canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

My Brahmin Days and other stories
by  Cyril Dabydeen
TSAR Publications, 2000

Reviewed by Ted Harms

One of the great dilemmas when discussing literature is how much do you need to know about the author to comprehend or understand their work. For a reader, the urge to label, classify, and categorize authors and their works is an instinct. Problems may occur, though, when those signposts go beyond the introductory to becoming the focus. However, a good author will always rise above any simple labels or categories. Is Jack Kerouac just a Beat, Toni Morrison just a female African-American, or Franz Kafka just a German-speaking Jew?

I bring up Kafka because he lived his life as a stranger to his society and his own family; moreover, much of his work can be seen as interpreting that chasm that separated himself from his kin and neighbours. Cyril Dabydeen's short stories in this collection are far from being Kafka-esque, yet a similar theme runs through them: the narrator or main character, regardless of what country or culture they are in (even in their adopted home), is seen by themself or by others as a foreigner. And, given Dabydeen's bio on the back of the book that reads "these stories confront Dabydeen's Asian and Caribbean-South American identity with his experience of life in Canada" it becomes clear that Dabydeen is drawing on his own life.

Unfortunately, the common theme is so overt that it overshadows what are well-written stories, full of humour, poignancy, and insight into the feelings of those who have crossed cultures. In a country that likes to see it self as a cultural mosaic, it becomes clear that the flipside is that some w ill be unable to blend in or disappear into a homogenous culture. Strange as that may seem, maybe some people want to vanish in a crowd.

On its own, this 'otherness' is well described in the stories. 'Siddhartha' has an aspiring South American whose rejection notice from a publisher includes, by mistake, an aspiring North American author's rejected manuscript; 'Departure' deals with an encounter with a much-feared immigration officer; and 'The Cottage' describes a weekend away with a girlfriend and her family where most things go wrong. Only one story is too much of a stretch 'Who Is Lee Harvey Oswald' is written as a multiple narrative of Harlem residents that gets bogged down in its forced style.

Only time will tell how much Dabydeen's background is a key to understanding his work. Unfortunately, the continuous presence of some form of culture clash in all the stories of My Brahmin Days becomes too predictable. Perhaps others would find this as a common thread running through the stories; I find it's a constricting rope, binding the ankles of stories that would be much freer running in mixed company.

Ted Harms is a philosopher who lives in Waterloo, Ontario.






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