An American couple adopts a one-year-old baby from Canada. In the months that follow, they spend all their time trying to teach the baby to say “mama” and “dada”, repeating the words over and over again every time they see the child. Alas, the baby stays silent. Time passes, and finally comes a day when the babe utters his first words. Seated at the dinner table with his adoptive mother and father, he slowly opens his mouth and asks, “So how’s the weather, eh?”
Though it isn’t very funny, this joke does bring forth an interesting question: what does it mean to be Canadian? Surely, we can all agree that there is more to the Canadian identity than a quirky obsession with the weather and the constant use of the word “eh”. However, beyond the conviction that there is more to our nation than mere stereotypes, it is rather difficult for us to clearly define a culture that, less than fifty years ago, still bore the Union Jack on its national flag. It then comes as no surprise that Diamond Grill, which recounts Fred Wah’s experience as a child of mixed heritage working at his father’s Chinese restaurant, would define Canada as a coalition of multiple identities.
Plurality, in Diamond Grill, is expressed through a seemingly endless series of unnumbered and extremely short chapters: the twentieth, “Once in the New World, the Immigrant Can”, consists of a single paragraph of three lines. These chapters are organized in a fiercely non-sequential order. The actions and habits of the narrator’s father, for example, are still recounted well after the mention of his death.
Even the plot threads that unfold chronologically are fragmented. The narrator’s complaint to his mother that he “deserves a raise” and his father’s reaction the next day are separated by a chapter about Seto, the pastry cook of the titular Diamond Grill. The plot thread about his “father’s gun” is interrupted by seven chapters, resuming approximately twelve pages after its introduction: “I think of him walking home on a snowy night over the old bridge across the Columbia in Trail with the money bag under his overcoat and his hand on the pistol in his pocket. Alone.” Diamond Grill often feels less like a novel than a collection of random thoughts and short stories.
However, the numerous chapters are united by a single narrative voice, that of the fictional Fred Wah on whom the story is centered: “I must take sole responsibility for this text […] These are not true stories but, rather, poses or postures, necessitated, as I hope is clear in the text, by faking it.” The sham aspect of the novel, the author’s act of “faking it”, is subtly alluded to in the text itself: “The domain of this track is an ordered fiction, a serious intervention. Until we now know the only fiction here has to be the reader. You know, relative.” As in Ray Smith’s Cape Breton Is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada: A Centennial Project, such moments of self-reflexivity suggest the notion of self-discovery. If the text itself is geared inwards, then the ideology it conveys must also deal with introspection.
Other self-referential instances include the explicit footnotes at the end of some chapters. Excluded from the narrative, they all consist of voices other than Wah’s. In fact, the opinions they express are often contested and ridiculed. The forty-fifth chapter is composed of a single blank page with a footnote containing an extract from a racist discussion about poker by Garrett Brown. By isolating it as if its idiocy were beyond comment, Wah humiliates Brown’s discussion, and, by presenting it as a footnote instead of incorporating it to his narrative, he distances himself from opinions of this kind. Despite its structure that suggests the union of various ideas, there are some Diamond Grill refuses to assimilate.
Another manner in which the novel unifies different thoughts is through the use of run-on sentences that amalgamate various ideas, foreign to one another, into a single statement: double-talk, family, religion, the ocean, racist myths, etc. The deliberate absence of quotation marks has a similar effect. In Diamond Grill, dialogue isn’t isolated by speech marks. In the tenth chapter, when the narrator’s mother explains “how people in Swift Current reacted to her marrying a Chinaman”, it almost appears as if she herself is narrating the chapter: “I’ve forgotten a lot of things. Your dad, he shrugged it off, though I know it hurt him […] Why do you want to write about this anyway? That’s all done with.” Again, different voices are presented as one.
Not surprisingly, Diamond Grill’s take on the Canadian identity focuses on its notion of multiculturalism: “Another chip on my shoulder is the appropriation of the immigrant identity […] Why be in such a rush to dilute? Those of us who have already been genetically diluted need our own space to figure it out.” Wah criticizes Canada’s hypocrisy regarding its acceptance of ethnic variety: “The teacher telling us who we get to be, to write down what our fathers are. Race, race, race. English, German, Doukhobor, Italian. But not Canadian […] After school. Chink, Limy, Kraut, Wop, Spik.” The novel’s fragmented narrative is reminiscent of the numerous cultures trying to find their place in this country.
Wah’s ideal of Canada is a place similar to the diner run by his father. It is a place where one can freely navigate between cultures, where the menu includes “a complete listing of sandwiches, steaks, soda fountain, and Chinese food”. People of all races and origins mingle freely at the Diamond Grill, either as customers or employees: “Miko and Donna Mori have their own rooms above the café and become an integral part of life in the café; almost family, as they say.” Traditionally, the Chinese and the Japanese do not get along, but it matters little here.
To emphasise the symbolic importance of the diner, the novel inserts drawings in its narrative, such as the “Special Christmas Dinner” poster and the sign painted on the wall. The Diamond Grill is central to Wah’s novel. It is a fundamental expression of his father’s efforts to find his place in this new country and, ultimately, of his (relative) success.
Expressing its vision through both its narrative form and plot content, Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill criticizes the manner in which our country has dealt with the presence of numerous ethnicities. It suggests that the answer to the question of our national identity lies in our culture’s non-identity. In other words, Canada is defined by its diversity and its inability to define itself universally.
Three men are stranded in a crashing plane: an American, a British man, and a Canadian. Having no parachutes available, they all decide to leap into oblivion rather than die in the plane. The American is first to go. He screams, “For democracy and the American way!” and jumps out of the plane. The British man then yells out, “For the Queen!” and plunges to his death. The Canadian is the last to jump. After a few moments of hesitation, he leaps off the plane, and shouts… Well, I’m not sure what he shouts. That would all depend on what kind of Canadian he is, wouldn’t it?