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Aritha Van Herk, Kristjana Gunnars and Nino Ricci: Observers and Subjects of the Ethnic Gaze

by Sonia Wilson

Aritha van Herk’s essay "The Ethnic Gasp / The Disenchanted Eye Unstoried" provides a commentary on the difficulty of defining or articulating ethnic experiences and a glimpse at some of the factors that lead one to be considered "other." The reading of one of van Herk’s short essays, combined with works by Kristjana Gunnars and Nino Ricci allow for comparison and contrast of their described experiences and responses. Gunnars' "The Prowler,"van Herk’s "Of Boers and Dykes and Drowning" and Ricci’s "Going to the Moon" utilize writing styles that facilitate examination of the author’s writing process, and highlight themes associated with their ethnic experiences in Canada. This paper explores how the self-reflexive styles of Gunnars and van Herk allow them to comment on their relationship to their writing, and how the styles of all three facilitate analysis of the ethnic subjects’ and their families’ histories. Their stories and personal essays promote the exploration of themes relating to class, displacement, disillusionment, and marginalization.

In "The Ethnic Gasp / The Disenchanted Eye Unstoried," Aritha van Herk conveys the struggle involved in articulating ethnic experiences due to the many intersecting factors that contribute to these experiences. She offers a unique viewpoint on the moment an ethnic subject comes to define oneself, or is defined as "other" by referring to it as an ethnic "shock." She writes: "My concern as a writer preoccupied with contemporary fiction that might be designated as ethnic had led me to examine the in-sight, the epiphanic seeing that – like some version of thunderstorm – clarifies the troubled and often uneasy space that the ethnic subject occupies" (van Herk, Ethnic Gasp, 75). Van Herk goes on to clarify her belief that there is "an epiphanic moment that enables the ethnic subject to begin the self-interrogation that must accompany the subject’s recognition of him or herself as, if not other, other than" (75). Self-interrogation is a key component of many recorded ethnic experiences. Ethnic writers are in a position to examine their differences to try to reconcile themselves to their imposed categorization as other.

Van Herk offers two different, but related ways of approaching the recognition of otherness. The first refers to the observation of the moment of recognition while the second refers more to the lead up to and the actual moment of the recognition itself (the ethnic gasp). She explains the first experience as "a narrative afterword, a readerly recognition – that of audience to ethnic, observers beyond claim yet claimants (those watching, defining, partial voyeurs, partial censors) to the act of the gaze" (75). This avenue for understanding ethnic experience can be understood in a number of ways. First, it refers to the writer, who is in a position to act as observer of the gaze, and identify the moments of becoming other. Digging deeper, in terms of literary style, the first interpretation can be extrapolated and applied to a self-reflexive style that allows the writer to comment on the act of the gaze by reflecting on his or her connections to the narrative. This interpretation may help us to understand the writing style utilized by van Herk in "Of Dykes and Boers and Drowning" and Gunnars in "The Prowler."

The second way of approaching the recognition of otherness, as van Herk describes it, is as this "dis-enchanted eye and its narrative moment of recognition fluency, a gesture towards articulation, of course, but also a fluency of sight that precedes the constructedness of articulation, the saying, speaking and writing (which often works towards closure) of the purely ethnic identification" (van Herk, Ethnic Gasp, 77-8). However, this fluency, this moment before full recognition, is difficult to put a finger on. Van Herk acknowledges that it may be "subsumed by the larger trajectories of event and speaking, of rising action and dénouement. But like every intensified space, it creates its own energy, asserts a field that outlasts the thematic or plot-driven mechanism of identity as a finding, a discovery, and an obligation" (79). The moments that precede knowing oneself as completely other are of great concern to van Herk. In terms of the three stories examined in this paper, all attempt to articulate the experience of being identified other, and the moments and experiences that precede the "ethnic gasp."

Gunnars and van Herk employ a self-reflexive style that positions them as both author and observer of the ethnic gaze. Smaro Kamboureli provides a succinct description of Kristjana Gunnars’ writing as "loving literary theory while avoiding incorporating its ‘dogmas’... [she] writes in a way that deliberately resists easy labels" (Kamboureli, 286). Particularly, in "The Prowler" she uses "a self-reflexive writing mode that goes beyond the conventional boundaries of literary forms… It is as much about its writing process as it is about the experiences of a young girl growing up in Iceland during the Second World War" (286). Gunnars herself comments on her own writing process, in the first few lines. "It is a relief not to be writing a story. Not to be imprisoned by character and setting. By plot, development, nineteenth century mannerisms. A relief not to be writing a poem, scanning lines, insisting on imagery, handicapped by tone. A relief just to be writing" (286). She, like the reader, is observing the story as it unfolds.

Further in the story, although not further in the plot – because the story is not sequential, but more a collection of thoughts, commentaries and remembered experiences – she comments on her role as writer. "The writer is a prowler in a given story. There are no protagonists in the given story. Any subject is a contrived subject. The point of view is uncertain. The writer is necessarily part of the story" (291). Gunnars continues her commentary throughout the story and also provides thoughts that may be related to the placement of ethnic subject outside the centre of power. "I imagine a book that pretends to tell an official story. In the margins there is another story. It is incidental, it has little bearing on the official story, but that is where the real book is" (290). Gunnars’ self-reflexive style demonstrates her ability to observe, comment on and experience her story. As van Herk suggests, there are opportunities for "unblinded identification, providing an epiphanic seeing of ... ethnic subject, both central and other" (van Herk, 76).

Kamboureli also cites van Herk as a self-reflexive writer. Van Herk uses what she calls "‘ficto-criticsm’, writing as reading, as a self-reflexive act" (Kamboureli, 421). Van Herk says that in all of her fiction she is "concerned with the unexplored geographies of landscape and person and with the recovery of mythical voice and identification in contemporary time and place" (421). In "Of Dykes and Boers and Drowning" van Herk reflects on her Dutch past and heritage, and stereotypical associations with both. She writes about "… the one that everyone laughs at: Dutch, Dutch, Dutch, as ugly as its sound and the throaty gutturals of its pronunciation. Full of connotations of lowness, levelity; Netherlandish the bottom… Synonymous with all despicabilities" (van Herk, Of Dykes, 422). Like Gunnars, van Herk experiments with language and style to tell her personal story. She goes back and forth from English to Dutch and comments on the meanings to the reader as if having a conversation. She writes "neither boer nor boerin minds their cousinal boerenbedrieger (yes, the one who takes the money and runs), trickster incarnate, pissing behind the bomen (yes, trees, ordinary trees), and even the trees have more culture and nature, more history than that ugly lot…" (van Herk, Of Dykes, 423). Van Herk also remarks on her reactions to these stereotypical attitudes in trying to separate herself from her heritage to pass as one of the majority:

Examining these connotative figurations now, under the glass of Inglish, I begin to see and to understand why, in the powerfully Anglo world that my parents (Dutch boers) chose to emigrate to, displacing themselves from the comfort and safety of their known context, Dutch as place and language, I have tried and succeeded in effacing as much as possible of both my Dutch and my boer. (425)

Van Herk’s self-reflexive style allows her to comment on her own past and her family history.

Nino Ricci writes in a style that could be termed realist, opposed to the self-reflexive style of Gunnars and van Herk. Ricci does not provide commentary throughout his story "Going to the Moon" on his role as ethnic writer, nor is he seen to be speaking to the reader. He is primarily concerned with developing the story and characters, but like Gunnars and van Herk he examines ethnic and immigrant experiences. He provides his thoughts on the role of the writer to Smaro Kamboureli: "[T]he artist," says Nino Ricci, "is someone who stands outside the community and therefore sees it in starker, perhaps more realistic terms than those who are inside it and don’t question its rules" (Kamboureli, 484). These comments position the writer as what van Herk calls "observer of the act of the gaze" (van Herk, 75). Ricci examines the immigrant experience in the context of it being a "continuum with ‘the whole history of Western mythology,’ he is interested in exploring what constitutes what he calls the ‘myth of the ‘other place’" (Kamboureli, 484). As both part of the other, and an observer of it, Ricci is able to offer commentary for the benefit of both his own culture and the larger society.

Joseph Pivato explains that the realist quality of ethnic writing used to be pushed aside because it was viewed as too sociological. Novels of ethnic minorities were "criticized as poor realism or naturalism… reduced to the oral history of immigrants or to the sociology of new settlement in ethnic neighbourhoods" (Pivato, Representation, 158). He disagrees with this interpretation and criticism. Instead, he writes that "It is precisely because of this attention to the realistic representation of the immigrant story that... [ethnic works] are valuable both as literature and as story" (159). This common usage of realism by ethnic writers can also be seen as an attempt "to find or construct the minority subject for the first time" (159). Ricci employs this realism in his efforts to explain ethnic experiences. He describes a particular memory: "Uncle Bert had shown me a picture once of the tiny room at the back of his old shoe-repair shop on Erie Street where he’d lived alone for twenty years, a room as grey and bare and gloomy as a prison cell" (Ricci, 485). Ricci clearly explains and relates ethnic experiences using realism.

In van Herk’s "The Ethnic Gasp" she describes the funeral of an "English-speaking Tamil with a German education, a Canadian Inuk, living and working in an Inuit world that enfolded him with gentle acceptance" (van Herk, Ethnic Gasp, 76). She goes on to say "In this narrative, there is a mixture of ethnicities, a collision of ethnicities, a collusion of ethnicities that both refuses and embraces recognition, that acts out an ethnic epiphany without postulating as such" (77). She is explaining that this person did not have one single ethnic identity, and all ethnic subjects have more than one identity. This contributes to our understanding of the complexities in defining ethnic experiences. One of the pieces that contribute to definitions of ethnic identity is related to the integral role of family and its significant impact on how ethnic subjects define themselves. In terms of literary style, the first person point of view is used to show family connections and influences. Ricci, van Herk and Gunnars all use first person narrative in varying degrees in their stories. This first person narrative is common in ethnic writing. As Pivato writes, the attractiveness of writing in first person "is that it gives the illusion of power and control over one’s life, a sense of self-determination that never existed in the real experience of dislocation" (Pivato, 159). By using this first-person narration, Ricci, van Herk and Gunnars are able to reflect on individual and family experiences with a sense of ownership.

Ricci writes about Uncle Bert’s journey to and settlement in Windsor. "It seemed astonishing to me that he’d done that, that in all his years in Windsor he’d never so much as set foot in America... and astonishing that we all ended up in Windsor on account of him, family after family, aunts and uncles and cousins, stuck there in our narrow brown brick houses out of sheer inertia, like Dorothy falling asleep on the road to Emerald City" (Ricci, 485). Van Herk’s essay contains many reflections on her family. In particular, van Herk refers to "the quick flash of pain in my father’s eyes, he who has always been a boer, a genuine, quiet, and simple man who believed and still believes in working hard with his hands, who believes that raising food is a good thing to do for other people… and although he is not a sophisticated thinker, he knows that boer is a word that degrades him" (van Herk, Of Dykes, 424). Gunnars’ essay is also peppered with references to family connections. She writes "Who are the people looking over my shoulder, writing stories in my name? Is it my great-great-grandfather from the remote north of Thingeyjarsysla, who had so much to do with the liberation of my father’s people from the clutches of my mother’s people? Or is it my great-grandfather from the Danish island of Fyn, who gambled away his entire estate?" (Gunnars, 289). The self-reflexive styles of Gunnars and van Herk allow them to comment more directly on family influence, while Ricci makes similar statements through his protagonist. These styles and techniques also facilitate commentary on themes of class, disillusionment, displacement and marginalization.

The issue of class is a particularly poignant one for many ethnic writers. In "The Ethnic Gasp," van Herk describes that experiences of poverty contribute greatly to the debilitating effects of being considered other. She writes:

The worst shock of my ethnicity was a combination of religion, class and economy. Oh, there was no doubt that I was white, northern European, capable of assimilating without a hitch and without a shudder, despite being female, near-sighted and not particularly healthy…I was what my now-colleagues disparagingly refer to as "poor white," well not quite "trash," but certainly dirt-on-the-hands-working class. And the glance that still skips past that instant of ethnic crisis has been burned into the back of my neck, spiralled into a repudiated narrative that cannot be told without my becoming ludicrously sodden with its poverty and clumsiness, its disdain and its dismissals. (van Herk, The Ethnic Gasp, 79)

In "Of Dykes and Boers," van Herk further explores the themes of class and poverty. She analyzes the term boer and its association with boor and boorishness. "Boer. Another accent, classness on top of Dutchness… from boer to boor, an awkward and always ill-mannered person, a clownish rustic" (van Herk, Of Dykes, 422). She continues in this vein, describing this association with a Dutch peasant. "Carrying with him his own associations of servitude and boorishness, not to mention rascality and baseness, rusticity, uncouthness, and yes, certainly, simple simple-mindedness. Always, of course, from the Dutch boer" (422). Gunnars’ story also contains many references to poverty and its memories and lingering effects. Early on, she explains that her country (Iceland) did not have vegetables. She writes "My sister was so thin her bones stuck out of her sweater. She had sores on her hands. It was some form of malnutrition. I thought the boats should bring more vegetables, surely" (Gunnars, 288). The poverty affected not only food supplies, but also clothing for the family. "We had very few clothes. I was always cold, and when it rained, I was always wet. It was a thought so selfish I hardly dared think it: I need clothes. My body needs clothes" (288). Nino Ricci also provides images of this important theme. He writes: "when my parents told stories about Italy, they talked about miseria, a word that meant ‘poverty’ but that conjured up in my anglicized mind images of vague tortures and chastisements, although according to my mother we were poor in Canada as well, owed thousands of dollars to the bank for our house…" (Ricci, 485). He further alludes to the family’s poverty when he explains how the narrator’s coat zipper is broken, but the mother does not have money to fix it and instead sews buttons on. "I was certain that the kids at school, that Miss Johnson, would see in those makeshift repairs my mother’s swollen hands, our poverty, our strangeness; and the next morning I left the house in only my sweater, my parents already at work and Joe merely shaking his head at my stubbornness…" (Ricci, 488-9). The repeated theme of class and poverty is conveyed in a reflective manner by all three authors as they and/or their characters look back childhood experiences.

Displacement and disillusionment are both prevalent themes in the works of all three authors. Feelings of displacement are often a result of immigrant experiences. Nino Ricci aptly describes this sentiment:

[T]hat other world that appears to a lot of immigrants before they leave as "paradise" often becomes, upon arriving in that other place, "hell"... And over time the paradise they imagined they were coming to was replaced by the paradise they imagine they left behind (Kamboureli, 484).

In "Going to the Moon," the narrator’s parents imagine Canada to be the paradise, until they arrive and settle into the reality. The narrator then sees America as the new paradise and Canada as the hell that should be escaped. When his mother goes to a funeral in the United States, the narrator thinks that "this would change her in some way, or that she would return with some expected gift, something exciting and strange, that could not be found in the Woolco mall; but she came back a few days later empty-handed" (Ricci, 489). Feelings of displacement, or being out of place are also linked to marginalization, and ultimately these feelings turn into disillusionment. When the astronauts that the narrator’s class are studying are killed before the space launch, it symbolizes destruction of the narrator’s fragile hopes and dreams.

All my life, it seemed suddenly, was merely waiting for the fulfilment of that promise, for a redemption from the narrowness and meanness of the world I came from; but it seemed possible finally that nothing would change, that I was stranded in my own small world as on some barren planet, with no way to bridge the gap between the promise and the hundred small humiliations that kept me from it. (Ricci, 488)

Ricci’s writing reflects intensely on feelings of disillusionment with America, with dreams, and with experiences of immigration.

Van Herk’s disillusionment is perhaps best conveyed by her explanation of the drowning cell or water house. "Each time I hear the word boer I imagine myself in such a cell, vochtig (yes, damp) and tight" (van Herk, Of Dykes, 426). The drowning cell was a punishment for the idle in which they were forced to work a pump to empty the cell of water, or else drown. With this metaphor, van Herk explains her disillusionment with "multicultural platitudes" (van Herk, Ethnic Gasp, 78). "I am not sure if the pump is Dutch and the water is English; or if the water is Dutch and the pump is English. Or if the pump is what I pass for and the water is my inevitably lower class background. All I know is that I must work the handle (with my solidly Dutch peasant body), because the water is rising and I cannot swim." (van Herk, Of Dykes, 426). Gunnars also conveys disillusionment in "The Prowler." Particularly, through the mother’s story about picking strawberries to buy a much-wanted record. "Her family was not wealthy, and she wanted to have a record of some beloved music. It was strenuous work, bending down for many hours, day after day, filling baskets with red berries. In the end she bought her record. On the way home she fell and the record broke" (Gunnars, 291). These feelings of disillusionment take on the air of hopelessness as ethnic subjects endure many negative experiences straining to see glimmers of the positive.

Feelings of displacement and disillusionment are often linked to, and sometimes a result of, the marginalization felt by ethnic subjects.Marginalization is more often associated with visible minorities of colour, but as Enoch Padolsky writes "many European-Canadian ethnic minority writers still seem to be conscious of issues of dominance because the bi-national framework to the Canadian discourse still frames their Canadian minority ethnicity… experiences of disempowerment continue to reverberate" (Padolsky, 26). Padolsky uses the example of Matt Cohen’s story "Racial Memories," that describes Jewish experiences of marginalization. "The story’s title, and its opening sentence describing the grandfather, both serve as reminders that in an earlier Canadian terminology ‘visible minority’ meant dress and appearance and not just pigmentation" (26). Feelings of marginalization reverberate with all three of Gunnars, van Herk and Ricci.

In "Ethnic Gasp," van Herk describes her marginalization. "I am that ethnic being talked about, that stupidly stubborn and Calvinistically motivated Dutch woman… I become so othered, the mote in the homogenous eye, the intake of breath before the subject asserts an ethnic identity (only too easy to disclaim multicultural platitudes, and to assent the needfulness of diversity)" (van Herk, Ethnic Gasp,78-9). Van Herk’s entire essay "Of Dykes and Boers" is a commentary on marginalization. She writes about the "permissions of paternalism, the generous condescension of those who know better, who can afford to practice the cultural superiority of imitation... those lucky folks who never have to endure the heft of the silver fish knife, the lozenge of neetjes voorgebeeld (yes, nicely turned out, polite)"(van Herk, Of Dykes, 424-5). This is compared to the Dutch boer, "dull, beneath contempt. The knowledge of being and the essence of boer... stupid in manners, in habit and knowledge" (van Herk, Of Dykes, 424). Gunnars explains the marginalization associated with her difference. "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" (Gunnars, 289-90). Ricci’s narrator is also marginalized by his ethnicity. He remarks that his brother was picked on at school, "some of the older English boys called him Mustachio because of the dark hairs that had begun to sprout on his upper lip… I had the sense that we were both of us merely interlopers at school, moving uncertainly through a world that refused to admit us, that we had to hide ourselves within like animals changing the colour of their fur to fit into a landscape" (Ricci, 486). These powerful experiences have lasting effects on the ethnic subject.

Although one must be careful not to generalize the similarities between ethnic experiences, there are definite patterns that emerge from experiences of immigration and being known as other - poverty, displacement, disillusionment and marginalization. Pivato writes, in reference to Italian immigrant writing, but which seems applicable to many ethnic writers, that there are chronicles of suffering. "The memory of this suffering, like the literature that explores it, seems to have a healing effect" (Pivato, Famiglia, 150). Again, Pivato is talking primarily about separated Italian families, but it seems that many ethnic writers also write of suffering in the hopes of getting it out, and giving voice to the emotional pain. van Herk recognizes this healing effect. She indicates that the observer of the ethnic gasp (the writer) is in a better position than the ethnic subject gasping for comprehension of their othered position. She describes that the "fluency of sight that precedes the constructedness of articulation, the saying, speaking, writing (... often works towards closure)…" (van Herk, Ethnic Gasp, 77-8). She further reflects that "no one needs to save me from oblivion, no one that is, but my problematized and imprisoned ethnic, restructuring her lost and imprisoned narrative" (Van Herk, Ethnic Gasp, 79). The acts of writing, finding voice, and even experimenting with language and style, are important for their healing effects to ethnic writers.

Aritha Van Herk, Kristjana Gunnars and Nino Ricci use reflective styles in their short stories that illuminate key components of ethnic experiences – family influences, class, displacement, disillusionment and marginalization are all prominent. Gunnars and van Herk also experiment with language and style to engage the audience by commenting on their own relationship to the writing process, while all three writers use first person to empower their experiences. In "The Ethnic Gasp," van Herk provides a framework for understanding the moments that lead to one’s designation and recognition of being other. The observer of these moments, the ethnic writer, is in a pertinent position to self-heal and negotiate muddy waters as both othered subject and observer of the powerful ethnic gaze. (Copyright, 2006, Sonia Wilson)

Works Cited

Gunnars, Kristjana. "The Prowler." Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature. Ed. Smaro Kamboureli. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 286-292.

Ricci, Nino. "Going to the Moon." Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature. Ed. Smaro Kamboureli. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 485-490.

Kamboureli, Smaro. "Aritha Van Herk," "Kristjana Gunnars," "Nino Ricci." Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Padolsky, Enoch. "Ethnicity and Race: Canadian Multicultural Minority Writing at a Crossroads." Literary Pluralities. Ed. Christl Verduyn. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press Ltd., 1998.

Pivato, Joseph. "Representation of Ethnicity as Problem: Essence or Construction." Literary Pluralities. Ed. Christl Verduyn. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press Ltd., 1998.

Pivato, Joseph. "Famiglia." Echo: Essays on Other Literatures. Toronto: Guernica Editions Ltd., 2003.

Van Herk, Aritha. "Of Dykes and Boers and Drowning." Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature. Ed. Smaro Kamboureli. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 422-426.

Van Herk, Aritha. "The Ethnic Gasp/The Disenchanted Eye Unstoried." Literary Pluralities. Ed. Christl Verduyn. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press Ltd., 1998.

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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