Bissoondath, Neil (Devindra) 1955-
BISSOONDATH, Neil (Devindra) 1955-
PERSONAL: Born April 19, 1955, in Trinidad, West Indies; immigrated to Canada, 1973; son of Crisen (in business) and Sati (a teacher; maiden name, Naipaul) Bissoondath. Education: York University, B.A., 1977.
ADDRESSES: Home—Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. Agent—c/o Lucinda Vardey Agency, 297 Seaton St., Toronto, Ontario M5A 2T6, Canada.
CAREER: Inlingua School of Languages, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, teacher of English and French, 1977-80; Language Workshop, Toronto, teacher of English and French, 1980-85; writer.
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, 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, 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: A Novel, Knopf Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1998.
Doing the Heart Good, Cormorant Books (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
Contributor to periodicals, including Idler and Saturday Night.
Author's works have been translated into French.
SIDELIGHTS: Neil Bissoondath is a Trinidad-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 Trinidad 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." Similarly, John Gross wrote in the New York Times of Bissoondath's "remarkable sureness of touch," while Bob Shacochis, in his appraisal for the Washington Post Book World, noted the author's "psychological and historical insights" and his "fearless regard for complexity." Digging Up the Mountains, Shacochis declared, 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 dense, rich prose. Richard Eder, for example, complained 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 that "In this … book the focus on the plight of the exile seems more persistent." Notable among the tales in this 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 for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Beverley Daurio described "Things Best Forgotten" as "unflinching, and thought-provoking."
Bissoondath was lauded considerably for On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows. Jim Shepard, in his New York Times Book Review assessment, 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." Jasper Rees, writing in the London Times, found Bissoondath's collection "affecting," and Firdus Kanga expressed similar satisfaction in the Times Literary Supplement. With On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, Kanga concluded, "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 stated that The Innocence of Age is "a book with a strangely engrossing mix of banality and wisdom."
In his novel The Worlds within Her, Bissoondath creates a main character with a similar background 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 Yasmin's father is virtually a stranger. When she returns 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 and is essentially the story of growing old. 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."
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 encourage 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. Sandra Martin in Quill and Quire explained that 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, a critic for Books in Canada criticized the book, saying 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'."
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:
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Americas, July, 2001, Celia Sankar, "Author of His Own Destiny," p. 46.
Books in Canada, February, 1993, pp. 43-44; November, 1994, pp. 32-33.
Callaloo, summer, 1990, p. 557.
Canadian Literature, spring, 1993, p. 146; winter, 1995, p. 127; winter, 1996, Marilyn Iwama, review of Selling Illusions, p. 171.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 20, 1985; August 7, 1985; October 13, 1990.
London Review of Books, June 19, 1986, pp. 19-20.
Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1989.
Maclean's, November 23, 1992, Joe Chidley, review of The Age of Innocence, p. 65; September 19, 1994, p. 59; 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, p. 19; February 4, 1989, p. 16.
New York Times Book Review, August 17, 1986, p. 10; February 22, 1989, pp. 14-15; May 26, 1991, pp. 3, 14.
Publishers Weekly, January 6, 1989, pp. 79-80.
Quill and Quire, March, 1985, p. 71; October, 1992,p. 20; November, 1994, p. 27.
Research in African Literature, winter, 1997, Jean-François Fourny, review of Selling Illusions, p. 142.
Saturday Night, October, 1994, pp. 11-22.
Spectator, December 1, 1990, pp. 48-49.
Sunday Telegraph, February 6, 2000.
Sunday Times (London, England), March 31, 2002,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,p. 1271; March 15, 2002, Jonathan Keates, review of Doing the Heart Good, p. 23.
Toronto Star, April 15, 1985; May 18, 1985.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 26, 1989, p. 7.
Washington Post Book World, October 19, 1986, p. 6; January 22, 1989, p. 4.*