Racism, Memory and Trauma in Canada and the "Soucouyant"

by Thomas Gantner (Author)

Term Paper 2012 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




Development of racial intolerance in Canada

Racial harassment and the inferiority of blacks in Soucouyant

Memory and Forgetting of forced servitude in the Caribees

Memory and Forgetting of a traumatic event in Soucouyant

Adele’s demonization

Angélique’s emancipation and Adele’s weakness




African American slavery and racism that black people and other ethnic minorities often had and still have to face in their every-day lives in Canada, are disabled from Canadian history and their modern representation. When associations are made to the topic of slavery, most people do not know that slavery existed in Canada, because slave trade mostly took place in the larger Atlantic Ocean and America. Therefore it was suppressed from Canadian’s history, even if it is very much a part of it.

The novel Soucouyant by David Chariandy, published in 2007, picks out main topics as forgetting and remembering, trauma, dislocation, family but also racism as a central theme. However, I want to emphasize on all these themes in the subsequent chapters – whereas the topic of family will be on the fringes. Also, I would like to present how racism in Canada developed and how a traumatic event is processed in one’s mind. For the illustration of these subjects, I will use the novel Soucouyant, as well as The Hanging of Angélique – but will mostly concentrate on Soucouyant because it allows a great deal of interpretation in the context of themes as racism, memory and trauma.

Soucouyant is a second-generation fiction, because the protagonist in the novel is a Canadian-born son whose mother immigrated to Canada from Trinidad. His mother, Adele, had a husband, in Canada who also lived in Trinidad before. In the alienated world of the urban center of Toronto, her husband Roger revives her memories of Trinidad and is therefore an ideal partner with whom she shares a common history. The protagonist in Soucouyant is also the narrator, but remains nameless, because his mother Adele is the focus of the story. He and his brother abandon their mother who suffers from a devastating pre-senile dementia – ‘a process of unbecoming’[1] - probably caused by a trauma. Two years later, he returns home to attend to his mother and to find out about what happened to her when she lived in Trinidad, and also to find out about the origins and traditions of his ancestors. He discovers that a younger woman has moved into the house to support his mother Adele with her continually deteriorating disease. The novel is set in the late 1980s in a place close to the Scarborough bluffs in a ‘good neighborhood’[2], and broaches the issues ‘Racism, Memory and Trauma’ as I will present in the following chapters. David Chariandy utilizes flashbacks to retell the events – which occurred in the 1940s and 1950s - that were decisive factors for Adele’s developing dementia she is exposed to.

The traumatic event that evolved in an onset dementia took place in Trinidad during the Second World War when she was just a five-year old child. Her mother, the narrator’s grandmother, was a prostitute – because of American imperialism – to gain money in order to care for her daughter and herself. An American soldier persuaded the young Adele to follow him into the barracks and gave her gifts like a lighter that later would change Adele’s entire future. Her mother, who also solicited on the military base, wanted to took her home to prevent something cruel to happen. However, the soldier and the other marine associates splattered Adele’s mother with oil and gasoline. Adele, who did not fully understand why her mother wanted to get her out of there, rashly rebelled against her without considering the consequences of her action. In that blindfolded moment, she pulled out the lighter and lit her mother. One might argue that Adele wanted to get her and her mother out of mockery, but at that time Adele was in my opinion not mentally ingenious enough to appraise the situation.

If the incident resulted in a life-long guilt, a trauma, and later in dementia needs to be cleared in subsequent chapters. If racism that she faces in Canada had an impact on her disease, also needs to be cleared. However, the most interesting question is, how the trauma process evolves and how she copes with the guilt she suffers from. I assume that the only possible way to tell her story, she must use the Trinadian folklore of the Soucouyant, which I will discuss later.

Development of racial intolerance in Canada

In Canada’s national consciousness the notion that Canada is a white country is deep-seated. Canada was first settled by Europeans who were white and Christian. The first black people came a century later, so it should not be a surprise that Canadians developed prejudices against ethnic minorities when they were first confronted with an exceptionally different group of people. Moreover, the Canadians had to form a country that is solid in itself and any disturbance among citizens had to be prevented. Most of today’s Canadians are not even aware that slavery is part of their own history. Most of the books that have been written about Canadian history often repress details about slave history. There has been written a lot about the founding fathers and mothers of Canada, as Matthew Elliot, Peter Russel, and Marie de l’Incarnation – but the information that these people were slaveholders as well as other popular citizens of Canadian’s past is not discussed openly.[3] There is a tendency to forget that black people and natives existed in Canadian history. The first black slaves were brought to Canada in the 16th and 17th century following by larger groups, especially in the 19th century when approximately 50.000 slaves fled to Canada as fugitives.[4] Slavery officially ended with the Act of Emancipation of the Imperial Parliament in 1833 and was seen as a moral conquest over the United States of America. Earlier, at the end of 17th century forced slavery without payment was limited, but not completely abolished. Blacks were also employed as apprentices to be trained and to receive a small amount of payment. Most frequently, former slaves remained with his master who gave them provisions.[5] For Canada, slavery is rather a part of the Atlantic and American history and therefore does not seem to fit adequately in their history.[6]

The insulting image of blacks that media portrayed in the early 20th century when radio stations started to establish, when they got more wide-spread and consequently more accessible for everyone, caused the notion that Africans and other colored people are backwarded. Before the influence of radio stations, newspapers started portraying black people as inferior in illustrations as cartoons or other jokes. Also, criminal incidents that occurred were also exaggerated and embellished by the press that citizens get the notion that blacks were engaged in such a crime. Those negatively pictured portrayals were inserted in prairie newspapers, western journals and plentiful advertisements.[7] Also, the educational system had a huge impact on discriminatory acts towards ethnic minorities since it is taught that white people are the founding fathers of Canada and blacks have not contributed to that in any way. Furthermore, racism against native people was also institutionalized in Canadian schools. White Europeans where categorized as ‘civilized’ and native Indians as ‘savages’ who were classified as a human race of the lowest class. Besides, Ontario and Nova Scotia legislated to build separate schools for different ‘human races’ in the early 20th century. School should rather tend to socialize and to enlighten people than to discriminate a certain group because it is an institution where the pursuit of education should be the main goal. Unfortunately, racism is constructed which caused stereotyping and mistrust towards groups of ethnic minorities, and excludes minority groups from the historical scenery.[8] To define racism, it is an act of discrimination that is based on the belief that there are different kinds of races, and one is automatically superior to another, the inferior group. This act can be expressed either individually or institutionally with one’s mind or any kind of action.[9]

In spring 1910 the Edmonton Board of Trade initiated a discussion on black immigration and insisted on immediate action - by the Canadian immigration authorities - on the “negro problem” because black people were the “most undesirable element” in Canadian society. The Canadian immigration authorities were already concerned with the influx of black immigration from the South and promised “drastic action” because prejudices against these groups of people developed in areas where they were settling. It seemed that in neighborhoods where black and white people lived together, black people were always first to accuse after cruel incidents like robbery or murder. The newspaper Saskatoon Daily Phoenix wrote:, A negro atrocity – white girl flogged and assaulted by late arrivals at Edmonton’. The press obviously wanted to warn the immigrant authorities that more cruelties would happen if they allow more black people to immigrate, and stated that it would be in the best interest of Canadians and blacks to stay separate from each other because “the two races never could have anything in common.”[10] Furthermore the Edmonton Board of Trade claimed, as another argument to prevent a higher influx of black immigration, that it has been proved in the United States that white and black people are not meant to live together in proximity. Race hatred and lawlessness that occurred in the United States needed to be prevented. Therefore the “negro element” in a white society is a considerable factor that Canadians feared to happen in their country as well.[11]

Racial harassment and the inferiority of blacks in Soucouyant

In Soucouyant, the narrator’s mother Adele probably migrated from Trinidad to Canada in the 1950s, after “the Immigration Act of 1952” that simplified the immigration for non-whites. A multiplicity of people from different ethnic backgrounds immigrated in the following years to cause the phenomenon of racial and cultural diversity in urban and also suburban localities in Canada. Adele’s first impressions when entering the new country were not bad at all – they were quite the contrary. “Everything seemed wonderful”, but when opening her mouth to catch a snowflake; she seems to be “disappointed at its tastelessness when it fell upon her tongue”.[12] The unexpected bad taste of the white snowflake reflects the alienation she experiences in the new land that is so oppositional to her homeland Trinidad. Instead of the Caribbean heat, Canada’s clime is too different, and her “trouble arriving”[13] in Canada because of icy-storm weather indicates that she is going to have a lot of complications adapting to the new society’s culture. On her first Christmas she realizes that nothing is like home - no “parang music”, no “punch-o-crème” and no “rum punch”[14] - and feels separated from her new society. More evidence for the “two-ness” she finds out about, is the lemon meringue pie that is acid and sweet, tart yellow and fluffy white at the same time. She has hoped to start anew, but as a West Indian immigrant it makes the impression that it is hard not to feel as a stranger in Toronto, Canada.[15] When Adele gets to know Roger she finally feels partly home again. “It’s been so long since she’s seen anyone with such skin. Like wet earth. Like molasses.”[16] Her prospective husband and the narrator’s father, who also struggles to adapt to the Canadian society as a first generation immigrant, tries hard to be a part of it and makes attempts to adapt to the new society by acting like everyone else, most likely like his co-workers. “He’d voted for the winning Conservative party in the last election […]”[17], “He insisted on reading the Bible all the way through over and over again.”,[18] and “He buys himself a white rhinestone-embroidered cowboy suit […]”[19] But even the strong-minded efforts to be a citizen like every other Canadian often seem to fail and he experiences rejection that Adele notices. He might notice it but ignores it effectively and turns a blind eye to those rejection-orientated situations. He “drags Adele to country music taverns and bars […] He doesn’t seem to notice the people either staring icily or laughing.”[20] When he is directly confronted with pure racism and hatred against ethnic minorities, the overt hostility that he and Adele are facing seem to have an impact on him, when he finally states after all his attempts of customization “ ‘You know girl,’ said father, finding his breath, ‘thirty years, and I still don’t know how to celebrate in this country.’[21]

In search of an apartment, Adele and Roger are rejected by different landlords, because their accents are significantly heard and their blackness automatically comes with a plenty of stereotypes that scare off the neighbours and children. Finally, they find a place to live that is destroyed after a short vacation. Also, a note was left that clearly delivered the message to disappear from that place. “On the wall, also in shit, are a series of letters. G … O … B … A … C … K …. GOB ACK? A clue? She wonders. A name? Some riddle toward an identity?”[22] Obviously the landlord who stated before their vacation “I don’t know anyone so stupid to have niggers in their place!”[23] had something to do with that occurrence. Quite unusually, Adele does not understand the words written on the wall. Except for her accent, her ability to speak and to understand English is quite excellent. She might not have been able to deal with the racial harassment they experienced, and therefore represses her feelings towards it. It is highly possible that a “trauma of acculturating”[24] might evolve in a-far-away place where someone foreign and obviously different is not accepted and faces plain racism. Black people as well as other ethnic minorities were characterized as inferior to white people – even if the British Columbia Social Assistance Act stated after World War II in 1945: “in any administration of social assistance there shall be no discrimination based on race, colour, creed or political affiliations.”[25]

Racial harassment occurs when Adele enters a restaurant to get a piece of a meringue pie that she so often saw in the shop-window. She feels that she is not welcome, disapproval is revealed by other customers and no waiter comes to offer her a seat. But despite those “giggles from deep in the room” and someone saying “ ‘Look what just walked in’ “[26] she takes a seat. Shortly after, the waiter approaches her table and she is asked to leave because coloureds or prostitutes are not allowed to dine in this restaurant. Thus, the restaurant’s policy first is very strict with respect to the 1950th, and second prostitutes and colored people are considered the same. However, prostitutes are involved in bartering their body for money, whereas blacks in general are not somehow involved in any kind of obscene business. It is also highly possible that Adele thinks of her mother who was a prostitute, when the waiter demonstrates that white people have stereotypes and equates race with a certain employment. A similar incident occurred in 1924, about thirty years earlier, when a restaurant owner did not want to serve a colored person. In an Ontario court his refusal of service was investigated, but the court judged that it was the decision of the owner whom to allow entrance and that it is just a requirement to be white as to wear an evening dress.[27] Few years later, in 1932 the Legislature of Ontario decided that “in no case shall discrimination be made or permitted in the employment of any reason of their political affiliation, race or religious views.”[28]

When Adele made a road-trip with her friend Mrs. Christopher she found out that there are limitations for a black person to live in Canada. On their drive, they encountered another car and the man in the car saw “the back of a woman’s brown hand waving at him. 1963. A mirage of race.”[29] The thought he might have had was probably how a black person can have so much freedom to drive around with a car to enjoy the endless wideness of “his land”, Canada. Once they had to stop at a checkpoint to show their driver license with a car that was not even their belonging, they had to seek a way to drive on. “And that’s where the story always ends.” […] This was the early sixties, remember, and these were black women before blackness itself, before the language of civil rights.” It is possible that the women had sexually ‘persuaded’ the police officers. As Adele does not want to talk about what happened then, they obviously had to do something else than to pay some sort of fine. The “darkened checkpoint” is also a perfect scenery for sexual intercourse or other sexual activity.

Few years later, when Adele’s dementia is at its peak her son asks her if she remembers her road trip with her friend Mrs. Christopher. She does not respond properly to that question and answers “Eyestache” when touching her son’s eyebrow. Then she closes her eyes and her smile vanishes.[30] A repressed memory could have caused her vanishing smile. The word “eyestache” could either be just a word transfer from the original word “mustache”, or it could signify that there has grown hair upon her eyes that she uses as a metaphor to conceal the happening at the checkpoint that night.

As already presented, there were plenty of attempts to stop discrimination against ethnic minorities. But racial prejudices and the stereotypes that evolved did not stop immediately. Differences in skin color, birthplace, language and cultural practices were still markers of distinction that could not be abolished within a few years. It should at least take one generation to change the belief that both white and black people are somewhat the same. Both belong to the human race and have the same abilities, therefore they should obviously have the same rights and opportunities in life to accomplish their goals – dependent on their respective potential.

Memory and Forgetting of forced servitude in the Caribees

The economic growth in the Caribees from 1624 – 1654 depended on slaves as cheap work forces to realize a high business volume when starting to export sugar to Europe. Sugar became an important export article until 1643. Especially England imported sugar after they founded a colony on the Caribbean islands in 1624. Approximately thirty years later, in 1655, they imported about 7,787 tons of sugar.[31]

Until 1650 not less than 20,000 blacks from Africa were brought to the islands to live and work as slaves without payment. They also had to endure racial harassment and where treated as ‘less than human’. Richard Ligon, an English author who dwelled on the island of Barbados and observed and described life in this area, wrote in A true and exact history of the island of Barbadoes how slaves were treated. Overseers beat servants when they were disobedient “till the blood had followed, for a fault that is not worth the speaking of”[32]


[1] cf. http://thetyee.ca/Books/2007/10/17/Soucoyant (access date March 15t, 2012).

[2] cf. Chariandy, David: Soucouyant. Arsenal Pulp Press. Vancouver 2007, p. 58.

[3] cf. Afua Cooper: The Hanging of Angélique. The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montréal. University of Georgia Press. Athens 2007, p. 8.

[4] cf. McKague, Ormond: Institutionalized Racism and Canadian History. In: Racism in Canada. Fifth House Publishers. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1991, p. 2-3.

[5] cf. Walker, Barrington: The history of Immigration and Racism in Canada: Essential Readings. Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc. Toronto 2008, p. 35.

[6] cf. Ibid., p. 180.

[7] cf. Ibid., p 18.

[8] cf. Walker, Barrington: The history of Immigration and Racism in Canada: Essential Readings. Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc. Toronto 2008, p. 4.

[9] cf. McKague, Ormond: Racism runs trough Canadian society. In: Racism in Canada. Fifth House Publishers. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1991, p. 73.

[10] cf. ibid., p. 27.

[11] cf. ibid., p. 24.

[12] cf. Chariandy, David: Soucouyant. Arsenal Pulp Press. Vancouver 2007, p. 48.

[13] cf. Ibid., p. 47.

[14] cf. Ibid., p. 51.

[15] cf. Ibid., p. 53.

[16] cf. ibid., p. 71.

[17] cf. Ibid., p. 19.

[18] cf. Ibid., p. 21.

[19] cf. Ibid., p. 73.

[20] cf. Ibid., p. 73.

[21] cf. Chariandy, David: Soucouyant. Arsenal Pulp Press. Vancouver 2007, p. 15.

[22] cf. Ibid., p. 77.

[23] cf. Ibid., P. 76.

[24] McKague, Ordmond: Institutionalized Racism and Canadian History: Notes of a black Canadian. In: Racism in Canada. Fifth House Publishers. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1991, p. 14.

[25] cf. Ibid., p. 185.

[26] cf. Chariandy, David: Soucouyant. Arsenal Pulp Press. Vancouver 2007, p. 50.

[27] cf. McKague, Ordmond: The Control of Racial Discrimination. In: Racism in Canada. Fifth House Publishers. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1991, p. 183.

[28] cf. ibid., p. 185.

[29] cf. Chariandy, David: Soucouyant. Arsenal Pulp Press. Vancouver 2007, p. 89.

[30] cf. ibid., p. 92.

[31] Cf. Beckles, Hilary; Shepherd, Verene: Caribbean Slave Society and Economy. The New Press. New York 1991, p. 37.

[32] cf. Ibid., p. 44.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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University of Rostock – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
racism memory trauma canada soucouyant


  • Thomas Gantner (Author)



Title: Racism, Memory and Trauma in Canada and the "Soucouyant"