Culture

On that Question, ‘Where Are You From?’

In his latest work, novelist David Chariandy shares his own story with his daughter. See him Oct. 19 at the Vancouver Writers Fest.

By David Chariandy 9 Oct 2018 | TheTyee.ca

David Chariandy is a Canadian writer based in Vancouver. He won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2017 for his novel Brother.

[Editor’s note: The Tyee is pleased to share this excerpt from “I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You: A Letter to My Daughter,” published by Penguin RandomHouse. Author David Chariandy will appear at the Vancouver Writers Fest in the event “Something To Talk About,” on Friday, Oct. 19 at 10 a.m. With Randy Boyagoda and Jael Richardson, he will discuss how to talk to children about race — and balance the hard truths of history with the sense of possibility that each child should lead their lives with. You can find tickets here. In sharing with his daughter his own story, Chariandy hopes to help cultivate within her a sense of identity and responsibility that balances the painful truths of the past and present with hopeful possibilities for the future.]

“Where are you from?” is a question I’ve been asked throughout my life, and most often by those who have been born and raised in Canada. I was asked it fairly recently, when we were together at the beach. As you know, I’m not a big fan of beaches or beach life. It’s just not my thing, not really in my DNA, I’m tempted to explain, although it’s true, people sometimes remind me, that both my parents are from the Caribbean. But it was one of those summer days in Vancouver when the damp and chill seem permanently banished, and the sky turns hot blue, and even I cannot help but be lured towards the sand and ocean. We had arranged to meet friends, but I ended up speaking with a friend of a friend, someone who quickly informed me that he worked in finance and now lived most of his time abroad. “But I was born and raised here,” he asserted, before looking out onto the ocean and shaking his head.

“Things are changing,” he told me. “This country is changing. It’s just not like it used to be even 20 years ago.” He was not Indigenous, and so not someone who might hold a much deeper and more painful sense of change. He was not Asian, and so not someone historically targeted when white Vancouverites voice anxieties about change. I remember looking out at the ocean, focusing on the line where the distinct blues of sky and water met until I heard the question, “Now, where did you say you’re from again?” I explained, for the first time, that I had been living in this city for over a decade, but that I had been born and raised in Toronto. “No,” said my beach companion, smiling. “Where are you really from?”

When I was little, I had a way of speaking that suggested to many that I was not really from Canada. The truth, however, was that I’d absorbed the Trinidadian accent of my parents, giving me a singing cadence and an inability, or else the unwillingness, to pronounce certain sounds. I remember how a primary school teacher noticed this, and how she booked me sessions with an in-school speech therapist. I remember one day leaving class under the watchful eyes of the other students and then waiting in an unusually cold office for the first session to begin.

The speech therapist turned out to be kind, eager to help children like me say the right things the right way. On the first day, she pulled her chair close. She leaned her face in even closer to demonstrate a particular sound. “Thhhh…,” she hissed at me, her tongue slightly out and pressed between her teeth. “Thhhank you,” she pronounced, “thhhhhhank you.” Her breath wasn’t good, and spit bubbled out between her teeth and worm-pink gums. It was the single most obscene thing I’d ever seen an adult do. I wouldn’t have felt any more confused and disgusted if the therapist had tried to teach me how to fart.

I did, in the end, learn how to pronounce “th.” Like others, I have made a concerted effort to speak in a way indistinguishable from other Canadians born here, although I do understand, of course, that many times it isn’t my voice or what I say with it, but the louder silence of my body that suggests to others I am from elsewhere. I do sometimes wonder if you, of a very different generation and upbringing than me, have had similar experiences. If even now a girl like you can be asked, “Where are you really from?” or that worse question: “What are you?”

Do you know, dearest daughter, that you also had a Trinidadian accent when you were younger? During your childhood, my parents helped raise you, and through this beautiful closeness you absorbed their way of speaking. You offered tanks. You gasped at the tought of seeing a tousand penguins. I considered your way of speaking a gift, the proud evidence of an experience I never enjoyed, since, being the child of a certain class and generation of immigrants, I’ve never felt the warmth and closeness of grandparents. But when I remarked with pride to my father, “She speaks like you,” he nodded gravely. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “She’ll grow out of it.”  [Tyee]

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