school curricula, policing, hiring practices, and race relations generally.This is not because there is something wrong with Mexicans; they are all too human. Simply, Mexicans are very different from European Americans; they have a strong attachment to their ethnic identity, pride in their history, and Spanish language; they don't want to sit in classrooms and hear about how the Americans modernized the former Aztlan territories, or how many inventions White Americans were responsible for as compared to Mexicans. Multiculturalists are correct in realizing that there is a form of cultural supremacism in the expectation that they should obediently assimilate to the history, habits, and folkways of Europeans.
Bissoondath inadvertently recognizes that the American melting pot has dissolved in the face of mass immigration from non-Europe when he cites the following words from the American historian Arthur Schlesinger:
The cult of ethnicity exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms...between races and nationalities.1These words come from The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (1998), in which the author shows that America is just as multicultural as Canada (despite the endless pageants among Canadian assimilationists about its melting pot culture). What Schlesinger failed to understand is that the blame he otherwise attributed to the spread of political correctness, with its promotion of bilingual education, Afrocentrism, and minority pride in schools, was developed not in a vacuum but in direct response to the new racial realities of the United States brought on by immigration. Non-Europeans in America were both growing in numbers and in awareness of their identity, and they did not want to join a so-called "common American identity" which came from European Whites. Minority histories were first introduced in the curriculum in recognition of the fact that, to this day, Blacks and Indians have not assimilated well to the culture created by the majority European peoples of America.
Therefore I recognize the inescapable multicultural reality of a culture with diverse ethnicities and open borders. Assimilation is the illusion. Given this racial reality, we Europeans need to make use of the levers of multiculturalism for the protection and enhancement of our ethnic and cultural heritage. To demand assimilation is suicidal since a "common" culture based on the fusion of multiple ethnicities coupled with our current open borders is not really a culture that can be identified with the historical reality that Canada was created by Europeans.
Bissoondath is for Assimilation
His book was popular in large measure because he was an immigrant from Trinidad calling upon other immigrants to let go of their ethnic ancestries, not play multicultural politics, but join the "common Canadian culture". Nevertheless, in the end, the Canada Bissoondath envisions and cherishes is not of immigrants assimilating to the Canada created by Europeans, but of immigrants joining him in celebrating the making of a radically new Canada characterized by a fusion of cultures, a potpourri of mixed ethnicities constructed out of the "free" choices of deracinated individuals.
Bissoondath's sense of assimilation is akin to that of some of the most ardent and eloquent defenders of Western values — from Amartya Sen to Liu Xiaobo, from Ayaan Hirsi Ali to his own uncle, Nobel prize writer V.S. Naipaul, who also left his country of origin to become a British citizen, and believes in assimilation to the "universal" values of freedom and democracy. Bissoondath came from a family of relatively well educated Trinidadians fond of European lands. He mentions a letter he received "from a relative long living in England" soon after he departed for Canada, saying:
Trinidad is behind you, and you have to forget Trinidad and Trinidad attitudes. You have to understand the larger world you are now in...try to understand the country and the people and don't fall into the trap of thinking about race all the time.2Bissoondath's childhood memories of Trinidad are both boring and few; before coming to Canada he was already seeking to escape the "confines" of his heritage; and when he visited Trinidad a mere year after departing, he was "impatient to get back to Toronto". This utter lack of attachment to his homeland is unusual, but perhaps understandable in light of