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Opinion ‘Where are you from?’ In search of my Canadian identity

Esi Edugyan, photographed at her home on Dec. 13, 2018.

Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

Esi Edugyan is an award-winning author based in Victoria. Her most recent novel is Washington Black.

Back in 2006, I went to live for a year at an artist colony on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany, a city nearly obliterated during the Second World War. I remember the blue thread of the Neckar River running along it in the fine bright air, so that from our residence overlooking the city, we could almost imagine only wilderness lay below.

It was the year Germany played host to the FIFA World Cup. Among the young artists who had arrived from all over the world, an excitement had taken hold. We were eager to be a part of things, to take in as much as we could of this moment.

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There was among the German artists, especially, a kind of mild shock at their countrymen’s outpouring of emotion for their nation. For the first time since before the war – which is to say, since before their lifetimes – it had become socially acceptable to hang the national flag from windows, to fly it from cars, to drape it over shoulders in the streets. Visual symbols of patriotism were something I took for granted in Canada, so that I was surprised when, walking the Stuttgart town centre with a friend, I heard her draw a sharp breath at the sight of a child turning a tiny plastic flag in his fingers. For her, it was truly a new era.

I remember so much about those days. How a group of us would spend hours in the beer gardens dotting the city to watch on massive screens matches taking place in all parts of the country. How lightly the sun fell, cupping our foreheads in a warmth that was like the touch of a human palm. How, sometimes, the air in the gardens would reek sharply of shredded grass. And how one evening, during a match between Germany and France, the weather suddenly turned black and churning and vicious, slinging thick braids of water into our faces, so that we opened our mouths.

There was so much beauty in those hours. I recall us all walking home after that rainy match and hearing a damp susurration from beyond the path. My friend, Eugen, parted the long grasses to discover an enormous frog. We passed the frog from hand to hand, and I remember so vividly the feel of it in my careful fist – a pulsing damp shudder, like a living heart. The wonder that came over me then was like a physical shock – I felt as if anything could happen in that moment, as if the world was made of the strange and the unexpected, that it was a place of great openness and possibility.

Then, as we continued on, something happened that drew me up short. We had all been complaining about the French soccer team, but Eugen began to mock them viciously, beginning with their names. His biggest complaint was the fact that so many of them were brown or black men, children no doubt of immigrants who’d settled in France from its former colonies. “How were any of those people actually French?” he said, and then he met my eye: “And you, Esi, how are you Canadian?”

It had been a question that had defined my life, although I would not then have expressed it so. For years I had travelled in search of the place I would feel most at home – indeed, my time in Germany was part of that search – but it was slowly dawning on me that the answer had been clear from the moment I first left home, that I had been stubbornly refusing to look at it.

What became so clear to me with Eugen’s question was how much I had taken a certain kind of multiculturalism for granted, and how much, until those years of travel, I’d come to surround myself with people who also took that plurality for granted. I had always believed that there were many different pathways to citizenship and fealty and belonging beyond the single one suggested by him, which was, of course, blood. In a country in which the population of black people has never exceeded 3.5 per cent (and in British Columbia, where I’ve lived for 20 years, it is less than 1 per cent), the idea of my being able to claim anything like true Canadian-ness was, to him, ridiculous.

My parents were Ghanaian immigrants who’d met, not in Canada, but in San Francisco, as students; A mutual friend was hosting a party to watch the moon landing on his black and white television. Six months later they were married, and my brother was born a year after that. They settled eventually in Alberta, first in Edmonton, where my sister was born, then in Calgary, where I was born. They often used to joke that they stopped moving to avoid having more children.

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Migration is rarely a clean narrative. Alongside the joys, stories of migration often contain the loss of treasured things, and also the gaining of things not wanted. At the centre of these stories is often risk. And indeed, when I think of my mother’s case, what I’m struck by is how much she had to risk to gain an education. She was a young woman in an African society where women did much of the work and held little of the power, and as her secondary school years were coming to an end, she was left floundering at the starkness of her choices. She chafed at the expectation that she would keep her father’s house until she found a husband. She wanted to become a nurse. In order to do so, though, she would have to leave home. And what amazes me is that she managed to do it.

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I sometimes ask myself what might have happened if she had never made the choice to leave. If my father had also stayed and by some whim of chance they’d met and married in Ghana? Her near-fate as an uneducated mother and wife could well have been my own fate, too. The life given to me is lived in the shadow of that other possible life. I marvel even now at the strange combination of circumstances that had to come about for me to be here.

To be a Canadian is to accept that the story has more than one thread, more than one character, more than one point of view. It has become a near cliché to say it, but it’s true: we are a nation of many narratives and histories, and it is in the attempts to harmonize our various stories that our culture lives.

These negotiations can sometimes be fraught, but they are ours. Within my own family, there are a multitude of stories: one of my sisters-in-law immigrated to Edmonton from Hong Kong when she was eight years old, while the other is from the Coast Salish tribes of Vancouver Island, whose people have lived on the land for generations. My brother-in-law is French-Canadian. My husband’s aunt, who was born and raised in Guyana, has commented that when we sit down to holiday dinners we look like a UN summit. I think, though, that the variety that strikes her as an international feature is actually a very national one. And it is in our struggle to forever negotiate and align these stories that our identity is made and shaped and reshaped. The failure to come to a consensus on a single narrative – the hesitation and uncertainty about having one dominant story – is what the culture has become.

What do we see as features of our future stories, going forward? What is it we can be? The image returns to me of that rainy walk home in Stuttgart, the feel of that tiny life in my hands – how unexpected and full of wonder that moment was, how much it made the world feel boundless and without limits, as if the miraculous lay within reach. That feeling is what we need to harness, it is what I want my children to feel. The sense that nothing is closed to anyone, not because of race or gender or religious belief, that everything is open and full of startling possibility, regardless of who we are.

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