To an immigrant Canadian, such questions are really very tough to comprehend: “Which are the best novels in Canadian literature” or “Who are the most celebrated poets of the country?” or “Who are the most loved Canadian memoirists?” or, “Which playwrights overwhelmed the nation?” How is an immigrant supposed to know who the First Nation major authors are of Canada? It is not that easy to cope up with a new literature in a very short time. More than that, Canadian literature, though written in English, is possibly not on any curriculum outside Canada. So, when Canada becomes one's own land, it becomes challenging to merge with it, and also to dive into its literature. Same thing happened to me, an enthusiast of Bengali literature, when I first came to Canada.
Before leaving for the North American city in 2013, we only knew some names of Canadian fictionists. The names of the Canadian fiction writers that we came across back home included Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry and Yann Martel. The South Asian connections of the earlier two and Life of Pi, set in sub-continent context were possibly the components that caused some sort of interest in me and in many like us. The international reputation of Carol Shields or Margaret Atwood might climb the reading table of a Bengali reader, too. But how frequent was that? Or, before the 2013 Nobel, how many Bengali readers and writers were truly acquainted with the works of Alice Munro?
I was a more a man of novels than a man of literature, but knew little of the novel genre of my new land! I cannot think of trying at this post-fifty age. That is how the first two years of my life in Toronto passed by. By this time Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood had gained attention from the international audience. I dared to take a look at their books, but I dared not dive into their works. Hundreds of thousands books of Canadian writers are shelved in the one hundred branches of Toronto Public Library (TPL), but I could not reach out to them. In such a dissatisfactory and unhealthy status of mind, one day I did a tremendous job. I did not know beforehand that it was going to be tremendous. The tremendousness erupted through a stoutness of the mind!
After some two years of my stay in the new land, I had started working on Canadian literature. I started because, as a man of literature I could bear my ignorance no more. The plan grew in me in such a way that I had to do something which would eradicate the obstacles on my way to penetrate Canadian literature. More than that, I wanted to write on Canadian literature, or popularly known as CanLit. As there was almost nothing in Bengali on Canadian literature, this world full of assets started waving me from a distance. I knew CanLit was unknown to me and to millions like me. I knew well that my Bengali fellow mates were aware of the literatures of England and America and even that of Russia, France, or even Germany, but Canadian literature remained to them unknown.
With this view in mind, for about six months I had been browsing on Canadian literature, especially on novels. Like a college student, I started visiting the library and began to take notes. Alongside many other social and literary activities, I was secretly enjoying the discoveries of a mere boy in a new world. But It was difficult too because there were so many writers and I had no fore-knowledge about them. Then at last that sweetest morning came in my life that I, having no significant income at all, decided to buy a bunch of books. I decided so, because I knew if the books lie before me all the time, it would be easier on my part to befriend them.
In a weekend morning I decided to visit a nearby shop where used books are sold. Standing before the shelves of fictions, I began to look at the back flaps. After some one hour I found my basket full of Canadian books, mostly novels. Now was time to be selective. I picked the award-winning ones and found that the number was almost twenty. Only books, and books written by Canadian writers. I paid at the counter, took a TTC bus. Taking a seat at a quiet corner at the back, I brought out all the books one after another. My new life with CanLit had started.
For the next few days, my only job was to google the books/their writers, take notes, and ensure cross references. Most of the books I got were in better condition than the books of the public library. Returning home, I put them with much care on my bedside table. I often sniffed them life flowers in a bouquet.
Days passed by, but those days were not like the days previously passed when I had no knowledge on CanLit. Many new insights began to embellish me with many-faced branches of knowledge regarding the literature of my new country. I began to realise that I 'can,' and will, at one point, make it.
The collection that I have brought helped me a lot to start a new journey. It was not more than twenty in number, but it gave me enormous support to go forth. I read one or two books of an individual writer, but I studied him or her online as much as I could. Taking notes on them helped me develop my insight. I began to discover the thin invisible threads among them, connect those threads between the writers, and understand their status in the whole bulk of Canadian literature.
My thirst began to rise up, as is the general feature to put new steps. To speed up that journey, Nilima, my wife, accompanied me after some days. It was also a used bookshop. On my first visit to buy CanLit books, I was a clueless wanderer lost in a new land – almost no writers of the big shelves appeared known to me, almost no book seemed that known to me. But today, things had changed. Among the many writers shelved across the corners, I got myself acquainted with quite a many. On the previous day, only two hands were to carry, but this time four hands were ready to carry the goldmines. We carried them home, fondled them with much love, and caressed them with great care.
Now the big volumes began to glitter on my table. The glows overpowered me, my bedroom, my whole living place. The glow accompanied me all the time, all my hours and minutes, all my thoughts and moments.
Now I knew many great Canadian authors. The fat volumes by them began to give a happy feeling. But I started worrying as well. I knew I had to start. But how?
To make my way through CanLit, I began searching which books on the history of the Canadian literature were available in the TPL. Immediately I got some to enrich me, extend my horizon and to help me move forward. By now, I have been more aware about the early Canadian literary pieces, the individual development of Canadian English and Canadian French literatures, and the ages through which Canadian literature had survived, or more accurately put, thrived.
But I felt that my attachment with the library books on the history of Canadian literature would not have an impact as much as they should. I browsed those, underlined horrendously and returned them to the library with all my observation. If that was so, then certainly reading them for my own study would not contribute when I would need those. And so, I embarked on a new way of searching.
One day, while researching on the 'used books shops,' I got another one. As per my google search, I reached there in 30 minutes. It gave me many among which was a voluminous one of twelve-hundred pages. It was The Oxford Companion to Canadian literature. I did not know that such a book I would ever own on CanLit. I did not know such an extensively informative book would always be one of my best companions. And the truth is, I, a poor man in Toronto, could 'afford' such an invaluable work in reality at only 12 dollars. This copy at my home had empowered me to work more precisely, more devotedly and more meticulously.
Now I gradually got aware how the literatures in Canada started. How the different provinces came up with their own literatures and thus contributed to the bulk of Canadian literature, but mostly how French literature enriched the CanLit.
And consequently one year back I felt empowered to write a Bengali manuscript on Canadian literature. Now I feel blessed that my manuscript is in the process of being a book in near future.
Subrata Kumar Das, an immigrant Bangladeshi writer now living in Toronto, is the initiator of the website Bangladeshi Novels (http://en.bdnovels.org/).