The Big Idea: Matthew Hughes

When cultures meet, is there always a “clash” — or is there a way for disparate peoples to not only get along but thrive? This was a line of inquiry that Matthew Hughes is interested in, and pursues in his new novel What the Wind Brings.

MATTHEW HUGHES:

Back in 1971, when I was an English major at Simon Fraser University, I happened across a footnote in a book about cross-cultural contacts. The author was making the point that castaways arriving on foreign shores – like Japanese fishermen washed up on the coast of what was to become British Columbia – usually fared poorly. But the footnote mentioned an exceptional case: shipwrecked African slaves on the jungle coast of sixteenth-century Ecuador who allied themselves with the local indigenous people to form a mixed society – the “Zambo state” – who survived and prevailed against attempts by Spanish conquistadors to re-enslave them.

I thought: that would make a great historical novel. But it turned out to be difficult to research, because most scholarship was in Spanish-language academic journals.  Still, I kept it in mind as the decades rolled by and I eventually became a novelist. So, when the teens of this century arrived and North American scholars began writing about the Zambos, I could do the research and write the book.

Over my fiction-writing career, two themes dominated: I tended to write about outliers struggling to thrive in social environments not made for their kind; and the societies I created were often diverse, full of odd people energetically pursuing odd goals.

Writing about oddballs comes naturally to me, because I am one. Writing without judgements about diverse cultures came from observing how diversity gives a society strength and resilience. So when I came to write What the Wind Brings, it made sense to me that the Africans, many of them survivors of wars among well organized West African states, would combine with Ecuador’s Nigua people, who had spent generations fending off attempts by the expanding Inca empire to come subjugate them.

Military skills combined with an intimate knowledge of a challenging landscape offered an advantage. But the marriage of African and Nigua was not made in heaven. The Africans, as I envisioned them, came from a patriarchal culture; the Nigua, like many indigenous peoples of the Americas, I assumed to be matriarchal. Both groups had customs and ingrained habits that required rough edges to be rubbed smooth. And so they were, by mutual agreement.

The resulting mixed society outfought and out-thought the Spaniards, until finally the latter agreed to leave them alone. The Zambos endured for generations, and today their descendants are a distinct, thriving culture within the Ecuadorean social mix.

My own cultural background was originally working-class British, a typical Liverpool mongrel of English, Irish, Welsh strains, with a little Manx. I came to Canada as an immigrant child in 1954, and I was lucky we came then because Canadian immigration policies in those years discriminated strongly in favor of WASPs – even men like my father, a 40-year-old unskilled and uneducated laborer with a wife and five children.

Then, in the 1960s, those policies gave way to new thinking. Canada began to welcome newcomers from all over the world, including people who were formerly legally discriminated against, like Canadian-born Asians who had long been barred from becoming pharmacists or architects under provincial laws governing the professions.

The official Canadian term for such people, according to the census, was “visible minorities.” In 1961, when I was twelve, less than one percent of Canadians fit that bureaucratic category, some of them the descendants of American slaves who were brought to Nova Scotia after the Revolution, others the children of Chinese railroad builders who never went back to China (though they were harshly encouraged to do so).

By 1981, under the new immigration rules, the percentage had increased to 4.7, and by 1991 it had reached 9.4. By the time of the 2016 census, the number had risen to 22.3 per cent, and that did not include the more than four per cent of my fellow citizens who are aboriginal people and are not, for arcane bureaucratic reasons, classified as “visible minorities.”

By 2031, visible minorities, almost all of them first- or second-generation immigrants, will account for a third of Canadians.

But at the same time we have been taking in people of all colors and cultures, we have not imposed a “melting pot” ethos on the newcomers. We are a multicultural society. We follow Rodney King’s advice: we all just get along.

Well, not quite all. We have our racists and reactionaries, most of them in rural settings where visible minority immigrants don’t tend to settle. And our record regarding aboriginal peoples leaves a lot to be desired, though we’re now finally making real efforts toward reconciliation.

But here’s the thing: there is no established political party in Canada that opposes immigration and multiculturalism. Recently, a Conservative Member of Parliament left his party and tried to start one. His “People’s Party” ran candidates in October’s federal election – and was roundly rejected by the people, attracting a paltry 1.6 percent of the nation’s votes. Their defector/leader lost his seat.

So, in my lifetime, since washing up on Canada’s shores, I have seen my country evolve from whites-only to all-are-welcome. We have grown no ghettos; yes, first-generation immigrants tend to settle in neighborhoods where the neighbors look like them, but their children spread out and live among the rest of us. Intermarriage is too common to be remarked upon. There is no National Front in Canada, no Know-Nothing Party. No Stephen Miller would ever rise to a position of power here.

That is the one of the big lessons of my life, and it’s the idea I have sought to express in What the Wind Brings. Without beating a drum or ladling in infodumps, I wanted the reader to come away with an understanding that diversity is strength, that we succeed by finding ways to all get along and by looking out for each other.

These days, it’s a timely lesson.

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What the Wind Brings: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Kobo|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook.