Tuesday, November 01, 2011

"Clark Blaise Maps the Indo-American Experience"

The following interview ran in The National Post this morning. Thanks to Jason Rehel. Keep your fingers crossed for Clark tonight at the Writers' Trust Gala, where the winner of this year's fiction prize will be announced.
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Clark Blaise is a border-crosser.

In life, Blaise moved between Fargo, N.D., where he was born to Canadian parents, Montreal, Iowa City, Toronto, Calcutta, Delhi and San Francisco, among other cities. In his literary output, Blaise flits across even more divides, between generations and races, regional boundaries within nation states — even the boundary between corporeal solidity and spiritual boundlessness. So it’s no surprise that Margaret Atwood’s blurb on his latest book, The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis, $19.95), calls Blaise a “master border-crosser.”

“Borders themselves are very close to the short-story form,” Blaise says in an interview in Toronto during the recent International Festival of Authors. “They compress, they keep things within a tight structure. And I think maybe I am more comfortable in the short story form than the novel. In the short story, the boundaries are pretty well defined and you have to stay within them. And I enjoy that compression, where everything counts, every act has a consequence. And the consequences of any action in a short story are manifest, especially if you’re a sensitive reader.”

The Meagre Tarmac is a collection of 11 stories, some grouped, as the first three are, into mini-narratives — all concerning the sutures and broken seams of Indo-American families who’ve immigrated to the United States in the 1970s in search of prosperity amid burgeoning technological innovation in northern California. There’s the patriarch who, because of personal shame related to a sexual dalliance before his wife and son arrived in the U.S., is tearing apart his family 16 years later by insisting on a move back to India. It’s a story told arrestingly from the father’s, mother’s and most jarringly by a 13-year-old daughter, Pramila’s perspectives.

“It used to be called among Indian immigrants ‘12 and out.’ When your daughter reaches 12, if you don’t take her back to India, you’ve lost her,” Blaise says. “But those people who didn’t go back, their children are doing what North American children do; they break away from their family, they don’t want to go back and live with their parents and they don’t want to have their parents come to live with them. But that’s the way it is in India. That’s the overriding arc of this book — that they prospered here, but they can’t stay.”

Later in the book, another male household head recounts spending his $250,000 dot-com bonus saving an uncle back in Calcutta, losing his immediate family back in the U.S. in the process. We revisit him six years later in the very next story, wandering and lonely, after recognizing his own folly during a sojourn in Tuscany.

Finally, the collection closes with a successful executive who’s played the North American game successfully, accumulated vast wealth and a network of friends and acquaintances, even embracing the ephemera of American cultural life, only to give it all up while yearning for “Old Calcutta.”

“These people are missing one thing in life, and that is that India could prepare them for success in America, but it could not prepare them for happiness in America, personal satisfactions, sexual gratification, marriage,” Blaise says. “Those were all to be given by parents. Arranged, and maybe love would follow, maybe it wouldn’t. All the men are, in some way, failed as fathers, husbands, lovers. They are all looking for something.”

Blaise, 71, resides now in San Francisco with his wife, writer Bharati Mukherjee, a tenured faculty member at Berkeley. They’ve been married since 1964, and have two sons. Until the recent California budget crisis, Blaise was himself teaching at Berkeley as an adjunct professor in creative writing, after a distinguished academic career that included an eight-year stint as director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2009 for his contributions to writing and scholarship, and for founding Concordia University’s creative writing program in the late 1960s, Blaise is now widely considered to be one of the foremost practitioners of the short-story form. With The Meagre Tarmac, which is shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, due to be announced in Toronto Nov. 1, even he, while being quite modest about it, feels he’s reached a new level.

“In this book, I had in my life for the first time the experience of being a director. It was like having actors milling around the wings waiting for their cue to come on. Most of the times you have to methodically grind it out. ‘What would she say now? What would he do now?’ This time, they all came with a backstory.

“Of course, I also have 50 years experience with Indo-Americans and Indo-Canadians, struggling here, and not struggling, maybe even succeeding here,” he says. “And I’ve seen many happy families, but you know, as Tolstoy said, you don’t write about them.”

It’s in the interplay between events, deeds, thoughts and dialogue between family members being ripped apart by the stressors of immigration that Blaise tells a heartbreaking group of stories almost all concerned about loss, estrangement, heart ache and alienation. In the end, the master border-crosser doesn’t seek to make any political points about assimilation vs. ethno-diversity; his stories, affairs of the heart, especially as they cross thick, irreversible borders, prove to be far messier, and far more human in scope and interest.

“The dream of immigration, I suppose, is to find yourself at home in a new place. All of them [the characters in The Meagre Tarmac] find themselves successful in this new place, but it’s missing something,” he says. “They didn’t have the Archie and Veronica moments: making out in the back seat of a car, the songs, the movies, the sports. They didn’t have all the things that make North America North America.

“They didn’t have the trivia. And you can never catch up with the trivia. You can integrate the great ideas, but you can never integrate the trivia.”

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