Book Review: No New Land

Overlooking Lake Ontario, the CN Tower is one of Toronto’s iconic symbols. The tower was originally conceived by the Canadian National Railway in the 1960s to symbolize the Canadian economy’s strength, but to those at the margins of society, the tower’s visible presence functions less as a promise than a taunt. In M.G. Vassanji’s 1991 No New Land, the CN Tower is a “permanent presence” in the Lalani family’s lives; it promises them the Canadian Dream, which further eludes their lives as time passes. 

Meet the Lalanis. They are double diasporic Asians. The patriarch Nurdin Lalani is from an Indian Muslim family who settled in Dar, Tanzania. They, like other Asians, functioned as a buffer class between the white British and Indigenous Africans, but in post-colonial Africa, unfortunately, they had to grapple with the anti-Asian policies while the British left with filled coffers. After seeing how Idi Amin expelled the Asians from Uganda in 1972, Nurdin among many other Asian immigrants moved to the West in hopes of a better future. 

Lalanis’ arrival in Canada is marked by reluctance because they only choose Canada after their entry to Britain is rejected. Even though Canada is not their first choice, the Lalanis settle in Don Mills with other immigrants, and they grapple with the new (and colder) way of life. Their Canadian dream never comes because Nurdin cannot get work. Back in Dar, Nurdin was a shoe salesperson, but he cannot get a job in Toronto because he lacks “Canadian experience.” The catch-22 is Nurdin cannot gain Canadian experience if he does not get hired. 

One of the best scenes in the book is when Nurdin goes to Eaton’s (a department store in the 1990s) to get a job at the shoe department in its downtown location. Nurdin does everything to convince Mr. Rogers that he is the perfect person for the job: he behaves obsequiously, he tries humour, and he brings up his experience. Mr. Rogers is exceedingly friendly. He tells Nurdin to keep his fingers crossed, and he reassures Nurdin that they will call him back. Mr. Rogers does not call Nurdin back, and when Nurdin acknowledges that while he may not have “Canadian experience,” he had eight years of experience selling shoes. Mr. Rogers then say that perhaps Nurdin is “overqualified.” The scene is funny because it is so absurd and relatable. I have known many immigrants who had to grovel to a Mr. Rogers for a job only to be rejected for no good reason. This is, after all, the country where engineers and physicians are driving Ubers. The seemingly neutral term “Canadian experience,” as Vassanji shows, is a racist term wielded against immigrants to prevent them from gaining economic capital in society. The cruel logic of “Canadian experience” leaves immigrants like Nurdin feeling excluded and incompetent so that they would be willing to accept the abundant less desirable jobs in society.

As Vassanji shows, Asian immigrants can get work in two conditions: if they apply to menial labour or if they have highly valued economic and cultural power back in their homeland. In the first condition, characters in the book can get a job as long as it is care labour, ones that are traditionally feminized. The women in the community could easily become “typists and clerks, even babysitters.” Nurdin does eventually get a job — a genial orderly at a hospital. On the other hand, the only character in the book that “makes it” in Canada is the lawyer Jamal who was a lawyer back in Dar. Toronto becomes a new terrain for him to conquer. So how is Toronto any different than Dar? The old structures of power and inequality are reproduced in the “new” land.   

Canada might have been perceived as a refuge from the racism of Dar, but the country is rift with the same problems. Nurdin sees his compatriot Esmail attacked brutally on the subway and called a “paki.” The whole incident becomes a scandal that Jamal and other dominant members of the community use for their political advantage while Esmail is reduced to a symbol. The main conflict of the story follows the same vein when Nurdin is accused of sexual assault in his new job. He works hard to secure a job in the hospital only to be further degraded and humiliated. His race as a brown man means he is easily interpolated as a sexual predator. 

What makes No New Land so impactful is Vassanji’s employment of stream of consciousness, especially Nurdin’s. Vassanji weaves Nurdin’s thoughts and feelings seamlessly with the events in the book. The pace is suspended in real life but not mundanely so. Nurdin’s frustrations, which are compounded by his desires, roll off the page, effectively turning the myth of Canada as a multicultural paradise on its head. 

Although the book was published in 1991, I found No New Land still a relevant read today. While immigrants for years have voiced their frustrations against the employers’ use of “Canadian experience,” it was only in December 2023 that the Ontario government decided to ban the use of “Canadian work experience” as a job requirement in application forms. Society always lags behind the prophetic nature of literature. 

Society also ignores the literature’s didacticism. The racism of the eighties and nineties that No New Land encapsulates has not disappeared in the twenty-first century. Current bad economic times beget scapegoating, and the scapegoats are usually immigrants and racialized subjects. In November 2022, the Canadian federal government boldly announced that by 2025, the country will welcome 500,000 immigrants a year to fill the labour gaps left by a lower birth rate and aging population. Fast forward to 2024, amid a year of high unemployment, inflation, high-interest rates, and housing shortage, the government and the broader Canadian public are now pointing the finger at immigration. Somehow, international students and temporary workers are to be blamed for poor fiscal policies. 

But Vassanji’s No New Land shows the truth of the Canadian Dream: a dangling carrot. The dream of having a steady and decent-paying job that can secure a three-bedroom home down the line eludes all of us day by day. The CN Tower’s message of economic prosperity is a taunt, for Canada, a land that is supposed to be a refuge from trouble, is the trouble. 

M.G. Vassanji is also known for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003) and The Assassin’s Song (2007). His latest novel is A Delhi Obsession (2019).

Monique Attrux

After spending two decades in Hong Kong where she was born and raised, Monique took her passion for literature with her to Toronto, where she became a PhD candidate at York University. She is deeply passionate about exploring how language shapes and reflects ethnic identities in the realm of literature. Her academic journey has been enriched by the generous support of several scholarships: York Entrance Scholarship (2020), the Vivienne Poy Hakka Research Award (2020), the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (2021), the SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canadian Graduate Scholarship (2022), the Canada-China Initiatives Fund (2022), and the Clara Thomas Scholarship in Canadian Studies (2023). She is shaped by Evelyn Lau, Roxane Gay, George Orwell, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde. Although she has a bias for clean prose, her reading tastes are eclectic, and she has yet to claim a favourite author. In time, she hopes to dabble in some creative writing of her own, but for now, she will enjoy the sweet escapes of getting lost in other people’s wor(l)ds.