Published April 2011
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The invisible Canadian
After decades abroad, an overlooked master of the short-story form returns with a new collection
“I’m full of regret for having left Canada, but I can’t regret having saved my marriage,” says Clark Blaise, whose new collection of linked stories, The Meagre Tarmac, is being released by Biblioasis this month.
Blaise is probably the greatest living Canadian writer most Canadians have never heard of. In the 1960s and ’70s, he and his wife, writer Bharati Mukherjee, were rising figures in the Canadian literary landscape. The two met in the U.S., where Blaise was born to Canadian parents, and where Mukherjee had come, from India, to study at the University of Iowa. In 1966, in their mid-twenties, they moved to Montreal, where she had taken a job teaching English at McGill University. He, meanwhile, founded the post-graduate program in creative writing at Concordia University (then Sir George Williams University).
Each published critically acclaimed fiction: Mukherjee the novels The Tiger’s Daughter (1972) and Wife (1975), Blaise the short story collections A North American Education (1973) and Tribal Justice (1974), followed by Lunar Attractions, winner of the 1979 Books in Canada First Novel Award. Blaise also joined John Metcalf’s seminal writers’ group the Montreal Storytellers, along with Hugh Hood and Ray Smith. Those were heady times for the couple, and Blaise has called the period the happiest years of his life.
Then, in 1977, came Bill 101, Quebec’s French-language charter. Blaise says that under the new law it became impossible to attract English-language faculty to Concordia because they couldn’t get labour certification, so he and Mukherjee moved to Toronto, where he’d been offered a position at York University. “I live to regret it,” says Blaise now. “Toronto was not Montreal.”
Their distaste for the city became public record in a famously scathing 1981 essay by Mukherjee entitled “The Invisible Woman.” Published in Saturday Night, the piece condemned Toronto for the racist reception Mukherjee received in the city as an Indo-Canadian woman. The couple had actually departed Canada the previous year due to that intolerance, moving to San Francisco, where they have lived ever since.
The shift to California had a tremendous impact on both their careers. Blaise, now retired, taught at various American schools, including Berkeley, where Mukherjee is today a professor of post-colonial literature and creative writing. It is a particular irony that her profile as a writer has flourished in the U.S. for much the same reason Blaise’s has failed to take root. Both write about foreign lands and the immigrant experience, but where Mukherjee’s “exotic” Indian heritage has captured the imaginations of American readers, Blaise’s less alluring Canadianness has not.
Mukherjee has published five novels and two story collections since 1980, including the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning collection The Middleman and Other Stories. In May, her newest novel, Miss New India, will be issued in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In the same period, Blaise has published four new books of fiction in Canada, as well as four volumes of collected short stories, one volume of selected essays, and two works of non-fiction. (The couple also co-wrote The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, published by Viking Canada in 1987.) Blaise’s two solo non-fiction titles – I Had a Father: A Post-modern Autobiography (1993) and Time Lord: Sir Sanford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time (2000) – were both picked up by U.S. houses, but he has not landed a book of fiction with a U.S. publisher since his second novel, Lusts, appeared from Doubleday in 1983.
Blaise says he didn’t even try to find an American publisher for The Meagre Tarmac, signing over North American rights to Biblioasis, a small press in Emeryville, Ontario, where Metcalf acts as fiction editor. “I don’t have an agent and can’t seem to get one,” he says.
None of this is meant to suggest that Blaise, who received the Order of Canada last year, is an inferior talent. “No American is going to ask a Canadian immigrant, ‘What was it like in Canada? What did you eat? What did you wear? How did you fight the polar bears?’” Blaise laughs. “The dialogue doesn’t go in that direction, whereas it does if you are from anywhere but Canada.”
Issues of Canadian identity have been central to Blaise’s oeuvre. “Nearly everything I’ve written touches on that notion that Canada is a distinct society with a distinct history and tastes, and great accomplishments,” he says. “It has earned me some respect in Canada, but it has not earned me any kind of niche in the American market or consciousness. If I’d been able to stay in Canada, I might have been known in America like, say, Mordecai Richler, as a sort of explicator of Canada to America, defining the edges between the two countries.”
When Blaise talks about Canadian identity, he seems to draw energy from an inherent paradox. Canadian immigrants in the U.S., he says, look upon their Canadianness as “a burden or an unwelcome complication. They feel that no one here cares about it.” Yet he also quotes Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” in discussing how Canadians, especially when taken for Americans, will proudly point out small Richleresque signifiers that define the cultural border with the U.S. – such as bagel varieties, smoked meat versus pastrami, and styles of hockey. For Blaise, such stuff is the fuel of creativity. “What about people who need the border to feel most alive?” he asks. “It is exciting to me when small differences are very important.”
In The Meagre Tarmac, his first collection of new stories in nearly 20 years, Blaise actually gets away from his own Canadianness, though not from the issue of what he calls “transformation” – the changes people go through when transplanted into foreign cultures. His early fiction drew heavily on his own life, but Blaise says that mode of writing is behind him now. “I’ve exhausted the autobiographical magic powder,” he laughs. “It would bore me to be writing that kind of stuff.” Instead, Blaise’s new collection follows the struggles of immigrant Indians in America and Canada. “There are prototypes for them here and in India,” he says, “but for the most part they are creatures of my subconscious.”
One of the book’s most powerful stories, “The Quality of Life,” finds an Indian man named Al returning to Montreal for his brother’s funeral years after leaving to become a successful Hollywood actor. The last surviving member of his family, which immigrated to Canada in the 1960s, Al walks the streets in a haze of grief looking for the places he knew when young. Turning a corner, he expects to find the Concordia building where he studied in the 1980s –“an immense, worst-of-the-60s, cream-colored, fourteen-story office block.”
But the block is gone, torn down to make way for a newer structure. “I know the area,” says Al, “I know I’m in the right place, but the forces of transformation have taken it away, and if I don’t know where Concordia is, what in this world do I know at all?”
The book is filled with such characters, riddled with regrets and burdened by longings for things that can no longer exist. In that, it seems, not all of Blaise’s “autobiographical magic powder” is exhausted.