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Bissoondath, Neil 1955- (Neil Devindra Bissoondath)

Bissoondath, Neil 1955- (Neil Devindra Bissoondath)

PERSONAL:

Born April 19, 1955, in Arima, Trinidad; immigrated to Canada, 1973; son of Crisen (in business) and Sati (a teacher) Bissoondath; partner of Anne Marcoux (a medical ethics lawyer); children: Elyssa. Education: York University, B.A., 1977.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. Agent—Gillon Aitken, Gillon Aitken Associates, 18-21 Cavaye Place, London SW10 9PT, England.

CAREER:

Inlingua School of Languages, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, teacher of English and French, 1977-80; Language Workshop, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, teacher of English and French, 1980-85; writer.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Gordon Montador Award for Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada; nominee, Governor General's Award, 1998, for The Worlds within Her.

WRITINGS:

Digging Up the Mountains (stories), Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1985, Viking (New York, NY), 1986.

A Casual Brutality (novel), Macmillan of Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1988, Clarkson N. Potter (New York, NY), 1989.

On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows (stories), Lester & Orpen Dennys (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1990, Clarkson N. Potter (New York, NY), 1991.

The Innocence of Age (novel), Knopf Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1992.

Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994, revised and updated edition, 2002.

(Contributor) If You Love This Country: Fifteen Voices for a Unified Canada (bilingual English/French), Penguin Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1995.

The Worlds within Her (novel), Knopf Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1998.

Doing the Heart Good (novel), Cormorant Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.

The Unyielding Clamour of the Night (novel), Cormorant Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2005, published as The Unyielding Clamor of the Night: A Novel, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to periodicals, including Idler and Saturday Night.

SIDELIGHTS:

Neil Bissoondath is a Trinidadian-born Canadian writer who has won great acclaim for his fiction. His first book, Digging Up the Mountains, is a short story collection marked by the author's frequent exploration of exile and domestic upheaval. John Gross noted in the New York Times that in Bissoondath's collection, "the vision of universal uprooting is one to which all [these] stories tend: they are stories of exile, estrangement, dislocations great and small." Such concerns are, perhaps, most explicit in the collection's title tale, wherein a Caribbean businessman longs to spend his final years quietly at home even as the tranquility of his surroundings is undone by political corruption and violence. Another tale, "Continental Drift," details the dismal plight of European migrant workers in France, while "Dancing" concerns a socially aspiring Trinidadian woman's culture shock when she joins relatives in Canada. A more grueling perspective on immigrants in Canada is provided in "Veins Visible," in which a hapless hero endures an arduous winter even as his fellow immigrants expire or succumb to the despair of loneliness. Bob Shacochis, writing in the Washington Post Book World, found this tale "alarmingly prophetic."

Digging Up the Mountains earned considerable praise upon its publication in the mid-1980s. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Hanif Kureishi described the collection as containing "superb short stories … alive with movement and flight, leaving and returning, insecurity and impermanence." Kureishi was particularly impressed with Bissoondath's "gift for mood and detail" and "his ability to create character and drama." Gross wrote of Bissoondath's "remarkable sureness of touch," while Shacochis noted the author's "psychological and historical insights" and his "fearless regard for complexity." Digging Up the Mountains, Shacochis concluded, is comprised of "powerfully compressed tales of distorted nationalism and cultural divorce."

Bissoondath followed Digging Up the Mountains with A Casual Brutality, a novel about social upheaval in the Caribbean Islands. The novel's hero is Raj Ramsingh, a Caribbean native who has received his physician's education and training in Canada, then returned—with his Canadian wife—to a homeland increasingly undone by political corruption and violence. Eventually, Ramsingh's own family falls victim to mayhem, whereupon he uneasily considers a life in exile.

In reviewing A Casual Brutality, some critics objected to the novel's slow narrative and its deep, dense prose. Richard Eder, for example, commented in the Los Angeles Times that "the quality of the writing … makes the book hard to get through." Caryn James similarly noted in the New York Times that Bissoondath occasionally "strains for poetic effects," although to James such a defect ultimately proves inconsequential before the novel's "astute" perceptions. James asserted that "few first novels have the depth and reach of A Casual Brutality, and fewer have the honesty to leave the character's major conflict in an ambivalent state."

In 1990's On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, Bissoondath further explores cultural alienation and exile. Jim Shepard, writing about this short story collection in the New York Times Book Review, favorably compared it to its predecessors and added: "In this … book the focus on the plight of the exile seems more persistent." Notable among the tales in the volume are "Security," in which a middle-aged expatriate weighs the emotional—and, thus, spiritual—consequences of forsaking his violent homeland for a dire, gloomy existence; and the title work, in which a refugee anxiously awaits his acceptance into Canada. In still other tales Bissoondath explores the criminally unsavory aspects of political corruption. "Kira and Anya," for instance, features a former dictator who may have authorized his own wife's death, while in "Things Best Forgotten" an old man confides that he long ago assisted in the execution of a present guest's relative. In her review of the volume for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Beverley Daurio described "Things Best Forgotten"; as "unflinching, and thought-provoking."

Bissoondath earned considerable attention for On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows. Shepard noted the book's "power," attributing it to "the reader's sense that these fictions will not let go of their subject until we have acknowledged a whole people's pain." Similarly, Firdus Kanga, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, felt that with On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows. "Bissoondath has kept the amazing promise" made with his earlier work.

Bissoondath's 1992 novel The Innocence of Age juxtaposes the very different lives of a father and son living in Toronto. Pasco is a lonely widow who despises his son's life and ideals, while son Danny is a self-involved yuppie who finds his father tiresome. The book introduces a number of other colorful characters, from Danny's realtor boss, the money-grubbing Mr. Simmons, to Sita, a mistreated illegal immigrant who lives in one of their buildings. Carole Giagrande, writing for Books in Canada, found this novel to be a "good, readable tale," and noted that the author "effectively conveys a sense of Danny's emptiness as a component of a larger, soulless, city." However, she also called The Innocence of Age "a book with a strangely engrossing mix of banality and wisdom."

In a break from novels and short stories, Bissoondath penned the 1994 nonfiction work Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, and published it to some controversy. As of 1971 multiculturalism had become government public policy in Canada. The policy states that citizens must strive to "support and encour- age various cultures and ethnic groups that give structure and vitality to our society." Bissoondath finds this policy distasteful and harmful. Because he is a person of color living under the rules of multiculturalism, he has unique insight into a policy common sense says he should embrace. According to Sandra Martin in Quill and Quire, the novelist argues that the government's policy "highlights our superficial differences and undermines our essential sameness. By encouraging us to stress our cultural differences, Bissoondath argues, multiculturalism promotes divisiveness rather than solidarity." Janice Kulyk Keefer wrote in Books in Canada that Bissoondath is encouraging a liberal and ancient individualism, but "never defines for us in any persuasive or significant manner just what it means to be pure ‘Canadian.’"

In his novel The Worlds within Her, Bissoondath creates a main character with a background similar to his own. Yasmin was born on a Caribbean island but is now a Canadian citizen. As the novel opens, she is returning to her homeland with her mother's ashes, in search of her own identity. Her marriage is falling apart, her young daughter is dead, and her father is virtually a stranger. When Yasmin gets back to her native country, she tries to extract answers to questions she has about her past from her aunt and uncle. Amanda Craig, reviewing The Worlds within Her for the London Times, found the novel "rich and thoughtful," and called it "a densely woven tapestry of past and present, families and societies."

Bissoondath's 2002 novel Doing the Heart Good is about a seventy-year-old professor. Alistair Mackenzie has lost his home to a fire and must stay with his daughter. He begins to reflect on his life and those he loves, including his wife, who cannot tolerate him, his sister, now stricken with Alzheimer's disease, and his dead brother. A reviewer for the London Sunday Times called this sentimental tale "ingenious and affecting."

Bissoondath explores postcolonial South Asia in his 2005 novel, The Unyielding Clamor of the Night: A Novel. Here the author presents an idealistic protagonist, twenty-one-year-old Arun, who foregoes his easy life of wealth in a northern city of a South Asian island (resembling Sri Lanka) to teach in a depressed coastal town. Caught between the local rebels and the authoritarian oppression of the police, Arun attempts to steer a middle path for the sake of the villagers. However, he ultimately learns that he has more in common with these poor people and with the insurgents than he does with life in the more prosperous north. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Max Winter praised Bissoondath's "fluid, unassuming style," which in part lends this novel an air of "tragic complexity." A Publishers Weekly contributor felt the novel "has the power to haunt," and a Kirkus Reviews critic concluded that Bissoondath "deserves a wider U.S. readership." Similarly, Hanna Tucker of Entertainment Weekly observed: "Bissoondath can be overly verbose, but his message is terse and powerful."

Bissoondath once told CA: "I write mainly from my obsession about exile and restlessness. I attempt to tell people's stories, try to understand their fears and motivations, but avoiding easy sentimentalism. While some of my writing is ‘Third World,’ my interests extend beyond this to Canada and Europe, especially Spain."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

PERIODICALS

Americas, July, 2001, Celia Sankar, "Author of His Own Destiny," p. 46.

Booklist, April 15, 2006, Carol Haggas, review of The Unyielding Clamor of the Night: A Novel, p. 26.

Books in Canada, February, 1993, Carole Giagrande, review of The Innocence of Age, pp. 43-44; November, 1994, Janice Kulyk Keefer, review of Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, pp. 32-33.

California Bookwatch, October, 2006, review of The Unyielding Clamor of the Night.

Canadian Literature, winter, 1996, Marilyn Iwama, review of Selling Illusions, p. 171.

Entertainment Weekly, August 11, 2007, Hannah Tucker, review of The Unyielding Clamor of the Night, p. 73.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), October 13, 1990, Beverley Daurio, review of On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2006, review of The Unyielding Clamor of the Night, p. 477.

Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1989, Richard Eder, review of A Casual Brutality.

Maclean's, November 23, 1992, Joe Chidley, review of The Age of Innocence, p. 65; October 24, 1994, Charles Gordon, "In Search of Canada," p. 11.

Mosaic, September, 1996, Noreen Golfman, review of Selling Illusions, p. 171.

New York Times, August 29, 1986, John Gross, review of Digging Up the Mountains, p. 19; February 4, 1989, Caryn James, review of A Casual Brutality, p. 16.

New York Times Book Review, August 17, 1986, Hanif Kureishi, review of Digging Up the Mountains, p. 10; February 22, 1989, review of A Casual Brutality, pp. 14-15; May 26, 1991, Jim Shepard, review of On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, pp. 3, 14; October 1, 2006, Max Winter, review of The Unyielding Clamor of the Night, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, January 6, 1989, review of A Casual Brutality, pp. 79-80; March 27, 2006, review of The Unyielding Clamor of the Night, p. 51.

Quill and Quire, November, 1994, Sandra Martin, review of Selling Illusions, p. 27; September, 2005, Nicholas Dinka, "Hard Questions: Neil Bissoondath Takes on a Controversial Subject in His Timely New Novel."

Research in African Literature, winter, 1997, Jean-François Fourny, review of Selling Illusions, p. 142.

Sunday Guardian (London, England), February 25, 2001, Celia Sankar, "Neil Bissoondath: Hungering for an Imperfect Homeland," p. 7.

Sunday Times (London, England), March 31, 2002, review of Doing the Heart Good, p. 45.

Times (London, England), January 29, 2000, Amanda Craig, review of The Worlds within Her, p. 22; March 17, 2001, Eve Peasnall, review of The Worlds within Her, p. 22.

Times Literary Supplement, November 23-29, 1990, Firdus Kanga, review of On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, p. 1271; March 15, 2002, Jonathan Keates, review of Doing the Heart Good, p. 23.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 26, 1989, review of A Casual Brutality, p. 7.

Washington Post Book World, October 19, 1986, Bob Shacochis, review of Digging Up the Mountains, p. 6; January 22, 1989, review of A Casual Brutality, p. 4.

ONLINE

National Library and Information System Authority of Trinidad and Tobago Web site,http://www.nalis.gov.tt/ (January 22, 2007), Celia Sankar, "Neil Bissoondath: Hungering for an Imperfect Homeland."

Ukula.com,http://www.ukula.com/ (January 22, 2007), "Surprise Visits: An Interview with Neil Bissoondath."

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