Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Neil Bissoondath

Hard questions

Neil Bissoondath takes on a controversial subject in his timely new novel

By Nicholas Dinka

Neil Bissoondath

Neil Bissoondath can be a tricky man to interview.

Not that he’s difficult, or inarticulate – quite the contrary on both counts. He’s fiendishly charming, with an infectious laugh and a winning smile, and he can speak engagingly on anything from the nature of insurgency to the perfect recipe for a gin and tonic.

It’s just that if you happen to be talking with him in the bar at Toronto’s Metro Convention Centre during BookExpo Canada, as I did this past June, then you’ll have to share his time with a steady stream of prominent well-wishers stopping by to chat: publishers, agents, fellow novelists, and Canadian Heritage officials.

Given all this, and given his geniality with all and sundry, one might easily mistake Neil Bissoondath for an insider’s insider – except that in a quiet moment he confesses to preferring events like this one in small doses. He flew in from his home in Quebec City only this morning and will be speeding back come sundown.

The fact is, there’s an elusiveness to Bissoondath just beneath the surface, which manifests itself in a number of ways. He’s a veteran on the anglo CanLit scene who lives deep in francophone Quebec, an intellectual who often seems to operate on pure instinct, a self-described optimist whose writing thrives on dark themes and contrarian positions.

There is certainly much darkness in The Unyielding Clamour of the Night, the new novel the author is in town to promote. Set in a fictional South Asian nation that’s clearly modelled on Sri Lanka, the book tells the story of Arun, an idealistic young schoolteacher who moves to a village in a southern region beset by a violent insurgency, and who soon finds his hopeful view of human nature tested to its core. Refusing tidy moral distinctions, the novel asks a host of uncomfortable (and timely) questions about the motivations of suicide bombers, about occupying armies and their inevitable atrocities, about the way in which war can become, for the unscrupulous and opportunistic, a welcome source of business.

“A novel isn’t there to offer answers or any kind of comfort, but it is there maybe to discomfort by asking certain questions,” says the author. “I mean, could it be seen as a defence of insurgency? I hope not.”

***

As every profile ever written about Neil Bissoondath has been sure to point out, the author is the nephew of V.S. Naipaul, the brilliant (and notoriously prickly) winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature. Bissoondath was born in 1955, in the Trinidadian city of Arima, into a bookish family with Indian roots and a middle-class status that had been gained relatively recently – Bissoondath’s grandparents had laboured in the rice and sugar fields. The boy’s mother, Naipaul’s sister, encouraged him in his reading from a young age; one of the earliest gifts she gave him was a book of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales. “Uncle Vido” also provided inspiration and encouragement, and was instrumental in his nephew’s decision to move to Canada for university in 1973.

In 1977, Bissoondath graduated from Toronto’s York University with a degree in French literature, subsequently landing a teaching job at a local language school. At the same time, he was beginning in earnest to write fiction, in keeping with his dream of following in Uncle Vido’s footsteps. In this respect, the school served him well – his fellow teachers would read and comment on the short stories he was writing in his off hours, while his students (many of whom were, like himself, recent immigrants) passed along personal tales that became fodder for several early pieces. He also met his future wife, Anne, there – she was a Quebecois law student looking to brush up on her English.

Bissoondath’s first big career break came in 1985, when his debut collection of short stories, Digging Up the Mountain, was picked up by Macmillan Canada and published to glowing reviews. It was in 1988, however, that the author hit it big. A Casual Brutality, his first novel, was snapped up by publishers in Canada, the U.S., and Britain, garnering over $350,000 in advances. The book told the story of an immigrant to Canada from a fictional, politically unstable Caribbean country called Casquemeda, and presented a tough portrait of both societies.

Since then, the author has done much to earn the admiration of his fellow BookExpo luminaries, publishing five more works of fiction (four novels and another book of stories) that cover a range of topics and locales, both within and outside Canada, frequently setting characters’ personal troubles against the backdrop of larger-scale societal strife.

***

Bissoondath was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for 1998’s The Worlds Within Her, centred around a middle-aged woman who returns from Canada to a politically unstable Caribbean island bearing the ashes of her mother. Despite the book’s critical success, however, sales were not particularly strong, and rumours made the rounds about a falling out between Bissoondath and his publisher, Knopf Canada.

Today, the author speaks diplomatically about the situation, though he still makes his dissatisfaction clear. “While I wasn’t terribly happy with the way Knopf handled The Worlds Within Her,” he says, “I recognize that at the time the company was in transition and some things fell through the cracks” – particularly, he says, on the editing and publicity fronts. He adds, however, that he sees such problems as typical of large publishers in general. (Knopf representatives did not return calls from Q&Q.)

Following the break, Bissoondath called an old friend, Cormorant Books publisher Marc Côté, asking for advice on the relative merits of signing with an international company versus a Canadian house. Côté suggested several reasons why a Canadian house would be a better choice, and then said goodbye. “About twenty minutes later, I thought to myself, ‘What an idiot,’” says Côté. “I quickly wrote him a very polite letter saying, ‘Dear Neil, if you’re thinking about getting a Canadian publisher, could I at least be granted the opportunity to see the manuscript?’ Ten days later, I had a manuscript on my desk. I guess it’s safe to say the rest is history.”

That manuscript was Doing the Heart Good, the story of an elderly anglo-Canadian professor living in Montreal who re-examines his insular life after his house is burned in what turns out to be arson. The Unyielding Clamour of the Night is Bissoondath’s second book for Cormorant, and he has nothing but praise for his latest publisher. “I like working with an editor who helps me to improve my writing, and Marc has that ability,” he says. The author also feels that the smaller press has just as much to offer publicity-wise as a larger publisher. For all that, however, Doing the Heart Good’s performance was similar to that of The Worlds Within Her – it won the Hugh MacLennan Award for the best English book written in Quebec that year (Worlds had previously been a finalist), but the book’s profile remained relatively modest. Côté’s hopes for the new novel are clearly more aggressive.

***

It’s a typical irony that Bissoondath, one of the key Canadian writers to emerge from the mid-1980s boom in globally themed fiction, is perhaps best known in this country for a work of non-fiction that attacks official multiculturalism.

Selling Illusions, published in 1994, became something of a national phenomenon – it was dissected in newspaper editorials and on current affairs shows across the country, and was furiously attacked by multiculturalism advocates of all stripes (one of whom, on national television, called Bissoondath a “coconut” – brown on the outside, white on the inside).

Today, the author says he’s deeply weary of the entire subject. “On the one hand, it took me travelling across this country and seeing radio and TV studios that I never would have seen, and meeting countless people,” he admits. “But after two or three years I became dissatisfied. That kind of engagement requires a one-plus-two-equals-three attempt to explain human life, and I think that that’s not all there is, that kind of logic.”

He goes on to argue that fiction’s ability to get beyond such logic is its key strength, a strength that he believes arises directly from its focus on character. “Character, character, character,” the author says with almost militant conviction. “Without convincing, complex characters, a novel, no matter how much it fleshes out its social or political context, will not work as a novel.” He mentions Milan Kundera, Solzhenitsyn, and Tolstoy as examples of brilliant writers whose later work was compromised by their status as activist intellectuals. “I want to avoid that,” he concludes. “Fiction is too important.”

In fact, Bissoondath’s entire working method seems designed to circumvent the pitfall of didacticism. He writes without outlines or preconceived plans, and always starts out with images and characters rather than plots or theses. “For The Unyielding Clamour of the Night, the spark came at a dinner with my brother-in-law and his family,” he says. “He started talking about this old wooden prosthesis he’d had for decades in his garage that had belonged to his great-grandmother or something. For some reason, sitting there at the dinner table, it suddenly lit up in my mind.”

From this fragment, he began to imagine the character of Arun – a man born with a withered leg, a handicap that comes to symbolize other lacks. Surprisingly, it was only as the character of Arun began to take shape on the page that the Sri Lanka-like setting, and the subject of insurgency, became part of the story. “It wasn’t really a conscious decision,” says Bissoondath. “It was part of the baggage that Arun brought with him.”

He adds that he did little research, fearing that it might compromise, or “infect,” his story (which helps to explain why the author frequently sets his tales in fictional locales). He looked at photos of Sri Lanka to help with physical descriptions, and revisited Heart of Darkness, an obvious influence on the novel. As for the details of insurgency (and the book at times reads like a virtual catalogue of rebellions of past decades), Bissoondath says that he’s always been an eager student of current events, and that from his general reading he already had most of the information he needed to tell his story.

Another unusual aspect to this book’s composition – even for Bissoondath – was the first draft. “I found for some reason that I couldn’t sit down in my study at home where I normally write,” he says. “What I had to do was go outside, down to the shores of the St. Lawrence. Now, this is February, in Quebec City, so you can imagine that I’m surrounded by eight feet of snow. I cleared a table of snow, and sat on it, writing – and this thing just flowed out of me. It went on, very unusually, for days and days, and I found that by the end of it I had about a hundred handwritten pages. And the whole story was there.”

It’s an incongruous picture – the Trinidad-born Canadian writer, sitting in peaceful Quebec City in the middle of freezing winter, writing about a violent struggle in sweltering South Asian jungles.

***

This past April, Bissoondath turned 50, though you’d barely know it from his fit, youthful appearance – especially since he shaved off his Naipaulesque beard. Anne and teenage daughter Elyssa threw a surprise party for him, with old friends congregating from as far away as Turkey.

This year marks another milestone: the author has now been a resident of Quebec City for a full decade. “There’s something about Quebec City that speaks to me, on every level,” Bissoondath says, adding that he can’t explain why. He’d wanted to live there ever since his language teaching days, when a two-week visit to Anne turned into a nine-month sojourn. Now, he’s become a full-time instructor of creative writing at Université Laval – conducting his workshops entirely in French with francophone students.

Outside the academy, Bissoondath enjoys an equally unusual profile within Quebec society. A visible minority in a city with few immigrants, he’s well known on the Quebec cultural scene, and regularly writes articles for the francophone papers (his French is good enough that Quebeckers often assume he was raised bilingually).

The author doesn’t seem to be slowing down, either. He’s just about finished the follow-up to The Unyielding Clamour of the Night, a collection of stories and a novella titled Postcards from Hell. At the same time, he’s been outlining a new non-fiction project on Spain, a country he’s been in love with ever since he used the advance from his first book to visit friends there.

As for the upcoming publicity blitz for his latest novel, Bissoondath seems almost blasé. The Unyielding Clamour of the Night feels like Bissoondath’s most topical work since Selling Illusions, and after a summer in which major suicide bombings have been a painfully familiar presence on global newscasts, a restrained and nuanced portrayal of the motives of the bombers might be seen as provocative. “It’s a very brave book,” says Marc Côté, with a hint of nervousness.

But Bissoondath doesn’t seem to see it that way. His recent work may be particularly dark and troubling, but he’s been writing about personal strife and political violence for two decades now. “I’m told there may be some controversial aspects to some things in this novel,” he says. “But I just write what seems to me to be true and, well, we’ll see what happens.”

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