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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

LibraryThing Early Review

by Miguel Syjuco

I am always looking for the thrill of reading from a culture I am unfamiliar with, so I jumped at the chance to read a Man-Asian prize-winning novel by a Filipino, albeit one living in Canada, and with advanced degrees from a couple of big-time schools. However, I am unimpressed. The faux-document-pastiche style is not new, and I find that Syjuco has not handled it adroitly nor is the treatment particularly humourous or ironic. Somehow, more interesting than the book itself (to me, at least) is the question that came to mind while I was reading it.

This book got me thinking about colonialism. I have always thought we are still living out the colonial era, and someone suggested to me recently that we will, in a way, never leave the colonial era. It encompasses the past 500 years of world history.  Perhaps it will never "end". Where actual colonies have become obsolete, the feeling is like the son killing the father - everything is done to obliterate the influence of the colonial, in a way that attests to the strength of the influence.

What really got me wondering is that this book is written by an ethnically Spanish Filipino, not an indigenous Filipino. I was disappointed. Canada is one of the countries that has accepted many many Filipinos, a little bit through the back door, as caregivers. They are seeking a middle-class life unavailable to them in the Philippines, and they now form a large and stable community here. The children of these workers are integrating everywhere, but that had not happened in my generation. I thought this book would satisfy my style of thrill-seeking curiosity.

So, the book violated my expectations, and when I realized it I started asking myself why.

I am a Canadian, and I don't consider the only interesting or authentic cultural voice of Canada to belong to the indigenous people. Nor do I expect it from the United States or Mexico or Australia. Or Brazil, for that matter. And, it must be said, there are indigenous writers to be read in all these countries, but they stand alongside a multiplicity of immigrant voices, albeit many with hundreds of years of history. Yet there are certain places where writers of European background feel colonial, even when they have been established for many hundreds of years.

For me, I found out, the Philippines is one of those places. Shall we say, so is all of Africa, with the exception of South Africa, which was colonized differently? The middle east and far east have never really been colonized, although there are some small spots - Israel comes to mind - where an immigrant voice is natural. The Caribbean is different again - the actual natives wiped out, the colonialists sort of chucked out, leaving behind only a flavour, and the dominant population descended from immigrant slaves seems to own the native voice.

So, what is the difference? It isn't really the class difference between the colonialists and the natives - historically all the indigenous groups were treated with disdain - although it is somehow more marked in this second group. I was stumped for weeks. I finally thought up an answer. Maybe it is a numbers thing: where the colonial population overwhelmed the indigenous, the colonial voice feels native. Where a minority (or slim minority) of colonialists maintains a separate superiority over a majority (or vast majority) of the indigenous, it feels wrong. The numbers idea also explains the Caribbean situation.

The marigold's nervous questions are these: Is that enough of an explanation? And I feel I have to ask myself should it feel wrong? Is it perhaps not just a kind of honesty? We are here, we colonized, we did not integrate, but we neither did we obliterate.

And maybe it feels wrong to me because another of my ideas is that Canadians are deeply and truly egalitarian. More so than all but the most northern of Europeans, more than Americans, and South Americans. Maybe my view is a minority one, not even common to other westerners.

I think Syjuco means to discuss the ambivalence of his cultural identity, but it was that identity itself, not his art, that piqued my interest. I can't recommend the book, but I welcome any comments on this idea.

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