Canada's History through the Eyes of the Untold/Unofficial stories of marginalized characters in Michael Ondaatje's "In the Skin of a Lion" and Joy Kogawa's "Obasan"
Traditionally and according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, History is "the discipline that studies the chronological record of events, based on critical examination of source materials and usually presenting an explanation of their causes". For those who take this definition as a conclusive one, we can add that it is or was believed to be objective or truthful. However, recording historical facts and events requires a previous process of interpretation and analysis, and these obviously imply a high degree of subjectivity. We cannot deny that certain historic events took place; but we can question the selection made to retell those events. This is so because human subjectivity is largely shaped by culture and its dominant ideology. As a consequence, History as a grand narrative and as a Human construct bears the imprints of cultural and ideological discourse of a certain group or individuals.
Since History cannot account for all past events, there is a need for selection. Therefore, Human beings subjectivism as an intrinsic characteristic is brought up when making such selection. Parameters and criteria according to which such selection is made are ideological and somehow arbitrary. Taking subjectivity into account, we can infer that the problem of History as a grand metanarrative lies in its false claim to totality. The selection of historical facts and its globalizing idea are subjected to issues of power and ideology. The question of selection is of great relevance when it comes to historical representation of oppressed and ex-centric people. How can reliable knowledge of past events be acquired if everything we know about the past is based on cultural and ideological representations of somebody else writing in the name of "objectivity".
In an attempt to open the past gaps, "objective" history has left us, there are a number of writers who have devoted themselves to counterbalance the totalizing discourse of History with private and/or local and ex-centric narratives. In order to present a concept for this new kind of literature emerging from what / who the official History has left aside. Linda Hutcheon coined the term "HISTORIOGRAPHIC METAFICTION". According to Hutcheon, works of Hisotriographic Metafiction are..."those well-known and popular novels which are both intensively self-reflective and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages". Historiographic metafiction is a postmodern art form, with reliance upon textual play, parody and historical reconceptualization in which the active participation of the reader plays an important role. History is not viewed anymore as a definable and conclusive object, Historiographic Metafiction sees engagements with history as being discursive, situational, and textual. These visions of what is known as traditional "History" allow for new re-writings which open up new perspectives and identities of those culturally marginalized. "Stories" as opposed to "History" account for the richness, diversity, and complexity of individual experience that History omits; that is why postmodernist fiction suggests to "...re-write or to re-present the past in fiction and history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological" (Hutcheon).
When talking about Canada as a country and its own History, we get to know that Canada has long been characterized by a diverse ethnic composition. Diversity is one of its main characteristics. According to Prof. Sandra Fadda in "Canadians in Canada", "The process of peopling Canada can be divided into five phases: 1) From its origin to the end of the 19th century, 2) From 1896 to 1914, 3) From the end of WWI until 1929, 4) the post-WWII period, 5) The 1950s and 1960s". Taking this into account, what Marta Dvorak states holds true in Canada: "...a large part of literature in Canada has long been generated by first-generation or second-generation immigrants coming to term with displacement and relocation...". This is why the evolution of literary works according to Dvorak: "...reflects a shift from 1867 to the beginning of the twenty-first century when... (immigrants)...account for one-third of the population with a high proportion of Asians...". Among these minority writers there are the ones who started writing and using historiographic metafiction so as to open up the gaps for the reconstruction of Canada's History through the eyes of the marginalized characters. Linda Hutcheon was the first one to coin the phrase "Canadian Historiographic Metafiction" to describe the emerging literary genre that focuses on the act of writing about Canadian History and identity by fictionalizing its historical past.
The novels In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje and Obasan by Joy Kogawa portray the "unofficial" stories that are associated with anonymity and passivity of immigrants in Canada's official History. Nevertheless, for Ondaatje and Kogawa, the process of reconstructing personal narratives and the act of telling them involve a creative process by which characters become aware of their importance in history and begin telling their "stories". For these writers, to take responsibility for one's own story is a way of legitimizing and appropriating one's life to compensate for historical omissions. To account for the omissions and partiality of the "official history" of Canada, the alternative is to celebrate a plurality of private and/or local narratives that give voice to the forgotten voices, creating this way a polyphonic text in which minorities are given a voice to tell the stories of their cities and to leave aside their anonymity and passivity and becoming part of it. Many Canadian writers were born in countries other than Canada; there are a number of writers that come from the Eastern side of the world. This is the case of the two authors involved in this paper. One of the most famous Canadian author associated with Historiographic Metafiction is Michael Ondaatje who was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Canada where he began writing. In the Skin of a Lion is set mainly in Toronto, Ontario and tells the story of immigrants who built the city. By doing so, Ondaatje gives voice to the blood, sweat, and tears of these workers who have never been recognized by the "official" History. There is also another Canadian writer who made use of Historiographic Metafiction: Joy Kogawa. Her novel Obasan, Japanese for aunt, was first published in the early 1980s Japanese Canadians began demanding reparation for their forced internment from the Canadian government. Kogawa's novel narrates the story told by a woman and her childhood as a Japanese Canadian during WWII, a time when Japanese people living in Canada were singled out by the Canadian government as a threat to National defense and were removed from the West coast and sent to Japan, or dispersed throughout the British Columbia interior to the Prairies.
An important aspect of In the Skin of a Lion in relation to Hisotriographic Metafiction is the depiction of Toronto in the 1920s. Ondaatje gives importance to the construction of Toronto's landmarks, such as the Prince Edward Viaduct and the R.C Harris Filtration Plant. He focuses on the lives of immigrant workers. Many characters become aware of the fact that they are left out when retelling the history of the city. Ondaatje presents characters in a fragmented, non-linear way which the reader has to unfold while reading the novel. For example, the title of the novel In the Skin of a Lion is a call for action; it implies responsibility for one's story and the narrative so as to compensate for historical silences: "Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story..." (Page 157). In the introduction of the novel, before the narration starts, Ondaatje also incorporates a framework story, that of a man telling a story to a girl that opens and ends the novel and gives coherence to the many personal narratives: "This is a story a young girls gathers in a car during the early hours of the morning. She listens and asks questions as the vehicle travels through the darkness..." (Page 2).
Ondaatje's characters are also self-conscious of how narration is organized. This is evident on Page 148 when one the character says: "All these fragments of memory---so we can retreat from the grand story and stumble accidentally upon luxury, one of those ground pools where we can sit still. Those moments, those few pages in a book we go back and forth...". Other than being aware of the narration, Ondaatje's characters are also aware of their marginalized position in it. For instance, Nicholas Temelcoff is aware of his anonymity and marginality, as follows: "He was anonymous (..) He would never leave his name where his skill had been. He was one of those who have a fury of sadness of only being described by someone else. A tarred of roads, a house-builder, a painter, a thief - yet he was invisible to all around him..." (Page 199).
He feels his story has never been legitimized. When Nicholas Temelcoff realizes that "His own life was no longer a single story but part of mural, which was a failing together of accomplices. Patrick saw the wondrous night web - all these fragments of a human order..." (Page 145), as a consequence of this, he decides he should take responsibility for his story and compensate for omissions to appropriate his own life: "...he has been sewn into history. Now he will begin to tell stories".
In the case of Kogawa's novel, we can see a clear identification of the suffering of Japanese-Canadians prior to and after WWII and the Pearl Harbor bombing. Kogawa's historiographic metafictional novel weaves together three different fragmented stories: Naomi's childhood, the official documented versions of events in Canada, and experiences before and after the war as they are described in Emily's diary. That is how Kogawa, through the process of reconstructing the discursive history of Naomi as the narrator of Obasan, makes her learn the importance of giving voice to those who were left aside. There is a need to compensate for the stories of those Japanese Canadians whom Canadian story omitted. In her novel, Kogawa is ready to reject the assumptions of Western historicism in order to challenge the previous tradition by telling her side of the story and denouncing different mistreatments. This is stated even before she begins writing her novel: "Although this novel is based on historical events and many of the persons named are real, most of the characters are fictional...” Through Obasan, Kogawa intends to show those stories behind the official one of Canada; she denounces mistreatments of Japanese people through the character of Aunt Emily. For instance, Aunt Emily states: "... The Japanese American were interned as we were in Canada, and sent off to concentration camps, but their property wasn't liquidated as our was (...) we never recovered from the dispersal policy" (Page 35). Throughout the novel, this idea of Japanese Canadians being stripped of their possessions affected a large percentage of them, including Naomi's uncle: "...uncle was too taken away, wearing a shirt, jacket and dungarees. He had no provisions nor he did have an idea where the gunboats were heading him and the other Japanese fishermen in the impounded fishing fleet" (Page 22). And also, as Ondaatje presented in his novel, it is a way of making her character aware of the importance of giving away their stories, the value of voicing and exploring.
These authors employ different ways to include and deal with historical events, they make use of files and government's records, personal photographs, and mementoes, dramatic scripts for both radio and theater, lyrics of popular songs, films, newspaper clippings, letters, tall tales, and even dreams. Narrative events are endowed with meaning by incorporating these sources into the texts since they are identified as part of an integrated whole. In Ondaatje's novel, the inclusion of these documents makes the characters aware of their marginalized condition in the "official" history of Toronto when building a bridge, for instance. In the Skin of a Lion, the silenced and marginal characters are given a voice and the possibility of telling their own stories through reading the articles reflecting the story of the city: "The articles and illustrations he found in Riverdale Library depicted every detail about the soil, the wood, the weight of concrete, everything but information on those who built the bridge (...) Official stories and news stories were always as soft as rhetoric, like that of a politician making a speech after a bridge is built" (Page 145).
Ondaatje also describes how marginal characters were ill-treated and disposed after they finished their task: "In 1938 (...) people were crowding together in large buildings across North America to see (…) Anna Karenina (...) by now over 10,000 foreign-born workers had been deported out of the country (...) the longest bridge in the world was being built..." (Page 209). By making use of newspaper clippings, Ondaatje's character realize of their unimportance in official history or the minimum role Canadian history has assigned to these building the landmarks of the city, as in the following case: "He read upon everything - survey arguments, the scandals, the deaths of workers fleetingly mentioned, the story of a young nun who had fallen off the bridge, the body never found (...) He turned the page to the photograph of them and he pulled out of the picture he had and laid it next to the one in the newspaper. Third from the left, the newspaper said, was Nicholas Temelcoff" (Page 144).
In the case of Obasan, the documents, including letters and newspaper articles written by some journalists as well as the narration of stories and the reading letters, force Kogawa to voice her own perspectives. By writing this novel, Kogawa claims for her Japanese Canadian identity. She includes pamphlets like the one on page 34: "... Racial discrimination by Order-in-Council" in which the "seizure and government sale of fishing boats. Suspension of fishing licenses. Relocation camps. Liquidation of property. Letter of General MacArthur. Bill 15. Deportation. Revocation of nationality.” Another strategy Kogawa employs is the use of newspaper clippings: "Bar Japs for Another Year from Going Back to B.C" says the newspaper clipping from Toronto Star written by Borden Spears (page 127). Kogawa also makes use of letters in order to account for different past events, for example, in Aunt Emily’s letter she describes not only the repressive measures taken by the government but also the way in which these measures were enacted. Character's feelings are also included: "This is my own, my native land. Later still, after our former homes had been sold over vigorous protests, after having been registered, finger-printed, card-indexed, roped and restricted, I cry out the question: Is this my own, my native land? The answer cannot be changed. Yes, it is. For the better or worse, I am Canadian" (Page 42).
To conclude, we can say that since historiographic Metafiction is a postmodern art form which requires active participation of the reader like the ones in Obasan and In the Skin of a Lion. Works of historiographic metafiction also include a reflexive task on the part of the writer. Instead of viewing history as a definable and conclusive object, historiographic metafiction sees it as being discursive, situational, and textual. Ondaatje and Kogawa have tried to problematize the nature of Canadian historical facts in their novels, and at the same time they have tried to blur the lines between history and fiction in order to present instead of an "official" history, several "stories" that represent the reality of some other Canadian citizens who were not taken into account in terms of their status as such. For Ondaatje and Kogawa, stories are characterized by fragmentation, indeterminacy, silences, lack of closure. They voice the ex-center and long-forgotten protagonists of the mainstreamed History. Probably, their aim is to recover the past so as to fill in the gaps and present a different Canada of the one we have been told about: a Canada devoid of problems like immigration and multiculturalism.