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.


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.


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

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14 Comments on “The Big Idea: Matthew Hughes”

  1. I, too, immigrated to Canada from the UK, fifteen years later than you, and have benefited my whole life from being a white male (though, in my case, my father was actually returning to the land of his birth).

    I think many “visible minority” Canadians might take a dimmer view of Canadian multiculturalism than you or I, but given the general European attitude toward multiculturalism (I recall a prominent, centrist, German politician calling “multi-kulti” a “failed experiment”), I still think we’re making it work.

    I’ve been working back in the UK for 4 years, and I really can’t wait to come home to Canada. The xenophobia here is so thick, even other western Europeans are not welcome in much of the country.

  2. There have been plenty of times throughout history that very different cultures have met and did not proceed to destroy each other, but there is this prevailing theory in White Western cultures that that sort of destruction is absolutely inevitable, and from what I’ve observed, its mostly used to excuse European colonialism.

  3. What Matt describes is one of the things that makes me proudest about being Canadian*. I saw a recent government statistic that suggests more than 20% of our population was not born in Canada, and it makes me dewy eyed every time I think of it.

    * Except for our treatment of aboriginal peoples, which has been shoddy at best and leaning more towards horrific on average. I’m cautiously optimistic this is changing, but we have so far to go.

    (My grandparents were refugees. I’m happy to pay that debt forward as best I can.)

  4. You wrote: 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.”

    Is the any scholarship confirming or refuting those concepts? Do we actually know much about the cultures that went into the creation of the Zambos? Or is this “lost in the mists of time” pending the creation of a time machine?

  5. “Is the any scholarship confirming or refuting those concepts? Do we actually know much about the cultures that went into the creation of the Zambos? Or is this “lost in the mists of time”

    The Africans came from different cultures and the culture of the Nigua is indeed lost in the mists. There is plenty of scholarship about patriarch,polygamous African cultures and matriarchal indigenous societies in the Americas. I had to choose something, so I chose what made an interesting mix.

  6. There’s no place like home.
    I too am used to the Canadian “multi-cultural mosaic,” (rather than Europe) where folks may have a special culture, but it’s embedded in the shared culture, just as mosaic pieces are embedded. A 1970-ish government report (on multi-C and bilingualism) said that Canadians don’t mind a person having a second language, provided a person has one of the official languages. To me, this is better than “pluralism” where there would theoretically be little or no cross-over.

    My East European Muslim hotel clerk, without using the word “ghetto,” said that Europeans are actively encouraging “enclaves” for immigrants. (He meant for fellow-Muslims) He did not think that was a good idea. Me neither, since I am used to how folks do it at home. Next time I stay in a British city, drinking in a British tavern, I am going to wear a convention name sticker that says “hello, my name is Sean, looking for (blank)” so someone can explain enclaves to me.

  7. @Matthew Hughes:
    And yet somehow, visible minorities ran as candidates for the People’s Party and didn’t seem to realize how expendable they would be. (Sarah Chung being one I know about.) Apparently people who come from places with one dominant culture that actively suppresses all others are quite willing to go other places and submit to the local culture, but then get annoyed when others feel they shouldn’t need to.

    (Me, I’m part English, part Irish, part Scottish, and part German. I argue with myself a lot.)

  8. I agree Matthew Hughes is nonjudgmental in his treatment of political and cultural issues, I noticed this especially in his novel Old Growth. I am looking forward to reading this novel, I just purchased minutes ago!

  9. Really interesting piece and am looking forward to picking this book up, but a couple things stood out to me.

    > There is no National Front in Canada, no Know-Nothing Party. No Stephen Miller would ever rise to a position of power here.
    You are far too optimistic. Yes, Maxime Bernier failed. But Doug Ford succeeded. There is a deeply racist underbelly in Canada which is waiting. Canada is generally on a five-to-ten years culture lag with out southern neighbours, but that wave inevitably crests on the shield.

    > And our record regarding aboriginal peoples leaves a lot to be desired, though we’re now finally making real efforts toward reconciliation.
    I would encourage you pay attention to the way in which the Canadian governments “reconciliation” efforts are being perceived by some members of the First Nations. It’s not very positive and still does not prioritize true nation-to-nation dealing with FN (ie. the Two Wampum Treaty).

    None of this is meant in harsh criticism – I enjoyed this a great deal – but there were some rose colouring going on with some of the statements.

  10. I try to be positive about Canada’s relations with aboriginal peoples because I see the long arc of history. More than fifty years ago, I was a volunteer with the Company of Young Canadians and spent several months living with two Métis families on what were then called “colonies” in northern Alberta, when Métis were referred to, even by themselves, as “breeds” and their living conditions made reserves look like holiday camps.

    In my twenties, I was communications aide to Len Marchand, minister of the environment, and the first “status Indian” elected to Parliament. I later helped him write his memoir, “Breaking Trail,” which was a story of remarkable courage and perseverance.

    I’ve also worked for several years with a prominent Coast Salish artist and entrepreneur, who carved many large-sized architectural pieces and tried to revive (and at the same time modernize) his people’s traditional canoe-making industry.

    So, I’ve seen the struggles and I’ve seen the accomplishments. As I say in the essay, we still have a ways to go, but we are definitely on our way.

  11. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

    You are – unsurprisingly – much more well informed than I.

    I am still learning the view points of the FN community and in no way did I intend to assume a voice of authority (as a honky, I should never assume to speak for a community of which I am not a part) it just – in the course of wide ranging essay – seemed to gloss over it.

    Cheers and looking forward to digging in to “What the Wind Brings”.

  12. Recently I was in the Canadian city of Edmonton reading a City Hall exhibit. Remember how during the Yugoslavian ethnic cleansing we called it genocide, even if the opposing sides weren’t trying to exterminate each other? In Canada now genocide means removing indigenous culture. (Sometimes, for changing definitions, the end justifies the means)

    Back when I was a boy and every classroom had a picture of Queen Elizabeth, Canadians took genocide in Britain, if not France, for granted. In France in my century they removed the Occitan language. In Britain they historically discouraged languages other than English and outlawed bagpipes and the kilt. Such genocide was reversed only after it had worked. But today I think no one remembers, and there aren’t royal portraits anymore.

    I am proud to be a member of (present) society, but I still wish people knew old history without, needless to say, having to agree with it. As Spock said, in the atomic war one, you can understand (previous culture) without approving. Also? I get homesick reading the 1940’s Martian Chronicles.

  13. The truly terrible thing about the residential schools is that the people who organized them thought they were doing the “right thing.” They were committing cultural genocide, trying the best the could to obliterate the aboriginal cultures, because they thought those cultures were “works of the devil.”

    Victorian-era “social darwinism” told them that the best thing an “Indian” could be was a farm worker or a housemaid, though first they needed to have the “Indianness” beaten out of them. The result was a wanton wreckage of cultures and communities that are now struggling to rebuild themselves.

    That struggle is not going to be pretty, but at least it’s now happening. And it deserves the respect and support of the rest of us, even if it take as may generations to rebuild as it took to destroy.

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