In the Skin of a Lion - In the Skin of a Lion
Jade: I woke up yesterday in the morning, and had a mixed feeling about what I saw. The snow covered my house, the trees, the sidewalk, my car. I'm sore from shoveling the driveway, and the cold... I prefer to have heat and be sweating. But still, the snow was beautiful. I saw snow for the first time when I was 15, when I first moved to Canada.

Jade: I'm really glad I took this course, Literature in Canada. Now I have a stack of books to read during Christmas break. 

Lucy: I agree. This course opened my eyes in so many different aspects. I remember thinking that Socials Studies 10 was the least interesting course in all of my high school years. My reason? Because one third of it dealt with First Nations history. Until this September, I have never truly appreciated this extraordinary culture and its heartbreaking story. It made me realize exactly how dangerous ignorance really is, seeping into our way of thinking, sneaking its blinding hands around our eyes and extinguishing our instinctive feelings of sympathy, love and acceptance. 

Jade: About 5 years ago, I had a period when I had a lot of identity issues. I felt that I belonged nowhere, and I was stuck in a weird hybrid position. There was a sense of belonging that I was looking for. Then I traveled to many places and lived in those places. I made ties and emotional connections with people then I leave again. I became sort of a permanent gypsy. It became so natural for me to leave for a year or two and then come back that I don't really think about it. The funny thing is, the more I do that the less important it is for me to identify myself with any cultural/social group. I need to feel belonged in my daily life and engage myself actively, but being a mixtures of nationalities doesn't bother me anymore. The issue of identity, especially at the national level, really becomes secondary. I'm just glad I have a convenient Canadian passport so I don't need to pay visa fees to many countries. 

Lucy: I'm overwhelmed. This is exactly how I feel now. I often discuss this sense of being "hybrid" with my roommate, who is also a second generation immigrant herself. We defined this as being in a limbo, not completely belonging to the conventional "white" Canadian culture nor to our original Chinese side. We then realized that the only place we truly belonged was in the limbo, along with other people who were also caught within, stretching equally between "Canada" and our country of origin. Being an immigrant himself, Ondaatje said at an Inter Press Service interview that he does not believe any of his protagonists were firmly aware of their own identities. Does that then make me, along with these characters, not worth Canada's citizenship because we still have unbreakable cultural bonds with our old countries? Are we  then not true Canadians because we're still deeply in love with our motherlands? The truth, in my opinion, is that I'm not stretching between Canada and where I was born, I'm stretching between what used to be Canada, the conventional Canada, the historically WASP-y Canada and my birth country. The Canada now is the limbo; she is the very definition of a hybrid country. 

Jade: I picked up a copy of Margaret Atwood's Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature yesterday. I really have a mixed feeling towards it. The book was published in 1972. I think that was a time when Canadians really didn't know who they were. They weren't French and they weren't English, and neither were they Americans. Then they said they were English AND French. Does that make it better? Not really. As a writer and an intelligent person and a good citizen, Atwood probably felt somewhat obliged to give her fellow Canadians something to identify with. Hence, the Survival. I like Atwood was well aware of what she was doing, as she did say, "Writing Canadian literature has been historically a very private act... Teaching it, however, is a political act (p.14)." She has done a superb job putting literature on a thematic map: this book deals about nature, that about animals, but these two are both victims of the second type. Almost 40 years later, her typologies are almost incomprehensible to me nor do I see any importance to it in my understanding of Canada. We may now make critiques of the book being too middle-class, Eurocentric, and ignorant, but we must ask, who were writing at the time? Who were the privileged people who had the knowledge of English writing and express themselves on paper? Wasn't literature a reflection of politics and social injustices? Didn't that reflect the power imbalance between white Canadians and non-white Canadians?

Jade: Literature in Canada in the past 20 years has been giving voices to those who hadn't been privileged to speak for themselves. Thomas King's Green Grass Running Water gave voices to the Natives, and Watson Choy's The Jade Peony to the Chinese immigrants. Thanks to Atwood and her colleagues, now there was a "canon" that authors can break free of, to fight against, to turn from a victim to a victor. If there weren't a canon to begin with, what we would be reading in our class might be completely different!

Lucy: The interesting question to ask here is, why was there a canon to begin with? Why did we have to go and "define" Canadian literature? To set certain boundaries, some of which even arbitrary, around a way of expression that should have been free and uninhibited? Politics may provide us with some degree of explanation here. We are the stories that we tell ourselves, as stories define who we are, and in turn we tell the stories that reflect us; does it not make sense then, that those in power would want to tell us stories of who we are in an attempt to create a unified, common, homogeneous group of human beings? This would then allow us to tell these stories on our own as they have been told to us, and the cycle continues. Until, that is, someone from the outside decides that, hey, this isn't me. The stories I hear on the land I call home doesn't fit with me. In this respect, the evolution of Canadian literature has everything to do with the waves of people arriving here in the latter part of the twentieth century. If Ondaatje had not been an immigrant, would he have wanted to devote his time to record a never-before-seen side to Canadian history through the eyes of these underlings? 

Jade: Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, to me, stresses about breaking boundaries. The national boundaries, the socio-economical boundaries, the literary boundaries. Again, it speaks for the people who hadn't have the privilege to speak for themselves: the Macedonian immigrants, the working class, the people who lived in the peripherals of societies. The history of Toronto, from a non-official perspective. 

Paul: In the Skin of a Lion has a lot to offer our discussion on what it means to be in literature in Canada and what it means to be a Canadian. I think regardless of whether we mean to teach others about Canada through what are labeled Canadian texts, people will form impressions about us and our country based on what they’ve read so it’s important to understand how we’re represented and who is doing the representing.

Paul: Ondaatje, through In the Skin of a Lion informs readers that being accepting of diversity may be a source of strength as well as a source of our humanity. When I first finished reading the book, I was perplexed by the lack of resolution—did Patrick really achieve anything?—but I was also concerned with how Ondaatje ended up having a white hero. I couldn’t wrap my head around why this bland character from rural Ontario who liked fireflies got to be the champion of the cause of the working class when there were so many far more interesting characters, especially when they were the ones who informed him about the matter.

Jade: In 2007, Margaret Atwood and her colleagues published a list of 100 Canada's Most Important Books. She made an effort to distinguish between "best" and "important," but I still can't understand whey the "most." Well, Green Grass Running Water and The Jade Peony made it to the list, but In the Skin of a Lion or anything written by Ondaatje didn't. This is a mixed bag of list ranging from Canadians and European Jews to the history of the fur trade. More than 80 of them were written before 1990. I'm just sort of curious, who actually want and need to read such list? When Atwood wrote this article, who did she actually want to educate? This isn't 1972 anymore. We have a "Canadian" identity. We even have too much of it that we hate it and destroy it. 

Lucy: Even in the year 2010, there is still an dominant and "accepted" international image of the Canadian identity. For instance, being a non-white Canadian travelling abroad, upon the question "Where are you from" asked by a politely intrigued foreigner, our answer "Canada" will ensue. Abruptly there would be a look of mild confusion on the foreigner's face and we would chuckle, as this probably would have been our anticipated response. But the truth remains that non-white Canadians are nonetheless Canadians; and this prompts me to suggest that maybe the only thing that can unify all Canadians is this confusion, this ambiguity, this unclear resolution of our identity . To not have a collective identity is the Canadian identity.

Jade: Funny thing to do, asking ourselves what "Canadian" literature is. By naming it "Canadian," aren't we drawing a national boundary to it? Isn't that exactly what King and Ondaatje told us not to do? In Green Grass Running Water every time someone crosses the national border they got into trouble. The flags are crooked anyway! Can we just call them "literature?" 

Paul: We’ve talked a lot in this course about how the concept of Canadian Literature has been constantly evolving to the point that the establishment struggles with what to call it, be it “Canadian Literature”, “Literature in Canada”, etc. To me it goes hand in hand with the question of what is a Canadian and how the answer to that also seems to be forever in a state of flux. The two appear to enjoy a reciprocal relationship, each one driving the other. Ultimately, what I’ve gathered is that being Canadian means accepting the confusion, maybe even embracing it. We choose to define ourselves while knowing that more likely than not it may prove to be a fruitless exercise.

Lucy: Yes! This was precisely my point. Canadian literature nowadays is almost similar to world literature, the former of course having some degree of connection to the political geography and native fauna of this country. In context with In the Skin of a Lion, Ondaatje elucidates a compellingly visual image of the rest of the world within the borders of Canada; of course, this "world" only consisted of European cultures and languages at the time the novel takes place. 

Paul: I realized afterwards that perhaps Ondaatje’s tale truly exemplifies diversity beyond what I was able to grasp at first glance. Multiculturalism has been often misunderstood by the dominant culture as excluding them. They interpret all this attention that minorities receive as just a form of reverse racism. Ondaatje wrote a book that struck at the root of that issue. In the Skin of a Lion has something to offer everyone, including those in the white dominant society. Even if Patrick Lewis is not the “hero” then he is at least someone who takes up the cause of working class immigrants and becomes better for it. Ondaatje tapped into something distinctly Canadian by portraying diversity as a mechanism for growth. Patrick recognizes that although on the surface he has very little in common with the immigrants he works worth, he is happier and more fulfilled through his interactions with them. Whereas he meandered through life before, Patrick only gained a family and sense of community when he is adsorbed into the immigrant community and both he and the immigrant workers are better for it.

Paul: Our group had a discussion about why this book would be labeled Canadian besides the fact that a Canadian wrote it and that it was set in Ontario. We came out of the talk a little unsure of ourselves, thinking that if Ondaatje weren’t Canadian and if he had set the story elsewhere, the book wouldn’t be considered Canadian at all. But then I imagined that even if we were to take out all references of Canada from the book, the story would still have to take place in a country where immigrants were welcomed en masse but kept on the outskirts of society as marginalized labourers. Furthermore, the prospective country would have to have reacted to the working class immigrants' struggle to the point by ultimately allowing them to shake the foundation of the dominant society and affect social change. There are only so many places in the world that I am aware of that can claim that kind of story: Canada being the main one that comes to my mind—of course I may just be overly biased/naïve in my experiences. Though our past is marred with injustice toward First Nations people and immigrants of all kinds, we have stopped ourselves at points and attempted to right our wrongs. Even the most cynical of our Canada's detractors has to admit that despite our racist past and present, we have acknowledged the injustices with a lot more transparency that other countries have done. Nowhere else in the world that I have been to or even read about has adopted type of stance that our country has enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Multiculturalism Act. Even if they do, I question whether they implement it as well as Canada does. In my mind, In the Skin of a Lion could only ever have been written by a Canadian and set in Canada because thus far in the history of mankind, only in Canada do we see issues being dealt with in this way and with this kind of spirit and optimism.
Kayla Morley
11/24/2010 02:02:03

I really enjoyed your presentation today. I liked the beginning skit. Something different from what anyone has done so far.. makes it more interesting to watch.

Good job!


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    November 2010



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