Swinging Through the Doors in Fred Wah’s ‘Diamond Grill’

Some books, I find hard to follow. Some books, I dislike the cover page. Some books are books I would have never consider reading, unless out of necessity. And I must say, Diamond Grill is a fulfilling description of my identity.

Allow me to define the term, “hyphen” in the context of the book. Like the symbol, it represents a gap that separates two realms. For example, African-American, Korean-Canadian, German-Australian and so on. Because adhering to one identity may seem inaccurate or even insufficient, people with a dual sense of identity tend to have a degree of fondness towards the rather virtual “hyphenated space”.

The bio-text Diamond Grill implicitly, if not explicitly, urges the demand to materialize this very hyphenated space through its use of symbolism – the doors – which is based on the authors, Fred Wah’s experience of hyphenation. Realizing the confined definition of the doors, either entry or exit, Wah struggles to break free and challenges the practice of pre-established rules by incorporating an erratic and unorthodox style of writing.

It is imperative to decipher first, the traditional significance the doors convey and secondly, the more evolved value that the doors retain for Wah. In a traditional sense, the doors engender the conceptual construct of exit and entry in which both cases the doors serve as a gateway for either escape or prospect. On the contrary, the evolved definition of the doors, portrayed in the bio-text, embodies the idea of two infrastructures – one of which is a barrier and the other being a safe haven. Considering the malleability of what the doors could pose to be, there is a risk factor deriving from the lack of stability and uncertainty. The doors depicted in the Diamond Grill encompass both the traditional and untraditional significance, thus mirroring itself the dual nature of the hyphen.

In the bio-text, it is quite clear that Wah is indeed aware of the jeopardy involved when he fails to conform to certain rules that the doors hold – he goes “through only on the right-hand side [of the door]” (Wah 44) to avoid a collision with the person exiting from the other side. Yet his understanding of rules does not necessarily persuade him into complying with them. In actuality, he is unwilling to submit as he tries to prove a point that no rule can bind him, let alone no rule is ever created for marginal individuals like him and thus does not apply. This self-assertion becomes evident in his writing style. His calm facade overlaps with his inner rebelliousness, leaving sentence fragments and run-on sentences littered throughout. This bizarre style of writing on the surface showcases the chaotic state of mind but with further excavation, it encapsulates Wah’s hidden desire to deconstruct rules of restriction to establish the notion that writing and identity are elements independent of barriers and constraint. Wah instead utilizes an alternate form of “critical persuasion” (Wah 45), adopting a more poetic voice that would best deliver the “loose[ness] in the shape” of the hyphen. His voice thus pummels the practice of orthodox writing and questions the necessity of conventional rules while also exerting an intense feeling of opposition that he longs to voice out against those unable to accept the hyphen as a legitimate place for the racially ambiguous.

The question to legitimize the space of hyphen lives on, however. The answer to whether the hyphen should be “highlight[ed]” (McGonegal 180) will be undoubtedly crystallizes through examination of Wah’s relationship with the doors. When Wah opens the doors, he is in the centre of the hyphen, a place of noise, perceptual deconstruction and furthermore a place of obscurity and blending. In this area, Wah is comfortable not having to brood over his identity issue and the luxury of being “hybrid” that allows him unlimited access to the entry and exit of two conflicting domains, explains Wah’s reluctance to discard the hyphenated space. It is essential for him in that the act of going through the doors is a “necessary dance” (Wah 45) where he realizes “isochronous[ly]” (45) the ramification of being mixed and the delight of possessing a dual identity. Moreover, the hyphen is a man-made architecture of paradox, designed for those wishing emancipation from interpellation and categorization but also desiring a sense of belonging concurrently. Having this contradictory feature, Wah’s interaction with the doors undergo fluctuations. While there are times Wah passes through the doors with considerable noise and is glad that the doors are there to become the vehicle to help him “announce [his] presence” (Wah 44), there are other times whereby Wah assumes an ambiguous role and goes through rather “discreetly and deceptively” (McGonegal 185). Given that the hyphen is there, it is unlikely the desire for belonging will come to clash with the desire for liberation from classification.

Diamond Grill in itself is a flawless depiction of the ultimate issue that culturally and racially confused individuals like Wah faces on a day to day basis. The motif of the doors de facto functions as the skeletal structure for appealing the need for augmentation of the hyphen wherein the privilege to toggle between two cultures all remain intact while confronting the psychological strain that hybrids confront.

What is being a citizen of a multi-cultural nation really mean? What is being American, Canadian, or English? Are some of us guilty of expecting such national identities as being primarily white? Perhaps these short-sighted judgements inhibit individuals like Wah, whose identity is very much marginalized, from fully gaining a firm grasp of their identity.

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