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Story-Wallah!: A Celebration of South Asian Fiction

by Shyam Selvadurai, ed.

It’s a shame the word “diaspora” isn’t more commonly used. Because as Sri-Lankan born Toronto novelist Shyam Selvadurai points out in his excellent introduction, diaspora – with its adjective “diasporic,” both from the Greek for “dispersal” – leaves room to explore the experience of relocation without the derogatory connotations of words like “immigrant” or “foreigner.” Even if the writing in Story-Wallah! wasn’t so compelling, what it teaches about the sheer extent of the South Asian diaspora would make the anthology a worthwhile read.

Sam Selvon’s “Cane Is Bitter” opens the collection on an oft-heard note of inter-generational conflict, though it succeeds in vividly conveying the toilsome circumstances of a family of Indian labourers in Trinidad. In the next story, Mena Abdullah’s magical “The Time of the Peacock,” readers meet a Muslim/Hindu family of farmers in Queensland, Australia. They are keepers of the bird of the title, who has refused to open his glittering tail since being brought from India. In Chitra Fernando’s “The Perfection of Giving,” a matriarch in rural Sri Lanka is gradually withered by her staunch adherence to “the karmic law.”

Such variety is sustained through all 26 stories, and the further one reads the more one realizes that such a collection could never be exhaustive: diaspora, despite having served very specific political and economic aims, is too scattershot in its outcomes to ever be adequately catalogued.

Given the many authors here whose work is likely unfamiliar to most readers, it is disappointing that the best stories are often those by the biggest names. Offerings by Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Anita Desai are all excellent (though all have appeared elsewhere before).

This dominion of the famous is by no means universal. Michael Ondaatje’s “The Passions of Lalla” is a disjointed mess, seeming more like tossed-off notes for a longer project than a story in its own right. And two-time Giller winner M.G. Vassanji’s “In the Quiet of a Sunday Afternoon” exemplifies the flaw of many in these stories of failing to draw texture and richness from its loosely-objective, almost journalistic third-person viewpoint.

Indeed, many of these stories suffer by favouring reportage over vivid depiction, speechifying over meaningful action, and the didactic over the powerfully demonstrative. These are understandable tendencies, given the often heavily politicized subject matter, but the more ambiguous stories still tend to be the most affecting.

Sri Lankan writer Romesh Gunesekara gives us “Captives,” a sad and subtly erotic tale of a honeymooning British couple and the hotel proprietor whose sudden love for the young bride is doomed to stay unrequited. It is a beautiful story, conveying more than any other in this collection the tragedy of boundaries – racial, national, economic – and the losses we suffer in allowing them to bracket our lives so firmly.

A rich ambiguity also exalts Malaysian writer K.S. Maniam’s “Haunting the Tiger,” as an old man’s remembered quest for the spectral beast melds surrealistically into visions of his impending death. Equally good is Rooplall Monar’s “Bahadur,” written in an instantly beguiling Guyanese idiom about “people who uses to wuk in the backdam from soon-soon morning until six o’clock in the evening, when cricket and night-beetle does croak inside the cane field, by the beezie-beezie and the blacksage bush-corner.”

The breadth of Story-Wallah! ensures that any reader will be both charmed and exasperated in nearly equal measures. But only those with an already intimate knowledge of South Asian diasporic fiction in English could fail to come away with an enriched perspective on the role of literature in a world shaped by migration and encounter.