Finally, a bit of warmth. Spring is a time of growth and, for many, a time of change. Here’s one of the biggest changes you can make: moving to a different country. Immigration is a huge step, filled with excitement, anticipation, hardship, challenge, and fear.
Shaun Tan’s masterpiece, The Arrival (2006, filed in the Lennoxville Library under Young Adult), is a truly astonishing graphic novel. A husband and father boards a ship to – to somewhere else, leaving his family behind. Seeking a better life.
He arrives with nothing but a suitcase and a handful of cash. He must find a place to live, a job, friends. The artwork is sepia-toned, and filled with memory, loneliness, and hope.
Everything in this new world is unsettling – the food, the shopping, the geography, the games, even the pets! The artwork allows those of us who have never left our homes to experience the overwhelming strangeness of displacement.
There is language in this graphic novel – but it’s not English. It’s not any language in existence. Our job-seeker cannot speak it. And of course, neither can we. It’s a stunning evocation of the immigrant experience.
For those who prefer words to pictures, choose A Prairie As Wide As The Sea: The Immigration Diary Of Ivy Weatherall (by Sarah Ellis, 2001, filed in C-216). It’s in the children’s section, but it’s part of the Dear Canada series, which is full of fun, well-written history for all ages.
In 1926, Ivy Weatherall is 11 years old, and her family is off to small-town Saskatchewan which, according to the Canadian PR machine, is dripping with milk and honey. Ivy is not quite sure why the family is leaving the UK: “They were talking as though we were poor,” she writes. But “when the rent collector came on Fridays we could nearly always pay.”
The diary is full of well-researched detail, including the slow discovery of the many lies prospective immigrants were told. But things began well: “Most of the people at the [train] station had come down to look at us. ‘You’re the big news in [the town of] Milorie today,’ he said. I’ve never been news before.”
Then Ivy checks out her new animal shed, with its grass roof and sod walls, only to discover it is her new home.
Read this tale of charm and adversity along with the two Canadian classics also mentioned within, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Of Green Gables (1908 /1992, in C-250) and Catharine Parr Traill’s Lost In The Backwoods (1882, available in multiple places online for free).
Yoko Tsuno is a more modern immigrant, a Japanese woman who moves to Europe. Her very first adventure, Le Trio De l’Étrange (by Roger Leloup, 1979 filed in bande dessinées in the children’s section), begins in a television studio. Two (white) men leave work late and spot a strange woman breaking into a building. They capture her and are about to call the police… when the building’s owner informs them that Yoko has actually been hired to test the security system.
Hey, it’s a job. Yoko is an electrical engineer, “venue en Europe pour faire de la recherche mais c’est difficile. En attendant de trouver un laboratoire qui veuille de moi, je fais de petits travaux… comme celui de cette nuit!” Meaning that she’s picking up odd jobs to make a go of it.
There are more than two dozen Yoko Tsuno adventures, set in different countries around the world and, of course, in outer space. Immigration is a constant theme, from the extra-terrestrials who have created a civilization in caves underneath our planet Earth, to the lives of Yoko and her pals. No matter where they are located geographically, someone in this group of friends is an outsider, trying to learn to fit in.
Shivan is another modern immigrant. He grew up in violence-torn Sri Lanka, and his family comes to Canada for a new life. He arrives in Toronto’s Kensington Market: “That initial visit downtown released me from a fear I had not even been conscious of: a fear that white people, the natural inheritors of the life I craved, would share looks of dismay when I entered a café or store…. But everyone on that visit downtown had seemed indifferent to my presence.”
Immigrants are not blank slates: “We might be living in Canada, but we had brought Sri Lanka with us.” How, after all, could you completely give up decades of culture, of food, of friendships?
Shivan’s story is told in Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts (2013, filed in Adult Fiction). His protagonist is lost, confused, fascinating, selfish and at times dislikeable. In the end, he can never quite fit in in Canada; but Sri Lanka is also lost to him. (Author Selvadurai is also a Sri Lankan immigrant to Canada.)
This is a careful portrait, offering much food for thought.
Finally, Canada’s M.G. Vassanji is a must-read for his insights into the outsider. Born in Kenya, brought up in Tanzania, Vassanji arrived in Canada via the United States. He’s a two-time Giller Prize winner.
The Book Of Secrets (1994) offers multiple layers. It is narrated by a contemporary immigrant to Dar es Salaam, who becomes obsessed by the diary of another, a professional immigrant, as it were: that of a white colonial administrator in 1913 British Africa. A great read.
It is always possible that those obsessed with others are avoiding understanding themselves.
– Eleanor Brown, April 17, 2015
This is the first of two parts. Read the next column here, at https://bibliolennlibrary.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/1514/