What to Wear? : Using Fashion to Explore the Canadian Immigrant Experience in No New Land
by Shannon Hare
M.G Vassanji explores the relationship between dress and Canadian identity in his thought-provoking novel No New Land. This is not only a story of false accusations, moral dilemmas and altering traditions, but is also the tale of a demeaning doughnut uniform, a haunting fez and a seductive sari. Analysing individual characters’ relationships with clothing in "No New Land" is telling with regards to the Canadian immigrant experience. Vassanji tackles the "predicament of in-between societies" (qtd. in Making a Difference 355) and explores a very specific south-Asian African Canadian identity by fictionalizing a small immigrant community living in the suburbs of Toronto. Finding a position within a social group, coming to terms with the pressures of existing in an unfamiliar environment and accepting the inequalities of class are all concerns of No New Land. Analysing fashion choices may initially seem like a minor matter compared to these broader themes; the process of dressing- and disguising, however, should be considered in conjunction with these significant issues.
M.G. Vassanji’s background is similar to the cultural history of the fictional Lalani family of No New Land. Vassanji considers himself to be an Afro-Asian and elaborates by stating, "[A]lthough we were Africans, we were also Indians...We were brought up as Indians. We grew up speaking two Indian languages- Cutchi and Gujarati-and we also understood Hindi from the movies we watched. And then we were also brought up speaking Swahili and English. We had all of this within us" (qtd. in Making 355). Vassanji’s fascinating background undoubtedly serves as inspiration for the Lalanis, an Indian family who moves from Dar, East Africa to the suburbs of Don Mills, Toronto. Vassanji comments that his own background consists of "this Indianess...transformed by the Aficanness" (354). This idea of cultural transformation carries into the fictional; the Lalanis identity becomes not only an Indianess transformed by Africaness, but also an existence transformed by the uncertain label of "Canadian-ness."
As the Lalanis step off the plane in snowy Toronto, they are hit with an intense cold and, additionally, the realization that their chosen dress is no longer appropriate in this new country. The wind, "made sails of their ill-fitting second-hand clothes, which had seen better days on the backs of colonial bwanas and memsahibs on chilly African evenings" (Vassanji 35). This simple introductory scene captures the uncomfortable feelings that will continue with these newcomers throughout the story. "Ill-fitting" and other synonyms are repeatedly utilized throughout No New Land to describe the clothing of various characters and to capture the sense of unease connected with appearance and dress1. Interestingly, the use of the terms "bwanas and memsahibs" may create a similar feeling of unease for some readers. Bwanas, loosely translated from Swahili, means master or sir while memsahibs is a term that refers to, "a white foreign woman of high social status living in India" (Merriam-Webster). These expressions would be unknown to many readers and, as a result, the feeling of uncertainty being experienced by the Lalanis is experienced simultaneously by the reader.
The cold and uncomfortable initiation of the Lalanis into Canada contrasts with the description of a carnival-like scene soon after. "Honest Ed’s" is introduced as a refuge of sorts for new Canadians. The opening phrase of chapter four hypothetically questions, "What would immigrants in Toronto do without Honest Ed’s..." (40). The Lalani family are no exception as they quickly become familiar with this centre of consumer bliss; "The first few times they would stand in wonder before the racks, piles, and overflowing boxes and crates, fingering perfectly good clothes for sale for peanuts, as it were: shirts for $1.99, dresses for $4.99, men’s suits for $14.99!" (42). The buying frenzy seems to captivate the newcomers and comparisons are swiftly made to their previous home; the inexpensive clothing in Honest Ed’s contrasts with, "the headaches you could buy in Dar with such difficulty: size sixteen shirts with size fourteen sleeves, pockets sewn shut, flies too short, shoes not matching, zips not closing" (42). The low price and fair quality of the clothing in Canada seems to reflect a better lifestyle and validates the decision to leave Dar; immigrant families undergo a sort of consumer-centred re-birth as clothes and housewares become the new temptations for a new life.
This consumer lure is further emphasized as the Lalani adults, Nurdin and Zera, attend a party directly targeting new Canadians. The couple’s initial impressions of awe are based around the sight of "Tall ladies in fur, men in tweeds and leather" (52). The glamorous outfits in the lobby contrast with a self-conscious Nurdin who thinks "nervously of his suit. A bargain, though the checkered design was not to his complete liking. And the sleeves were just noticeably long" (52). The Honest Ed bargains, which are initially described in a completely positive manner, become an embarrassment when compared with the trendy outfits in the posh lobby. As a result, a sort of fashion hierarchy is created; the evening’s highlight, a fashion show titled "The Complete Canadian Male or Female", reiterates this hierarchy. The clothing, ranging from the pricey to the practical, is deliberately showcased from most to least expensive. The accompanying commentary reflects the image created by the higher or lower cost. The underwear modelled, for example, ranges, "from silk (‘for the precious you’) to cotton (‘for the sensible’) to blend (‘for the practical’)" (55). The viewer can therefore choose what sort image s/he wishes to project and buy accordingly. The fashion show seems to imply that becoming a "Complete Canadian" simply involves dressing a certain way.
In No New Land Vassanji plays with the notion of what constitutes Canadian; the fashion show is a humorous episode which reflects a real uncertainty. In a country without a unified national identity, many Canadians attempt to define themselves by their clothing, speech or appearance instead of by a national subconscious or by a unified belief system. Oftentimes, the differences between Canadians and Americans are utilized to describe what it means to be a Canadian. Erin Manning considers the formation of a Canadian identity in relation to a popular beer commercial. The Molson "I am Canadian" advertising campaign, in which "an average Joe...passionately informs Canadians as to what distinguishes them from Americans and renders them unique as celebrated Canucks" (Manning 1) was an overwhelming commercial success as the phrase "I am Canadian" quickly became a national catchphrase. The "Average Joe", as visualized by Molson Canadian, wears the unofficial Canadian uniform of jeans, t-shirt and flannel shirt. Joe, "is a young, white, English-speaking male whose cultural references are based on a dichotomous relationship between Americans and Canadians rather than on the complex cross-cultural strands of competing identities and cultural experiences of which life in Canada is composed" (4). The simplicity of the commercial is the key to its success. By monopolizing on a familiar anti-American sentiment, Molson creates a likeable character with whom many viewers associate. Cross-cultural connections within Canada can be avoided as long as it is possible to unite by distancing ourselves from Americans- and by drinking beer. An average Josephine would certainly have been received differently and a black (or Asian or Hispanic...) Joe would have, without a doubt, created a stir. What would have been the popular reaction if Joe had been wearing a yarmulke or a turban?
External appearance and internal cultural identity is addressed as the characters of No New Land are repeatedly judged by their appearance and dress. Vassanji makes the reader aware of his/her own gaze through a particularly voyeuristic description as he writes:
Take this girl in hijab, standing in the elevator, head covered, ankles covered, a beautiful angular face, long body, who could have come straight from northern Pakistan. But when she opens her mouth, out flows impeccable Toronto English, indistinguishable from that of any other kid’s, discussing what? – last night’s hockey game. In her arms, covered with a decorated green cloth, is a heavy book also apparently in hijab. She’s on her way to Quaran class on the fourteenth floor. What will she remember when she is twenty, thirty, what will she write? (64)
This nameless girl demonstrates a contrast between a traditional upbringing and a new Canadian identity. The girl’s appearance in hijab juxtapositions with her interest in ice hockey and her impeccable English. The girl is both foreign and familiar. She is no different than other young Canadians yet the external gaze struggles to position the individual within a Canadian context. The girl’s future seems uncertain as her potential memories are questioned. It is impossible to know whether one part of the girl’s identity will overpower another or whether she will be able to balance both her past and future. The immigrant characters of Don Mills struggle to come to terms with their own conflicting needs and identities. This internal questioning, oftentimes reflected in external appearance, is a product of functioning within an unfamiliar environment.
Fatima, the seventeen year old daughter of Nurdin and Zera, alters her choice of clothing as the story progresses. The first introduction to Fatima describes her as an attractive young woman dressed in "designer blue jeans and a stylishly oversized khaki shirt" (Vassanji 4). Fatima has clearly taken an interest in fashion since her first arrival to Canada dressed in second-hand clothing. Fatima, looking up to her neighbour Nanji, attempts to copy his fashion choices; "So taken was she with this young man whose only pants were Levi’s that she swore she would never wear dresses" (81). Fatima associates the appealing aspects of Nanji’s personality with his jeans; by recreating her idol’s dress, Fatima attempts to mould herself into her friend’s image. As Fatima matures, however, she dismisses Nanji’s style and develops an uncomfortable hatred of her origins. Calling her house a "little Paki-shitty-stan" (167) Fatima stubbornly rejects her upbringing and family. As Fatima once again alters her style Nanji is, "under the impression that her wearing dresses now and more fashionable clothes meant she no longer thought much of him" (168). Fatima’s chameleon fashion sense is typical of many teenagers in the process of developing a unique identity regardless of their ethnic group; Fatima, however, additionally feels the burden of her family’s past history as she attempts to construct her own individuality. Fatima’s struggle to develop her personality and to come to grips with her ethnic background, are reflected outwardly in her changing appearance.
Roshan, Zera’s half sister, is another character whose insecurities are manitested in her appearance. Roshan, like Fatima, appears self-conscious of her cultural background; "She had been their father’s child by a previous mother, rarely mentioned, but a black woman as everyone guessed" (37). Roshan goes to great lengths in an attempt to disguise her darker features. She covers her face with various make-ups and creams and tries to straighten her stubbornly wavy hair. Roshan wears loud and garish clothes, "Perhaps to deflect attention from her face" (37). Interestingly, when the two sisters and accompanying husbands find themselves feeling awkward in the lobby of the fancy hotel, the men try to hide behind Roshan, "who was dressed in a bright olive green bargain and had on her most garish make-up" (52). It is telling that the men attempt to disappear behind someone who is already a walking disguise herself. It is not only her dark skin that Roshan tries to conceal. Roshan is beaten by her husband, but insists that there is no need to contact the authorities. The women utilize the saying "don’t wash your dirty linen in public" (137) and Vassanji elaborates on the metaphor by commenting, "Well, hadn’t they heard, that is precisely what you do, there are Laundromats here" (137). The woman stress the importance of maintaining a distinction between the private and the public while the Laundromat retort implies that less of a private self needs to be maintained in this new environment. The women demonstrate that they are weary and self-conscious of being in the public gaze.
The inquisitive gaze is a reoccurring motif in No New Land as the new Canadians oftentimes find themselves in circumstances where they feel like self-conscious entertainers. Nurdin, for example, decides at the new Canadian party that, "This was not for him, an atmosphere that made him so conscious of himself, as if he were onstage and those people were the spectators" (52). It is presumed in this instance that the spectators are strangers ready to judge his appearance and manners. The uncomfortable sensation of the gaze, however, can originate from more familiar sources; when Nanji exits his own building in a new jogging outfit, for example, he feels the unsettling stares of his own neighbours. As Nanji self-consciously leaves his own familiar dwelling, "he’d looked up to see — just in case — and his fears were confirmed: there were spectators on the balconies" (131). In Nanji’s case, it is not only the external gaze which is judging, but also viewers from within his own community. For these new Canadians finding a protective atmosphere and a comfortable social group is a daily reality. Many characters naturally feel more secure with individuals from their own background. Others, such as Fatima, choose to separate themselves from pre-existing connections and instead plunge themselves into an unfamiliar reality.
Myrna Kostash questions this process of identifying –or disidentifying- with a particular group within a uniquely Canadian context in "Imagination, Representation and Culture". Kostach comments on the modern struggles of a multi-cultural Canada and questions, "What, then, could compel us back to togetherness from our estranged positions when even we is a problematic pronoun?" (93) The judging gaze of the mainstream often creates an us versus them dichotomy. Who belongs to the "us" and who becomes a member of the "them", however, is dependent on a multitude of gazers and is an uncertain- and unjust- method of compartmentalizing Canadian-ness. Many characters of No New Land, uncomfortable and unaccepted by a White majority, choose instead to create their own "we" within the mainstream. Esmail, a quiet man and neighbour of the Lalani family, is viciously attacked by a group of white youths. Esmail’s distinctive dress at the time of the attack is note-worthy. Esmail was "...looking taller for the thick-soled shoes, which many Dar men wore for that purpose, and in a very conspicuous beige Kaunda suit, which they had all bought in a frenzy of African patriotism in Dar but now wore proudly in Toronto to set themselves apart" (Vassanji 95). Esmail’s outfit, unique and a source of personal pride, may have played a part in singling him out to the attackers. By setting himself apart from the larger group, Esmail unfortunately becomes a noticeable target to the racist assailants. The situation is further saddened by the fact that Esmail is mistaken for being Pakistani; his distinctive African outfit is not recognized by the youth and Esmail is lumped into an ethnic group of which he is not even a member. The specific African- Asian community portrayed by Vassanji understandably resists being associated with another minority group. Kostach, focusing on the changing aura of minority politics in Canada, comments that, "No shared territory could be assumed. In its place stood the acute self-consciousness of particularity. Identity, released from false universalisms, no longer had an investment in the whole human project either" (Kostach 93). The very real differences between various cultural groups within Canada result in a unique challenge not only for a common Canadian identity, but also for individual groups attempting to maintain their own "we" within a larger population of minorities.
Pressure to blend into the mainstream oftentimes results in a loss of traditions and culture; the debate over covering the hips in No New Land is yet another instance when fashion decisions can be considered in relation to identity formation. Zera chooses to maintain the traditions of her upbringing and does not alter her dress like many of the other Canadian newcomers. Nurdin, thankful for his wife’s modesty and decision to wear dresses, comments, "So there were homely women, who had always dressed in long frocks, suddenly emerging swinging immense hips clothed in brightly coloured acrylic pants, and you couldn’t help looking and feeling ashamed at the same time” (67). The exact source of shame is not apparent; the women’s decision to discard their traditional outfits and become, at least fashionably, a part of the mainstream may be a part of the viewer’s discomfort. For other women, a compromise is attainable. The Missionary, who acts as a guide to many of the new Canadians, instructs, "If you wear pants, cover your behinds" (67). Interestingly the Missionary’s own daughter questions his instructions that "the hips should be covered with a shirt or kurta" (188). Dressed in a loose blouse, the girl comments, "I don’t always agree with my father. But he’s getting old now. I just go along, for things that really don’t matter" (188). Discovering an original identity while maintaining traditions for the benefit of her family is feasible for the Missionary’s daughter. By upholding her father’s beliefs while rationally taking a standpoint with the majority, the daughter balances opposing positions within both the mainstream and the personal we that protects her family.
Vassanji repeatedly blurs the boundaries of what constitutes the we by constantly altering the degree of divergence between two or more varying positions.In some cases, such as with the issue of modest female dress, there appears at times to be a compromise between the opposing positions. In other instances, however, this same issue is markedly divided between two opposing camps. As the female models at the "The Complete Canadian" fashion show strut onstage in undergarments, Zera and Roshan clearly disapprove. Zera states, "This is the kind of thing we have to steer our kids from"; Roshan wholeheartedly agrees and adds, "We have something to give too to this country. Morals, I say" (56). In this case, the women clearly visualize a limited we in which they oppose the greater majority. The white mainstream is imagined as a cohesive group lacking morality and, additionally, as a temptation. The sexual dress of the majority is accentuated as images of scantily clad white women continuously haunt Nurdin. As a youth in Dar, Nurdin treasures a picture of a white girl in a swimsuit (140); as an adult in Canada, Nurdin is overwhelmed by the female body and curses the popular fashions of his new homeland. Nurdin feels his gaze drawn to, "Bra-less women with lively breasts under blouses and T-shirts that simply sucked your eyeballs out. Buttocks breaking out of shorts" (141). When Nurdin is accused of attacking a young white woman, the division between the two groups intensifies. Despite his good intension, Nurdin becomes "aware of her femaleness" and finds himself noticing the curve of the girl’s white breast (178). Focusing on the unjust accusation, Vassanji cleverly builds up the divide between the minority and majority, and amplifies the readers’ sympathies for the confused Nurdin. Vassanji then upsets the opposing positions as it is revealed that the accusing girl also comes from an immigrant background. (204) Vassanji, therefore, creates a multiple "we" position within the story; the African/Indian minority exists within a larger immigrant minority which, in turn, has a place in the whole Canadian community. No New Land seems to support, therefore, a vision of multiculturalism which consist of "an us/ we relation, not an us/ them in which the ‘us’ is our own ethno-cultural group and the ‘we’ the multicultural civic society of Canada" (Kostach 95). Complex identity issues cannot be placed in clear compartments based purely on race;
The vision of a multicultural civic society remains dependant on highlighting the common concerns of Canadians and avoiding stereotypical generalizations.
Although class boundaries often follow racial division, Vassanji chooses to portray a variety of classes and lifestyles within the story. Vassanji resists the temptation to represent all the immigrant families as poor and the majority as rich; he instead demonstrates a range of social positions within varying communities. Once again, clothing has a symbolic purpose. By describing the fashions of characters from a variety of classes in an assortment of settings, the reader understands the social implications without being explicitly informed. Uniforms, for example, are a reoccurring motif where the quality and wage of a job is associated with the outfit provided. As Nurdin struggles to find employment in Canada, he takes a job at a doughnut shop. The shame Nurdin feels is made clear; "as he came to the counter wearing the yellow jacket feeling a little low and degraded in this uniform that was stiff and odorous with the sweat of previous wearers" (186). The yellow jacket is an upsetting reminder to Nurdin, who is much too experienced for a job wiping tables, of the sacrifices he has to make to live in Canada. The experience naturally compares to that of more fortunate immigrants who are able to find jobs as "bus and subway drivers in uniforms" (89). The uniform is an obvious marker of success and employment; daily dress, however, is also coupled with class. A discounted outfit holds a stigma and acts as a marker of comparison against other more financially successful families and individuals. Nurdin, for example, becomes acutely aware at the differences in his own and his niece’s financial status during a visit in Montreal. It is not necessary to explain the disparities in wealth outright; the "red polo-neck sweater and immaculately pressed trousers" (147) of the husband are an indirect marker of the family’s wealth. The Lalanis "had felt so out of place, he [Nurdin] had felt like a bum, with his night watchman’s blue jacket, unpressed trousers, cheap boots straight out of Honest Ed’s" (148). Nurdin’s dress, acceptable in other situations, suddenly seems shabby and shameful. The Lalanis find themselves in an awkward situation as the pressed or un-pressed state of trousers has more significance than blood ties. Sushila, the childhood Hindu neighbour from Dar with whom Nurdin reconnects in Canada, explains that her family belongs to a low-caste because they handle leather (155). In Canada, a person is more likely to acquire a high status by wearing an expensive leather coat. Being a member of a predetermined class system, whether by choice or simply by existence, is an inevitability for Canadians.
Throughout No New Land the seemingly random serves a purpose. The characters are tested continuously as violence, justice and love intermingle with the seemingly trivial matters of appearance and daily existence. The disheartening nature of the immigrant experience is vocalized by, "dumping your coats on a four-foot mound of other coats and throwing your shoes and boots amongst the several hundred other pairs- and then afterwards scrambling to retrieve them (171). As he chooses to do throughout the narrative, Vassanji captures the sense of defeat in the above quote by directly addressing the reader. The reader, regardless of his or her own background begins to feel like a newcomer. You are the reader and the spectator, but you are also the immigrant. As Margaret Atwood famously comments "We are all immigrants to this place, even if we were born here" (Atwood 62) she is supporting an all-inclusive model of multiculturalism. However simplified the above statement may appear to be, the pressures of constructing a personal and cultural identity within an uncertain environment does undoubtedly affect people from varying backgrounds. By universalizing the immigrant experience, the strength of the majority’s judging gaze diminishes. Joe average Canuck of the Molson commercial does not adequately represent all Canadians. Neither do the models of the "Complete Canadian" fashion show. Neither do the Lalani family. A single individual or group cannot capture the essence of an entire national identity. Perhaps Atwood’s famous phrase reflects this realization. The endless continuum of differences such as race, class and gender are not to be ignored. As the differences are acknowledged, however, the less obvious similarities also come into view. A common experience of displacement- physical, historical or psychological- acts as a link amongst the Canadian diversity. We have all put on a disguise, whether real or figurative, and questioned our identity; all Canadians at one point or other have self-consciously asked themselves the inevitable "What to wear?"
© Copyright 2007, Shannon Hare.
1The self-conscious academic Nanji, for example, is described as "always in ill-fitting clothes" (75). His character’s foil, the confident Jamal, is consistently depicted as well-dressed and impressive. (see for example pages 57, 103 and 201).
Atwood, Margaret. The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Kamboureli, Smaro, ed. Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature. Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Kostash, Myrna. "Imagination, Representation and Culture." Literary Pluralities. Christl Verduyn, ed. Toronto: broadview press, 1998.
Manning, Erin. "I am Canadian: Identity, Territory and the Canadian National Landscape" Theory & Event. 4: 4 ( 2000).
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary "Memsahib" May 6th, 2007.
Vassanji, M.G. No New Land. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1991.
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