Academic journal article ARIEL

"A Bruise Still Tender": David Chariandy's Soucouyant and Cultural Memory

Academic journal article ARIEL

"A Bruise Still Tender": David Chariandy's Soucouyant and Cultural Memory

Article excerpt

David Chariandy's highly acclaimed 2007 novel, Soucouyant, proclaims itself to be a "novel of forgetting." But it is also a novel of remembering, of personal and cultural acts of memory that define the book's second-generation Canadian protagonist. Soucouyant tells the story of a young man in 1980s Scarborough who returns to his mother Adele's home after a two-year absence. Adele suffers from early-onset dementia, an illness that the book suggests may have been triggered by the traumatic fire that she and her mother survived when she was a young child in Trinidad. As Chariandy explains in an interview with Kit Dobson, Adele's dementia

  enabled me to explore the fragility and endurance of cultural
  memory, and, most particularly, the challenge of cultural memory for
  a second-generation immigrant. Obviously, because Adele is now
  forgetting her past in Trinidad, the burden of memory is thrust upon
  her Canadian-born and raised son. ("Spirits" 813)

Chariandy's comments point to the particular relationship between cultural memory and a specifically second-generation subjectivity, a relationship troubled by the fact that the protagonist "doesn't have anything at all like absolute or infallible access to the past" (813). The very term "second generation" signifies a belatedness in relationship to the past and the diasporic moment. Chariandy goes on to ask "what ... might his mother's elsewhere past, uttered now in broken pieces, and in a language not entirely his, ultimately mean to him here and now, in apparently very different circumstances? What, indeed, might he owe to such an elsewhere past, really?" ("Spirits" 813).

The novel itself is a meditation on these difficult questions. Soucouyant demonstrates how second-generation Canadians often construct identities in the space between the dominating mythologies of multiple "homelands." In this article I show how the protagonist negotiates inherited and unwilled diasporic memories, recuperating them into personal narratives that serve to witness his mother's trauma and reinforce the bonds of familial belonging. These diasporic narratives are formed in tension with the troubled cultural legacies of the Canadian home, a tension that is at turns both damaging and creative. The "elsewhere past," in other words, does not remain in the broken pieces spoken by others, but is reformed by the second generation and incorporated into a complex new narrative of identity.

My analysis here centres upon the concept of "cultural memory" as Marianne Hirsch and Valerie Smith articulate it in a 2002 special issue of Signs on "Gender and Cultural Memory." Cultural memory is, for Hirsch and Smith, informed by what Paul Connerton calls "an act of transfer":

  an act in the present by which individuals and groups constitute
  their identities by recalling a shared past on the basis of common,
  and therefore often contested, norms, conventions, and practices.
  These transactions emerge out of a complex dynamic between past and
  present, individual and collective, public and private, recall and
  forgetting, power and powerlessness, history and myth, trauma and
  nostalgia, conscious and unconscious fears or desires. (5)

As an "act of transfer" cultural memory is central to the formation of identity in relationship to the group, whether family, nation, diasporic imaginary, or ethnic community. Cultural memory is not simply the same as public memory, but references the role of social relationships, including private family relationships, in the act of remembering. Cultural memory therefore has a particularly important role to play in the formation of second-generation identity, for those individuals whose earliest "acts of transfer," the shared past invoked by their parents, are dominated by other spaces, by various "elsewheres."

In Chariandy's novel, cultural memory is embodied by the image of the soucouyant, a Caribbean myth used to convey the "particular generational condition, a particular state of sensing but not really knowing one's origins, and, consequently, a particular process of exploring one's origins without easy recourse to official meanings or narratives" ("Spirits" 811). …

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