As the Andes Disappeared
By Caroline Dawson
Translated from French by Anita Anand
Book hug Press
ISBN: 978-1771668613
208pp.

The innate desire for a sense of belonging is universal. At times, our feelings of security hinge on assimilation. However, what occurs to those aspects of our identity that we might suppress to conform to the majority?

Caroline Dawson, an author and sociology instructor born in Chile and now residing in Montreal, delves into and mourns the rejected facets of self in her autobiographical French novel Là Où Je Me Terre (2020). The book has now been expertly translated into English by Anita Anand to unfold a potent coming-of-age narrative.

Within this fictionalised account, Caroline recounts memories of her family’s immigration, addressing issues of social injustice and racism while candidly examining her own cultural assimilation with a blend of humour, sincerity and profound reflection.

On Christmas eve in 1986, when she was seven, Caroline’s family relocated to Quebec, seeking refuge from the Pinochet regime in Chile. While residing in Chile, her mother worked in a daycare, and her father was an English teacher. However, upon moving to Montreal, their previous occupations had to be discarded as they took on labourious tasks, such as nighttime cleaning of bank offices, in order to ensure a secure future for their children.

An English translation of an autobiographical French novel by a Chilean immigrant to Canada grapples with coming of age in exile and issues of identity

Seated on the windowsill of her residence, gazing at the Andes with suicidal thoughts, perturbed by the information about her family relocating to Canada, she reminisces: “I looked at the ground from the top of my cliff. It didn’t shrink back; it invited me. Jump little one. The life you used to have no longer exists.”

Upon arriving in Canada, Caroline joins her parents in their nightly janitorial duties. She encounters instances of racist micro-aggressions while attending school. She immerses herself in Québécois popular culture and nurtures her passion for reading and writing in French.

French, an unfamiliar language, and the harsh winter climates present challenges. Caroline navigates her formative years in a society that marginalises those perceived as different, where manual labour is looked down upon.

She, along with her two brothers, acquired French proficiency by watching children’s programmes on television and later attended a welcoming programme at school while her parents engaged in manual work for a living.

Driven by her passion for writing since childhood, Caroline diligently masters the language. Despite her teacher’s dismissal of a poem about a snowman, a piece she had devoted weeks to and eagerly anticipated positive feedback on, Caroline discovers joy in reading, which later transitions to teaching and writing.

Following a winter in the humorously labelled “protective bubble of the Canadian multicultural mosaic fantasyland that was the classe de francization”, Caroline, a diligent student, successfully fits into the standard school programme.

However, confronted with a scarcity of (non-white) immigrants in her school, she becomes wary of her ‘otherness’ and starts to restrain her innate enthusiasm, suppressing “the little Latina in me.” The usual meals in her lunchbox, packed with warmth and love by her mother, make her feel embarrassed.

“In the eighties, nobody posted pictures of their slices of avocado toast,” the narrator jests. Weary of enduring teasing, she instructs her mother not to include “anything that could be perceived as exotic”, gradually rejecting both her heritage and a healthy diet.

Divided into three parts, with 39 short chapters, the book is fast-paced, as the reader swiftly goes through the protagonist’s experiences — from the naivety of a child to a youth engaged in politics and sociology, to an individual who completes a full circle in comprehending memory and her displacement in the world, the tonality clearly depicting every phase of life.

Dawson’s fluid writing style effortlessly weaves emotions, memories and reflections into a cohesive narrative, creating a rich and immersive reading experience. The translator has done an exceptional job in preserving the essence of the original work. Anita Anand skillfully captures the nuances of the author’s prose, maintaining the fluidity and emotional depth inherent in the writing.

The translated version not only stays true to the author’s distinctive voice, but also ensures that the readers, regardless of the language they read it in, can fully appreciate the lyrical and evocative nature of the narrative. The seamless transition from the author’s language to the translated text showcases the translator’s prowess in conveying the beauty and intricacies of the original writing style, allowing the essence of the story to transcend linguistic boundaries. It is as resonant as it is sound.

As the Andes Disappeared doesn’t disclose everything; it’s a deliberate choice. It appears to target a specific audience, including the author’s mother, her children, her husband, friends, and anyone who has intersected her life.

There’s an undertone of retaliation. Initially, the mood is confrontational, progressively addressing individuals who mistreated and shamed Carolina, a Chilean refugee girl now transformed into a successful Quebecoise writer. It’s a rebuke to figures like filmmaker and activist for Quebec independence Pierre Falardeau — who did not believe in her work and dismissed her writings, only to find her successful later — the affluent employers of her mother, the classmate who insulted her, and the teacher who dismissed her poem.

The book defiantly asserts how she stood against all odds — a ‘facepalm’ to those who tried to erase her. Conversely, it exudes pride, extolling acts of self-sacrifice and extending gratitude to friends, colleagues and librarians who fuelled her love for books, as well as fellow sociologists.

However, the primary impetus for writing, prevailing over all else, seems to be a personal catharsis — a confrontation with oneself, an expulsion of pain, an overflow of joy, a celebration of transformation, and a renewal of spirit.

The reviewer is a content lead at an agency.

She can be reached at sara.amj@hotmail.co.uk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 18th, 2024

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