The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise — a guest post from Dorryce Smelts

A few weeks back, as the 2011 Giller Prize journey got underway, I sent a regular commenter here, Emily Luxor, a Chapters gift certificate so she could purchase a couple favorites — she picked The Meagre Tarmac and another short story collection, Michael Christie’s The Beggar’s Garden. She’s promised guest reviews of both — and I am posting them under her real name. Dorryce Smelts lives and works in Winnipeg where she reads extensively and works as a librarian, which gives her wonderful access to Canadian literature. Dorryce confesses a soft spot for short stories, and prefers them over novels, because in her life at present there just isn’t enough time to handle anything longer than a short story. One day she would even like to write one.

Here are her thoughts on a book that is one of my personal 2011 Giller favorites, a disappointing omission from the shortlist in my view.

In The Meagre Tarmac, Clark Blaise’s collection of short stories longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize, the reader is advised the stories are to be read in their original order. This is very good advice as Blaise has skilfully woven together the narratives of the lives of seemingly disparate individuals. Some threads interconnecting the characters are more tenuous than others, but just as meaningful and resonant, so that the stories, taken together, constitute a coherent whole.

In the first story triad, “The Sociology of Love”, “When She Was in her Prime” and “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real” we are welcomed into the intimate lives of Vivek Waldekar, his wife Krithika and their children. Blaise not only creates the environment of a successful Indian immigrant and his gifted children living in America, but also shows their heightened vulnerability, by virtue of their history of displacement, and past acts. Here, Blaise expertly combines the uniqueness of the Indo-American experience with the universality of the human condition, particularly as it relates to matters of the heart, and the particular and peculiar choices his characters are faced with. It is Vivek’s daughter Pramila, in the second story, who perceives the awful freight of her father’s past and who foretells the impact of her family’s return to India:

“I think I know what it was, back in that rented house in Palo Alto, when my father and Al Wong and the Parsi guy and my mother and the baby Beast were still in India. Al knows, Mitzi knows, my mother knows. He wants to go back to India because someone from his past, a woman perhaps, has suddenly come back. Some long shadow of shame has shaped our lives. It’s about him, not me, though I’m the one who will pay the price.”

In “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real”, we read the heartbreak of Vivek’s wife who revisits the painful experience of relocating to America through her present circumstance of having to sell her house and return to India, where Vivek has gone. Blaise shows his mastery of the cultural and social aspects of Indian life and the immigrant experience as well as his versatility in reflecting the voices of his characters with honesty and fullness of their own identities.

Blaise uses identity to further explore the conflicts between generations, as with Vivek and his daughter Pramila — who says she will kill herself if returning to India means she will be kept out of Stanford — and he uses it to good effect to show how living in America, or anywhere outside India, affects the good cultural intentions of displaced Indians who strive to obey their traditions, such as arranged marriages, or to fit in within the social strictures of their adopted societies.

In the couplet of stories, “Waiting for Romesh” and “Potsy and Pansy”, Chutt is a charming and successful Parsi banker facing an unmarried future. Again, Blaise underscores the vulnerability of a single male seeking marital union with someone who remotely interests him and who is conscious that his rejection of arranged matches (eight so far) not only threatens his happiness but also the survivability of Parsi society. Chutt, like Vivek Waldekar, balances the tension between honouring his family and heritage and the temptations his adopted society places in front of him.

Blaise also introduces the finer distinctions of individuals who not only have been displaced by emigrating from India but who experience dislocation and cultural disorientation in their own country. In “A Connie da Cunha Book” the titular character lives through the invasion of Goa as a young child, and undergoes a series of identity shifts throughout her life. In this story, Blaise highlights the chance occurrences that drive the direction of one’s life, even as much as the concrete choices that are planned or anticipated. “Life is a riotous fusion. She’d always suspected that important decisions are backed into, slid into and even on occasion stumbled over.”

The Meagre Tarmac exquisitely balances the elements of a short story collection by providing complete and distilled images of characters in conflict as well as the narrative and thematic linkages that allow this collection to be treated as novelistic. Whether the stories are read individually, in pairs or triplets, or consumed at a single sitting, it is a bold and humanistic venture into the lives and feelings of Indian immigrants.

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8 Responses to “The Meagre Tarmac, by Clark Blaise — a guest post from Dorryce Smelts”

  1. Deborah Serravalle Says:

    Dorryce,

    You’ve given me a distinct sense of the collection but I’m left wanting more. And that’s saying quite a bit, for as a rule I’m not a short story reader.

    After your reading your review, KFC’s initial comments come back to mind. Given the challenging subject matter and form, it does sound like a book that got short-changed on the short-list. But hey, I’m no Giller Shadow figure!

    Thanks for the riveting review.

  2. Dorryce Smelts Says:

    Deborah,

    Thanks for your comment. The Meagre Tarmac is an engrossing collection of stories and I think the best short stories do just what you say–leave the reader wanting more. I also wonder why it was left off the shortlist, and it occurred to me that the jury might have had problems with the appropriation of culture and voice, although I found Blaise was seamless in his descriptions and dialogue–it just wasn’t an issue. The fact that the collection has such a universal appeal simply won me over.

    And, a belated thanks to Kevin for posting my review and making it possible for me to do this. The knowledge and expertise on this blog is impressive, and I’m grateful to add a piece to the quilt, as it were.

    Cheers,
    Dorryce

    • Deborah Serravalle Says:

      Hey Dorryce, (and anyone else who want to chime in on this)

      I’m glad you brought up the issue of appropriation of culture and voice. What do you think of this? The first time I heard this concept was in an essay by Margaret Drabble and I was shocked.

      I question this concept because, as a writer I ‘appropriate’ all the time – culture, voice, gender, etc. If I can write in the voice of a gay male and do it well, who cares that I’m a straight female? No one I hope. It follows then, that if Clark Blaise has written in a voice and culture not his own – and has done it well – he should not be penalized. Pretend and fictionalize – ain’t that what we do?

      Of course, we’re making assumptions here regarding The Meagre Tarmac. But since you brought it up, I’d love to know your thoughts.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Dorryce: You piece of the quilt is both welcome and valuable. I’ll take credit for opening discussion on this blog — the real value comes when others weigh in.

  4. Dorryce Smelts Says:

    Hi Deborah,

    I also believe that if the writer can pull off an authentic characterization, voice and cultural surrounding in a story or novel, then what does it matter where the writer comes from? But I have also learned there is a larger debate out there about things like authenticity and authority — who has the necessary qualifications to talk about minorities, is a serious question among some, and the cultural sensitivities in minority groups is very real. The ‘experts’ seem to say that the authority resides with those who share the same language, particularly, or cultural background. This becomes less certain, I think, when distinct minority groups become part of more heterogeneous societies, such as in Canada when, it is assumed their language and traditions become mixed with more diverse ones.

    Philip Marchand in his review http://tinyurl.com/3o5pvup referred to the ‘literary felony’ of cultural and voice appropriation but said that Blaise was justified, since his results were successful, but the word ‘felony’ has a lingering effect.

    Other thoughts out there?

    Cheers,
    Dorryce

  5. alison Says:

    Dorryce:
    I very much enjoyed your review and have heard nothing but good things about this collection. I most definitely will pick it up.
    is there any comparison with Jumpha Lahiri, whose short stories were stunning? (I am thinking of the inter-generational conflict)\
    Yes, I have steered away from the appropriation of voice discussion, I tend to side with you but feel unqualified to make major statements
    I look forward to your thoughts on the beggar’s garden, am most curious about that collection

  6. Dorryce Smelts Says:

    Hi Alison,

    I really enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection too and the thing that struck me most about it, in comparison with The Meagre Tarmac is, Lahiri shows her Indo-American characters in rather stark contrast to their settings, emphasizing their cultural identities and ‘separateness’, whereas Blaise shows them as being more subtly blended into their environments–maybe more ‘Americanized’ or integrated. The intergenerational aspect is there, perhaps not as much conflict as comparison between generation’s expectations in a new setting. Hope this helps,

    Cheers,
    Dorryce

  7. Buried In Print Says:

    I’m disappointed, too, that this one didn’t make the shortlist. But, on the other hand, very grateful that it made the longlist. And much of his backlist is now on my TBR list, thanks to my having so enjoyed this collection.

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