Author explores the concept of home with historic background
COBOURG - The odyssey of Ulysses boils down to the story of a man just trying to find his way home.
In modern times, his journey has been paralleled in a novel by Cobourg author Shane Joseph, whose protagonist is torn between his roots in Joseph's own native land of Sri Lanka and the difficult life he has established in Canada.
And no, Joseph said, The Ulysses Man is not autobiographical.
"It comes during a similar period when I grew up in Sri Lanka and left and came to Canada - I used that deliberately to minimize the research I had to do," he said in a recent interview.
"It's not contrived, because these events could have happened. But they didn't happen to me. I get asked that question a lot."
Joseph's story is about Martin James, an English-speaking Christian Burgher of European ancestry growing up in newly independent Ceylon (as the country was then called) during the 1960s and 1970s. But conditions (such as discrimination against minorities) are in place that will sow an insurrection and civil war.
This, combined with tragic family events, spurs Martin to smuggle himself into Toronto in 1983, a time when Canada's economy offered ample opportunity for immigrants. A succession of jobs and business ventures (not always successful), marriage to a daughter of an old-line Canadian family, domestic and financial problems, and his illegal immigration status and underworld past in a country succumbing to the economic troubles of the world - all plague him until he resorts to returning to Sri Lanka to look for the answer to a question that troubles him: where is home?
He finds a Sri Lanka devastated by a tsunami and wracked by a chronic civil war, not to mention family problems he had left behind.
He is forced to rethink his ideas about home, and the conclusions he reaches wind up the book.
"There are elements of a writer's life that somehow filter in," the author said.
"It was glorious in the 1950s. There was independence, and life was good.
"In the 1960s, things changed. Politics and economic conditions changed. We were left behind, watching this beautiful paradise island go downhill.
Joseph left Ceylon in 1980, went to the Middle East (where he married and had a family), then came to Canada as a legal immigrant in 1987.
"Some of the injustices or imbalances that created civil-war-type conditions in Ceylon did affect us growing up. The standardized process they instituted in the early-1970s, where everyone from a city high school had a different rating for their marks to get into university vs. a rural school - a lot of us were excluded from getting into university.
"The language issue was a struggle. I studied until Grade 8 in Sinhala (the local language), and I used to come in first or second in my class, but my mother tongue was English. In Grade 9, a bunch of kids failed a government exam, so I could join the English class, which was a tremendous relief.
"Sri Lanka lost the edge to India when it came to English education. They lost a lot of English teachers, and it became a poorly spoken language. When I was in Sri Lanka in 2008, at my old school, a teacher told me they were starting to bring back English as a language of instruction, because they realized the rest of the world had left them behind."
Joseph limned a character who didn't feel at home where he was born - not even when he returned there.
"Through a process of all these adventures, he begins to realize home is a state of mind. It's where you are at the moment. It takes a certain amount of loss, and he has tremendous loss in his life," the author said.
"There are parts that are uncomfortable, but those things happen."
Joseph found the writing of the book to be cathartic.
"I have taken six years to write it, on and off. I wanted to capture a way of life that has sort of disappeared.
"The burghers, of which I am one, remnants left over from the Portuguese and Dutch colonization - there are only about 50,000 left, and probably 50,000 scattered all over the world. They had a unique culture and way of life that is somewhat overtaken by the thinning out of the population of the immigration of that group."
The Ulysses Man is already available through Amazon and online stores.
As well, Joseph will share a book launch with Brian Mullally (author of a book of short stories called A Patch Of Blue) Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. at Meet At 66 King East in Cobourg.