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Homer in Flight

by Rabindranath Maharaj

When prospective Canadians check the rhetoric of travel brochures against the country they encounter on arrival, the art that results can sting. For minority authors, this work is crucial to community and personal identity in a foreign land. For others, writing that smears multiculturalism’s facade and attacks Canada’s order provides a way to understand immigrant experience.

In Homer in Flight, Toronto writer Rabindranath Maharaj’s first novel, a 32-year-old man escapes corrupt and chaotic Trinidad for the safety of Toronto. Soon, Homer wonders if Canada is “just a nice, neatly packaged version of dirty little places like Trinidad.” An unsafe haven, Toronto and its suburban satellites bewilder his friends and relatives.

For Ravindra, a co-worker at the Nutrapure juice factory, Canada is all white lie: “No one is more conscious of their frailties than a black or brown person in a white country. Every day you see new vulnerabilities exposed, weaknesses you never knew existed. You are constantly forced into secrecies and illegalities because the courtesies granted to others are withheld from you.” Homer wanders for two years before deciding his place – go back? stay put? – in a society on the verge of degeneracy.

He encounters many immigrant types, most flawed by concealed personal corruption. His wife’s sister, Jay, also from Trinidad, degrades minorities, truncating personal names to Westernize them, and so limit their power. Jay is a hyper-politicized New Canadian. She says immigrants “must peel back the slack foreskin” of their past and “examine all the smegma and the other impurities…gathered over the years…. Locate the bacteria,” she says, and wash it clean.

Such pronouncements may be comic, but relentless racism and sexism (the women worship Oprah and lie to catch husbands) – no matter who says it – are tedious; often the narrative barely floats in shallow water. As well, the writing coats key concepts in academic dispassion. Immigration is “a ritual of escape,” and Homer calls the changes in himself “the dismantling of all the comfortable assumptions with which he had lived for so long.” Maharaj uses comic devices familiar in minority literature: tactless bodily functions, misunderstandings, transcriptions of foreign accents (one factory worker repeats the term “workaticks” as the key to successful assimilation). These seem stale.

Homer in Flight has wisdom, though. Maharaj handles Homer’s struggle to locate nostalgia, to reconcile family ties, with insight. And in documenting newcomers’ rituals of arrival, the novel implicates all Canadians in the construction of impossible expectations.