Newcomers: When Each Obstacle Is An Adventure
By Nastasha Alli
Canadian Newcomer spoke to author Rabindranath Maharaj about his recent book, The Amazing Absorbing Boy. We wanted to find out what inspired him to write about a newcomer discovering Canada “through a comic book lens,” and about the experiences he had that helped shape his book.
Q: How did your memories of being a newcomer influence the way you wrote The Amazing Absorbing Boy?
A: Because I came to Canada as an adult, my own experiences were very different from that of the main character in the book, Sammy. Looking back, there were three events that shaped this book. The first, a decade (ten years) earlier, was my experience as a high school teacher in a suburb east of Toronto. At that school, there were a number of students whose parents had moved from the city to the relative safety of Pickering. But the students missed the communities they moved away from, places like Regent Park and Jane and Finch [in Toronto]. Then, as Writer-in-Residence at the Toronto Reference Library a couple years later, I was struck by the sense of confusion and isolation [sense of being alone] of recent immigrants who came into the library. I realized they were trying to understand the city, to make sense of the puzzle from their experiences.
Perhaps this was on my mind during a trip home on the GO train. I was looking at all the construction taking place, and suddenly I had this image of a young boy looking through the window and seeing the city change each time he blinked. By the end of the trip, the young boy had grown into an early version of Sammy.
Q: How much of your personal experiences are in this story?
A: A bit of my personality goes into some of the characters; however, the autobiographical parts [about my own life] are unintended [not on purpose]. I only discovered these when I neared the end of the book and I had a sense of all its elements. In writing The Amazing Absorbing Boy, I realized late that the main character was based to some extent on my youngest brother, who has passed away. Like Sammy, he was a comic book fan.
Q: What part of Sammy’s character do you think newcomers to Canada can easily relate to?
A: I would have to say Sammy's innocence and naiveté and the idea that he is now in a new world where he could constantly recreate himself. Some might also identify with his challenges to study in school with limited financial resources. Because he had very little help and had to choose his own path, I believe he became more tough and insightful.
Q: Does Sammy understand himself better by the end of the book?
A: Sammy saw the city as a place that was constantly changing and offering new opportunities. Like many newcomers, Sammy was alert to characteristics of the city in the way others were not. Perhaps some of his opinions, viewed through the lens of his comic book world, were exaggerated, but by the end, he settled in much better than his father ever did. He was different from his father in another significant way: Sammy’s father was weighed down with bitterness and with a sense of his failures. Sammy, on the other hand, treated each obstacle as a kind of adventure, a challenge.
Q: How have people responded?
A: Most readers liked the fresh-eyed views of Sammy, and they trusted his observations more. They also liked his optimism – the fact that he refused to become bitter because of his occasional negative experiences. A few people also realized that the episodic nature of the novel was a tribute to comic books.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
A: I would like them to see the city [of Toronto] in a different manner. I would also like them to understand the reasons for Sammy’s success, and those responsible for his father’s failures.
*Maharaj also has a new book about a teenager who gets bullied because of his heritage as an Ismaili Muslim. Find out how he overcomes those challenges in Maharaj’s book, The Picture of Nobody, out in stores now.