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Athabasca University

Learning to Loathe: How Self-Hatred Hinders Empowerment in Three Works by Ricci, Gunnars and van Herk

by Andrea Belcham

What possible similarities might be drawn between three works of Canadian literature so markedly different in both their structural form and the ethnicity of their authors? Nino Ricci’s short story "Going to the Moon" recounts an Italian-Canadian boy’s home and school lives in Windsor, Ontario, around the time of the Apollo I shuttle disaster. In "From The Prowler," Kristjana Gunnars blends past and present, fact and fiction in her look at girlhood in Iceland during the Second World War. And "Of Dykes and Boers and Drowning" is Aritha van Herk’s diatribe against popular stereotypes of the Dutch and, by extension, an exploration of her own unease with her origins. How - and why - should we unite the masculine gaze with the feminine, fiction with non-fiction and three distinct heritages? By uniting do we not risk rendering these authors' voices homogeneous?

In resolving these dilemmas, I draw inspiration from Kostash’s idea of the "politics of resemblance":

Even in our solitudes, our autonomous diversities, we have spoken of our attachment to the ideas of justice and peace and self-determination. We are involved with each other in a dialectic of community and society in which no single identity defines us. We are, at one and the same time, persons of a certain sex, profession, religion, birthplace, language, ethnicity. There is no single ghetto into which we can withdraw and still be whole. (94)

In this small cluster of works, I have identified a recurrent subject that I intend here to explore in all its aspects. I feel that by naming and examining a subject common to each of these pieces, I am not disrespecting the perspective of any of the authors, nor am I seeking to form some rigid profile of Canadian literature’s current interests. Rather, I propose that the locating of where subcultures share concerns yields a collective and empowering possibility. It is the possibility of communication across divides, which is necessary for the achievement of "justice and peace and self-determination" for all.

Where I see Ricci's, Gunnars’s and van Herk’s individualistic pieces coming together is in the subject of self-hatred. In each of their unique voices, the three writers show us how an ethnic minority’s oppression is not maintained solely by the dominant group of a society. Each writer suggests that an oppressed party’s mobility is also significantly determined by the esteem it holds for itself. Oppressors, in other words, do not have to constantly act to preserve their own power (and thus, their pride), because those who have long been dominated learn to police themselves. Rather than resisting, they are silent. They may also hide their differences as a way of avoiding being ostracized by the status quo. While they may know popular stereotypes about their heritage to be false, they absorb and perpetuate the stereotypes' intents - that is, the devaluation of their heritage and the aggrandizement of mainstream culture. This notion of a fostered damnation may seem grim, but Ricci, Gunnars and van Herk each offer hope for self- and group empowerment based in self-acceptance.

In both Ricci’s and Gunnars’s works, actual episodes of empowered groups deriding ethnic minorities are scarce, though the effects of such incidents are long felt by the protagonists. "Going to the Moon" presents but one concrete occurrence of overt subjugation, in a schoolyard setting. Joe is called "Mustasho" by members of the majority English population at the school, and the protagonist is vaguely described as having been "pick[ed] on" (486), one assumes because of similar visual signifiers of his ethnicity. In the excerpts from The Prowler, again a sole passage stands out as indicating the protagonist and her sister’s ill treatment by their peers:

In my father’s country I was known as the dog-day girl, a monarchist, a
Dane. Other kids shouted after me: King-rag! Bean!
In my mother’s country other kids circled me haughtily on their bicycles.
They whispered among each other on the street corners that I was a white
Inuit, a shark-eater. The Icelander. (289-290)

Such instances of public humiliation have long-lasting implications for the targets' self-image. Anticipation of a repeat episode can be as damaging to the ethnic minority as an actual act of abuse. Individuals like Ricci’s and Gunnars’s protagonists become limited as well by the restraints that they put upon themselves. Self-policing becomes a "natural" act that defends them at the same time as dampening their spirit and reducing their own valuation of their heritage. Consider, for example, the horror felt by Ricci’s narrator when he sees how obviously his mother has repaired his jacket: "I was certain," he says, "that the kids at school. would see in those makeshift repairs my mother’s swollen hands, our poverty, our strangeness" (488). He takes the pre-emptive measure of leaving his jacket at home, well foreseeing the teasing he would have to endure should it be seen by his classmates. This defensive act results in more misery, however, than satisfaction, for the cold weather and his paranoia bring him only tears and the additional fear of being discovered by his beloved teacher in a vulnerable state. Gunnars’s heroine relays hers and her sister’s consternation when their family invites Dr Patel to dinner. They are "worried," she tells us (287), about how the seemingly worldly East Indian man will react to their relatively meagre diet of fish and foraged plants. It is a revelation, therefore, when rather than scorning them the doctor accepts their meal in good humour.

In her essay "The Ethnic Gasp / the Disenchanted Eye Unstoried," van Herk describes the elusive moment of "fluency," that "glimpse that blinks past before the trained and analytical glance takes over" - before "an adjustment to definition and subjugation" occurs (before language and definition descend) - when the individual recognizes him-/herself as "ethnic" but not yet "other" (78). "Of Dykes and Boers and Drowning" could represent an exercise in reverting to that moment, as a way for van Herk to know the self that exists beneath the misconceptions. For in this piece, van Herk - unlike Ricci’s and Gunnars’s narrators - uses anticipation to her advantage, bombarding readers with all possible slurs regarding Dutch culture as though to purge herself (and us) of such constructions and explore what essences remain. The slurs come fast and furious, like water undammed:

the duplicities of Dutch concerts and Dutch courage, Dutch treats and Dutch cousins, Dutch collars and Dutch flight. Ah, to be a Dutchman; I'm a Dutchman if I do. Synonymous with all despicabilities, and as a term of refusal, the strongest possible term of refusal. this reputed fondness for heavy drinking as a substitute for courage, not to mention the constant mention of meanness, going Dutch going Dutch going Dutch going going gone, no generosity. (422)

Having demonstrated how English, through its phrasing, helps determine popular understandings of the Dutch, van Herk goes on to show how stereotypical imagery also reinforces a particular definition of "Dutch-ness." She plies us with grossly negative caricatures of the Dutch farming family, with its "churlish, loutish" father, "hefty" and ever-labouring mother, promiscuous daughter and ever-intoxicated sons: "It is clear," she says harshly, "they have no sense of place or location, culture be damned" (423).

When the violent waters subside, we can see amongst the dregs quieter reflections of her personal experiences. She offers a small portrait of her father, himself a farmer and worlds apart in demeanour from the crass boer of legend. At the same time, she shares her own discovery of a connection with the abstract concept of "Dutch-ness": her "own terror of water" is recalled as a manifestation of "the Dutch fear of drowning" (425). Van Herk may have once denied her cultural roots as a way of surviving a North American life (through "abrogati[ng]. both Dutch and boer" [ibid.]), but she cannot now deny how Dutch mythology informs her way of seeing herself. She sees her dilemma, for instance, in terms of an old Dutch means of incarceration: water rises about her even as she struggles to pump it away. "[P]lace," van Herk says in an interview, "is a state of mind" (Dargent et al. 1). Happiness, I would add, is also a state of mind, and as van Herk demonstrates, whether one explores or represses one’s heritage greatly influences one’s achievement of self-respect.

Two principal strategies for ethnic minorities to cope with the judgmental gaze of the dominant Other emerge from these three works. One is the cloaking of the self in the guise of belonging - or, in other words, assimilation. A closely related second option is existing in silence. As Pivato states, silence, like denial, is "a way of covering over the self-hatred the immigrant may feel" (175). Ironically, while both tactics are acts of self-protection, they are born of and fed by a debilitating feeling of low self-worth.

The entire family in Ricci’s "Going to the Moon" use these strategies to varying degrees. The wearing of a false front is particularly prevalent among its characters. The narrator describes their home’s second kitchen, constructed by his father and kept pristine by his mother, as a showroom, "reserved for special company, a non-Italian or someone from out of town" (485). This room presents to select guests the illusion of a more elegant lifestyle than that which the family actually occupies. Because of the strict rules that surround its use, and because he can see how untrue to her real self his mother behaves when she entertains in it, the narrator is fearful, rather than proud, of what the room represents. To him, the sacred room doesn't "belong to the rest of the house, its only purpose to remind us of the things that were forbidden to us" (486). While readers are not permitted to glimpse his parents' behaviour in greater social settings, to see whether their strategy of assimilation is extended there, we are made aware of the narrator’s deployment of illusion to deal with his classmates. Yet despite the bullying, the boy values school for bringing together disparate children for the accomplishment of a common goal. One such mutual application is admiration for their teacher, Miss Johnson. In a setting in which all boys strive "to be chosen by her to wipe the blackboards or fetch chalk from the storeroom," he feels the "small bright hope that my life could be different, that the things that marked me out could be erased" (486) as easily as text off the board. His ragged jacket is again a cipher of his self-hatred. When his mother’s coarse repairs render it unlike others' coats, the protagonist opts to abandon it completely - for wearing it would destroy the image of belonging that he has nurtured so carefully. Ultimately, the consolation brought through assimilation is as shallow as a disguise. The narrator gradually recognizes that the type of unity he prizes cannot last:

[Miss Johnson] must have heard the sound of my crying, for suddenly she was standing over me. and her quick sad concern for me [was] so misdirected, so much the promise of all the things I would not have, that I only cried harder, only thought, we'll never go to the moon again. (489)

His brother, Joe, uses muteness to counter the racist teasings of his peers. The respect the narrator holds for his elder sibling is "diminished," he says, when he witnesses how cowed Joe is by the goadings of "the older English boys" (486). Rather than finding strength in solidarity, the brothers are torn apart by Joe’s barely concealed resentment of the narrator’s presence, which cracks his veneer of silent indifference: "[I]t humiliated him," the protagonist realizes of Joe, "to have a younger brother, to be made more conspicuous by my presence beside him" (ibid.). Here we see how self-hatred can be extended to familial hatred, which then may transform into hatred of one’s own race, and culture. Barriers to one’s happiness are mistakenly reasoned to be the fault of one’s ethnicity.

The idea of a lack of solidarity contributing to poor self-esteem also appears in Gunnars’s piece. Gunnars’s narrator says that hers is "not a country where children spoke to the adults. Only the adults spoke to the children. I could not say: father, I am cold and need more clothes" (288). Here, silence is clearly enforced from within a culture. The girl’s lack of comfort and, hence, dignity is underlined by the author in terms of her physical condition. Thin due to lack of nourishment and eternally cold because of insufficient clothing, the girl nonetheless believes that she does not have the right to ask for help, let alone to speak out, to complain: "It was a thought so selfish I hardly dared think it," she confesses; "I need clothes. My body needs clothes" (288). These early deprivations condition her to feel guilty about caring for herself even years later, when she has enough money finally to buy her own wardrobe and thus be like any other American. Though her "timidity" collapses, she cannot buy without feeling "like a criminal" (ibid.). Her mother too clothes herself ineffectually in silence as a means of masking her sorrow. The girl remembers that at times her mother "would stop her weaving and look out the window," saying nothing (ibid.). As a Danish-Hungarian displaced to Iceland, the woman doubtless feels a certain inability to communicate her emotions, her memories, to her newer white Inuit community.

Episodes of silence and assimilation are not described in the selections from The Prowler as obviously as they are in Ricci’s story. However, by presenting herself as remembering from some later, more self-confident stage of her life, the narrator alerts us to the possibility of there having been some past, less easy state of being. She takes on the metaphor of writing to communicate her growth in self-confidence. She begins, for instance, by proclaiming it to be a "relief not to be writing a story. Not to be imprisoned by character and setting" (286). It is implied, therefore, that she was once ill at ease adopting conventional styles of storytelling, as they did not allow her to speak as she wanted to. The Prowler’s distinctly unconventional form - with its unpursued strands of plot, meandering memory lines, numeric organization and constant swinging between subjects, between tenses - permits for a self-governed expression, "like a seed. grow[ing] in itself" (290). We know as well that there is at least some fact mingling with imagination here, for Gunnars too lived as a child in Iceland, born of an Icelandic father and a Danish mother, and she, like her narrator, migrated to the U.S. (Tschofen). Although the point of the author’s creative exercise is to avoid typology, Kadar offers a flexible term for Gunnars’s style: "life writing," which

includes more than just life stories, and it has the potential to cross genre boundaries and disciplines. The narratives within life writing are linked by their common thematic concern with a life, or the self. [Life writing is] the site of the other, and this other is ‘autobiographical’ in one sense, and not at all in another. (152-153)

Gunnars’s self-styled form allows her to tell the story too often relegated to the margins. As an "adult," she can now "speak" for herself.

In "Of Dykes and Boers and Drowning," van Herk acknowledges both her culture’s and her own tendencies to either lapse into silence or attempt to assimilate as a means of defense. The boer’s shoulders are "broad," she remarks, making him like a drafthorse, used "to pull[ing] the heavy load of cultural distinctions and intolerances" (424). Her own "genuine" and "simple" father endures the derogatory use of the word "boor," keeping "quiet" and showing his hurt only in a "quick flash" in his eyes (ibid.). The fable of the Dutch boy stopping a leak in a dyke serves as an effective image through which van Herk can address the topic of self-restraint. His finger-plug, she imagines, is akin to the dam that has stopped up the back of her own throat, keeping her Dutch heritage at bay. She describes having "long ago attached" herself to English, "determined to pass" as someone not marked or stunted by her Dutchness: "I have tried," she says, "and remarkably succeeded in effacing as much as possible of both my Dutch and my boer" (425). Elsewhere, she reaffirms her skills at blending in early in her life because she possessed the advantage, one might call it, of being "white" and "northern European" in appearance ("The Ethnic Gasp" 79).

Yet in "Of Dykes and Boers and Drowning," van Herk, like Gunnars, shows that she has broken away from complacent assimilation and is now rediscovering her roots, in the process developing a unique voice that is a fusion between the new world and the old. She tells her story in English, yes, but an English interspersed with Dutch and Afrikaner (and always her parenthetical translations are preceded by a "yes," as though she is accustomed to having to translate for unilingual English readers). It is also notable that she uses the oppressor’s own language to criticize the oppressor. By pointing out, in English, how English - a language perceived as sophisticated next to the "gutturals" of Dutch (422) - can be ugly too in how it is used (i.e. "[I]n an English-speaking enclave of superiority, my students can make fun of boors - the mannerless - in every pejorative way, and never even conceive of the hurt they inflict" [424]), van Herk subverts. In doing so she also creates. She puts aside expectations about the proper form of an essay and moulds the genre in a way that suits her, so that it is at once a rant, a remembrance, a thesis citing supporting literature, a querying of the self and a linguistic deconstruction. She is articulating a groove for herself, like anyone of any race reconciling themselves to an ideology, living in that "middle ground in which people constantly try to bend what they are given to their own needs and desires, to win a bit of space for themselves, a bit of power over their own lives" (Grossberg 154). She is wearing the clothes of the oppressor, yes, but her clothes are loud and assembled with her own flair, and they are certainly not a constant uniform. This is because, as she says in an interview, she sees herself not as one person - one ethnicity, one character - but as the possessor of numerous simultaneous identities: "We're constructing ourselves every minute," she claims; "We're reconstructing ourselves, we're inventing ourselves" (Dargent et al. 10). 

We know that the stereotyping of the Other is a stratagem adopted by a dominant group to restrict the mobility of minorities. Mere anticipation of public regard has made each of the voices in the three pieces nurture self-restraint and, consequently, self-hatred. Thus, to view the silenced immigrant as a simple victim would be a facile judgment, for the policing of the self is a significant contributor to a disempowered status. Similarly, the "victim" may further limit his/her potential for being heard - being understood - by ascribing to their own stereotypes about their Other, the empowered. The perpetuation of stereotypes on both "sides" of the divide does nothing to bridge differences between cultural groups. The process of dissecting one’s assumptions about the Other, however, can inspire the further step of looking at one’s internalized assumptions about oneself. Ricci and Gunnars both address the damaging effects of a minority’s misreading of their Others, while van Herk pursues a different route by criticizing a majority’s well-meaning over-sympathy for an oppressed group.

"Going to the Moon" deals most extensively with this issue of the multiple perpetrators of stereotyping. Ricci opens, after all, with a romantic vision of the great nation that hovers enticingly just across the water from the narrator’s hometown. The Detroit skyline stands "unnaturally still and crisp in the cold air, on the verge, it seemed of singing," in the summer months "shimmer[ing] and burn[ing] in the heat and smog" (485). Like Gatsby’s green light reaching across to him in the night, the American city calls out to the young narrator with a "vague promise" (ibid.) of some different, happier life than that which his working-class family leads in Southern Ontario. This dream is built on the remnants of the same aspiration that propelled his parents from Italy to Canada. The narrator tells us that they fled the Old World, a place of "miseria," and settled in Windsor - a  "purgatory" (ibid.), their son feels - as a sort of consolation. It was not America, the "true" land of opportunity, but it was better than nothing. Ironically, the poverty that encouraged them to leave Italy now affects them in Canada, and their sons suffer the added pain of ostracism from their Canadian classmates. Windsor, then, is the next generation’s Italy, and the elusive American Dream still sings out to the naïve, here represented by the youthful narrator. Elsewhere, Ricci comments on America’s influence on his own childhood in Leamington, Ontario: "We lived close to Detroit," he reveals, "rooted for the Detroit Tigers, and watched American television. We only watched our one Canadian station for the American sitcoms that played in syndication in the afternoon" (Rimmer). Indeed, more than just a skyline and a familial malaise remind the narrator of America’s promise of activity and progress.

His teacher, Miss Johnson, serves as a conduit to the enviable culture of the States, with her eye-catching appearance that stands out "from the stiff formality of the priests and nuns" who administrate his school, "like a burst of colour in a grey landscape" (486). Miss Johnson introduces a unit on space travel to tie in with an upcoming NASA launch, and the narrator becomes dazzled by the language and images of science, which are so opposed to the school’s typical Catholic, nationalistic - read: dull - curricula. Her amusing lessons and America’s siren call, however, only distract the narrator from addressing the reasons why he feels he needs to escape from his life.

Gradually, Ricci’s hero comes to doubt his faith in America. Miss Johnson’s mural-painting exercises and simulated rocket launches are alluring for encouraging fancy, and escapism, but while they use the vocabulary of science they do not actually represent truth. The moonscape her students paint is comprised of unreal "green mountains" and "yellow cities" (487), and their faux rocket launch is accompanied not by an official countdown but by a nursery rhyme. His teacher stashes away their mural and resumes conventional lessons when news reaches them of the horrific fire that kills the real astronauts as they prepare for their voyage. Suddenly, the once abstract and pleasurable scenario of the space mission is infused with pain for the young narrator - now the "story" is one "pressingly, dangerously real, unpredictable, unknown" (488). His disillusionment is furthered by a tragedy afflicting his own family. His cousin Benny, who in his military uniform had seemed so very mature to his Canadian relative, and who, at the family’s Easter gathering, had been so proud of his impending opportunity to fight in Vietnam, is killed in combat. The narrator is touched by his father’s rage at the wasteful war and Benny’s futile search for glory, just as he is sensitive to the utter lack of honour his cousin’s death embodies:

I caught a glimpse of [my mother] through the kitchen doorway sitting at the table with her head in her hands as if she were crying, and I understood then that she had been carrying the shame of Benny’s death inside her the whole time, that his death was not a special thing. but was merely private and grim, a blemish or failure that needed to be hidden away and forgotten like any other. (489)

The narrator’s conception of America is made more complex by the development of the Detroit riots, news of the violence of which makes his mother fear walking along even Windsor’s streets. It is significant that the narrator refuses to accept a view of America mediated by another (here, his mother) and moves to confront "reality" himself, for he and his brother sneak out of their house and travel down to the shores to look across at Detroit with their own eyes. But while they may no longer see magic in the city’s skyline, now it is populated by "shadowy figures" and veiled by "great clouds of dark smoke" (490). Not being in Detroit themselves, the brothers can only imagine the violence occurring there. Still, America’s promise is beginning to disintegrate for the narrator. One hopes that he will now begin looking to his own city’s streets, to his own house, and begin questioning the nature of the dissatisfaction that is his inheritance from his parents.

In the excerpts from Gunnars’s The Prowler, this theme of an oppressed, stereotyped party itself stereotyping an Other is not as central to the narrative, yet it is still notably present. Again, America occupies a position of superiority. Instead of idealizing America, though, Gunnars’s narrator criminalizes it. The protagonist tells us of an American military base operating near her home during the Cold War years, and of her encounter with two soldiers who want her and her friend "to come into [their] hotel and smoke cigarettes" (289). The troops are eventually forbidden by their superiors to mingle with the natives, presumably because of their reputation as sexual predators. By approving of their cordoning, the narrator is also internalizing a regard for the soldiers as being perversely "interested in children" (ibid.). Later on, in the narrator’s portrait of her Icelandic great-aunt Sirrí, Denmark is the America of Ricci’s tale, romanticized by an elderly woman who sits in the margins of the more powerful culture. Sirrí, readers are told, "imitated. Danish ways" in the management of her household, inflating her "upper crust" status to the extent of hiring "househelp in the kitchen" (291). Such behaviour suggests the elder’s belief that an emulation of exterior appearances would be sufficient to claim for herself some essence of Danish power, and to use her adopted part of this power to intimidate her "uncouth" Icelandic neighbours. Finally, let us consider Iceland’s literal hunger to keep pace with the strides of other world nations. The narrator speaks of the government’s campaign to beautify Iceland’s landscape by planting trees: "At bus stops, in shop windows, on postage stamps, there was the slogan: Let us clothe the land" (288). She goes on to describe federal initiatives to harness geothermal energy and grow via greenhouses fruits and vegetables also not native to Iceland. The exoticism of these newly available foods intoxicates the girl, and in her greed she consumes an entire bag of precious tomatoes purchased by her mother for the family to share. But she has harboured misconceptions about what kind of fulfillment the fruits can bring her, just as her pro-technology and anti-American enthusiasms have misled her into seeing only as deep as the surface.

Like Ricci’s hero, Gunnars’s heroine also comes to a deeper understanding, and acceptance, about herself and her nation by experiencing disillusionment. When she later relocates to America, her new life leads her to know more of those feared soldiers, but on a personal basis. Living amongst them, she sees that they too "played music, sang ballads, wrote poetry like other people" (289) and that any cruelty they might exhibit - as any hatred any person might possess - has its logic for being. And although her great-aunt took on perceived Danish habits, the narrator, from the vantage point of years gone by, can see that her relative did so in a tongue-in-cheek, superficial way, for at heart she will always be to the narrator " an elderly Icelandic woman with large breasts and a warm smile" (291). In peeling back her aunt’s affectations the protagonist also learns more about her people, whom, she observes, "could not play the game they were supposed to play without laughing. They made fun of themselves" (ibid.). This remark may be interpreted as a negative judgment of her Icelandic family (working on the premise that self-deprecation is but one step away from self-hatred), yet I am apt to see it in the more positive light of her family recognizing the roles ascribed to them and undermining such expectations by not taking them seriously.

Of the detrimental effects of blind faith in progress, however, Gunnars is more critical. Iceland’s leaders may be energized by the rhetoric and advances of other nations, but the importing of highly developed concepts and technologies to a country operating at a much slower pace than its European neighbours can bode ill if done too swiftly. Picturesque scenery in the form of lush trees may suit tourists, but cannot be appreciated by children who are malnourished, and who need "clothes" more than the land does (288). Increasing domestic crops will yield obvious benefit to a people hungry for fruits and vegetables. However, the population will not be more healthy (and thus more proud) immediately; the narrator feels more shame than satisfaction from her consumption of her mother’s tomatoes, after all. At this point in her girlhood, she is far yet from being happy in her place.

Gunnars’s work also hints at stereotyping’s polar opposite, the act of patronizing, which can be just as harmful to the self-image even in its generosity. The narrator remembers receiving packages from well-intending Americans through the charitable organization CARE. Rather than getting what she most needs, clothing and food - in particular, lemons - she is plied with toys, "useless objects" in her eyes (ibid.). Her benefactors have assumed first that the trinkets would hold cultural significance for her, as they do to Americans, and second, that any present would be welcome to a child - never mind that if anything the gifts discourage the narrator for instilling within her a false hope.

In "Of Dykes and Boers and Drowning," van Herk is more severe in her analysis of misplaced generosity, saying it is only but another form oppression can take. Those who use the term "boer" in what they believe to be a positive sense, implying pastoral rusticity in its most authentic state (i.e. "De boer opgaan" [424]), overlook the hardness such a rural life actually entailed. Whether "boer" is used in a derogatory sense ("boor") or in the aforementioned well-intended sense, in both cases it is an outsider deciding in which manner to use the word - those who, as van Herk states, "can afford to practise the cultural superiority of imitation" or derision (424). Condescension, coddling, makes a people feel as children awaiting justification (definition) in the form of a "patrician nod of recognition" (425) from their keepers. And how, as adults made children again, can they respect and love themselves? Can we really expect pride to emerge in a Dutchperson upon seeing symbols of his/her culture (think Old Dutch "cleanser," or "blue serge" used in Western home décor [422]) popularized - thereby rendered worthy - and contained, in Western commercial culture? Van Herk also shrewdly notes how oppression can be cyclical. She tells us that even as boers suffer the ignomity of the English term "boor" with its low associations, Afrikaners have imbued their word "kaffir" with the double meanings of "black" and "useless" (424).

Each of Ricci’s and Gunnars’s narrators and van Herk now occupy a position in which they can recognize how their own outlook, coupled with the restrictions imposed on them by others' outlooks, contributed to their feelings of self-hatred. Ricci’s boy, for example, can identify how the "sheer inertia" (485) that characterizes his family’s life in their "in-between world" (to borrow from Vassanji) is perpetuated both by their financial circumstances and their complacency. In a key moment of the story, the boy realizes that his "humiliation" - his self-hatred - "was not something that other people did to me but something I carried inside me like a sin" (489). If it is indeed a "sin," then in theory (and should he be willing) he has the power to atone for it. Ricci ends his tale with a vision of solidarity, though an uneasy one. The narrator and his brother turn away from the lure of the great southern nation and return home to their parents under cover of the night. It is not yet happiness, but it is a start: as Pivato proposes, "[S]elf-hatred may eventually turn into self-acceptance and love" (184). For her part, while revelling in the expressive freedom enabled by an experimental narrative form, Gunnars’s protagonist must admit that she still both encounters and fosters limitations. She has chosen, after all, to exclusively use English, her adopted tongue (for Gunnars herself, English is not the language of her childhood but the fifth language she learned [Tschofen]). How well, one wonders, can the "mere words" of English (287) translate her Icelandic visions and experiences? Through writing, Gunnars is giving voice to a perspective most often shunted to the margins, yes, but the very act of writing itself marginalizes, either the story of the Other or the story of the self, for in writing one must make choices as to what to render in words, what to include. As she laments, "The writer cannot report on everything" (291). One must, therefore, choose one’s battles.

Van Herk, despite her energized rant, isn't too sure what the battle is. She closes her piece with a personal struggle against the rising waters. She, like her readers, asks whether the waters are caused by "upper class, condescending" "voices" that seek to annihilate cultural differences (426), or by her own lingering suppositions about herself and/or about her judges. She is still pumping up to the end. Regardless of ethnicity, we all of us must contend with forces, self-created or externally imposed, that inhibit our capacity for self-love. For some, the battle may be ongoing. "Camouflage saves no one from the fire," van Herk says ("The Ethnic Gasp" 80). But how can she, how can we, find safety from the flood? Surely recognition of the ways one drowns oneself represents the first bailing.   (Copyright  2006, Andrea  Belcham)

Works Cited

Dargent, Nicole, et al. "Interview with Aritha van Herk: May 15, 1994, Trier, Germany." The Aritha van Herk Page 1-12. Tamara Pianos. 10 April 2006.

Grossberg, Lawrence. "History, Politics and Postmodernism: Stuart Hall and Cultural Studies." Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. Ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen. London: Routledge, 2004. 151-173.

Gunnars, Kristjana. "From The Prowler." Kamboureli 286-292.

Kadar, Marlene. "Whose Life Is It Anyway? Out of the Bathtub and into the Narrative." Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice.Ed. Marlene Kadar.Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. 152-161.

Kamboureli, Smaro, ed. Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kostash, Myrna. "Imagination, Representation, and Culture." Verduyn 92-96.

Pivato, Joseph. Echo: Essays on Other Literatures. 2nd ed. Toronto: Guernica, 2003.

Ricci, Nino. "Going to the Moon." Kamboureli 485-490.

Rimmer, Mary. "Nino Ricci: A Big Canvas." Studies in Canadian Literature 18.2 (1993). 13 April 2006.

Tschofen, Monique. " Biography of Kristjana Gunnars." Canadian Writers. 19 Jan. 2005. Athabasca University. 21 April 2006.

Van herk, Aritha. "The Ethnic Gasp / the Disenchanted Eye Unstoried." Verduyn 75-80.

____. "Of Dykes and Boers and Drowning." Kamboureli 422-426.

Verduyn, Christl, ed. Literary Pluralities. Peterborough: Broadview Press Ltd., 1998.

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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