Challenging the Cultural Mosaic: Shani Mootoo's "Out on Main Street"

Sebastian Schneider

Since 1971, Canada has been pursuing a policy of multiculturalism whose aim it is, according to the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988, "to [...] recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage" (qtd. in Hutcheon and Richmond 371). The underlying concept of this policy, metaphorically referred to as the cultural mosaic, has been critized for a number of partly antithetic reasons. Some hold that this "politics of difference" (Thompson 65) inhibits the construction of a stable Canadian identity in relation to the United States.1 Others emphasize domestic problems generated by the multiculturalism policy concerning the First Nations Peoples, the Québécois, and the Canadians of non-European descent.2 The last group of people, often called 'visible minorities,' is at the center of the following discussion of Canadian multiculturalism. Members of a 'visible minority' are addressed by the multiculturalism policy to a greater extent than 'white' Canadians and are thus constituted as different from the societal mainstream: in contrast to ethnically 'white' Canadians, they cannot elude this by 'passing' into the 'white' Anglophone or Francophone mainstream as described for example by Linda Hutcheon:

We think of 'visibility' in terms of race most often, but it is also a question of naming. It was a strange experience going from being a Bortolotti to being a Hutcheon when I married [...]. Suddenly the world perceived me differently; I 'passed' as a WASP, and felt people treated me differently. (qtd. in Baena 296)

Especially in relation to members of the 'visible minorities,' Canadian multiculturalism is often perceived as a token-policy aiming at upholding 'white' dominance:

[M]ulticulturalism has been attacked for offering a policy of containment, a policy which, by legislating 'otherness', attempts to control its diverse representations, to preserve the long-standing racial and ethnic hierarchies in Canada. […] [S]ome Canadians believe that the mandate […] to 'preserve' and 'enhance' the cultural heritage of Canadians other than those of Anglo-Saxon and French descent […] advocates a kind of ethnocentrism that might further prevent their integration into mainstream society. (Kamboureli 11-12)

Another critic describes Canadian multiculturalism in a similar vein:

The category of ethnicity in this official discourse often seems interchangeable with a similarly official designation to other the other, one tainted with biological and racial biases [...] The fact that the 'founding nations' of Canada, and, to a lesser extent, all white Canadians, are not normally understood as representing any particular ethnic group attests to this use. (Darias-Beautell 25)

Similar criticisms can be found for example in Huggan,3 Padolsky,4 and Lutz, who points out that "the ideal of multiculturalism" is seen by some as an "ideological concealment of social differences and conservation of diasporic cultures" (312).5 Bharati Mukherjee views the Canadian "cultural mosaic" as a policy of ostracism aimed against "cultural fusion" (31). And, last but not least, the social exclusion of 'visible minorities' felt by many to be an effect of the multicultural policy can be accompanied by a minority's "self-ghettoisation" (Schaub 10).

The spatial metaphor of the 'cultural mosaic' seems to offer a good description of the Canadian multicultural policy which assumes a plurality of cultural and 'racial' identities whose stability is unquestioned. The metaphor of the mosaic which presents ethno-cultural boundaries as clear-cut and impregnable is questioned not only in academic discourse (see above), but also and especially in literary texts by (Canadian) authors. In the following, I will discuss Shani Motoo's short story "Out on Main Street" (1993) as an especially apt example.

Shani Mootoo's fiction can be categorized as belonging to Caribbean(-Canadian) or South Asian(-Canadian) literature. However, I want to discuss her short story as an example of specifically Canadian literature for two reasons: firstly (and less importantly), Mootoo has been living in Canada since the 1970s (and thus since the multicultural turn).6 Secondly, her fiction frequently deals with Canada and Canadian society, even if not exclusively so.7

In their fiction, Mootoo and fellow writers outline alternative spatial orders that challenge the notion of the cultural mosaic and open up possibilities to imagine the diverse community of Canada differently from official multiculturalist discourse. Such interventions in dominant socio-political discourses, of course, are characteristic of literary discourse: "[Li]terary communication as a distinct form of symbolic expression might […] be conceived as a deliberately experimental mode of action with its own potential for modifying and redefining, for unfolding and testing cultural perceptions" (Fluck 365). The following discussion of "Out on Main Street" will therefore focus on how Mootoo's text challenges the (comparatively new) invented tradition of Canadian multiculturalism, an identity discourse which proposes that Canada consists of ethno-racial and cultural groups neatly separated from each other, just like the multitude of stones making up a mosaic.

"Out on Main Street"8 is set in an Indian café, which can be read as pars pro toto of Canadian society: in the Kush Valley Sweets, members of different societal backgrounds come into contact with each other—the café can thus be termed a 'contact zone'. According to Mary Louise Pratt, a contact zone results from colonial encounters as "the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict" (6). She continues:

By using the term 'contact,' I aim to foreground the interactive, improvisational dimensions of colonial encounters [...]. [...] It treats the relations among colonizers and colonized [...]  not in terms of separateness or apartheid, but in terms of copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices, often within radically asymmetrical relations of power. (7)

In the café on Main Street, members of ethnically or otherwise diverse cultural groups likewise encounter each other "in terms of copresence, interaction, interlocking understandings and practices" instead of "in terms of separateness or apartheid" (which can be assumed to be underlying principles of the cultural mosaic).

Before the first-person narrator describes a visit to the Kush Valley Sweets in the second part of the story, the narrator situates herself and her partner Janet who both emigrated to Canada from Trinidad in regard to 'racial' and cultural identity. Notions of cultural purity are called into question from the beginning, as is clear from the description of the narrator's family:

[W]e is watered-down Indians — we ain't good grade A Indians. We skin brown, is true, but we doh even think 'bout India unless something happens over dere and it come on de news. Mih family remain Hindu ever since mih ancestors leave India behind, but nowadays dey doh believe in praying unless things real bad, because, as mih father always singing, like if is a mantra: "Do good and good will be bestowed unto you." […] Mostly, back home, we is kitchen Indians: some kind a Indian food every day, at least once a day [...]. (MS 45)9

The narrator here calls into question notions of cultural purity with regard to her family: as "watered-down kitchen Indians," they are neither quite 'Indian' nor something else altogether.

With regard to other cultural indicators, Mootoo further complicates matters of cultural identity: While the narrator's family remained Hindu, Janet's family converted to Presbyterianism. Janet's mother demonstrates the complexity of the (post-)colonial situation yet again by insisting on naming her daughter herself instead of following her husband's wish to grant the local minister that privilege. She assumes agency in the culturally significant act of naming instead of surrendering this privilege to the colonial discourse personified by the minister. On the other hand, however, she is also shown to be already implicated in the very discourse she seems to resist:

Ever since Savitri was a lil girl she like de yellow hair, fair skin and pretty pretty clothes Janet and John used to wear in de primary school reader. Since she lil she want to change she name from Savitri to Janet but she own father get vex and say how Savitri was his mother name and how she will insult his mother if she gone and change it. So Savitri get she own way once by marrying this fella name John, and she do a encore, by calling she daughter Janet […]. (MS 46)

Paradoxically, Janet's mother resists a dominant discourse and follows it at the same time: In the act of naming which she insists belongs to her instead of to a religious authority her Western education comes to bear and thus reveals her entrapment in the ideological state apparatus that conditioned her to take the 'white' children of her school reader as role models.

So even before Janet and the narrator enter the contact zone of the Kush Valley Sweets, cultural identity is shown to be a mixed matter—labels like 'Indian,' 'South Asian,' or 'Indo-Caribbean' as possible pieces in a cultural mosaic are shown to be simplistic: the two characters certainly share some cultural features but differ widely in other (cultural) regards. Janet's surname also complicates easy, one-way readings of seemingly culturally predetermined signifiers:

Is only recentish I realize Mahase is a Hindu last name. In de ole days every Mahase in de country turn Presbyterian and now de name doh have no association with Hindu or Indian whatsoever. I used to think of it as a Presbyterian Church name until some days ago when we meet a Hindu fella fresh from India name Yogdesh Mahase who never even hear of Presbyterian. (MS 47)

Culturally, Janet's name is differently connoted in Trinidad and in India. Thus, culture is depicted as procedural, thereby exposing the problems of discourses that claim culture to be fixed and related to some unproblematic 'origins' as Canadian multiculturalism can be said to do. Homogeneous 'Indian' or 'Indo-Caribbean' culture is further called into question by the narrator's ignorance regarding her friend's name, as well as Janet's ignorance regarding Hindu culture:

De other day I ask Janet what she know 'bout Divali. She say, "It's the Hindu festival of lights, isn't it?" […]. All Janet know is 'bout going for drive in de country to see light, and she could remember looking forward, around Divali time, to the lil brown paper-bag packages full a burfi and parasad that she father Hindu students used to bring for him. (MS 47)

The heterogeneous culture of 'origin' exemplified by the narrator and Janet gets further complicated by their encounter with 'real' Indians in Canada: "I used to think I was a Hindu par excellence until I come up here and see real flesh and blood Indian from India. Up here, I learning 'bout all kind a custom and food and music and clothes dat we never see or hear 'bout in good ole Trinidad" (MS 47). Ethnic solidarity is absent: the women are redlined as culturally different persons by the Indians who emigrated to Canada directly:

But Indian store clerk on Main Street doh have no patience with us, specially when we talking English to them. Yuh ask dem a question in English and dey insist on giving the answer in Hindi or Punjabi or Urdu or Gujarati […]  And den dey look at yuh disdainful disdainful—like yuh disloyal, like yuh is a traitor. (MS 47-48)

Racially or phenotypically defined ethnic identity is shown to be a chimera with regard to the cultural differences between Canadians of Indo-Caribbean and Indian origin, but also by exposing 'Indian' culture as heterogeneous, consisting of linguistically diverse cultures.10

Beside ethnic differences, differences of gender are also rendered problematic in the (Indo-)­Canadian space of the Kush Valley Sweets:

Before going Main Street I does parade in front de mirror practicing a jiggly-wiggly kind of walk. But if I ain't walking like a strong-man monkey I doh exactly feel right and I always revert back to mih true colours. […] De men dem does look at me like if dey is exactly what I need a taste of to cure me good and proper. […] And de women dem embarrass fuh so to watch me in mih eye, like dey fraid I will jump up and try to kiss dem, or make a pass at dem. Yuh know, sometimes I wonder if I ain't mad enough to do it just for a little bacchanal, nah! (MS 48)

The refusal to embrace a discourse of victimization is noteworthy here. The narrator does not conform to the (in this case, sexual) mainstream and keeps a sense of humor in the face of homophobia, even considering to confront the women shunning her "just for a little bacchanal."

Issues of ethnicity and gender are contrasted in the story with personal difficulties, in this case jealousy, thereby avoiding to construct the narrator's and Janet's subjectivities as simply other, only confronted with problems not shared by the majority:

But yuh know, it have one other reason I real reluctant to go Main Street. Yuh see, Janet pretty fuh so! And I doh like de way men does look at she, as if because she wearing jeans […] and make-up and have long hair loose and flying about like she a walking-talking shampoo ad, dat she easy. And de women always looking at she beady eye, like she loose and going to thief they man. (MS 48)

The second part of the story then opens with the narrator trying to prepare herself for the cultural encounter(s) awaiting her and Janet at the Kush Valley Sweets:

Before entering de restaurant I ask Janet to wait one minute outside with me while I rumfle up mih memory, pulling out all de sweet names I know from home […]. […] When I feel confident enough dat I wouldn't make a fool a mih Brown self by asking what dis one name? and what dat one name? we went into the restaurant. (MS 49)

The café's proprietors and their customers are correlated along a number of dividing lines that change within a short space of time. The first opposition splitting the proprietors and their customers in two groups is gendered: the proprietors react to Janet's physical attractiveness in a conventionally, stereotypically 'male' way: "It ain't dat I paranoid, yuh understand, but from de moment we enter de fellas dem get over-animated, even amorously agitated. Janet again! All six pair a eyes land up on she, following she every move and body part" (MS 50). The second opposition to be established is along cultural lines. The narrator has difficulty ordering the sweets she wants:

I ask de waiter-fella […] for a stick a meethai for mihself. I stand up waiting by de glass for it but de waiter / owner lean up on de back wall behind de counter watching me like he ain't hear me. […] "Your choice! Whichever you want, Miss." But he still lean up against de back wall grinning. So I stick mih head out and up and say louder, slowly, "One piece a meethai — dis one!" and point sharp to de stick a flour mix with ghee, deep fry and den roll up in sugar. He say, "That is korma, Miss. One piece only?" […] [T]o show him I undaunted, I point to a round pink ball and say, "I'll have one a dese sugarcakes too please." He start grinning broad like he half-pitying, half-laughing at dis Indian-in-skin-colour-only, and den he tell me, "That is called chum-chum, Miss." […] "Yeh, well back home we does call dat sugarcake, Mr. Chum-chum." (MS 50-51)

'Indian' culture here is again shown to be complex and plural. The narrator tells the proprietor: "'[…] Where I come from we does call dat meethai'", to which he answers, "'These are all meethai, Miss. Meethai is Sweets. Where are you from?'" (MS 50-51). Asking for the narrator's place of origin "implies outsider status and carries assumptions regarding cultural authenticity" (Billingham 79). The narrator explains the different semantics: "'You know, […] it's true that we call that 'meethai' back home. Just like how we call 'siu mai' 'tim sam.' As if 'dim sum' is just one little piece a food'" (MS 51). This is a critique of discourses of cultural authenticity that deny diachronic and synchronic plurality and hybridity, of which Trinidad is a good example:

Yuh know, one time a fella from India who living up here call me a bastardized Indian because I didn't know Hindi. […] De thing is: all a we in Trinidad is cultural bastards, Janet, all a we. Toutes bagailles! Chinese people, Black people, White people. Syrian. Lebanese. (MS 52)

A third opposition is established when two Anglo-Canadians enter the café and one of them starts talking to one of the proprietors, thus transcending the opposition between Indian and Indo-Caribbean identities and shifting the boundary drawing to the dichotomy of mainstream and minority:

De guy in front [i.e., one of the Anglo-Canadians who just entered the café] put his hand down to his waist in a rolling circular movement. Out loud he greet everybody with "Alarm o salay koom." A part a me wanted to bust out laughing. Another part make mih jaw drop open in disbelief. "Are you Sikh?" […] Chum-chum look at his brothers kind a quizzical, and he touch his cheek and feel his forehead with de back a his palm. He say, "No, I think I'm fine, thank you. […]" De burly fella confuse now, so he try again. "Where are you from?" Chum-chum say, "Fiji, Sir." "Oh! Fiji, eh! Lotsa palm trees and beautiful women, eh! Is it true that you guys can have more than one wife?" (MS 52-53)

'Mr. Chum-chum's' claim to cultural superiority is challenged here as he and his brothers are shown to be part of the Indian diaspora as well. In general, ethnic boundaries are shown to be fluid and dependent on context. There is no hierarchical order established in regard to the intra-ethnic opposition and the opposition between mainstream and (visible) minority—discourses of inclusion and of exclusion are all shown to be on a par, often based on ignorance, and only temporarily operative.

The offensive and ignorant behavior of the Anglo-Canadians brings about ethnic solidarity among the 'Indians' present, as illustrated in the remarks of several female customers: "I hate this! I just hate it! I can't stand to see our men humiliated by them, right in front of us. He should refuse to serve them, he should throw them out" (MS 53). And another one says: "Brother, we mustn't accept how these people think they can treat us. You men really put up with too many insults and abuse over here. I really felt for you" (MS 54). But, as will be seen in the following, the ethnic and gender solidarity displayed under the specific circumstances will again only be temporary.

When another group of customers enters the contact zone of the Kush Valley Sweets, boundaries shift again. Ethnic identity takes a back seat and gender comes to the fore, just like in the initial situation when Janet and the narrator entered the café:

De door a de restaurant open again, and a bevy of Indian-looking women saunter in, dress up to weaken a person's decorum. De Miss Universe pageant traipse across de room to a table. Chum-chum and brothers start smoothing dey hair back, and pushing de front a dey shirts neatly into dey pants. One brother take out a pack of Dentyne from his shirt pocket and pop one in his mouth. One take out a comb from his back pocket and smooth down his hair. […] Dey begin to behave like young pups in mating season. (MS 54)

One of the customers, who had just expressed her sympathy for the proprietors in the face of ethno-racial discrimination, now establishes a new, gendered solidarity, when she addresses the narrator: "Whoever does he think he is! Calling me dear and touching me like that! Why do these men always think that they have permission to touch whatever and wherever they want!" (MS 55). The 'brother' of a moment ago becomes a sexist male in the eyes of the customer, the narrator on the other hand an ally because of her gender. This line of inclusion again breaks down fast when two friends of Janet's and the narrator's enter the café:

Well, with Sandy and Lise is a dead giveaway dat dey not dressing fuh any man […] and dat in fact dey have a blatant penchant fuh women. Soon as dey enter de room yuh could see de brothers and de couple men customers dat had come in minutes before stare dem down from head to Birkenstocks, dey eyes bulging with disgust. And de women in de room start shoo-shooing, and putting dey hand in front dey mouth to stop dey surprise, and false teeth, too, from falling out. (MS 56)

The 'female' solidarity with the narrator from a moment ago was based on the tacit assumption of her heterosexuality. The new shift now realigns the customer again with the café's proprietors—within the shortest space of time, she has located and re-located herself in relation to the others present in the Kush Valley Sweets along ethnic and gendered oppositions—'Indian'-'white', female-male, heterosexual-homosexual.

Sandy and Lise, the narrator's and Janet's friends who are marked as 'white', exemplify a wish to be a part of the 'Indian' cultural space of the café, as the narrator's remark betrays: "I figure dat de display was a genuine happiness to be seen wit us in dat place" (MS 57). They seem to be unaware of the fact that they are regarded as different by the majority of the individuals in the Kush Valley Sweets not because of their ethnicity, but because of their sexual orientation.

Until the end, the story uses humor to ironically downsize the complex issue of ethnic and sexual identity, thereby avoiding a discourse of victimization while on the other hand perceptibly showing that constructions of ethnicity and gender are tactical, context-bound and a matter of foregrounding—or in turn de-emphasizing—a host of different interconnected traits of which no single one determines any individual's identity.

In "Out on Main Street," Canadian society is thus not imagined as a cultural mosaic. The narrator's Trinidadian culture of 'origin' is shown to be hybrid and heterogeneous in the first place, and locating individuals along ethnic lines is just as complicated in Canada. It is difficult to imagine which 'piece' in the cultural mosaic the narrator and her friend should be assigned to: 'South Asian' does not seem to do justice to the complexity of Indian cultures within Canadian society. An intra-ethnic positioning along more subtle criteria would lead to a Balkanization of society at least partly cultivated already by the multiculturalist policy—the narrator would then have to be categorized as Hindu-Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian, Janet in contrast as Protestant-Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian, and even this way of labeling could probably never adequately capture ethnic identity.

Discourses relying on stable points of origin are unmasked as inadequate by calling attention to a plurality of criteria that are all relevant in the construction of cultural identities. Mootoo emphasizes the procedural character of culture and identity, in contrast to the Canadian Multiculturalism Act which is founded on essentialist notions of "cultures" that need to and can be "preserved" as "heritage." The categorical affiliations effected in the contact zone of the Kush Valley Sweets emerge as short-lived constructions, unfolding identity and alterity in ever changing constellations: "Mootoo employs a chain of minor, everyday incidents in the shop to demonstrate the constantly shifting allegiances that cut across racial, ethnic and gender identities" (Billingham 85). The oppositions of male-female, Indian-Indo-Caribbean, 'white'-'colored,' homosexual-heterosexual are not fixed but context-dependent factors denying the validity of essentialist notions of identity. Ethnic and gender conflicts negotiated in the contact zone of the café show the construction of identity to be an ongoing operation influenced by a number of discourses, among which ethnic identity is only one aspect—an aspect that seems to be unduly privileged by Canadian multiculturalism. Coral Ann Howells' remarks about another of Shani Mootoo's stories also holds true for "Out on Main Street": "Mootoo is writing [...] against the reification of ethnic cultural identities, which many people see as the major flaw in Canada's multiculturalism policies" (149-50). The ever-changing delimitations signaling a plurality of differences that have to be dealt with by the characters at the Kush Valley Sweets are thus both a sign of the necessity as well as possibility that identities must constantly be (re)negotiated.


1 "From a Canadian nationalist perspective […] Canada is too weak and vulnerable (next to the United States) to afford any threats to its unity" (Padolsky 143).

2 For a survey of the historical origins and the development of the multiculturalism policy in Canada see e.g. Kamboureli (10-11), Padolsky, and Thompson (56).

3 "Ethnicity, for the dominant culture, may be just a codeword for the foreign. This view of ethnicity sanctions ignorance while proclaiming the virtues of cultural tolerance. [...] ‘Ethnics’ are awarded a special status, so long as they keep their distance" (116).

4 "From the beginning, a number of commentators saw the advent of multiculturalism as merely an attempt to co-opt, buy off and neutralize real minority demands on Canadian society" (144).

5 My translation of "ideologische Verschleierung sozialer Gegensätze und Musealisierung diasporischer Kulturen."

6 It should be pointed out that even before 1971, Canada cannot, of course, be adequately described with Hugh MacLennan’s often-cited metaphor as the Two Solitudes of Franco- und Anglo-Canada; e.g. Afro-Canadian literature can be traced back to the year 1785 (cf. Clarke xiv). For a positioning of the author herself in regard to national and ethnic identity, see Mootoo (2001).

7 A number of stories in her collection Out on Main Street and Other Stories (1993) deal with Canadian subject matter, while her first novel Cereus Blooms at Night (1999) is set in the Caribbean. Her second novel He Drown She in the Sea (2005) in turn is concerned with Caribbean as well as Canadian society.

8 The title of the story is abbreviated as MS in the following.

9 It should be noted that the narrator’s conspicuous use of a non-standard, Caribbean variety of English adds to the text on several levels, e.g. in terms of the story’s ‘realism’ and its humor, among others. My discussion of the text will focus not so much on the text’s linguistic features as on the story’s subject matter though.

10 Not only with regard to language, but also to religion, India is highly diverse. Steven Vertovec, among others, notes how a simple binary differentiation along a Hindu and Muslim split neglects e.g. the diversity of Hinduistic cultures: "In fact mutability is one of the hallmark characteristics of many concepts, rites, social forms and other phenomena generally subsumed under the rubric of ‘Hinduism.’ In India, the range of such phenomena is so large, varied, and variable that many scholars have criticized the use of any single notion or category ‘Hinduism’" (108).

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