Review of Sasenarine Persaud’s book, Canada Geese And Apple Chatney
May 1, 2001
A version of this article first appeared in The Toronto Review in the Spring of 2001. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
There are certain experiences common to all immigrant modes, among them fear, uncertainty and hope. The panoply of immigrant fiction has tended to milk these sentiments, often in exploration of themes of racism, appropriation and separation. Caribbean fiction is rife with such inclinations, traditionally drawing from sing-song multi-layered local dialects, racial tensions, the ironic tragicomedy of privation, and the unique perspectives earned by peoples at the conflux of trade and culture routes between the Northern and Southern worlds. These are rich experiences appreciated by a global audience for their beauty, accessibility, and for their similarity to the miens and moods of migrants the world over.
Sasenarine Persaud has embraced the idea of such commonality in his short story collection Canada Geese and Apple Chatney, choosing to string long threads of narrative through a coarsely woven tapestry of compellingly familiar scenarios. A native of Guyana, Persaud has based much of his fiction upon the transposition experiences specific to Guyanese peoples who have relocated to North America. Such individuals have often reluctantly scattered to such urban nodes as Toronto, New York and Miami. Alienated by unfamiliar local fruits, incomprehensible Western relationships and a lack of sensory connection to their new homes, each pocket of Guyanese immigrants manages to carve out a niche of familiarity; for example, to make chatney (sic), not from traditional mangoes, but from the green apples that otherwise lay wasting in North American public parks. That particular commonality gives Persaud’s collection its name, as does a similar immigrant bewilderment about the unmolested sanctuary given to succulent Canada geese in the face of pervading poverty.
The sentiment of bewilderment is best presented in the book’s opening piece, “The Dog”, a charming and complexly organized tale ostensibly about a spiritually evolved family pet, but also alluding to the contrast of different cultures’ relationships with household animals. The story showcases Persaud’s keen grasp of the elements of differentness that characterize this particular immigrant group, and suggest his deeper fascination with Oriental philosophies which manifests in stronger, more blatant, terms in later stories.
In general, however, the narratives themselves are not remarkable, and sometimes threaten to slide into didacticism. No complete storyline lingers in memory except for “Dookie”, a tale of interreligious romance between a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy. As this is also the theme of several Indian films, “Dookie” is artistically unique solely for its presentation of a particular Western sensibility alluding to the advance of feminism into the Indian household. The flaw of “Dookie” is one that resurfaces on occasion throughout the collection: a tendency to resort to exposition in dialogue, reflective of the author’s desire to skip quickly to the underlying themes and philosophies of his stories, at the expense of engaging form.
When he takes the time to avoid such exposition, though, Persaud’s characters glow with validity and intellectual vitality. This is an especially noteworthy feat for the complexities of Caribbean language, and for Persaud’s choices of refreshingly unusual perspectives and chronologies. With careful attention to the phraseology of Guyanese Creole, Persaud brandishes his skill with strong dialogue and elegant characters, providing five autonomously strong stories in the first half of the book. In contrast, he has approached the second half with a deliberate literary game plan, having interwoven himself as storyteller “Writerji”– in first, second and third person narratives, providing a multidimensional dissonance akin to Japanese cinema or to the gradual out-focusing of a telescope lens passively observing casual human interaction.
While the elegiac lyrical tones characteristic of many modern Caribbean writers is missing here –as are both the broad and fine brushes of imagery– what remains is believable dialogue between intelligent, unpredictable characters. Herein lies Persaud’s greatest contribution: the imbuement of dignity and erudition to characters who have traditionally been portrayed as huddling masses sardonically grateful for any token nod of humaneness. Certainly, few writers have grasped this particular face of the modern Indo-Caribbean: his tendency toward an exhaustive knowledge of racial history, regardless of his level of formal education, acquired in a desire to cling to Asian roots ripped away generations ago. Persaud has clearly shown this distinct sensibility, this appreciation for a very specific Indo-Caribbean angst, in the crafting of many of his characters, further dignifying them with proud bearing and courage.
It is the second half of the book, the section in which Writerji navigates through intersections of human angst and wonder, that Persaud seems in his element, perhaps mystically channelling a Gangetic ancestral forebear who once wove such tales effortlessly beneath Indian stars. With his frequent allusions to a variety of yogic philosophies, Persaud is evidently striving for this effect, to fasten an anchor between modern cogitations and his own racial memory.
While well conceived, these latter tales cannot be consumed with casual abandon, but rather must be approached with full alertness lest their supra-ideals go unperceived. Hence, no sustained mood is attained, no lingering emotional timbre realized. Persaud speaks to the head, not to the heart. It is for this reason that the collection’s final story, “Arriving”, seems an odd choice for a closing. The tale of Writerji’s discovery of Miami, of its climate and flora akin to those of Guyana, is painted in wistful tones, at times daring the reader to taste its emotional content, though always retreating to the safe haven of intellectual cogitation. It is clear that Persaud feels deeply, understands much, and perceives human travail in a singularly mature fashion; what remains is for him to let his poet’s heart sing, to not shy away from the imagery that begs to be drawn.
This is not bedtime reading, tales to be read one per night in the minutes before the brain slides into slumber. In Persaud’s writing, one does not find emotional soothing, Disney sentimentality or neatly packaged chronicles set for repackaging in any number of standard anthologies. Instead, the accessibility of their brilliantly-intertwined though seemingly guileless plots tells of their truth, of their limited need for fictionalization. For this reason, that ubiquitous tendency toward universal commonality makes itself known in Persaud’s stories, belying the author’s true intent to shout social commentary through the mouths of supposedly fictional characters.