Table of contents:
2. Main Part
The Reflection of Society
No Garden of Eden
The Place of Origin
The Canadian Experience
In 1971, Canada became the first nation which officially adapted an official multiculturalism policy, thereby emphasizing its importance in a modern world. Until today, Canada sees itself as a precursor in respect to interaction with immigrants, partly due to the fact that it is a country which consists of only immigrants, except for the Inuit and First Nations.
In Austin Clarke’s short story Canadian Experience, we get to know the struggles and thoughts of a young man who emigrates from Barbados to Canada, hoping for a better life in a country that seems to be welcoming. But he is not able to experience Canada’s embrace: the hands which hold him back are his own, black ones. Clarke’s story is abundant with imagery and narratives linked to the “Canadian Dream”, the dream that everyone is welcomed with open arms. The protagonist embodies this dream and the falling apart of its implementation.
Robert Kroetsch states in his book The Lovely Treachery of Words that “Canadians cannot agree on what their meta-narrative is”.1 By meta-narrative he understands the “assumed story”2 upon which almost all literary productions are based and are influenced. I believe that one of the major Canadian meta-narratives is multiculturalism. Yet, in agreement with Kroetsch, it cannot be considered to be a unifying element in respect to the Canadian identity, as it seperates the different layers of cultural heterogeneity instead of uniting diverse cultural backgrounds.
2. Main Part
The Reflection of Society
The opening paragraph of Clarke’s story delineates the current situation the man is in and brings up the image of the reflection: the protagonist is not only introduced as a character in himself, instead he is described as consisting of two sides, himself and his reflection. The glass in the mirror reflects back to him what he considers to be a “punishing reflection”3 as he thinks that the way he appears is not who he really is, that “his image was incorrect” (23). Hence, he does not like himself (23), not primarily because of who he is and how he sees himself, but due to the putatively distorted reflection the mirror throws back at him. We see that already at the very beginning of the story, the question of identity is raised in this two-sided approach, which is a particluarly Canadian way of dealing with something new, as their way to the definition of a nation was and still is majorly influenced by the two competing British and French identities. Thus, in having to evaluate his own identity based on a bilateral perception, the protagonist re-lives the forming of the identity of the country which determines his reflection.
The word imagery used in the first paragraph is very violent and cruel, describing the killing (“cut off at the neck”, 23) of his body. As the beginning and the ending paragraph are semantically paralleled, we find the description of his later death already at the very beginning of the story. In a later passage, the reflection of the man’s body is torn and disjoints him (32) and we perceive a schizophrenic split-character picture which predicates that there is no unity even in the smallest unit of the nation, the individual. Lateron, this mirroring imagery continues to be used in an even stronger way. This is not simply the way the man imagines to be seen, it depicts the reflection of society. This becomes clearer in the progress of the story when the people around him do not just see him incorrectly, they look right through him (34). He himself becomes the glass in which he noticed his reflection earlier on.
But why does he remain unnoticed throughout the story, even until his very end? The reason is that he does not fit into society, as he is outwardly different from everybody else. This author believes that it is due to his color that he is not able to experience the “Canadian dream” and fit into the Canadian society.
The color scheme reveals one of the most important aspects of why it is so hard for him to adapt to Canada and become Canadian. The first time the color theme is brought up is by the description of the clock in his room, which is both white and black (25). We will see throughout the story that there are only these two sides of the color spectrum, no centre which is the Canadian average. The actress points this out when she refers to him as being “black” (30), although he is actually brown. One could even call it the two solitudes of color, with no unity between them.
The protagonist is dark in the utmost sense. Not only in his physical appearance, even his room is dark. Additionally, he dressed in the dark, not realising the filthiness of his shirt. It is not until he is exposed to the white light, representing the white society, that he notices darkness in the form of dirt on his shirt. In respect to dress codes it would be acceptable and even required to wear black, ironically here he does not “live out” his blackness by wearing a brown suit instead, which in combination with a pink shirt and and a yellow tie makes him resemble a clown more than a bank applicant.
Thus, he is not well received by society, as they strictly believe in a black and white pattern with colors on the marginal sides of the sprectrum only. Himani Bannerji pin-points this dilemma of color by referring to the book Shades of Right by Martin Robin4, in which he delineates how different shades of color are received differently and consequently welcomed differently in Canada. The people with skin color in-between the edges black and white are classified as belonging to either category, but are not seen in a more subtly diverse way. The protagonist is caught in this categorizing thinking and subesquently put into the category black. Yet he still wants to fit into the Candian society. When thinking about the reason why he came to Canada, another problematic issue is raised; that of Canada being caught in-between Great Britain and (North) America (26). The man does not believe in the Canadian school system and instead values the British system with its public schools.5 Ironically, his school in Barbados did not even fit into this system, as it was not a private school. Likewise, just as Canada is neither a copy of Great Britain nor of the USA, he thinks himself to be neither black nor white, however the Canadian society does think differently.
A very important element of this story -- both in respect to success and the Canadian society -- is the elevator in which he finds himself several times during his day and in his flashbacks. It represents his only possibility to move up, but he does not use this chance while the doors are opening to provide him with job opportunities. During the time before his job interview, he realizes that the ticking of the clock is very loud (24), which emphasizes that time is running. However, he does not grasp his chances and the doors close again. Once, the elevator even symbolically takes him to the top but does not open. The descent makes him feel stronger and gives him new vigour, because this has been his experience so far, moving downwards to the bottom of society. When the doors to the bank open a second time and he is about to move to get out of the elevator (33), the door closes. The metaphor which is used here is of “two large black hands” (33). Just when he might have had the chance to get a job and to enter the Canadian life, his blackness separates him from succeeding in doing so. This color imagery is used again, when he is at the platform: there, the clean and therefore white cement is divided by a black river of hard steel, which represents his blackness.
This black river makes it impossible for him to cross to the other side, where “Light Days”, again referring to the white side of society, are advertised.
No Garden of Eden
Kroetsch notes that the dream of Eden, a meta-narrative that has been persistently present in the writing of the New World, “haunts Canadian writers”6 as it is not so much about the dream itself, but about the destruction of the dream. He calls the dream of Eden a narrative that could be called meta-narrative, as it affects many stories in the New World. Yet in Canadian literature, this dream only exists in theory, real life in contrast is mind-numbing and hard. Although immigrants are unhooked from their old stories and cultural backgrounds and thus provided with the possibility to shape a new identity and develop a new story, they are unable to find this in the Canadian New World.7
At the very beginning of Clarke’s tale we are told that the protagonist is “not dressed in the way he had hoped to appear” (23, emphasis added). With this statement, he brings up another central theme of Canadian Experience; deferred hope. When he decided to come to Canada, he had hoped to live a better life. But instead, he had to face an illegal world with low-paying jobs, unemployment and “decreptitude” (27), even coming to a point where he feels intimidated by wealth (33). The actress, in contrast, is focused on money (33), wants to get rich and exemplifies a rather “American” idea of hope, but the man has “no money and no hope of any” (32).
His old refrigerator and its ingredients are used as a metaphor for this failed and unfulfilled dream of Eden, as it promises ingredients which can be identified as typically Canadian. The baking soda that is used in North America to supposedly keep away odors, some water and milk measured in American imperial sizes, gallon and pint, plus some wieners from Canada Packers (26). The bread from Wonder Bread with a smiling child on its wrapper promises miracles and happiness, yet in contrast the slices are hard and cannot be eaten, let alone enjoyed any more. Additionally, there are three bottles of Molson Beer, the most typically Canadian brand of beer. However, they are emptied and thrown into the garbage and do not lift him up to establish his Canadian identity. There, there are together with the classified pages from the Globe and Mail, which he used to try to find a typical Canadian job.
1 Kroetsch, Robert (ed.). The Lovely Treachery of Words. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989: 21.
3 Clarke, Austin (ed). Choosing his coffin: The Best Stories of Austin Clarke. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2003: 23; the page numbers of the following quotations taken from Clarke’s text are put into brackets instead of footnotes; quotations and citations from other texts are marked with footnotes.
4 Bannerji, Himani. On the Dark Side of the Nation: Politics of Multiculturalism and the State of Canada. in: Journal of Canadian Studies 31.3 (Fall 1996): 117
5 In England, the term “public schools” is used for private schools.
6 Kroetsch, Robert (ed). The Lovely Treachery of Words. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1989: 32.