Among the Fugitives: An Interview with Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan is a novelist, short-story writer, journalist, and professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Guelph. Most recently, he was written the novels The Path of the Jaguar (Thistledown Press, 2016) and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives (Linda Leith Publishing), which is available on March 25. Brad de Roo chatted with Stephen about multiculturalism, literary nepotism, satire, Victorianism, performativity, and cultural appropriation.

Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives follows the publication of The Path of the Jaguar by less than a year. While these novels strike quite different tones and employ distinct techniques, they share some central concerns. Do you notice much resonance between them? 

In fact, Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives was brought into the world by the reactions of publishers who were nervous about signing The Path of the Jaguar because they thought the book would be accused of the heinous crime of “voice appropriation” and their grants would be jeopardized. I felt I was being censored for being a gringo man who found it natural to write about a Mayan woman.  Since the only effective response to tyranny is laughter, I decided to write a short story satirizing the abuses of multiculturalism in the Canadian arts scene.  The short story grew into this novel about Mr. Singh.

9781988130309_cover_coverbookpage-v2For readers I suspect the major point of contact between the two books will be that they’re both about people who are struggling to define their place in the world.

The fact that these books were published less than six months apart also attests to the unevenness of the careers of writers who don’t have agents and big publishers to create an illusion of steady, regular production. It can take years to find a home for one book and the next one can be snapped up right away. This pattern mars my whole career—half a decade without a book is followed by three books in two years. It’s happened again and again over my writing life; it’s a testament to the literary-press writer’s constant struggle for survival.

Mr. Singh is deeply satirical. What brought you to satire here?

Bitterness, perhaps? I was pissed off with the dancing and weaving of publishers who told me that The Path of the Jaguar was good but that they couldn’t publish it.  I’ve written satirical journalism and essays, some of them about the CanLit scene, so once the novel began to focus on the arts and journalism in Canada it was almost inevitable that I would adopt a satirical voice.  I relish the fact that, even though my narrator is a person of colour, he ends up being accused of cultural appropriation.  The greater irony was that when I sent this book to a well-known Ontario publisher, I was told that it was funny but unpublishable. I was back in the same bind I’d faced with The Path of the Jaguar!  This is something else the two novels have in common: I was told both were unpublishable, which turned out to mean “unpublishable in Ontario.” Even if you live in Ontario—especially if you live in Ontario!—you may have to go to Saskatoon or Montreal to exercise your creative freedom.

Certainly there are nepotistic avenues to publication, if we are to believe your depictions of your protagonist RU Singh’s small-town Southern Ontario social circle. You weren’t tempted to jump on some influential boards to aid the publication process? All kidding aside, do you suppose there’s a greater respect for literary freedom in places like Saskatoon or Montreal?

Yes. Admittedly, I was able to publish The Path of the Jaguar with Thistledown Press because I have a relationship with the press that dates back to 1992.  They were willing to take a chance on a “controversial” novel when others weren’t.  And I’ve known Linda Leith since the late 1980s and she published my short climate change polemic, A Green Reef, in 2013.

Having recognized these facts, one must also recognize that a group-think mentality and a kneejerk obeisance to the cant of the moment is far stronger in southern Ontario than elsewhere  in Canada.   A society where everyone always agrees on what is the right and the wrong thing to say or write does not encourage striking out in new directions.  Northrop Frye described southern Ontario as, “one of the most brutally inarticulate communities in human history.”   This, like the region’s conformism, is a product of a long, obedient colonial history.  Saskatoon, by contrast, is a city that went its own way in the 1940s and gave Canada universal medical care; on the prairies going your own way isn’t necessarily apostasy. Montreal, where everyone is obliged to accept that some of their neighbours divide up the world along different lines than they do on an issue as basic as language, is more mature about differences of opinion than other Canadian cities.  I’m pleased to have benefited from the cultures of both cities. They were right, and southern Ontario was wrong.  In British Columbia last November, I read from The Path of the Jaguar to a couple of audiences that included First Nations students.  The Toronto consensus would say that shouldn’t have worked—but it worked well and elicited thoughtful questions.   

As for joining editorial boards to get my own work in print, I have attempted such things in the past, with a remarkable lack of success.  You can’t pretend to fit in if you don’t fit in.

Victorian culture permeates the novel’s satirical form. RU Singh is an avid reader of the period’s works and makes many references to its attitudes. Your chapter titles reference classics of Victorian literature. Are there particular human facets that the era elucidates that make it an attractive satirical lens?

I grew up in a household that was a strange mixture of Victorian England and hippie bohemia. There were always lots of Victorian novels to read, and I read many of them. Mr Singh Among the Fugitives is a pastiche of the Victorian novel in that it’s short rather than long, and employs the titles of Victorian novels with satirical intent. But it has the Victorian ambition of chronicling a society, except in this case it’s the outsider who is the chronicler.  The Victorian novel also provides an example of how to contain melodramatic events and eccentric characters within the frame of a literary novel, which turned out to be a useful lesson for this book. And many Victorian novels are about a young man’s efforts to rise in society, which is what RU attempts to do.

Are there facets of Canadian culture that are somewhat Victorian in your estimation?

Of course, that’s why southern Ontario is as it is. This country was created as a Victorian project. 1867, the year whose sesquicentennial we’re celebrating, was the height of the Victorian era. Canada’s birth is even a subplot in a Victorian novel: Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope, where the protagonist is elected to the British Parliament and has to work on the British North America Act.  The combination of generous altruism and complacent superiority that is central to Canada’s national character is an inheritance from the charitable-yet-haughty Victorians who founded our country and created our institutions.

This attempt at ‘complacent superiority’ is central to the colonialist project that also formed present-day Canada — a project that also shaped India, Mr. Singh’s country of origin. Did you choose your protagonist’s culture background with this history mostly in mind, or were there other, stronger reasons for specifying it?

Author Steve Henighan

Author Steve Henighan

Good fiction depends on specifics, so I certainly wanted to choose a definite home for my protagonist. My own acquaintance with Indians in graduate school made me realize that they see their country and ours as sharing a colonial history even though we may not think about it that way. But I think I chose an Indian protagonist out of an awareness of a certain strain of Indian English—probably eclipsed by now—that is heavily influenced by Victorian diction.  The novel began with Singh’s voice. Once I started writing, I realized that Singh could express all sorts of emotions and insights which I felt but had not found a way to articulate.

You come back to the idea a few times in the book that immigrants adopt certain cultural gestures because they are expedient and help them get by. Millicent Crowe neutralizes her Southern US accent to sound more Canadian in the academic administration world. Mr. Singh begins to wear a turban as a young student, because it seems to gain him a bit more respect and attention. Are you receptive to theories of cultural performativity — that culture is essentially performative, whether its gestures are projective or protective? 

Yes. If I understand those theories correctly, they grow out of gender theories such as those of Judith Butler, which posit that we “perform” our gender identifications. I’d say that we “perform” cultures and nationalities as well.  And, in a link between these two types of performance, it seems to me that how people act out their experience of immigration and cultural re-orientation sculpts their sexual identifications.  This idea became clearly delineated in my mind as I was writing the novel and, of course, you can see the results as Mr. Singh’s conceptions of his gender identification alter with his circumstances.

Singh has a complex relationship to the media in your novel. How does the media complicate cultural performativity?  What have you made of the media narrative around cultural appropriation via the Joseph Boyden controversy?

The media seizes on the first image it perceives of an individual and freezes it. It’s very, very difficult to reinvent yourself once the media has developed a catchphrase to summarize who they think you are.  I’ve experienced this myself in a modest way. No matter how many novels I write, or how many short stories I publish, I’m invariably referred to as “the critic Henighan” because the first time the media noticed me was when a collection of my essays got some attention. This is why Mr. Singh has to adopt a new name when he returns to journalism in Montreal at the novel’s conclusion.

As for Joseph Boyden’s recent troubles, it’s hard to talk about them without wading into the UBC harassment case where Boyden tried to lower a corporate sledgehammer on the due process conducted through a collective agreement reached by a unionized workforce.  The so-called “UBC Accountable” crowd, made up of Boyden’s followers, are either ignorant of how such cases are conducted in a unionized environment—a lengthy, tedious process that is usually fair in the long run—or they are deliberately union-busting. There’s no middle ground.

Most writers in Central Canada don’t realize the cataclysmic, demoralizing impact Boyden’s letter, signed by more than eighty successful writers, had on UBC creative writing students.  In light of this, it’s not surprising that there were reprisals: the contradictions between Boyden’s various inconsistent statements about his heritage were evident to anyone who had read more than one interview with him.  One day he was Mi’kmaq, the next he was Métis, the next he was Ojibway…. As soon as he made thousands of enemies by urging his friends to sign that letter, he was a sitting duck.

Personally, I’m a big supporter of cultural appropriation. That’s how cultures grow and change and diversify and open their minds.  As Paul Beatty said when accepted the 2016 ManBooker Prize, “Cultural appropriation runs in all directions, and thank God for that.”   In my academic guise, I wrote a book, Assuming the Light, on how Latin American writers living in Paris in the 1920s appropriated techniques and image-patterns from French literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in order to express the multiracial realities of their own countries. We need more cultural appropriation here in Canada if we’re to have any hope of expressing the complexities of our reality. Boyden seems to think that he has to pretend to be an Indigenous person in order to write about Indigenous people.  As The Path of the Jaguar makes clear, I think this is silly.  And Mr. Singh doesn’t believe it either, which is one reason he gets into trouble.