When Canadians want satire we turn TV figures like Rick Mercer, but satire, that most difficult of comedic genres, is virtually dead in CanLit. Or is it? Randy Boyagoda’s debut novel The Governor of the Northern Province is a satire so dark that you can almost hear all of the squirming amongst those expecting the typical Canadian novel. Boyagoda tells the story of Bokarie, an African war criminal who somehow escapes to Canada and finds his way into the circle of a small-town woman eager to make it to Parliament Hill and power. The novel skewers the peculiarities of small-town Canada, and some of the more ridiculous aspects of multiculturalism and immigration. In Boyagoda’s hands literary satire isn’t dead, it just might have a fighting chance.
Torontoist e-mailed Boyagoda and chatted about the true origins of the novel, why there are so many bloody immigrant books and what Canada looks like from “out there.”
The character of Bokarie has a larger-than-life origin actually grounded in reality can you tell us where the idea for that character came from?
I was reading an article in The Economist a few years ago about the recent conflicts in West Africa; in passing, the piece mentioned a vicious figure named Sam Bockarie, who happened to be a disco dancer before becoming a warlord. I was struck by this combination of traits, by the dark humour of a man possessing such talents, and I was also aware that there was more to this person than simply his awful deeds. So I started imagining what would happen if such a man, with such a combination of traits, showed up in contemporary Canada.
Immigration obviously is an important theme in this novel, but your novel isn’t a typical immigrant narrative, can you elaborate a bit more about that?
In fact, I wrote this novel in some respects precisely against the glut of immigrant narratives one finds in contemporary Canadian literature. I find these imaginatively limiting and subtly dehumanizing, insofar as every immigrant one encounters in literature these days is, inevitably, a courageous, pitiable figure who doesn’t fit into his new world or into his old world and so lives in-between, bitter about his situation but comforted by recipes (insert interesting exotic cuisine) and memories (insert any ethnic term for grandmother here).
You’ve mentioned in interviews that your novel satirizes a few Canadianisms do you think Canadian literature doesn’t do enough of this? Why do you think that is?
We no longer trust humour as a way to say something serious. Canadians take themselves terribly seriously, are righteous and solemn about the nation’s significance to the world at-large, and myopically proud of the nation’s virtues. And so much of contemporary literature simply affirms these tendencies, instead of offering a hard check against them, which is what I’m trying to do with this novel. A satirical novel about a genocidal African warlord moving to small-town Canada and becoming a convenience store clerk and political operative proposes that multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance – Canada’s holy trinity – aren’t entirely pristine virtues, but can in fact be vices.
You’ve been away from Canada for a while, what perspective did you gain on your “homeland” while you were away? What do we look like from out there?
I realized from afar that Canadians are fundamentalists about being Canadian, which means, among other things, that we tend towards understanding any global issue through a Canadian slant, while all the while complaining that Americans only care about things insofar as they matter to Americans. Living in the United States for seven years revealed this to me, and also the striking difference between Canadian self-perceptions and wider realities, about the importance of our national issues and the nation’s international profile. How do we look from “out there”? Read the novel to see what this country looks like to a disco-dancing African warlord …
Randy Boyagoda reads with Yasmin Crowther, Rawi Hage and Gautam Malkani, Saturday, 8pm. He will also be at a roundtable with Yasmin Crowther, Rawi Hage and Simon Ings, Sunday 1pm. Call 416-973-4000 for tickets or go to the IFOA site for more info.