Columns

White Curtains

Stephen Henighan

To tolerate people is to fail to engage with who they are and how they differ from you

During the power cut that paralyzed Ontario in August 2003, the residents of my townhouse condominium complex began talking to each other. It was an event that took me by surprise. Under normal circumstances, human interaction in our development is limited to someone reporting a neighbour to the condominium authorities for putting up curtains of a colour not permitted by regulations. (This means any colour other than white.) But, facing darkened apartments, darkened television screens, darkened stoves—a darkness that even pristine white curtains could not repel—we wandered out to sit on the hard cinder-block steps overlooking the parking lot. In the fading light we traded wild-eyed rumours about the power outage. People who habitually passed each other on the way to the mailbox without stopping to speak progressed from discussions about the power cut to stories of childhoods spent in countries where electrical power was a luxury. I was at the point of succumbing to the illusion that the mood of communal bonding might outlast the blackout when, all at once, conversation stopped.

My neighbour Dragoslav walked out to the patch of grass next to his parking spot carrying a small kerosene stove, a frying pan, some cooking implements and a steak. He sat down in the grass and coaxed a muted roaring from his stove. Crouched in the shadow of his high-fendered 1970s sedan, he began to fry the steak. The gush of kerosene and the sizzle of tenderloin carried across the parking lot. No one spoke. We did not look in Dragoslav’s direction and we did not comment on what he was doing. The Dragoslav we knew was a man who drove a second-hand car, lived with a woman who spoke less English than he did and walked his dog when he came home from work. The Dragoslav who was cooking in the grass next to the parking lot was a foreigner: a Yugoslav who had learned survival skills in a grisly war.

Contrary to custom, no one reported Dragoslav to the condominium authorities. We sat on the steps in the dusk, mute and embarrassed. All of us had arrived in Canada as immigrants (even though some, such as I, had been here since childhood). We were happy to talk about the countries in our pasts, but we were mortified to see one of our neighbours acting as though he were living in the past. It was normal to be an immigrant; it was unacceptable to act like one. As proven members of southern Ontario multicultural society, we knew how to respond to Dragoslav’s lurch into antediluvian behaviour: we tolerated him. We neither reproached Dragoslav nor approached him. We kept our distance and turned conversation to other subjects. When darkness fell, we all went back inside to sleep behind our white curtains. Two days later, when our television screens lighted up again, we stopped talking to each other.

In 1994 Neil Bissoondath published Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada. At the time I joined the chorus denouncing Bissoondath’s book as a silly right-wing tract. Since moving to southern Ontario, where the idea of multiculturalism is more dominant than in eastern Ontario or Quebec (my earlier Canadian residences), I have modified my view. There is silliness in Bissoondath’s book, but there is also wisdom. Bissoondath’s analysis of “tolerance,” the central tenet of Canadian multiculturalism, is particularly trenchant. Tolerance, Bissoondath writes, “requires not knowledge but wilful ignorance, a purposeful turning away from the accent, the skin colour, the crossed eyes, the large nose... Understanding, in contrast, requires effort, a far more difficult proposition, but may lead to acceptance.” To tolerate people is to fail to engage with who they are and how they differ from you. The fact that we define our multiculturalism in terms of tolerance may help to explain why it is so rare for Canadians who live in multicultural neighbourhoods to write multicultural novels.

According to an overprivileged globetrotter named Pico Iyer, Toronto is the global capital of cost-free multiculturalism. (Iyer bestows an honourable mention on Vancouver; he ignores Montreal.) Last winter, when I was invited to teach a “Topics in Canadian Literature” course for M.A. students, I assigned an article by Iyer in which he claims to find a laudatory shedding of cultural baggage in Canadian novels that disdain Canadian material. I was surprised (though, I’ll admit, not disappointed) that my students, whom I had expected to embrace this hymn of praise to the city where most of them had grown up, disliked Iyer’s vision of Toronto. They saw his omission of the ethnic retaining walls that channel daily interaction in urban Canada as superficial or naïve. Iyer’s article sparked a discussion of the students’ experience of cultural barriers: of how little they knew their neighbours; of the scant communication among the various cultural cliques present in student life; of all that Iyer overlooked; of the doctrine of tolerance that makes us turn away from the accent, the skin colour, the man who cooks in the parking lot.

The writer, of course, faces the danger that dramatizing cultural differences will descend into stereotyping. But the literary writer must take risks: must challenge and extend popular understanding, not just mimic the status quo. By averting their creative gaze from the cultural dissonance that clatters around us in the shopping malls of Mississauga, the ruelles of Montréal-Nord, the street corners of Winnipeg, the leaky condos of New Westminster, writers actually may contribute to prolonging a polite, latent racism. You do not overcome racism by avoiding the issue and changing the subject. Racism dissolves only when you ask the awkward, embarrassing question: do all Chinese women behave that way, do all Yugoslav men cook in parking lots? Until you voice this gut reaction, or, better yet, dramatize it in a scene, you cannot begin to question your own chauvinism. Such uncomfortable yet revealing moments abound in our daily lives. Our fiction could be feasting on them if fewer of our writers chose to sleep behind white curtains.

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Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan’s most recent novel is The World of After. Over the winter of 2022–23, Monica Santizo’s Spanish translation of Stephen’s novel The Path of the Jaguar will be published in Guatemala, and Stephen’s English translation of the Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel The Country of Toó will be published in North America. Read more of his work at stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHenighan.

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