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Lecture 9

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Department
English
Course
ENG215H1
Professor
Sarah Caskey
Semester
Summer

Description
June17_Lec9: June 17 Reconfiguring Identities Antanas Sileika, “The Man Who Read Voltaire” (386) David Bezmozgis, “The Second Strongest Man” (477) - Both stories are equally concerned with identity, and facets of immigrant experience, coming to new land, learning new language, establishing new connections - In “Simple Recipes” and “Squatter”, there was an exchange that any of these negotiations are NOT simple – the title “Simple Recipes” suggested how these undertakings are heartbreaking and difficult, bringing about not just change, but also disorientation and loss – and “Squatter” talks about the challenges of immigration and the feeling of “different”: the feeling at times that the adaptation might be too difficult to undertake – the stories today cover similar territory and ground - Both stories today are told from the perspective of the children, and they talk about the decisions of the family to come to Canada – the families gain a new life by immigrating to Canada, but we can see traces in the stories of the lives not just that they left, but the lives that they lost – and in both stories, we see the characters struggling in painful terms to come to terms with that loss - Immigration is not idealized, it has pains and loss (and these stories are conscious of those) - Through these young narrators, we see visions of the future, but also see the past that belongs to the parents - Mark and Dave are pulled towards the past and the present, even in the future, they settle in the new land with opportunity – they are caught between two worlds like Will in “Traplines”, like Sarosh in “Squatter” and Madeline Thien in “Simple Recipes”, who is caught between Malaysia and Canada = powerful motif in these short stories - MEMORY is important – the narrators don’t remember for themselves (necessarily) where their families came from, they are disconnected from those worlds, and the fears and trauma make up a part of these narratives “The Man Who Read Voltaire” (386) - Talks about Dave, the young narrator, and his experiences in coming to Canada - Place is important in this story – it’s not just Lithuania versus Canada, but also the projection of an idealized/mythologized US - “The story is about elsewhere and nowhere”, said the author – useful and insightful way of thinking about and framing the story - Think about the American Dream: it underwrites and influences Dave in the Man who Read Voltaire: his existence and life in Western Ontario, and his knowledge of his parent’s past in Lithuania, shapes his understanding of what it would be like not to live in Weston, but to live in America – think about the “American Dream”: what does it mean to you? What does it signify? - The American Dream is associated with OPPORTUNITY, and opportunity despite and regardless of where you come from, and where you are right now – there’s the faith of the conviction in the “American Dream” that if you try hard and apply yourself, you will have success – it carries the promise that there will be opportunities available to you in that American society, which you can apply yourself to - So it’s that conviction: if you work hard and follow the rules, you will be rewarded, and part of that reward is economic development: easier life financially for you and your family, and it has the notion of bettering and happier - 1931: The epic of America: The stock market crash in 1929, and the recession: Adams writes that in this history of the nation, the American dream for a better life for all its citizens is a great contribution that we have thought for the rest of the world – the belief that “tomorrow will be better than today” is not a new thing – but in that quote, lies the vernacular of the American Dream - You will continually confront notions of the American dream, relating to the economy, and what middle-class Americans expect in terms of opportunity - What is the Canadian Dream? Does the American dream include us? It has a specific American history and context – not just the phrase, but its spirit – so what is the Canadian Dream, and how does that change when imagined on Canadian soil and in Canadian culture? Those are questions important to Dave and his family in “the Man who Read Voltaire” - Dave and his family are recent immigrants from Lithuania (in the 1950s), the backdrop of WWII is recently behind them – Lithuania has a notable history: it was occupied by Germany in WWII, and it had one of the highest death rates of the Holocaust: 98% of Lithuania Jews were killed by the Nazis, and then the country was reoccupied by the Soviet Union – many immigrated to other countries like Canada - Dave’s family are not Jewish (Catholic instead) but they leave Lithuania to escape the Red Army (the Soviet Union army) - Dave’s family was part of the massive emigration: people removed from their country as a refugee or slave labourer - Consider the initial opposition that the author sets up between Canada and the US, and between Canada and Lithuania, and the values that they occupy: - Page 387: “Gerry and I were marooned on concrete porch… weren’t allowed to roll up our sleeves… neck sizes big enough to last 2 years… money again, that’s all you ever talk about… my father had stuffed his pipe, which marked the end of the conversation” - Dave and Gerry are MAROONED on the porch in long-sleeve shirts: powerful image evoked by the use of “marooned” = abandoned, alone, in an inaccessible place i.e. island: this is how Dave sees Western Ontario at this point – it’s not any place, it’s the nowhere – the “place of nowhere”: the place with no roots for Dave or his family - Some initial descriptions of his house and the location support this idea: 388: “… the rest of the street was being built up by contractors… the clipped green lawn of the neighbour’s was as good as a no trespassing sign… “ New place, being developed, but it has the marking of being “nowhere”: dust, newness – the Taylor house stands in opposition of this, and promises hope for a family like Dave that is pursuing this - Dave’s father has had to put the house together piece by piece, so that there are not divisions between the rooms, and only prior to the Uncle’s arrival does Dave’s father find enough lumber to put a door between the washrooms: their house is in progress, and it’s a good metaphor for their lives as well - So the Taylor house stands out, showing the promise of the new house - Notice that the construction workers don’t feel welcome to knock on the Taylor’s home, so it shows the economic barriers, and the barriers that immigrants feel in connecting with the government - Weston has its own unique dynamic related to Toronto: it’s in the shadow of Toronto, and in turn, Weston and Toronto are in the shadow of anything in America - Page 390, supporting the notion of nowhereness in Weston: “The dust… made me think of my home… I could always feel it between my collar and neck, especially now when wearing the tie” – there’s the suggestion of what the dust/haze could mean, the dust that affects Dave’s environments, changes the quality of the air, and changes what’s on his skin: it can be a metaphor for the settlement and the physical signs for the change and transition: new community is being built but the old one is being lost - The shirts don’t fit, like not fitting into the new place - The aunt and uncle are coming from Detroit, from the US – Dave and his brother, Gerry, idealize Detroit in particular: page 389: “We still did not have our citizenship, we could not hope to visit our uncle for years… we longed for America, that’s where life happened… it was the kind of place where a man in a cape could fly over a city, in Weston, a man in a cape would be arrested” – think of just how displaced Gerry and his family are: they don’t have their citizenship papers: they don’t firmly belong in Lithuania, they are in “nowhere space”, “on the bridge”, on their way to fully occupying their residency in Canada – they can’t travel, so stuck and stagnant - Dave thinks of America as where life happens, as if his life in Canada does not constitute “real life”, where his adolescence shows: real life consists of radios, candy bars, man in a cape flying over city: we have the sense that a young boy is telling the tale, not a mature one - Page 389: “Gerry’s teacher let him borrow the atlas… it’s so close on the map… everything’s close on the map… To California, where I stand on the beach and look over…” Dave, Gerry and the mother are participating on the mapping game: think of how they associate these places with the most stereotypical ideas: California, ocean; Florida, oranges – happy, idealized, unrealistic – they are making this travel (mapping it out with their fingers) as easy as if you could just walk: notice the tension and contrast between the ease in which they move to places and how hard it was for them to make the transition: remember the house being pieced together – all signs of effort and difficult put into this journey, and it’s a stark contrast to how easily they can move from one place to another - Then the father participates in this game, and his perspective is different: it contrasts the idealized notion of the brothers and mother: “You could go to Japan… to DP camp”: undercuts the idealized ideas of these places: making reference to displaced persons – DP camp = camps established after WWII, and he’s made a reference to Heroshima: August 6, 1945, 8:15am: US dropped an atomic bomb near the end of WWII on Heroshima, 69% of buildings destroyed in this act: it’s still seen as a controversial act to bomb a city with civilians in the city, especially using nuclear weaponry, known to be that destructive - So the father is not just undercutting the idealized and simple way the family is looking at the travel, he’s also complicating the idealized way of thinking of US and its foreign policy - There’s another reference in the story that’s consistent with this: how the author tries to complicate the author’s reading of the US: the stories of the bombing of Dresden (including the footnote): Page 391: “Your father and your uncle made a deal… they got caught in Dresden… we heard the war stories hundreds of times” – notice Dave’s indifference to his parents’ past, particularly their traumatic past, and this may be the luxury of youth: he does not face these traumas – many refugees were killed in Dresden, as a result of allied bombing - So it’s not just the US, it was the allied forces including Canada and Britain, so it complicates the singularly idealized view of the US in the story, and this is consistent with the viewpoint that the father always introduces - With their parents, their clothes, their perfume and cigarettes, the aunt and uncle are “no ordinary guests, but rather powerful and elusive”: the uncle impresses the boys with his car, buying their chocolate, speaking many languages, but especially, how he can subdue his brother (their father) – his father is seen as being strict and more realistic than his sons and wife, he’s seen as the “Old Man” by his sons for his strictness - On page 396, the uncle puts off the brother: “Go to sleep!” and it’s this act that totally impresses the sons: “At 9:30… my father came down… like drunks all of you… everyone go to bed.. he was taking control of the situation again… I won’t have this house turning into a house for drunkards… My uncle said “You go to bed yourself”… My father swayed as if he had been sucker punched… Gerry and I stared at each other in awe… The older brother who gets the word in… The Old Man must have been adopted, maybe he was raised by wolves… “ – so this is what ultimately impresses Dave and Gerry: notice the complete lack of awareness and sensitivity to their father’s background, and the way in which it has shaped his personality: his harshness and drunkenness: lots of drinking going on partly to anaesthetize the father, to alleviate the pains of immigration and leaving Lithuania, and the war times he discovered – the sons make up something else (“raised by wolves”) to account for his personality, and they are indifferent to the stories that psychologically explain why the father is the way he is - The boys realize that the uncle is an atheist, but he attends church for his brother: the Uncle pulls the boys aside and asks them to promise something: page 398: “When you get older, promise me you will read Voltaire… but wait until you are 21 before you do it” – so the associations with Voltaire: Voltaire was considered one of the symbols of French enlightenment: philosopher, advocated tolerance and acceptance, and humane approach of accepting diversity – what’s notable is that the boys’ father seems to be the opposite of Voltaire, and the emphasis on tolerance and acceptance: the father has rules that he strictly wants to enforce, but reading Voltaire is what the uncle recommends - Why wait until age 21? Because maybe in reading Voltaire, they will be so influenced and changed, so he wants them to be at the age to be independent enough so that they can act
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