A ‘twoness’ — The role of generational identity in the immigrant experience.
David Chariandy’s novel, Soucouyant, is a retell of his personal experiences as a second-generation immigrant born to a mixed-race mother and a South Asian father. From describing pathways to Canada, precarious employment, social and structural discrimination, Chariandy delves into many facets of immigration and the untold struggles that often accompany it. Primarily, for the purpose of this article, he explores memories in a way that gives insight to the experiences of immigrants in a Canada that was still heavily stratified. He writes about forgetting and remembering in a way that aptly explains the suffering and humbling that comes with presenile dementia, while also portraying forgetfulness as a deliberate ‘life-sustaining’ effort within a cultural context. The aim of this article is to explore the role of generational identity in the immigrant experience by analyzing the persistent and intergenerational alienation of immigrants and their offspring.
Generational identity, as defined by Michael Urick, a Doctor of Philosophy in Behavioural Studies, is “an individual’s awareness of his or her membership in a generational group and the significance of this group to the individual”. In other words, it is how the personhood of an individual is often defined in relation to their cultural/generational background. This concept can be seen throughout Soucouyant. While Adele and her husband Roger, are both from Trinidad, she is of African descent while he is South Asian. According to the narrator, the likelihood of both communities getting along would have been minimal in the Caribbean as a result of the strained history between them. The history of slavery between both groups had taught them “to believe that only the other had ruined the great fortune that they should have enjoyed in the New World”. However, the lines of this tense history became blurred when they immigrated to Canada. Therefore, when Roger runs into Adele at the Kensington market, a part of the town that was welcoming to newcomers of foreign nationalities, he refers to her as ‘sister’. This is because as immigrants, even though they are strangers, he recognizes her as a member of his societal group. Although from different walks of life, the commonality of being immigrants in a predominantly white society obscures the differences in their generational histories. In spite of their different cultural backgrounds, they are subject to similar struggles of being restricted to precarious employment, i.e. temporary jobs with minimal protection of rights and barely any chances for career advancement, and both face discrimination when searching for accommodation because of their Trinidadian accents. Generational identity is particularly of significance to Adele’s mother as she continually struggles with the details of the war in Carenage intersecting with her new life in Canada due to her early onset dementia. The ‘soucouyant’ thus becomes an unending interference, a permanent reminder of her trauma that she ‘forgets to forget’ right till she dies.
Although born in Canada, generational identity also impacts their second-generation children. As a result of being born to Caribbean parents, the children unconsciously take on their behavioural and speech patterns. For instance, the protagonist mentions he sometimes could not ‘control the signals’ he portrayed. This could mean his reactions to certain situations were considered uncharacteristic in comparison to the other kids from ‘Canadian’ homes, even though Canada is his birthplace too. He also talks about getting in trouble for his inability to pronounce the ‘th’ sound. His natural reactions and inability to pronounce these words were treated as defiance, which shows the discriminatory nature of the educational system at the time as it did not account for such cultural nuances. Regardless of the fact that his only real affiliation with the Caribbean is his parent’s heritage, he is still referred to with divisive racial slurs. Similarly, in his interaction with Mrs. Cameron, the local librarian, his generational identity is significant. Despite her being kind and welcoming, she still expects him to know, and be proud of, the history of his mother’s birthplace. Though his parents had done a lot to separate their children from their traumatic history, society expects that they should know and appreciate the history they are unfamiliar with. Nonetheless, the narrator unofficially tasks himself with the burden of connecting the dots of his mother’s stories. There is a societal pressure on second-generation children to embrace two different cultures, regardless of their personal relationships with either. This is why the narrator feels the need to distinguish himself when the police come to his home by saying he was born ‘here in this land’.
Likewise, Meera tries to distinguish herself from the narrator and his brother. Meera’s mother, Antoinette, is also of Trinidadian descent, however, she comes from an educated family who were able to send her abroad to get a degree . Albeit her parents were not necessarily well to do as they merely owned a hardware shop, their sacrifices to send Antoinette to London puts her in a privileged position as an educated Black woman. Unlike Adele who came in through a domestic scheme that offers household work to single Caribbean women, Antoinette immigrates to Canada because she is offered a consultancy position. She gets married to a Welsh man, and so Meera is an interracial child. Because of her privilege, Antoinette is unable to see that racial identity plays a role in societal reception. She tells Meera that looks are ‘beside the point’, yet she still advises that she should always ‘capitalize’ and ‘distinguish’ herself. Meera faces a different reality in school as she is not seen as different from the protagonist and his family. In spite of her privilege, her skin colour serves as a generational identity that puts her into the same group as them; she is also considered an outsider. The school kids expect her to understand the language and behaviours of the protagonist and his brother. Regardless of her mixed racial background, she is subject to the same humiliation as them. She is hypersexualized, ridiculed and mocked. Thus, she tries to assuage her ego by asserting that regardless of the mutual experience of discrimination, she is of a more privileged class. To do this, she takes part in ‘crank calling’ Adele and refers to the protagonist’s brother with a racial slur in a bid to ‘distinguish’ herself and rebel against the racial association — to at least have leverage over one person.
‘Twoness’ is interwoven with generational identity in this book. A ‘twoness’ is described in the book as a ‘velvet sweet and sharpness at once’. This is metaphorical for duality. The primary characters all have different identities and experiences that they struggle to balance. Being accustomed to a different reality at home and in public is a shared experience between the first- and second-generation immigrants in Soucouyant. It shows that as immigrants, generational identity is often dismissive of personal stories and instead, heavily centres around physical indicators and there is a shared understanding of this among these communities. This also shows that trauma, both personal and colonial, is passed on through generations of offspring. This puts the second-generation in a constant position of unbelonging and uncertainty with what culture to associate with. In an interview with Kit Dobson, Chariandy mentions that he aims to show how
the second generation possesses intimate and lifelong knowledge of Canada as a complex and sometimes outright painful space to grow up in as a visible minority…At the same time, the second generation stands to inherit, consciously or not, the cultural legacies of their parents, legacies that ultimately stem from geographic spaces and contexts that the second generation may never have directly experienced to any real extent (Dobson and Chariandy 811).
This identity struggle can be seen when the protagonist asks Meera “You’re connected to Trinidad, aren’t you, Meera? … I mean, you probably weren’t born there. You probably aren’t any more attached to that place than I am, but you’re connected, aren’t you?” This question gives an insight into the position he is in as the child of immigrants, where he is forced to navigate through words like ‘connected’ and ‘attached’. He can recognize that there is also an innate identity struggle within Meera. This is comparable to how Roger does not understand his cultural rituals yet continues to partake in them ‘with sincere feeling even though the meanings had long been forgotten’.
In conclusion, Soucouyant shows the forced interconnectedness of immigrant experiences and the resulting alienation of subsequent generations. It shows the important role of generational identity on the ‘otherness’ of first and second generation immigrants.
Chariandy, David. Soucouyant. Vancouver: Arsenal, 2007. Print.
Dobson, Kit, and David Chariandy. “Spirits of Elsewhere Past: A Dialogue on Soucouyant.” Callaloo, vol. 30, no. 3, 2007, pp. 808–817. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30139278. Accessed 10 August 2020.