canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Ashok Mathur

Ashok Mathur was born in Bhopal, India, and immigrated to Canada with his family in 1962. At first they settled in Nova Scotia but by 1968 they were in Calgary, where he began working on a variety of small press and art projects. Mathur completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Calgary, focusing on anti-racism inside and outside the academy. His first book, Loveruage, was published in 1993 by Wolsak and Wynn. His novel Once Upon an Elephant was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 1998. His second novel, The Short, Happy Life of Harry Kumar is forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press in fall 2001. He currently teaches at the Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design in Vancouver. Michael Bryson interviewed Ashok Mathur by email in August 2001.

TDR: Let’s get the biographical details out of the way first. You were born in India and you've ended up (for now) in Calgary via Nova Scotia. Fill out that narrative a bit for us.

MATHUR: …And in the very near future, to Vancouver where I take up a post teaching at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. Seems my flight continues westward! My family was part of that first large wave of immigration in the early ‘60s that followed a loosening of quite strict immigration regulations that effectively barred citizens from most of the world’s nations from entering Canada. My parents had immigrated from India to England in the mid-‘50s, this being possible because they were considered citizens of the commonwealth thanks to the British Raj in India for the previous two centuries. 

My father was a young surgeon trying to settle in but things weren’t working out for him there. So my parents and my sister, who was born in England, moved back to India, but again, things didn’t work out as they had hoped. This might have been because of the economy, the medical profession, or perhaps because my parents had married outside their religious backgrounds – my father was a Hindu, my mother, a Parsi. 

Whatever the case, after I was born, they moved back to England yet again and from there my father moved to Canada which was, at that time, desperately trying to attract doctors and professional folks to its shores. After some months, my father called for us and my mother, sister, and I came over to Canada. My father had done a series of locums in various parts of the country, but he finally got a GP posting in a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. 

We stayed there a few years, then moved into Dartmouth since my father really wanted to work as a surgeon, not a GP. This was not to happen in NS, however, and it wasn’t until he moved to Calgary in 1968 (with his young family remaining on the east coast until things seemed solid) during the oil boom that he actually got to be a full-time surgeon. So, it was Calgary where I grew up and I’ve lived here, on and off, since that time.

TDR: You’re about to release your second novel, THE SHORT, HAPPY LIVE OF HARRY KUMAR. Your publisher’s web site (Arsenal Pulp Press) describes it as a “playful jaunt through mythology, … blending the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, with the geography of Canada and Australia.” The title also echoes a short story by Ernest Hemingway, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” What are you up to here? What’s the (dis)connection between Hindu mythology and the work of the famous macho man and Nobel laureate?

MATHUR: It’s also, of course, a direct intertextual reference to Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown, in particular to the character whose name I borrow for my own novel. The Hemingway connection, if it’s really there at all(!), is tangential at best, I admit. Sure, Harry and Francis are both out of their element, caught up in circumstances that are beyond their control, but I’d be loathe to suggest there’s anything more than that. I’m sure a reader will only have to look at a page of my prose to realize that there’s certainly no stylistic mimicry going on here anyway! But I’d be interested to see what people do make of the title. 

My partner grilled me on this: “Is Harry’s life short?” she asked. “Nope,” I admitted. “Is his life happy?” “No, no particularly,” I was further forced to admit. Although, truth be told, unlike the Hemingway short story, there is a kind of happiness played out through the novel, and Harry’s life, at least metaphorically speaking, is cut short. As for the connection to Hindu cosmology, the novel certainly tracks a retelling of sorts of the Ramayana, not dissimilar to the retelling of the creation of the Hindu god, Ganesh, that I do through the previous novel, Once Upon an Elephant

However, unlike the earlier novel, Harry Kumar is also tracing through (or, to use your phrase, [dis]connecting) a variety of complex politics around incarceration, indigeneity, immigration, and, to some degree (and I hope this doesn’t sound like a throwaway buzzword here), globalization. So, to get back to your question, or at least to the intent of your question, the novel is really a palimpsest of sorts, a series of original writings that I’m erasing or partially erasing so that I can tell/re-tell a story that bends those other texts in ways that are relevant and pressing.

TDR: You’re active as an anti-racism activist, both inside and outside the literary community. Does your activism feed the writing, or does the writing feed your activism? What is the relationship between the two? Are you worried that your writing will become, or be described, as polemical?

MATHUR: Good questions. The easy answer, of course, is that both feed off each other, each refers back to the other as a resource and response. But it goes further than that, into a kind of ontology. In many ways, I think the writing, or the act of this writing, is a form of activism, cannot, in fact, be separated from that activist sensibility. Does this lead into the critique of this being pure polemic, utter didacticism devoid of artistic integrity? For some, yes. Let me give you an example. My first book, Loveruage, a set of three interconnected tracts of poetic prose, was panned in a Globe and Mail review for being too “folksy” and pandering to binaries which equated whiteness with “bad” and brownness with “good.” 

Yet what I was attempting with that book was to address huge issues of the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality in a way that wasn’t trite or simplistic. But the review didn’t even look at anything beyond race, even went as far as introducing my book with the seemingly innocuous fact that the author was born in Bhopal. Yes, my birthplace was on the book jacket, but for what reason was it dragged up in the review? First, to locate my work as coming from a differentiated, racialized space, then to contain my work as floundering with those same confines. 

Okay, so let me now fast forward from that first book to the present. In the past few years, there has been an explosion of literary projects written by writers of colour, fueled in part, I would suggest, by historical markers such as the Writers’ Union of Canada-sponsored “Writing thru Race” conference in 1994, which not only brought together almost two hundred First Nations writers and writers of colour, but it also made visible an extreme right-wing reaction to the possibilities of “difference” in Canadian culture. 

That aside, the racialized writers whose works have been most heavily supported – and don’t get me wrong, I think much of this writing is extremely strong and brilliant – are producing work that brings the exotic other into the imagination of middle-class Canada. While this writing, like all writing, is political (and sometimes overtly so), the point is that racialized writers are now being managed, brought into the Canadian literary marketplace to fulfill a perceived need. What I’m trying to do, have tried in all three of my books, is to address the pressing political questions of our time without buying into the demands of the book industry for producing an item of consumption. 

So this sounds, I know, noble and idealistic, and perhaps not a little naïve. Sure, I’m aware that I am, to some degree, part of a capitalist system and that I can’t operate outside of that just because I say so. But I’m also aware that I want to remain conscious of how I participate, and that I want to create fissures of resistance, for myself and for others, in as many places as possible. So back to your question (finally!): yes, my work will definitely be read, often enough, as “too political” and not aesthetically-pleasing enough. So be it. I also know, however, that there are those who can “connect” with the work precisely because it doesn’t feed into expectations, however artistically-crafted they may be.

TDR: Calgary has an abundant literary scene that is not as well known across the country as it perhaps should be. What are some of the more interesting literary endeavors ongoing in Calgary that you think ought to get more attention? Who are the people involved?

MATHUR: There are always exciting things happening on the local level, and by that, I don’t mean Calgary specifically, but wherever your local happens to be. What was it Oscar Wilde said (or was credited with saying)?: “Where you’re at is your habitat; everyplace else, you’re a foreigner.” Well, when people co-habitate a specific local, things happen. Should the local scene be better known across the country? Perhaps, but I think it’s more important that small lit magazines, zines of various kinds, chapbook producers, lit festival and writer-in-residency organizers, focus on that very local, make things happen at this level without concern about what others know about it. 

This may sound obtuse and perhaps separationist, or at the very least, anarchist. But what I intend by all this is to suggest that what happens on a local scale, in this case on the Calgary lit front, is special and particular to this place. But when folks get all hit up, touting what’s happening in their community, as if they have propriety and are taking credit for it, that’s when I start to get deeply suspicious. So, yes, cool things are happening here, as they are in different parts of the country, of the world. But what’s important in all this is to recognize the local as a place to focus on.

TDR: I read a review recently that described Rick Moody’s struggle between “running with the fast crowd” and being “an old-fashioned storyteller”. In other words, the reviewer thought Moody straddled the line between post-modern showiness and more standard prose values like plot, character, and setting. First, where would you place yourself on this spectrum? And second, how well do you think Canadian literature in general is doing at articulating the aesthetic struggles of our times?

MATHUR: Deep question. Interesting how that reviewer pretends there are such absurdly oppositional categories. Take a look at Rushdie – is he “old-fashioned” using, as he does, oral storytelling techniques that are quite ancient, or is he a “fast-crowd dude” cuz he plays with postcolonial and postmodern issues? 

My work, well, it depends on which project I’m working on, I guess. In my previous novel, I used the elements of the mystery-genre, but I also played with perceptions of time and, of course, Hindu cosmology. And, yes, I do theorize my work which, in my mind simply means discussing how and why I (and others) write and what social and political consequences that might have. But that does lead to others constructing me, perhaps, as “postmodern” – one such writer came up to me at a party recently and, after chatting with me for less than a minute, asked me if I was “one of those writers who puts slashes in your writing?” 

Apart from showing his own fear and simplistic response to writing he might have to work through differently than he’s used to, this furthered the false gap between “traditional” (whatever that means to different folks) and “postmodern” (again, whatever that might mean!) But to your question of Canlit in general – one thing that it has utterly failed to do in recent years (perhaps ever, to any degree) is to challenge the status quo, to take on political and social issues with a fierceness and readiness featured in the literatures of other nations. 

My fear is that Canadian writing and writers will be folded into a capitalist enterprise (such as the publishing industry is becoming) to such an extent that the literature will be mere marketing, filling readerly demands and being consumed by the masses as a tool for promotion. If this seems outlandish, think of product placement in Hollywood film and, not far behind, various forms of literature: Mordecai Richler’s short story in Saturday Night a couple of years back, featuring the outline of an Absolut Vodka bottle (ala the corporation’s advertising campaign) in a story that prominently mentioned the brand name; or more recently, British writer Fay Weldon’s inclusion of the name of a well-to-do Italian jewelry company in her latest book, not simply as plot device, but because she was compensated by that very corporate interest. 

These are not anamolous cases in a world of increasing corporate control, and it remains to be seen how Canadian and other writers will continue to work, think, and create writing that is, independent of, or, god forbid, even critical of this trend.

TDR: What’s one question you've always wanted to be asked? (And the answer to that question!)

MATHUR: Q: “Now that capitalism has met its demise, what direction will the arts move in?” A: “Up.”






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