Where in Canada: Hands Like Trees

From the crowded marketplaces of Calcutta to a passenger train hugging a Nepalese mountainside to the Brampton, Ontario suburbs in the dead of winter, Sabyasachi Nag’s Hands Like Trees (Ronsdale Press) gives each place its fair due in this sumptuous linked collection of stories, all following various members of the Sen family of Shulut, India. In an essay below, Sabyasachi discusses place in literature, the treatment of place in his novel, and how Brampton is a “one-of-a-kind” place in the Greater Toronto Area.


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It is of course axiomatic that a well-told story would involve, other than the setting, a host of other elements, such as the psychology of characters; nuances of motivation, wounds, wants and conflict; different textures of tension –chronic and acute; scenes, sequences unravelling at different clip; plot (or non-plot) but some kind of narrative movement in linear or non-linear time; in curved, spiral or meandering arcs.

But the setting of the story and the places chosen for the narrative action to unfold – even though it looks no more useful than an exotic back cloth of a playhouse – is most often a critical decision central to the writer’s intention. The place often informs character choices, influences causation, determines the mood, style, tone and complexion of the conflict, even the nature of resolution. The setting is in a way that part of the story, the subtext, while not rendered in language, lends credence to what is said and evokes what’s unsayable.

In an insightful essay on the art of ‘staging’, American fiction writer and essayist, Charles Baxter pushes this argument even further with his suggestion that the ‘staging’ of a story is essential to any kind of behavioral mimesis. He says, “when objects and actions create a pathway to the spirit, to a character’s inner life, you are in the presence of “staging”. He then goes to define staging as “a balance between the concrete and the unutterable.”

But place in a story is not merely a map pin on the cork board or red bubble on a map. In the construction of “The Bridge” in Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion Toronto is a specific place – the specificity derives from the interplay between place and time – it’s specifically the Toronto of the 1930s (for the rendering of which Ondaatje had to spend several months researching the archives); in Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy the staging is not merely the capital city of Sri Lanka; the Sinhala-Tamil tensions in the novel unfolds specifically in the Colombo of the eighties; in Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, Rudy Sheldon and his gang of thugs are not in any Toronto; but specifically in a dystopian Toronto of the future. So, any reference to place in a story is incomplete without the context of time; setting is a marker in a map in time; that point in the fictional cartesian plane where the X of the geography meets the Y of temporality.

Stories become memorable in the context of the place in time and such places and times may exist only in the writer’s imagination. In The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood created Port Ticonderoga, a mythical mashup of small-town Ontario (Stratford, St Mary’s, Ellora and Paris) around late 1930s –the second world war was round the corner. These small Ontario towns, at that time, were home to a range of mills and manufacturing including the fabrication of buttons – the key to Chase family’s fortune. The other aspect of setting in the same novel is the great depression (that began in 1929 and ended in 1941) – a real event in history. We see the impact of the depression years on the character of Alex Thomas, a young communist writer, whose science fiction in the novel in a novel is derived admittedly from the pulp of the period – an example of imagination leaning on imagination for verisimilitude.

In my recently published cycle of stories, Hands Like Trees, the setting and places are so central to the validity of the narratives, exact place names along with the specific period in time are clearly spelled out for each of the nine stories way before the start of the narration. What is also revealed early are the voices of the narrators. Channeling Heraclitus’s famous aphorism about time (“We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not”) each story situated in specific places and times on the narrative cartesian plane, even when narrated by the same person, reveals a different character, a changed character. In this collection, place is not merely the meeting point of the map and the chronograph; places are meant to be more: the thermostat for the recording of the degrees of dispossession in “The Man and the Boy;” mirror reflecting the shifts in the protagonist’s self-image in “Pumpkin Flowers;” the third driver of causation (along character, situation/ plot) in “The Blue Skies of Stoney Creek” and as the playhouse for the spoken, unspoken and the unspeakable family secrets in “Sisters.” 

Photo by Hashem Al-Hebshi on Unsplash

Intersecting stories staged in strange places – ‘the elsewhere’ – are four pieces staged here, in places that are closer and excruciatingly palpable – in the various subdivisions of Brampton, Ontario. In contemporary Canadian fiction, we haven’t seen of Brampton as a story-stage as much as we have of Toronto. For over twenty years I have lived in the borders of Brampton. It’s a city known for its ethnic diversity, with a South Asian twist so intense, that it becomes mandatory to compare it with Leicester and Southall in the United Kingdom, Jackson Heights in New York, Edison in New Jersey, Fremont in California and Surrey in British Columbia (to name a few). In my experience, the increasingly sectioned neighbourhoods of Brampton, built on acres after acres of claimed farmland, on the trail of the slow but certain flight of the longer time (non-South Asian) residents, present both a mirror and a compass. It’s a reflection (as unique and similar as all the places of the universe tagged as Little India) and a distinct marker on the many invisible and co-habiting maps of belonging and identity.

You just have to visit the schools and hospitals, malls and parks, groceries and banks to get a feel of the place that Brampton is – tightly integrated like the ellipsoidal bulbs of the jackfruit; replete with branchy but invisible support networks similar to the arms of underground rivers – it is possessed of a distinct sense of belonging that often results in unique expressions of art, graffiti, politics and empowerment. Walk along the promenades anytime of the day and you will chance on a community so ethnically attired you are bound to feel transported; walk into the barber’s and you will be in the earshot of languages you hear in the South Asian subcontinent; walk into the libraries and you will find shelves after shelves of diasporic literatures in mother languages. All of this makes Brampton one of a kind in the entire Greater Toronto Area, a crucible of South Asian toing and froing so peculiarly evocative of India, it is the almost- elsewhere- home; not a mirror-image; but a reflection. The urge to stage diasporic stories about South Asian characters in this place, was for me, nothing less that an artistic compulsion. The characters in the pieces staged in Brampton – even though they are Bengali (and argumentative and urgently emotional) – are products of the place.

In creating a sense of place in this collection, I have relied on the senses (the look of beard dyed the colour of washed turmeric); arrangement of fittings and furniture (half of a living room partitioned with plexiglass); usage of accessories and things (closet converted into a shrine containing idols – made from mud, glass, wood – with silk tassels fluttering on velvet pad cushions). I have relied on the texture and taste of food (pan fried in mustard oil); sound (of prayer from a portable stereo; or the calls of cotton fluffers and key makers); smell (of cologne like leather); I have also relied on patterns of speech to evoke a vocal mimesis.

Cultural dissonance in intergenerational diasporic families is at the core of this collection representing voices that span three generations, colliding in their quest for purpose, identity, and place in the community. Place in this collection is not the passive background, but often acts as a key element of plot (not just the stage but character) evidenced in one of the early pieces ‘staged’ on a train (in the middle of nowhere and somewhere) where the narrative involves a conflict around the dispossession of place, and is layered with another subtext in the narrative voice of a protagonist aware of his own alienation (and hence dispossession) from the place where he was born and once belonged. That said, not every story in the collection is situated in Brampton, nor every story is about a place, but Brampton acts a metaphor, and the stories cannot be removed from the Brampton in which they have been staged.

Sabyasachi Nag is the author of Uncharted (Mansfield Press, 2021) and two collections of poetry. His work has appeared in Black Fox Literary, Canadian Literature, Grain, The Antigonish Review, and The Dalhousie Review. He is a graduate of the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University and the Humber School for Writers. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of BC and the craft editor at The Artisanal Writer. He was born in Calcutta and lives in Mississauga, ON. www.sachiwrites.com

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