Toronto Journal

The Post Colonial Journey of Arun Prabha Mukherjee

There are writers who create fiction by viewing the post-colonial world in the perception of their own experiences, and then there are the scholars who study the perspective of these writers and create Post Colonial Literary theory.
Arun Prabha Mukherjee is a Canadian scholar, well known for her work in Post-Colonial and Diaspora theory. She was born in Lahore and came to Canada from India in 1971 as a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Regina. An Associate Professor of English at York University in Toronto, she is the author of The Gospel of Wealth in the American Novel: The Rhetoric of Dreiser and His Contemporaries (1987), Towards an Aesthetic of Opposition: Essays on Literature, Criticism and Cultural Imperialism (1988), and numerous articles on postcolonial literatures, women's writing and critical theory. Her works also include Oppositional Aesthetics: Readings from a Hyphenated Space (TSAR: 1995), and Postcolonialism: My Living (TSAR: 1998). She has edited and written the Introduction of Sharing Our Experience (Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women: 1993), an anthology of autobiographical writings by aboriginal women and women of colour. She is a member of York Stories Editorial Collective which edited York Stories: Women in Higher Education(TSAR: 2000). Her translation of Dalit writer Omprakash Valmiki's autobiography Joothan: A Dalit's Life (Samya: Kolkata & Columbia U Press: 2003) won the New India Foundation Prize for "the finest book published in India during 2002-2003." Her translation of Dalit writer Sharan Kumar Limbale's novel, Hindu, will be published by Samya in 2008.
Arun didi is an old acquaintance of my husband from Regina, Saskatchewan, a North Western province of Canada where both of them had attended Regina University in the mid-seventies. Regina is one of the coldest places in Canada where the temperature falls to 40 degrees Centigrade in the winter. In those days, there were hardly any Bengalis in this part of the world, so everyone knew each other. My husband ran into her again after twenty years in downtown Toronto, came home and spoke glowingly of her, saying, "I met an old friend from Regina - she is Bengali, you know - you must invite her over. I just know that you will really enjoy her company!" So after playing e-mail and phone tag with Arun didi for a couple of months, we found time to meet her at her house in Toronto. Her house was quite artistically done and I noticed an armful of books in every corner. The wall of the staircase shone with light reflected from the cozy family photographs. A neighbour's cat curled up in the corner of an armchair opened its eyes haughtily at us as we entered and then decided to continue with the mid-afternoon nap. I also noticed a hookah (to my great delight) in the corner. Didi gave us a welcome cup of tea (it was freezing outside) and some Indian snacks and we settled down to talk. I had asked her beforehand if I could do an informal interview and this followed…the Postcolonial journey of Arun Prabha Mukherjee in, more or less, her own words.
SJ: Could you tell me a little of your early life in India and the various influences?
APM: Well, I was born in Lahore, Pakistan (before Partition) and later we moved to Madhya Pradesh where I had my schooling and then went to the University of Saugar, India. The small town Kamgarh where I was growing up was a rather backwater place where the education of a women was not considered an important priority. I suppose, my early influences were my parents. My father was a lawyer and my mother was a high school principal and they always encouraged me to seek a higher education. They believed that I should have a university education and I was motivated to do well by their attitude.
SJ: On reaching Canada, what was your first reaction to snow?
APM: Well, I had seen snow in Simla in India, so I was not very surprised. As I was on a Commonwealth scholarship, I was well prepared and well received and found accommodations very comfortable. No, I believe that I was quite set and did not find the snow daunting in any way.
SJ: What was the topic of your PhD?
APM: It was titled 'The Gospel of Wealth in the American Novel'.
SJ: How would you comment on the Canadian multiculturalism and the notion of the Canadian mosaic? And how does this differ from the concept of the American melting pot?
APM: Well, the Canadian mosaic model is very different from the concept of the American melting pot. In Canada, we are encouraged to keep our different ethnic identities, the message being that in diversity lays our strength. On the other hand, in America, new immigrants are encouraged to lose their individual identities and become one national melting pot. Does this work? As ethic minorities and identities are on the rise in North America, both these concepts are being stretched. Of course, as a result, Diaspora literature and studies is flourishing!
SJ: We have noticed an increase in the Canadian Arts Councils grants to artists and writers of non-white backgrounds. Is this about time?
APM: Of course! This move is a redress to past grievances, to see ethnic writers as "the Other". There are also new publishing houses in Canada such as TSAR publishing (established by the writer MG Vassanji) which takes an interest in promoting ethic writers. Things are definitely in the favor of the ethnic writer!
SJ: Could you comment on the effects of globalization on the state of the celebrity South Asian writer?
APM: Well, this is a huge phenomenon. The South Asian writer has a target potential of 20 million readers worldwide. The strength of the Diaspora community is immense and they want to read something that belongs to them. They want a writer who is reflective of their ways, their thoughts.
SJ: Didi, one last question, do you see yourself writing a memoir someday?
APM (with a little laugh): Perhaps, after retirement. I am very busy now with so many projects and my graduate students.

Sayeeda Jaigirdar lives, writes and teaches in Toronto


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