Shyam Selvadurai, The Hungry Ghosts

The Hungry Ghosts is Sri Lankan-Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai’s third novel, a book which tells the story of Shivan’s childhood in his originary nation and subsequent life in Canada, as well as his return(s) to Sri Lanka in his adolescence and adulthood. Told retroactively by a drunken present-day Shivan, The Hungry Ghosts deals not only with questions surrounding departure from and the possibility and potentiality of return to one’s home nation, but also with the intersection of these questions in conjunction with the protagonist’s homosexuality. Half Tamil on his deceased father’s side, Shivan’s childhood in Sri Lanka is less than idyllic. From an early age, Shivan remarks that he must act as a bargaining chip between his Amma (mother), and his Aachi (grandmother), a status that he both comes to love – due to the gifts and adoration bestowed unto him from his grandmother – and despise – largely due to the feeling of objectification that inevitably comes with such a position. As such, Shivan’s relationships with both his Amma and Aachi are strained, resulting in a feeling of isolation: an inability to fully connect on an emotional level with either woman. While Shivan is unable to sustain positive relations with the maternal figures in his life, his Aachi dotes on the young boy, which Shivan uses to his advantage in the form of gifts from his – extremely wealthy – Amma. Amma’s adoration for Shivan stems not from any grandmotherly affection for her grandson but from the fact of his masculinity, evidenced by her all but ignoring Shivan’s younger sister, Renu.


Although Shivan greatly benefits from his grandmother’s adoration, it is not long after anti-Tamil violence spreads throughout Sri Lanka that the young boy convinces his mother to apply for immigration to Canada, effectively severing his relationship with his grandmother. Once their application is accepted, Shivan, his mother, and his sister immigrate to Canada, where they each struggle in their own way to find their place in the supposed mosaic that is Canadian culture. While all three certainly have their own struggles, Shivan is convinced that he struggles the most of the three. Although not entirely unfounded – Shivan struggles to come to terms with his sexuality – this belief blinds him to the reality of the issues facing his mother and sister, allowing him to dwell on his own problems rather than creating intimate relations with his family members. It is in this way that the reader first begins to see that Shivan is, ultimately, a self-centered, unlikable character. This being said, it is near impossible to have some kind of sympathetic reaction to the manner in which Shivan is e(x/r)oticized by many of the white Canadians he encounters.


It is these encounters with white Canadians during which Shivan experiences sentiments of dehumanization and exotic essentialization which act as catalyst for his first return to Sri Lanka. This return spurs not only renewed interest in Shivan by his grandmother – who promises to leave Shivan with her lucrative, if exploitative business – but in Shivan’s first real romantic – although not his first sexual – relationship with a man. The significance of this relationship is twofold: firstly, it is Shivan’s first indication that his experiences as a gay man are not universal. Upon returning to Sri Lanka, Shivan must hide his sexuality and perform as a heterosexual man, even amongst those who otherwise become his closest relations in the country besides his grandmother. Secondly, this relationship reveals to the reader that Shivan must locate himself in the periphery of belonging in Sri Lanka; his time in Canada has sentenced Shivan to live simultaneously on the inside and outside of Sri Lankan culture. This is most clearly demonstrated when Shivan takes his partner to a brothel intended for male tourists to have sex with young Sri Lankan men: “’This guest house is only for foreigners,’” they are told by the doorman of the brothel. “’I am a foreigner,’ [Shivan] said, switching to English” (221). It is thus made clear that Shivan is comfortable utilizing his dual status as insider and outsider of Sri Lankan culture to his benefit, switching between feigning belonging and proudly declaring his outside status.


The Hungry Ghosts perfectly demonstrates Selvadurai’s literary mastery and his grasp on a range of human emotions. By writing Shivan as an unlikable yet sympathetic character, Selvadurai forces the reader to question the legitimacy of the narrative they have just devoured. As such, there are no easy conclusions to be reached through the novel. Instead, the reader must work towards their own reading of this masterwork of literary fiction.

Rawi Hage, Cockroach

The second novel by Lebanese-Canadian author Rawi Hage, Cockroach explores the oft-invisible (under)world of refugees in Canada. Hage’s unnamed protagonist, a Lebanese refugee who fled from war-torn Beirut, is the reader’s guide through this underworld as the reader follows him from his court-mandated therapy – where his therapist routinely misunderstands cultural differences and nuances as symptoms of the protagonist’s, rightly diagnosed, mental illness – to his apartment in a run-down old building he shares not only with other migrants and refugees but also with a gaggle of white wannabe-hippies who the narrator believes “will eventually float down, take off their colourful, exotic costumes, and wear their fathers’ three-piece suits” (21), to his various misadventures throughout the streets of Montreal and his job at an Iranian restaurant where his musician friend Reza sometimes performs. Although the reader follows Hage’s protagonist throughout the entirety of the novel, he is not a sympathetic character and must be read with a strong sense of irony imbued with gallows humour – a fact lost upon some early reviewers. This irony comes through as unfounded criticisms of all those around the narrator, including – but certainly not limited to – his friends Reza and Farhoud, his would-be girlfriend Shohreh, other migrants and refugees to Canada including a man known only as the professor and the protagonist’s future boss, and the white Canadians whom the protagonist encounters, ranging from his more intimate acquaintances, such as his therapist Genevieve and his upstairs neighbor Mary, to complete strangers eating in a restaurant. The protagonist experiences delusions of grandeur in relation to these characters, often admonishing them at the consequence of bolstering his own ego, though it is uncertain if this is a tactic acquired through his own lack of self esteem or if he truly believes it to be the truth. In all likelihood this is a method of self-preservation insofar as he is able to preserve his sense of self in a system built to wear away at his sense of self.

In tandem with these moments of ironic deprecation of others, the protagonist often imagines himself metamorphosing into a cockroach in a Kafkaesque fashion – albeit these are not permanent changes. While some critics (see above) have taken these moments as literal, it is vastly more productive to understand these magic realist moments as indications of dissociation in the protagonist wherein his body becomes foreign to itself and he is left to see himself as he believes others, especially rich white Canadians, view him: as vermin. The establishment has worn away at his psyche to such an extent that he is no longer able to consistently inhabit his own body and instead must regress into the – metaphorical, not literal – embodiment of complete other. In so doing, Hage’s novel masterfully highlights the psychological impact of precarious existence experienced by many refugees within the Canadian state.

Kamal Al-Solaylee, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes

Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes vividly captures the author’s experiences growing up gay in the Middle East, specifically through his early years in Beirut through to his adolescence in Cairo and his eventual return to his familial homeland in Sana’a, a city in the south of Yemen. While he writes largely about himself and his own coming-to-terms with his sexuality, as well as the effects of his various uprootings throughout his childhood and adolescence, Al-Solaylee’s memoir could just as easily be marketed as an auto-ethnographic treatise that discusses the liberation movement of Yemen from under the control of the English, the rise of fundamentalist Islamic principles in the Middle East, and the effects of both of these historic events on Al-Solaylee’s own family. Al-Solaylee, who is a professor of journalism at Ryerson University, treats these events of socio-historical import with a sense of journalistic distance, often leaving his reader wanting in terms of the emotional, affective descriptions one comes to expect within the genre of memoir. However, one must keep in mind the trauma likely caused by the multitudinous displacements in Al-Solaylee’s childhood and adult life, which potentially begs for this impersonal mode of writing.

While Al-Solaylee’s life is marked almost entirely by his displacements, the one that appears to resonate the most for the author is his final move to Toronto. The appreciation Al-Solaylee feels for the city is evidenced by his dedicating his book to the city itself “for giving [him] what [he’s] been looking for: a home.” The love for Toronto is so evident that the city itself become metonym for the West in complete opposition to Yemen and the Middle East as the East, or the Orient. The representation of the city, however, is suspect insofar as Al-Solaylee figures it as a utopia wherein he experiences no discrimination, other than a questioned-but-never-confirmed discrimination on job applications due to his “very ethnic sounding name and Middle Eastern background” (166). The reader is thus left to question the veracity of this description of the city: does Al-Solaylee glamourize Toronto due to the liberation he feels as a gay man within the – especially in comparison to Yemeni culture – liberal political climate of Canada and Toronto, or is this city truly Al-Solaylee’s paradise?

Although I have not yet read Al-Solaylee’s second book, Brown, I would suggest the book as a companion to Intolerable. In Brown, Al-Solaylee discusses the implication of living with brown skin in the contemporary world, thus likely filling in some of the more glaring gaps of commentary the reader is left with in the wake of Intolerable.

Shyam Selvadurai (Editor) “Story-Wallah!”

Shyam Selvadurai’s edited collection Story-Wallah! is a self proclaimed “celebration of South Asian fiction,” and there is little room to doubt that this is most definitely a celebration. The collection begins with a personal essay by Selvadurai which discusses his position within the South Asian diaspora, explores his writing in terms of his national identity, presents a brief overview of the history of the South Asian diaspora, and finally introduces the fiction that is to be found within his collection. In discussing the ways in which he identifies his writing, Selvadurai insightfully states that his writerly persona can be found in “that marvellous open space represented by the hyphen” between his two national identities of Sri Lankan and Canadian; to do otherwise, he says, would be “disingenuous” (1). This is not to say, however, that Selvadurai does not recognize the potential for conflict that also exists within the hyphen: “In my day-to-day interactions with the world outside, I share [with other people of colour an] irritation, [a] burden, [an] occasional danger of [my] visible otherness” (2). Inherent in Selvadurai’s embracing his position within the diaspora, then, is a realization that Canada’s ideal of multuculturalism is not necessarily embodied by all of its inhabitants, and that racism still remains in the Canadian state. This racism is not purely physical, either. The term most often used to speak of those within the diaspora is “immigrant” which, as Selvadurai points out, focuses “on the act of arrival” and, rhetorically, gives the impression that one “is a perpetual newcomer, a perpetual outside” (5). The immigrant story is thus one of constant arrival, one which refuses to integrate the newcomer into the social imaginary of the nation state. Diasporic identification, alternately, allows for cultural mingling and the formation of new identities based on “cultural mingling” (5). This being said, Selvadurai recognizes, as do scholars such as Mariam Pirbhai, that the term “South Asian diaspora” is insufficient in describing the multiplicity of national identities – e.g. Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc. – which it supposedly captures. Additionally, the history of different groups within the diaspora is extremely disparate, with some members carrying a legacy of indentureship and territorial dispossession – such as the indentured South Asian workers following the abolition of slavery or the fracturing of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan following partition in 1947 as well as the subsequent splitting of Pakistan which resulted in the creation of Bangledash as a nation – while other groups migrated later, into the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, for economic gains. It is perhaps because of these disparate histories and the vastness of the territory which is included in the diaspora that little fiction from the South Asian diaspora is anthologized, and Selvadurai’s collection is certainly a step towards giving South Asian fiction the attention it deserves. 

Austin Clarke, selections from “When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks”

Although Barbadian-born Austin Clarke is widely known for his novels, the prolific writer also wrote several collections of short stories which helped to propel him into literary fame in Canada. When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks, published in 1971, is the first of these short story collections and is centred upon the experience of immigration to Canada, stemming both from Clarke’s own experiences and his discussions from other Barbadian-Canadians, many of whom travelled as domestic workers for rich White families. Although most of the stories in this collection are written from a male perspective, Clarke’s story, “Bonanza 1972 in Toronto” deftly captures a feminine voice as she speaks on the phone to a friend, Clemmie, regarding an event to which she had been sent in her employer’s stead. While the speaker notes that the event was on to which she would not normally have access and was sent dressed in one of her employer’s coats, the enchantment was soon to disappear when she discovers that the gala to which she is sent is at which her island, Barbados, is being sold to white tourists. The white sand on display for the attendees to feel slip between their fingers is all too telling of the ephemeral nature of their attraction to the island nation of Barbados; while they appreciate the island during their vacation, it does not remain part of the white tourist as it does for the emigrant of the nation. Additionally, the narrator’s lack of access to the flying fish laid out for the consumption of those in attendance due to the white man in who has positioned himself in front of the food is demonstrative of her alienation from the food of her youth; as the speaker in the titular story of Clarke’s collection suggests: “there are many commercial and irrelevant soul food kitchens these days in … Toronto” (107). Although accessible, the commercial nature of these kitchens means that there is some essential, personal element missing from their food. 

While Clarke captures the feminine voice well in “Bonanza 1972 in Toronto,” the majority of his female characters leave something to be desired. In “The Motor Car,” for instance, the Canadian woman to whom Calvin, the story’s protagonist, is attracted is often called “that Canadian thing,” highlighting her objectification and lack of established character. In addition to Calvin, the police who approach Calvin at the end of the story clearly do not pay and mind to the Canadian woman in the car when they transport her, neck broken, into their own cars, instead focusing on the apparent good deed Calvin has committed and commenting that they wish the “coloured people” (74) in Canada were more like those from the West Indies, clearly demonstrating their own racism. 

The racism of the officers is telling in this story, where Calvin has attempted to assimilate himself into the Canadian culture, clearly indicating an “us” and a “them” in his first letter to his friend Willy, back in Barbados, following Calvin’s immigration: “The steering wheel [in Canada] as you know is on the left hand side, and we drives on the right hand side of the road up here, not like back in Barbados where you drive on the left hand” (56). In this statement it is clear that Calvin associates himself with Canada moreso than with his home nation of Barbados. However, this association with Canada is not concrete as it is clear to the aforementioned Canadian police officers that Calvin is from the West Indies, even if he self associates with Canada. Additionally, the narrator of this story makes it clear that Calvin is charged double the rent of the others who live in his building even though his apartment is smaller. This discrepancy is demonstrative of the economics of belonging as is depicted throughout many of Clarke’s works within his collection. 

In addition to Calvin’s landlord charging him double rent, when Calvin tries to go to a calypso club in Toronto the doorman wishes to charge Calvin $3 which Calvin refuses to pay, instead he “curse the fellow and leff [SIC]” (58). In this moment, Calvin realizes that he no longer has unquestionable access to his own culture and must instead consume it as a commodified luxury, similar to the white tourists to Barbados in “Bonanza 1972 in Toronto.” Calvin is thus doubly alienated: his participation in Canadian culture is purely through economic means – clearly a critique of the West’s dependence on and reverence of capitalism – while his participation in his own, Barbadian culture is mediated, again, by economics and his willingness to pay the cover fee to enter the calypso bar. We can clearly see, then, that Clarke critiques the alienation that came with his, and others’, experiences with racism and lack of access to integration into the so-called Canadian mosaic of multiculturalism. 

Dionne Brand: “No Language is Neutral” and “A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging”

When discussing newcomer literature in Canada – not to mention Canadian Black writers, Canadian woman authors, and queer Canadian authors – Dionne Brand is certainly one of the first names to come to mind. With her mastery of poetic prose, Brand eloquently captures her experiences of migration to Canada as well as her experience of living in the Black diaspora in such a way that the affect of her experience of transitory belonging is made perfectly clear to her reader.  A Map to the Door of No Return (2001), loosely defined as Brand’s memoir both begins and ends with a depiction of her grandfather and his inability to name the African peoples where his family’s heritage could be traced. As Dionne writes, though, “[h]is forgetting was understandable; after all, when he was born the Door of No Return was hardly closed, forgetting was urgent” (223). Her grandfather’s inability to remember is thus viewed by Brand as a form of self-preservation: should he remember the nation the trauma of the slave trade, here represented by the Door of No Return, could overwhelm not only Brand’s grandfather but her entire family, its legacy hanging over all of them. This inability to remember, though, complicates the – already complicated – idea of nationalism for Brand: “National identity is a dance of artificiality” (72). Her position in the diaspora makes the artifice of the nation all too clear for Brand.

The public conceptions of race and ethnicity in the West, however, are made immediately apparent for Brand when she bears witness to court proceedings for teenagers of colour in the courthouse on Jarvis Street in Toronto. “The defendants,” Brand writes, “are Chinese, Hispanic, Portuguese, Italian, African/Caribbean, Vietnamese, Russian. But not really. None of them know these origins except through their parents or grandparents. They were all born in this city” (105). Brand is thus commenting on the ways in which white Canadians refuse to look past the racial and/or ethnic identities of their fellow Canadians, thereby relegating any member of a racialized or ethnicized group to a dual identification as “___-Canadian,” conveniently forgetting the fact that white Canadians hold no claim over the nation which we stole from the Indigenous peoples.

It is not only in Canada, however, that Brand is made aware of the pervasiveness of her markers of difference. She writes that a clerical error on her birth certificate indicates that her first name is Deanne rather than Dionne, a simple mistake due to a small spelling error. While this fact does not impact Brand in her first twelve years, she eventually encounters Miss Sirju who vehemently refuses to call Brand anything other than her official name. According to Brand, however, this girl, Deanne, was “a girl without a story” (113) and she was unable to recognize herself in the name. Because of this lack of identification, Brand did not respond to questions addressed to Deanne and, eventually, “the other girls” in the class “looked at [Brand] as if the word Deanne were an accusation” (113). That Miss Sirju was Brand’s English teacher is too perfect, existing as a thinly veiled metonym through which Brand’s reader is meant to understand the English fixation on anglicizing names that are deemed to be “too foreign.”

In an almost too perfect coincidence, the copy of Brand’s prose poem “No Language is Neutral” that I had taken out from my library was largely marked up with previous readers’ annotations, some of which were attempting to “correct” the grammar in Brand’s poem, ostensibly to make the poem easier to decipher for this previous reader. The irony, however, is palpable; in a poem largely devoted to the power that language holds over our lives, and especially the lives of newcomers to a nation, Brand’s language has been modified by a, likely, Western reader in order to conform to “proper” Englisah grammar. Instead of appreciating Brand’s use of the multifaceted nature of the English language, this previous reader has demonstrated a discomfort with the plasticity of language, relying instead on grammatical rigidity. 


Hello world,

My name is Evan Buck and I am currently a graduate student in the Department of English and Writing Studies at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. Reading has always been an important part of my life and I hope to share that love of books with the world, hence this blog! Beginning as part of a directed reading course with Dr. Donna Palmateer Pennee focused on newcomer Canadian literature, I will be using this blog to create critical commentary on – primarily recent – Canadian literature written by first- and second-generation immigrants to Canada. To that end, I will be updating the blog twice weekly until the end of July. If, by then, I’ve caught your interest, don’t worry! I will continue writing reviews of and commentaries on Canadian literature, publishing a post every week.

For now just remember, you can read Can lit