For the past two Monday evenings I have fallen asleep in front of the BBC program “Empire.” During “Making Ourselves at Home,” on March 5, host Jeremy Paxman went to various countries of the empire, including Canada. I perked up for that, to see what the British would have to say about Canada. And how I laughed to see the BBC camera follow the narrator walking through snow, circling a clump of pines (I swear he crossed his own tracks) to show us – yes! – a log cabin in the snow.

Fergus in winter

The colony of Canada, BBC clip

I didn’t really hear much of what Paxman was saying because I was laughing at the predictability of the image, at the pleasure of seeing us through someone else’s eyes. Even if the eyes were then narrowed at us critically, for our treatment of the occupants of this sparsely populated land. When I had dried my eyes of the laughter tears, I asked, Are the other countries laughing too? A small question that put the episode in a new light.

In November 1892, the Popular Science Monthly published an essay by Sara Jeannette Duncan called “Eurasia.” As I started reading this internet find, I made the uncomfortable discovery that for her “Eurasia” was not a place but a people. “Eurasia has no boundaries. It lies, a varying social fact, all over India, thick in the great cities, thickest in Calcutta…. Wherever Europeans have come and gone, these people have sprung up in weedy testimony of them – these people who do not go….” Duncan numbers the offspring of Europeans and Asians (of India) in the tens of thousands and proceeds to write of the “Eurasian problem” and of the people negatively: morally, they “inherit defects more conspicuously than virtues from both the races from which they spring”; “their indolence and unthrift are proverbial”; and “the truth is not in them.” She generalizes shockingly.

No, not my Duncan! Although I’d enjoyed reading her shocking generalizations about the British in Cousin Cinderella and An American Girl in London, I was not enjoying this little taste of racism. My first reaction was rejection. I returned her travel book, A Social Departure, to the library, unread. I didn’t want to have to pick through the book for evidence to weigh up against her. I can’t remember, when I read about the English in India in A Pool in the Desert fifteen years ago, if I’d shrugged and thought, Oh everyone was racist back then and she was fairly enlightened for her time. I do remember that I wanted to read it as a book of its time rather than in the context of studies on post‑colonialism.

Ah, but there is nothing like humour to put things in perspective. On March 6, 2012, M.G. Vassanji talked about his travels in Tanzania and of reading the explorers of East Africa — Burton, Speke and Livingston. He explained that he wanted to view their work from the other side, from the viewpoint not of their English readers but of the very people he was writing about. He asked, “Where do I see myself” in their stories? He mentioned Burton in particular, admiring how Burton sought to know the languages and cultures of those he met while unfortunately retaining his sense of superiority. He also talked about the local men who helped the explorers as the more interesting story, for without the suppliers and organizers their expeditions would have failed.

showing spear scar

Sir Richard Francis Burton

Vassanji then read aloud – was it from Livingston? – some racist descriptions of the Indians settled in Tanzania, the Cutchi Bhatia, and of the Africans the explorers encountered in Tanzania and Zanzibar. He read the passages aloud with relish. The audience in the Khalili Lecture Theatre, of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, laughed. Vassanji and his audience laughed at the words of the great explorers (except for me and a couple of other mzungus). Hold on, I thought, I recognize that laugh. See paragraph one above.

M.G. Vassanji is a Canadian writer who was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and who grew up in the Asian community of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. See his biography here. His first novel, The Gunny Sack, was published in 1989. His fourth book, The Book of Secrets, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 1993. Ten years later he won the prize a second time for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.

During the SOAS talk, Vassanji referred to his travels in Africa and India as going home. For this reason I foolishly did not ask him if I could interview him for Canadian Writers Abroad, for if he was going home then he was hardly going abroad. As soon as I left, on the tube going to my new home in London, I realized my mistake. This is exactly what would make him an interesting subject.

Perhaps in this multicultural era home can be in more than one country? Perhaps the word “abroad” is a tad old‑fashioned, laden with its own colonial history? Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad of 1869, the musical “At Home Abroad” of 1935, and the grand tour of the rich that became the gap year abroad of the middle class. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “abroad” simply as “in or to a foreign country or countries.” Its older meaning is more “at large” or out and about. A quick online check shows the word still very much in use – teach English abroad, missing persons abroad, the TV show “Idiots Abroad.”

At the beginning of The Gunny Sack, the narrator speaks from “this small overseas community” in Canada. Later, he talks of the situation of the Asians in Tanzania compared to the persecution of the Asians in Uganda. It is a passage that highlights the complexity of identity, nationality and home: “In Dar, at Amina’s house, we said Tanzania is different, its Asians more truly African. Indians have been on the coast for centuries, and they speak English – Amina attested, having come from abroad – quite differently from Indian Indians. There is a distinct Swahili-ness to their English.” (p. 245).

At the end of her essay, Sara Jeannette Duncan identifies prejudice as unreasonable and concludes her essay with a wish that this corner of the empire will contribute to English literature: “In the heart of Eurasia – a heart which has yet to be bared to us by the scalpel of modern fiction — surely may be found much that is worth adding to the grand total that makes humanity interesting.” I wonder why Jeremy Paxman chose to look at commerce and sport in his series “Empire,” when really he should be looking at literature, the most splendid survivor of empire.

Vassanji receives GG

Vassanji receives Governor General's Literary Award for his memoir in 2009, CBC

Posted by CWA

2 Comments

  1. I agree with your perspective on Duncan. Remember, too, that she does actually present an almost-successful relationship between an Indian girl and a white man in The Burnt Offering, as well as come out on the side of the less-violent form of Indian nationalism. Still, John Game dies; and in 1910 India remained far from free…

    Something to keep you awake at nights, if you love Duncan (at least, I shudder every time I remember it…):

    In “A Mother in India,” Duncan has her characters go to see the Taj Mahal, where “The moonlight fell full upon them on the platform under the arch. It showed Dacres measuring with his stick the length of the Sanskrit letters which declared the stately texts, and Cecily’s expression of polite, perfunctory interest.” Now, we all know that the Taj Mahal has NO Sanskrit on it, being a Muslim tomb, not a Hindu structure. BUT (and now we are truly scrambling for rationalisations) there was a chappie–an Indian (Hindu) academic, although I use the term loosely–who (in the 1970s, I believe) published two papers to the tune of “The Taj Mahal Was a Hindu Temple” (I think that is the title of one) in which he claims that beneath the marble can be found remnants of the desecrated temple Shah Jahan raised to build the Taj Mahal… I can send you the papers if you like… they are in a box somewhere…

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  2. […] Jeanette Duncan and empire […]

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