Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives
By Stephen Henighan, Linda Leith Publishing, 204 pages, $18.95
The Path of the Jaguar
By Stephen Henighan, Thistledown Press, 208 pages, $19.95
Several months ago, I was assigned to review two recent novels by Stephen Henighan: Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives, released this spring, and The Path of the Jaguar, published late last year. I read both books, taking notes on the public deployment of race and identity in Canada as depicted in Mr. Singh, and larger questions of representation in both books, given both of Henighan's protagonists are of a different race than him.
Then, Hal Niedzviecki published his editorial in the Indigenous issue of Write magazine, in which, among other things, he erroneously conflated cultural appropriation with writing about people of other cultures. My ultimate assessment of Henighan's books has not changed, although the immediate context for talking about them certainly has.
Henighan is a writer, literary translator and academic who also teaches Latin American literature and culture at the University of Guelph. Although he has published three previous novels as well as three collections of short stories, he is likely best known (perhaps notoriously so, in some circles) as a critic. In considering his latest novels, I consulted two of his essay collections: When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing (2002) and A Report on the Afterlife of Culture (2008).
In an essay published in the former, "Free Trade Fiction, or the Victory of Metaphor over History," Henighan skewers two novels of the 1990s, the success of which typify for him the problems of English-Canadian writing of the time: Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces. Henighan's issue with these novels is their treatment of the Holocaust: The English Patient, a novel that looks toward life after the Second World War, ignores the genocide, he argues, whereas Fugitive Pieces aestheticizes it. So laden with metaphors are these books, Henighan says, it distracts from the appalling ahistoricism.
Recounting the events of the past few weeks is beyond the scope of this review. What I want to emphasize is our own historical moment: We, too, write in the context of genocide, and for those who are not Indigenous and write in public in this country (myself included), we need to consider the implications of that. Centuries of theft and erasure give rise to misinformation and unexamined assumptions – good intentions and the injunction to "write what you don't know" can't teach us how to write in this moment. Only education and serious self-critical work can. (One extremely accessible guide is Métis educator and writer Chelsea Vowel's Indigenous Writes, published last year.)
It's not an easy time for a nuanced discussion of these two novels. CanLit has seen three major controversies in six months: the UBC Accountable letter (in which dozens of prominent authors were seen as rushing to the defence of Steven Galloway), the questions surrounding Joseph Boyden's ethnicity and now Niedzviecki's editorial. It has been a disillusioning experience for many. Taken together, these controversies could suggest that Henighan is right, and CanLit is controlled by a cabal of powerful writers who pay lip service to diversity but care little for marginalized writers, which is one of the takeaways of Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives.
As R.U. Singh tells you in the novel's opening pages, he was meant to live a life of leisure befitting the English gentry: a county squire, his days spent in novels. Too bad he's his father's fifth son and must make his own way in the world. Also too bad he was born in 1950s Bombay, far from his imagined Victorian idyll.
After several false starts, Singh finds himself in Southwestern Ontario, a life of loiterature within his grasp, having stumbled upon a party of the Canadian literati, one of whom takes him under her wing. Although he finds Canada initially disappointing, he is happy to find the country's writers provincial and Victorian in their aesthetic. But Singh's new prestige depends on his good-minority status, and he's not what his new friends would like him to be.
Some background: A decade ago, Henighan wrote about "the public manipulation of race" he saw at work in CanLit's highest echelon at the 2006 Giller Prize – "the Wasp cultural establishment's need to diversify its ethnic alliances in order to shore up its dominance in the 21st century." Specifically, he was referring to Margaret Atwood's advocacy for eventual winner Vincent Lam, although his larger point was about the literary establishment's use of "strategic tokenism" to avoid talking about race.
Good satire punches up, not down, and Mr. Singh follows the rule. It's true, Singh is far from innocent: Despite not being Sikh, he's happy to give that impression if he cuts a more "picturesque" ethnic figure in a turban. But he's hardly the villain. His Hindu cousins in Toronto's suburban towers might be horrified at Singh's head wear, but no one in the Canadian media or publishing elite cares much to ask. "I was the brown-skinned bearded man in a turban for whose rise into the Canadian spotlight they could take credit," he says. Singh has his uses, until his fall.
Tempering the bite of the satire is that Henighan's novel opens several decades before the present. Singh comes to Canada in the 1970s and his disgrace – a long time coming – still predates the era of the Twitter notification. The temporal distance means Henighan does not comment directly on racial diversity in CanLit presently, although whether you are bothered that a white author places his critique in the mouth of a brown man likely depends on whether you agree with that critique.
The story of a young Mayan woman attempting to preserve her language and culture despite narrowing possibilities in the years following Guatemala's 36-year civil war, The Path of the Jaguar arguably drives closer to our current anxieties around appropriation, although I found it featured the more thoroughly depicted protagonist. That might be because of the novel's sincerity or that Amparo Ajuix's desire to pass her culture and Cakchiquel language to her children is this novel's constant, where R.U. Singh adopts new identities with changes in the wind.
Henighan is a long-time student of Guatemala and its literature, from his academic study nearly two decades ago of Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias to the journalism and literary work of Francisco Goldman and the changes heralded in 1996 by the end of the civil war, including the political movement for Indigenous rights.
The Indigenous peoples of Guatemala represent a significant portion of the population, roughly equal to the ladino, or people of "mixed" Indigenous and European ancestry – although the term ladino is also a marker for someone who has adopted Hispanic culture, including Western dress and the Spanish language. Despite this demographic equality, when The Path of the Jaguar opens in 1997, the ladino bourgeoisie is undoubtedly dominant, so much so that to speak Cakchiquel is considered shameful, a sign of backwardness. Amparo is a proud Mayan, but life in peacetime presents new challenges to Mayan culture: strife between evangelicals and Catholics in her village, increasing dependence on tourism in Antigua, financial insecurity that threatens to disband Amparo's family.
A novel written in English about a country where Spanish dominates can only convey so much of a language's worldview, although The Path of the Jaguar tries. On learning Cakchiquel, Henighan wrote in 2003: "To study a Mayan language is to bump your toes against the threshold of a universe that is local, specific, conservative yet ritualized. There are small, rewarding revelations. The fact that the same expression, käk winaq, describes both 'foreigners' and 'Spanish-speaking Guatemalans,' exposes Mayan marginalization."
For part of the novel, Amparo is employed as a Cakchiquel tutor to a visiting Canadian manager of a language school, Ricardo, who I think we can take as a stand-in for the author. Try as he might, Ricardo can't pronounce the word b'alem, "jaguar." Canadian language teachers don't know everything and Ricardo doesn't really know Amparo's life. Henighan is aware of his limitations in trying to tell this story.
Early in The Path of the Jaguar, we see Amparo in El Tesoro, the bookstore where she works. Perusing the shelves, there are books by ladinos, by foreigners who study Mayan tradition, even books written in Quiche, but nothing by someone like Amparo. "Are there no Cakchiquels who write?" she asks. "No Mam or Tzutujil?" The meaning from that passage is clear: The Path of the Jaguar, as well informed about Guatemalan life as it may be, is not that book Amparo is looking for. Henighan's place in the bookstore is as one of those "gringo professors who bought fat books on Guatemalan history that cost a month's wages each." The Path of the Jaguar is not a fix for the lack of Cakchiquel books on the shelves, but it gives a reader some idea of why we might want one.
Jade Colbert covers Canadian independent publishers and debut authors for The Globe and Mail.