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Language, Memory and Identity in the Discourse of the Immigrant

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Marlene Nourbese Philip and Ana Miranda are two contemporary authors writing from two different contexts. Philip, an immigrant from Tobago, one of the old British colonies in the Caribbean Islands, writes in Canada and has become part of the great and diverse corpus we call Canadian Literature. As a postcolonial immigrant, her work is included in what we define as the narratives of the new diasporas. Ana Miranda, in her turn, is Brazilian and writes in Brazil, which means she does not write as an immigrant or as a subject of diaspora like Philip, but her novel Amrik1 definitely reflects upon the immigrant experience. Yet, my choice to work with these two writers is not limited to the fact that their works touch upon the same theme of migration.

In the article “The Discourse of the other: Canadian Literature and the question of ethnicity”2, Barbara Godard proposes a new model for Canadian literary discourse in which she includes the voices of the ethnic writers silenced in the binary English-Quebecoise relations.

Critics have discussed the position of the United States as the epitome of America, a position that assigns a hyphenated existence to the other Americas, or an existence in the shadow of a hegemonic discourse. In this context, Canada and Brazil – like in the case of ethnic writing in Godard’s article – become representative cases as they appear as residual discourses in opposition to a dominant one. The fact that Canada and Brazil share the same position of silenced voices in the established reading of “America” is another element that influenced me to investigate the possibility of a dialogue between these two countries in the field of literature. Thus, I will analyze Philip’s short-story “Burn Sugar”3 and Miranda’s novel Amrik to show that even if these writers are disconnected by distance and history, it is possible to draw a parallel between their works both because of their position as minority voices and because of the way they use language in the their texts to reflect the processes of the construction of memory and identity in their character’s experience of migration.

“Burn Sugar” explores both the issues of colonization and migration. The story is told by a third person narrator, who recollects an immigrant woman’s memories of her mother and home. This woman, who instead of carrying a name appears as “she” in the story, tries to understand her past and her experience as an immigrant as she bakes the black cake her mother used to prepare and send her every year. In this case, the longing for the black cake symbolizes not only the memory of her mother but also a desire for motherland as she connects the cake with a past of exile for the African people. As the protagonist puts together different ingredients in the cake, we learn that she has a double history of migration which she tries to recollect and connect: she is an immigrant in the sense that she has  left her mother’s house (and as we also suppose, her home country – Trinidad), and she also carries in herself the history of forced migration of African people to the English colonies.

Amina, the narrator and protagonist of Amrik, is an immigrant too, but her experience differs from Philip’s character. When she leaves Lebanon with her uncle Naim, they start a journey towards the “American dream” in the United States but they are separated in the Ellis Island and Naim has to continue his journey down to Brazil. After some time working as a “Turkish dancer” in the United States, Amina is convinced by her uncle to join him in Brazil. Miranda begins Amrik with Amina already living in Brazil, the second America she goes to, but she intermingles the stories of Amina’s present days with scenes from her past, her memories from Lebanon and her experience crossing borders.

Amina was born in Lebanon and her end as an immigrant originates from the fact that she is the only girl child in her family. In fact, her condition as a woman results in a lot of problems to her in the novel, especially after her mother decides to abandon the family. Amina’s father, who comes to be a typical figure representing the patriarchal power, despises Amina for the facts that she is both a woman and the daughter of a lustful wife.

The gender prejudice she suffers from her father culminates on her being sent to accompany her blind uncle in his journey across the seas. Her father’s decision to send his only daughter is based on his belief that he could not send any of his sons because they, of course, could work and make money, while in his eyes, a girl could do anything but seduce other men. Thus, the starting point of Amina’s journey as an immigrant refers to a transaction in which she is given to her uncle to serve him as a kind of “slave,” stating the victimization of women opposed to an overvaluation of the masculine subjectivity4. 4

Sandra R. Gourlart Almeida, “Encontros e contatos em Desmundo e Amrik de Ana Miranda”, en Performance, exílio, fronteiras: errâncias territoriais e textuais, Org. Graciela Raveth y Marcia Arbex, Departamento de Letras Románicas, PostLit/FALE/UFMG, Belo Horizonte, 2002, pp. 135-149.

Although the reader may first think there is nothing similar between the two works except that they focus on an immigrant woman’s experience, Philip’s short story and Miranda’s novel dialogue with each other in some other points. One of the first things we can notice about Philip and Miranda when reading “Burn Sugar” and Amrik is their use of language to represent the discourse of the immigrants. Both writers choose a very specific way to represent the discourse of the immigrant in a text that constantly crosses the boundaries of writing. Philip’s text recalls much of Godard’s assertion that the group of immigrant writers are confronted with a choice of language in which to write. According to Godard, this choice has both aesthetic and ideological implications.

She discusses about the writer choosing to use the language of power – English – or opting to disrupt it “by emphasizing the diglossia (or sometimes tetraglossia) of their subordinate situation, that is by writing bilingually or in structures of thought and language from their native tongue transposed into English”5. In the case of writing bilingually, the fluctuation from a language to another can be read not only as an attempt to find a voice in which to speak, but also to speak in a voice that represents their own situation as immigrants as they are constantly fluctuating between the country of origin and the experience in the new land.

Philip, as part of the group Godard calls minority writers, uses English in her text, but she decides to use what Godard defines as “broken english” (emphasis on “english” written in lower-case), or English in its disrupted form that comes to affirm the immigrant condition. Philip’s short story fits in what Godard discusses in her article about three other Canadian ethnic writers as she says that their texts:

… violate temporal, spatial, grammatical and logical categories in their insistence of paradox and fluidity. This writing in broken english “has an aleatory nature, for it is constantly becoming its other, what it is not, what it can be, ultimately, what it is being”.… with its peculiar logic of inside out and upside down, this broken english participates in the great polyphonic movement of the carnival which, according to Bakhtin, “was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change and renewal”. (pp.182)

Even if Miranda cannot be included in the minority group of immigrant writers, she is still part of a minority group, the group of women writers, or better, the group of Latin American women writers. Through Amrik, Miranda exposes herself as a member of a minority group writing about another one – the group of immigrants – and her choice of language refers to her attempt to record the discourse of a Lebanese immigrant woman in Brazil.

For that, she uses in Amrik what we can transpose from Godard as “broken portuguese”. “Burn Sugar” and Amrik are transgressive concerning the use of English, in the case of Philip, and Portuguese, in the case of Miranda. They do not respect grammar rules, punctuation and the discourse recalls much of the sonority of spoken language. The discourse is fragmented, many times formed by the juxtaposition of different voices, and they do not respect a chronological order, mixing past and present in a single paragraph. The coherence of the text is built up by the juxtaposition of pieces of discourses that are put together emphasizing what Godard calls an “insistence of paradox and fluidity.”

The absence of punctuation and of parts of discourse may give the text a sense of confusion and discontinuity but, at the same time, the text becomes a kind of puzzle for the reader to solve and the absence of pieces turns to be an important presence in the sense that it shows that nothing is complete – both the characters and their stories are being constructed along the narrative by pieces that do not follow a fixed pattern.

It is this discontinuity and fragmentation of Philip’s and Miranda’s discourse that makes me think of an interesting analogy that the broken english and also the broken portuguese used by the writers can be read as representing the status of memory and the process of identity construction in the experience of migration. Davies6 explains that after a process of dis-membering – or of disconnecting bodies from one particular place, culture, language or religion to another – the act of remembering becomes also an act of re-membering, a way of reconnection or of putting the parts of a past together again. Davies stresses the experience of dismembering for the African people who were taken as slaves in the colonial period, which is a context different from the case of contemporary diasporas, but both experiences result in the construction of memory as a space to promote reconnection.

According to Davies, remembering becomes a process of boundary crossing, a way to cross “the boundaries of space, time, history, place, language, corporeality, and restricted consciousness in order to make reconnections and mark or name gaps and absences” (Davies, pp. 1006). However, the attempt to reconnect pieces of a lost past with present experience is not simple. As Huyssen7 points out, memory is fragmented, and recollecting it means an extra and most of times unfruitful effort of the mind.

This difficulty of recollecting memory brings out the problem of separating what is real past from mythical pasts and, as Huyssen states, reality can become a myth as much as a myth can have a strong sense of reality. Rushdie8 also discusses the difficulty of recollecting past experiences as he revisits his homeland and explains that “the shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains; fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities” (pp. 12). We can see the problematic of recollecting past when Amina, the protagonist of Miranda’s novel, talks about a photograph she has of herself:

Carole Boyce Davies, “Migratories subjectivities”, en Literary theory: An anthology, eds. Julie Ravikin y Michael Ryan, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1998, pp. 996-1015. 7 Andreas Huyssen, Seduzidos pela Memória, Aeroplano Editora, Rio de Janeiro, 2000. 8 Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, Penguin, New York, 1991.

Esqueci meu retrato de fotografia, coisa que só gente rica podia fazer mas eu tinha um de pandeiro na mão fingindo tocar, gostava de levar a fotografia onde fosse pois me dava felicidade e via meu rosto, o rosto que ia sobrar de mim e nada mais, no que eu ia me transformar quando morresse, um pedacinho de papel pintado por cima das químicas porque de tudo restava um pouco, a lei do mundo… (pp. 127)

The image of the photograph in Miranda’s passage captures the idea that there is no “original” past that can be simply recollected, but that memories are rather constructed and transformed in the story. For instance, Amina claims to have only one photograph of her pretending to be playing a tambourine, a photograph that she knows will not be enough to represent her after she dies.

She even anticipates that the memory of her will be something fake, she will be transformed by that piece of paper, and we can imagine something of this transformation: in the picture, one will imagine Amina as a tambourine player, but by experience, she knows she is only pretending to play it. Her mythical past will become a real one for the person who sees that photo. This passage comes to show the fallible status of memory and the institution of the idea that the visions we have of our past and identity are fragmentary ones, reconstructed into new narratives, new fictions.

The same thing happens in “Burn Sugar.” In this story we have mother and daughter discussing about the role of a cake in their lives. For the mother, the cake is only a cake, baked to be eaten, and that is all. But when the daughter connects the cake with her memories from the period in her childhood when her mother baked it to her, she insists that there must be a bigger meaning to it. She sees the preparation of the cake as an “old ritual” and the cake becomes a symbol that connects her to her mother, motherland and also to an African identity. However, the daughter knows that this symbol is not enough on itself and this is why she insists on finding a meaning to it, even if she has to invent one, to transform it according to her need to remember. In Philip’s case, the narrator’s real past is transformed into a mythical one and the preparation of the cake becomes the cherishing of the whole history of a people – the African slaves who were taken from their home country to work in the colonies.

As we can see through the examples, both the stories of Philip’s protagonist and Amina unfold around the issue of memory. Cury9 explains that the option for memories – or for the tracing of the narrators’ flux of consciousness – is a typical strategy used by writers that focus on the experiences of migration. Cury emphasizes that this choice is also a strategy to express the status of memory in the contemporary world. As I have already mentioned Huyssen, and as we can confirm in “Burn Sugar” and Amrik, memory is always fragmented, just like the language Philip and Miranda use in their texts.

The issue of memory also reveals other points of intersection between the writers. For instance, in both texts the place to remember – and also to re-member and reconstruct – is in the kitchen. The space of the kitchen connected with the experience of migration leads us to discuss two other important questions, the first one related to gender issues. James Clifford10 endorses the assumption that there is a difference between the experiences of diasporic men and women as, for him, the diasporic experiences are always gendered. Thus, the concern with questions of gender, especially the effect of the diaspora in gender relations, implies a more critical gaze upon the analysis of diasporic movements. In the case of “Burn Sugar” and Amrik we have that if on the one hand the protagonists are capable of crossing boundaries implies movement, or of moving their bodies from one position in the map to another, on the other hand, when they appear in the new land they continue to speak from the kitchen, the space that has been historically  constructed in a gender map as women’s realm, and this situation comes to reassure their marginalization.

The second question related to the focus on the space of the kitchen concerns the role of food for the immigrant. The characters in both works celebrate food the way Belluzo and Heck11 consider it in their book about the immigrant cuisine, that food acts as a kind of witness of the immigrants’ past and the reaffirmation that this past is not completely lost. This way, the cake, a trivial recipe, becomes a symbol for the protagonist in “Burn Sugar.” Amina’s narrative is also permeated by Lebanese food that becomes a symbol for the immigrants in the story. … chegava gente na casa de tio Naim, a arifa e o doméstico se fechavam na cozinha, ela preparava o mezze, separava azeitonas pepinos em conserva tabule hommus em tigelas pequenas os visitantes em silêncio ou falando baixo, mas quando a arifa servia as iguarias hmmm a cesta de pão sírio as guarnições na mesa, as falas se animavam, pedaços de pão chafurdavam nas tigelinhas de barro e saíam acrescentados de pasta, conserva, coalhada, as bocas falavam e mastigavam, bocas de camelos ruminando, nas taças pequenas de árak sorviam as alegrias shruk frases espirituosas na conversa, parábolas, provérbios… (pp. 59)

The Arab food that is served to the uncle’s guests in this passage is the element that causes the revival of a people, of old customs, and of an old life within a village back in Lebanon. Food is celebrated by the immigrants in the story as an element that connect them to their past and motherland and, in the case of the protagonists, it also connects them to the memory of their mothers as we can see in this passage from Amrik:

… eu me lembrava de mamãe mas como uma longa sombra negra deslizando diante das chamas do forno, … seus ataifes seus soluços tristes uma lágrima escorrendo na sua face e a língua a recolhendo, lembrava mais da sua ausência do imenso vazio na cozinha um buraco sem fundo …. (pp.17)

Amina remembers her mother through the image of the ataifes she used to prepare, while the protagonist of Philip’s story remembers her mother in the black cake. Amina’s impossibility to have ataifes as they were prepared by her mother is fundamental in the process of food becoming a symbol for the mother’s absence. In Philip’s “Burn Sugar”, it is also a lack, the lack of the cake that the protagonist received every year that brings back the memory of her mother:

It was its failure to arrive – the absence of the cake – even with its ‘funny’ smell that drove her to this understanding, to this moment of epiphany as she now stood over her cheap plastic bowl and watched the spoon. She looked down at her belly, flat and trim where the Mother’’ easily helped balance the aluminum bucket – not like, not like, not like her – she hadn’t wanted to be like her, but she was trying to make the mother’s black cake, and all those buckets of batter she had witnessed being driven through their changes were now here before her – challenging her. (pp.409)

However, the past that is reaffirmed in the immigrant cuisine is also transformed first as a result of the immigrants’ necessity to adapt their recipes to new spices in the new culture, and then, as a result of the immigrants’ new experiences as they have a different perspective of their motherland. For instance, Philip’s protagonist considers the baking of the cake an “old ritual of transformation and metamorphosis”12 and in this case the cake comes to anticipate the characters own transformation in the space of diaspora. The cake also moves from a place to another when her mother sent it to her and thus, it becomes a double of the character’s own migration experience. The same way something inside that mixture of flour, eggs, butter and sugar always changes on its annual journey the character faces new experiences that will change her too.

Miranda also emphasizes the idea of transformation or of becoming autonomous13 when she portrays Amina’s experience. As an example, in the illustrations that precede each section in Amrik we can see Amina covered by a burka gradually transforming herself into an animal formed by parts of different animals, a new and hybrid species.

Thus, the juxtaposition of languages and discourses, the different ingredients put together to result in a cake, the parts of animals to become Amina, can all be seen as metaphors for the status of memory for the immigrant and also for a concept of identity based on fluid construction that Stuart Hall14 considers “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well of ‘being’” (112) rather than an essentialist model. Hall affirms that scattered people often try to keep a connection to their places of origin at the same time that they have to negotiate with the new cultures in the new land.

He defines these people as belonging to hybrid cultures, or people who are the product of the intersection of different histories and cultures, which belong to one and, at the same time, various homes. They have to learn to dwell in at least two identities, speak two cultural languages, translate and negotiate with them. Amina and Philip’s protagonist, as diasporic subjects, characterizes the products of a hybrid culture Hall talks about, and they represent what we can call hybrid identities, or the result of multiple identifications. The same way, lead by the positive idea of the intersection of different histories and cultures, this article becomes a product of the same kind as it results from the intersection of different countries, histories and cultures – Canada and Brazil – to form a mosaic of identities, or of Americas.


ALMEIDA, Sandra R. Gourlart. “Encontros e contatos em Desmundo e Amrik de Ana Miranda”, en Performance, exílio, fronteiras: errâncias territoriais e textuais, Org. BELLUZO, Rosa y Marina Heck. Cozinha dos imigrantes: Memórias e receitas, Melhoramentos, São Paulo, 1998. CLIFFORD, James. “Diaspora,”
Cultural Anthropology 9.3 (1994), pp. 302-38. CURY, Maria Zilda. “Sherazade nos trópicos”, en Performance, exílio, fronteiras: Errâncias territoriais e textuais, Org. Graciela Raveth y Marcia Arbex, Departamento de Letras Románicas, PosLit/FALE/UFMG, Belo Horizonte, 2002, pp. 179-203 DAVIES, Carole Boyce. “Migratories subjectivities”, en Literary theory: An anthology, eds. Julie Ravikin y Michael Ryan, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1998, pp. 996-1015. GODARD, Barbara. “The Discourse of the other: Canadian Literature and the question of ethnicity”, The Massachussetts review, Amherst, MA, XXXI, nm. 1-2, 1990, pp. 153-184. HALL, Stuart. A Identidade Cultural na Pós-Modernidade, DP&A Editora, Rio de Janeiro, 2004 HUYSSEN, Andréas. Seduzidos pela Memória, Aeroplano Editora, Rio de Janeiro, 2000. MIRANDA, Ana Amrik, Companhia das Letras, São Paulo, 1997. PHILIP, Marlene Nourbese. “Burn Sugar”, en Stories by Canadian Women, Oxford UP, Toronto, 1984, pp. 405-411. RAVETH, Graciela y Marcia Arbex, Departamento de Letras Románicas, PostLit/FALE/UFMG, Belo Horizonte, 2002, pp. 135-149. RUSHDIE, Salman. Imaginary Homelands, Penguin, New York, 1991.

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