All of us want to belong. Sometimes our sense of safety may even depend on fitting in. But what happens to those parts of ourselves we may bury to mesh with the majority?
Chilean-born, Montreal-based author and sociology teacher Caroline Dawson digs up and grieves such disowned fragments of self in her gripping autobiographical novel, skillfully translated by Anita Anand from the original French Là où je me terre (2020). In this powerful coming-of-age story, a fictionalized “Caroline” shares memories of her family’s immigration, raising issues of social injustice and racism while reviewing her own cultural integration with candour, humour, and depth.
As the Andes Disappeared
Translated by Anita Anand
After a winter spent in the wryly described “protective bubble of the Canadian multicultural mosaic fantasyland that was the classe de francization,” young Caroline, a model student, is accepted into the regular school program. Yet, finding few (non-white) immigrants in her schoolyard, she’s self-conscious about sticking out, and begins to curb her natural exuberance, dimming “the little Latina in me.” Even the traditional foods in her lunchbox, lovingly prepared by her mother, become a source of embarrassment. (“In the eighties, nobody Instagrammed their slices of avocado toast,” the narrator quips.) Tired of being teased, she forbids her mother from packing “anything that could be seen as exotic,” denying her roots and her healthy appetite.
A precocious reader and budding writer, at age eleven Caroline is profoundly awed by Réjean Ducharme’s Swallowed, and recognizes that French is becoming her language, a bittersweet turning point as she realizes that Spanish, her mother tongue, is taking a back seat. While French ultimately empowers her to tell her story, she’s troubled by the growing “cultural distance” between herself and her parents, whose immense self-sacrifice she never forgets. In Chile, her mother was a passionate daycare worker, while her father was an esteemed English teacher; their past careers contrast with the joyless jobs juggled in Montreal, like cleaning bank offices at night, to secure their kids’ futures.
The novel takes a feminist angle as Caroline remembers her grandmother’s tragic life in Chile and zooms in on her exploited, overworked – yet unfailingly supportive – mother, who adores children but misses out on time with her own while cleaning other people’s houses. “I didn’t inherit feminism by osmosis,” Caroline explains. “I pulled it out of the earth; it was deeply buried beneath all the hopes and dreams and disappointments of the women in my family.”
Offering a female viewpoint on integration, Dawson brilliantly uncovers the social codes that can hem in and silence girls. “Very nice, healthy, quiet, boring,” is how Caroline sees her female classmates. Resigned to blending in, she concludes: “I could never be enough of a chameleon to look like them, so it was my personality that had to go.” Thankfully, Caroline later vows to reclaim her voice, recalling how she felt when a school teacher ignored her childhood poem. “All I’d succeeded in doing by becoming a reserved, obedient, docile, and quiet child was to render myself completely invisible,” she smoulders. With healthy anger forecasting change, she asserts, “I already knew for sure that it was out of this seething resentment that little Caroline, whom I’d buried, would rise again.mRb