The Literary Maladies of Diaspora Goans

By Ben Antao

I find it astonishing that so many of the Canadian Goans who immigrated to Canada from East Africa in the 1960s and 1970s still hearken back with nostalgia to the good times of the so-called paradise they basked in under the British colonial sun. The term ‘paradise’ to describe life in East Africa comes from Cyprian Fernandes, a journalist born and raised in Kenya who, like most of his generation, was forced to abandon the paradise following the end of colonial rule, and the introduction of Africanisation policies by the newly independent countries of Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania.

In his memoir Yesterday in Paradise (2016), Cyprian recounts his rise from humble beginnings to the position of a fearless journalist until death threats force him to leave East Africa in the 1970s. He has since lived and worked in Sydney, Australia, for over 40 years, more time outside than inside of Africa. Naturally, I was astounded, not having lived in colonial East Africa myself, that Cyprian would call Africa ‘a paradise.’ The critical reporter that he comes across as in his book, I thought he’d be more inclined to be objective, judicious and rather circumspect than be eager to pander to his compatriots in the diaspora. They, wholeheartedly not only approved but celebrated his description of life and times, as if a messiah had sprung with spring water to quench their thirst and longing for the bygone days.

In Toronto, the Goans received the book with praise and wistfulness.

I understand that the place of one’s childhood and early influences leave an indelible stamp on the memory and subconscious. But can the influence be so profound as to negate all subsequently lived experiences in other lands?  Indeed, this seems to be the malady afflicting Goans in the diaspora who at one time in their lives had the luck to sample life in colonial East Africa.

I came to Canada in 1967 and have had the experience of being born and raised in Portuguese-ruled Goa until I was 25, a significant formative period that a journalist and writer can hardly deny or ignore, no matter where he locates subsequently and puts down roots. As a matter of record, my fiction and nonfiction embraces my experiences in Goa and Toronto. A Madhouse in Goa and Nine Other Stories (2012), a bilingual (English and Romi-script Konkani) book, springs from my experiences in Goa whereas The Concubine and Selected Stories (2014) comprise 20 stories set in Toronto and Goa. Likewise, my long fiction: three novels are set in Toronto and three in Goa. My point is that a writer has to draw upon his lived experiences if he seeks to create literary fiction.

This mode of thinking does not seem to sit well with Goan writers who have emerged from the former British colonies of East Africa, and now living in Toronto. In 2010, I edited an anthology of stories by Canadian Goans called Goa Masala, in collaboration with Rudi Rodrigues, a visual artist trained at the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai. Of the 34 contributors, 18 were from East Africa, a goodly number who wrote about their remarkable remembrances of things past. We published only 300 copies that sold out on the day of the book launch itself. Seeing that there was interest from many potential readers, I paid for the publication of another 500 copies of the Goa edition through Frederick Noronha’s Goa 1556.

In 2017 to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, Rudi and I decided to bring out a second anthology called Goa Masala 2, but the response was lukewarm and disappointing, in that several submissions were tedious reminiscences of East Africa, of no general human interest. So we shelved the project.

What astonished me though, was that after living in Canada for more than 40 years, the Goans in Toronto could find nothing worthwhile to write about Canada. When I mentioned my anguish to Juliet Rebello, a fine writer with origins in Kenya, who had contributed to the first edition, she paused thoughtfully and said, 'I have had some interesting experiences in Canada.'  

'Well, write about them and tell your friends to do the same', I said.

Later, I brought up this point with John D’Souza, a Kenyan Goan and co-founder of Goacom website, who has been involved in creating an archive of Goan events in Canada since around 1967, for the benefit of the Goan community. He is a kindly soul who means well.

'I get your point of view,' he wrote in an email. 'The Goan colonial past can be quite boring, especially to those who did not live there. If I were bold enough to put pen to paper it would be in the same vein .... Unfortunately cannot get away from the Africa we lived in - still churning in our heads.  I lived there 24 years - here 48, and have very little to say about my time here.'

I rest my case.


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Ben Antao was born in Velim, Goa, and has been a journalist, teacher, writer and a certified financial planner now living in Toronto, Canada. He has worked as a reporter for The Navhind Times and The Indian Express in Bombay. In 1966, he was awarded a journalism fellowship by the World Press Institute based at the Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota. He has published two collections of short stories and seven novels, including Love Triangle: A novel in Terza Rima, and 160 Sonnets. His books are available from Cinnamon Teal Publishing or purchase directly at ben.antao@rogers.com.