Commentary by Mayank Bhatt in Toronto
I published my debut novel, Belief, in Canada last year. It’s the story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate into the Canadian mainstream.
Just when everything seems to be falling into place after nearly two decades of struggle to survive in an alien land, facing constant rejection, the family discovers their son’s apparent involvement in some sort of terrorist plot. Hurriedly, they consult their neighbours, who put them in touch with a police officer known to them.
The novel explores the family’s trauma following the son’s arrest.
The family’s Muslim identity is central to the story. It deals with the manner in which people of colour who are adherents of Islam are generally (and often unconsciously) treated in a society that they adopt as immigrants.
This is an important issue because in their desperation to grab eyeballs, the mainstream news and entertainment media often forget to make it clear that Islam is not a monolith and all Muslims are not the same.
In writing my novel, I set out with a simple objective – that there is little to distinguish between people on the basis of their beliefs.
The other issue that I wanted to examine was this whole business of radicalisation and terrorism. It’s important to underline that such a phenomenon doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Young men such as Rafiq, the main character in my novel, go astray in an environment where they are unable to make an emotional or a material connection with society at large, and this leads to many complications for them, for their families and the society.
From the family’s perspective, how different would a son’s radicalisation and subsequent involvement in terrorism be from drug addiction?
I’m not saying that there is no distinction. Society will definitely distinguish between the two, and weigh down heavily on radicalisation and terrorism while condoning drug addiction, and we can argue that this has a lot to do with race, but that really is a different debate.
I’d still want to believe that it would still represent an enormous crisis from the parents’ point of view. I don’t know whether the parents of a son who’s a drug addict would take comfort from the fact that their son is “only” dealing with a drug problem, rather than being radicalised as a terrorist.
The other challenge I dealt with while writing the novel was that I’m not a Muslim. This is a sensitive matter. Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil?
I was born in a Hindu family. However, but for my grandmother, nobody really practised the religion regularly or ritualistically. But I grew up and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for more than three decades in cosmopolitan Bombay (now Mumbai).
Also, as a journalist in Bombay, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93, witnessed first-hand the callousness of the state in bringing justice to the survivor victims of these riots, and recorded the adverse long-term effects of official neglect that Muslims in India have suffered.
And perhaps, most pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over two decades.
Yet, to construct a novel was a grave responsibility. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation’.
Lionel Shriver let loose a veritable storm last year when she defended her right to write about anything that she as a writer wanted to (Read her speech here, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here).
Closer home, our own Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden has been hauled over the coals for claiming to be Aboriginal; his defence is that he feels like one, even if he may not be one genetically.
Well-meaning Muslim friends of South Asian origin cautioned me that my attempt at depicting a Muslim milieu in Canada would lack authenticity and suggested that I abandon the “misadventure”. I was, of course, not going to do that, mainly because I believe that imagination and craft could be better substitutes for experience.
I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that are palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create.
I have done so in Belief and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.
Mayank Bhatt’s debut novel Belief was published in 2016 by Mawenzi House. Read our review here - Novel Explores Road to Radicalization
Book Review by Rosanna Haroutounian in Gatineau
The histories of Canadians are plentiful, rich, and complex. We can never know all of them, but even sharing just a few can open windows into many unknown pasts.
Coming Here, Being Here: A Canadian Migration Anthology brings together people’s stories of arriving in Canada, as told through first-hand accounts and by those who have studied immigration and helped newcomers along the way.
Edited by Donald Mulcahy, this collection of stories about the immigration experience seems a long time coming. It is the first time I have had the chance to read about such a wide scope of experiences from across the country in one book.
On the other hand, this collection could not have come at a better time, as we seem of late to be in need of reminders about how integral these stories are to our national identity.
Struggles and successes
In the story titled “They Left Their Homes with Nothing, and Made a New Life with Hard Work,” Dana Borcea shares the stories of some of the 6,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to Edmonton 25 years ago as “boat people.” Learning about their struggles and successes, I could not help wondering what stories the newly arriving Syrian refugees will tell in 25 years about coming to Canada.
Like the stories of refugees from Vietnam, they will undoubtedly include working at menial jobs to support their families, struggling to learn a new language, and adapting to a new culture. Will they also realize their dreams for peace and belonging?
Another story I know will stay with me for a long time is “Prejudice,” by Anton Capri. It recounts the author’s arrival as a DP, or displaced person, in Canada after the Second World War. At his first baseball game, the other children laugh at the boy who can’t hit the ball – except Dave, who becomes young Anton’s first friend.
Anton feels guilty that the other students now shun both him and Dave, yet to his surprise Dave thanks him for being his friend. The impact of this short narrative is felt in its ending and for that reason cannot be revealed in a simple summary, but it is sure to leave readers pondering about the lengths and limits of that ugly word – prejudice.
Our privileged lives
The stories also present diverse viewpoints on the present state of immigration in Canada. Monica Kidd writes in “The Music of Small Things” about being “purple with rage” at the government after seeing the photo of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi – a young boy who escaped the current violence in Syria, only to be swept up on a beach in Turkey.
“We lived privileged lives in a wealthy country and would find a way to sponsor a refugee family,” Kidd decided with her friends.
Meanwhile, the prominent author Henry Beissel calls Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to settle 50,000 Syrian refugees in Canada in 2016 “hasty,” adding that the government did so without regard for demographic and security concerns. His suggestion that this will lead to the creation of ghettos, the “breeding ground of discrimination and racism,” contrasts with the image of a welcoming and pluralistic Canada described in an essay he delivered in 1985, also included in his contribution to this anthology, titled “No Country for a Master Race.”
Story after story in this anthology illustrates the challenges people must overcome to arrive here, and how hard they must work to stay and ultimately belong here.
Even the notion that our values and customs are under threat seems to be challenged when in “Writing in French in Alberta,” Laurent Chabin points out: “No one threatens a language that is freely used, and there is no reason to invent enemies when all one really needs to do is practice and write in one’s own language.”
This can be said of all the traditions Canadians hold dear and fiercely protect. The best way to defend these qualities – which in my mind include equality, respect, and generosity – is to practice them freely.
As Batia Boe Stolar writes in "I Am an Immigrant," though they carry some burdens, the experiences of immigration should be accepted and acknowledged.
“Identifying myself as an immigrant is a self-conscious act that grants me a degree of agency, allowing me to exert some control over my identity,” she writes.
“I must here confess that there is a part of me that sometimes relishes the fact I have a story to tell that others crave to hear…. My markings open doors and close others; they generate other stories about other people’s experiences too.”
Here’s to hoping this collection of stories is a spark that ignites others to tell of the victories celebrated and hardships endured in coming to this country and calling it “Home.”
Review by Anita Singh in Toronto
Almost 40 years ago, my grandparents changed our family’s history by deciding to move to Canada. I recently asked my grandma about her immigration story.
She wistfully told me of the navy blue suits tailored for her husband and sons, her special saree, and the frock for her then-young daughter to wear on the flight.
With amazing clarity for her 80-plus years, Dadi recounted the first house she bought with my grandfather, how every member of the family worked to make sure the mortgage was paid and how they slowly but surely made Canada their home.
‘Weather-Permitting & Other Stories’ by Pratap Reddy is a collection of stories that taps into a similar wistfulness. The 12 short stories in this collection wonderfully narrate some of the universal aspects of the immigrant experience – the nervous excitement, inherent disappointment, and yet, steadfast determination for success.
What makes this collection unique is Reddy’s willingness to talk about the darker side of this experience. His stories do not shy away from broken marriages, children sent back to India to stay with grandparents, the disabling lack of Canadian experience or education to gain employment, and most significantly, the loneliness associated with being far away from ‘home’.
In ‘Going West’, the character named ‘The Prince’ is a creative foil to the newly-arrived Kumar, foreshadowing the learning curve of each immigrant when coming to Canada. “You should approach an employment agency. They pay about 12 dollars an hour for factory jobs,” he suggests, highlighting the reality of some immigrants as they try to gain any foothold in Canada.
Kumar wonders, “Did he think I came halfway across the globe to become general labour? The Prince was aware that I had held a middle level position in HR in India.”
Reddy also does an excellent job narrating the different stages of the immigrant journey, which does not begin or end on arrival in Canada, but lingers every day.
In ‘The Toy Flamingo,’ Venky, despite being settled in Canada for 10 years, discovers that an important part of his personal history still lies in India. As he surrounds himself with people and places in his new homeland, an uninvited memory invades Venky’s outwardly perfect life, “‘Hasve agataday’ I cry out. Something falls to the ground with a crash. I hear him mutter in a strange language. I’m certain now that dinner will take even longer to come.”
Venky’s lifestory is an excellent metaphor for how an immigrant’s relationship with their former homelands continue to affect their lives – even while attempting, desperately even, to become Canadian.
Relying on stereotype
However, as a second-generation Canadian, I do take issue with Reddy’s continuous reliance on the stereotype that portrays settled Indo-Canadians as selfish, distant, uncouth and presumptuously inhospitable, who lose their ‘Indianness’ in their adoption of a new life in Canada.
This anti-Indo-Canadian bias runs tacitly throughout the collection.
In ‘Mango Fool,’ Kavita describes her Indo-Canadian customer as “a big woman, bulging out of her blue jeans and nondescript top” who becomes hostile when questioned about her sale purchases. In this story, Reddy pits the niceties of Kavita’s Indian sensibilities against the brashness of the Indo-Canadian customer. Settled immigrants in Canada, Shyam and Shilpa in ‘Her White Christmas’ are barely tolerant of Shyam’s Indian mother’s presence in their home, while in ‘Weather Permitting’, the landlord Maya is scheming and unfair to the newly-immigrated Ravi, eventually kicking him out of the house into the cold Canadian winter.
In ‘Demon Glass’, the hardworking newcomer Lalita is targeted by the overwhelming libido of Indo-Canadian Prem, who preys on the single mother and her daughter. And in ‘Going West’, Kumar passes considerable judgment on his first entry into the Patel guesthouse, noting “I was at once assailed by the stale aroma of Indian cooking. I had not experienced such a powerful bouquet in India where a billion mouths fed on Indian cuisine everyday.”
Reddy has told a one-dimensional story about Indo-Canadians, missing an opportunity to include the positives of the immigrant experience that have emerged from 100 years of Indian immigration to Canada. He ignores how the Indo-Canadian community has succeeded in developing a comfortable co-existence of Indianness and Canadianess, where cultural events, places of worship, cricket pitches, Indian languages and arts schools create a home and community for many immigrants, while becoming an integral part of Canada’s multicultural society.
Despite these misgivings, Weather Permitting and Other Stories is a welcome addition to the growing Canadian literature on immigration. I look forward to Reddy’s forthcoming full-length novel and new collection of short stories as an ongoing contribution to this important literature.
Anita Singh is Toronto-based consultant and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University. Her research examines the role of diaspora groups and their influence on foreign policy, particularly the Indo-Canadian community and Canada-India relations.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to email@example.com
by Rosanna Haroutounian in Quebec City
Racial profiling by police is not a new phenomenon. The ability to now document aggression by law enforcement against African Americans and other racialized people and broadcast the footage around the world makes this long-standing injustice hard to ignore.
Along with meaningful discussions though, these images are also sparking retaliation by some members of the targeted communities.
These acts of aggression, the feelings they create, and the history they are grounded in, are hard for adults to understand, let alone explain to a young person.
Thanks to the Internet and technology, children and youth today have the world at their fingertips. Yet defining how prejudice and racism continue to have implications in different realms of society are ongoing topics of research, policy discussions and public debate.
Making children aware
Books like The Stone Thrower by Canadian author Jael Richardson are one way to start a conversation with children about the historical roots of some of the prejudice we continue to see today against African Americans.
The illustrated book tells the real-life story of Chuck Ealey, starting from when he was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1950. He grows up in the city’s North End neighbourhood without most of the opportunities that many other children in America enjoy.
Because of racism against Black people in America — which often revolves around the idea that all Black people have characteristics that make them inferior to Caucasian Americans — Chuck and other people who have black skin must live, learn and play separately from those with white skin.
Chuck’s mother works long hours for little money, yet still has time and energy to instill in her son the drive to get educated and follow the train tracks that go beyond the North End.
“How could he get out of the North End if they didn’t even have enough money for food?” Chuck wonders.
He begins visiting the train tracks regularly to practise throwing stones at the passing freight cars. It helps him on the football field, and eventually his high school coach asks him to play quarterback during a game.
On the field, he is taunted by the rival team, but maintains his focus and determination to win.
The team’s victory is the start of Chuck Ealey’s long and successful career in high school and college football. After that, though, his time as a football player in the United States is over.
“The National Football League didn’t believe that he could be a great quarterback because of the color of his skin,” writes Richardson.
So instead, Ealey moved to Canada to play in the Canadian Football League (CFL). In his first year as a quarterback for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, he led the team to the Grey Cup championship and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player and the CFL’s Rookie of the Year.
Colourful pages tell ugly history
“It’s an unbeatable story that amazes me, even though I’ve heard it all before, because Chuck Ealey happens to be my father,” Richardson explains at the end of the book. She has also written about her father’s story in a 2012 memoir called The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, which was the subject of a TSN (The Sports Network) documentary.
Chuck’s story is remarkable, yet his experience with racism is not unique. Racial segregation was a reality for a huge segment of the population only about 50 years ago — in both the United States and Canada.
Children can relate to parts of the book about playing outdoors, practising sports and being part of a team. What might come as a surprise is that there was once a time when not all children could enjoy these things equally.
The Stone Thrower’s colourful and animated pages tell of a history that was much uglier, hateful and violent.
The difficult legacy of race
While segregation was not enshrined in Canadian law, it still existed in all facets of social life. The story of Viola Desmond being arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, movie theatre is just one example.
These injustices continue to have repercussions that are felt today. While the days of slavery are over, poverty in Black communities and videos of police brutality against Black people are remnants of what U.S. President Barack Obama termed “the difficult legacy of race.”
The NFL can no longer bar Black athletes from playing football, but law enforcement, employers and the justice system are still realms in which race matters. The Stone Thrower is a reminder of how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.
However, Ealey’s story is also a much-needed reminder for children and adults alike of what is possible when we work against division and towards inclusion. Through a basic retelling of how one man overcame injustice to be treated fairly, we see how difficult it is to explain and justify segregation and inequality.
On the other hand, we see how easy it is to defend everyone’s basic right to work, play and live without discrimination.
Rosanna Haroutounian is a freelance writer and the assignment editor at New Canadian Media. She studied journalism and political science at Carleton University and now splits her time between Quebec City and Peterborough, Ont.
This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
by Rosanna Haroutounian in Quebec City
The recent death of Abdirahman Abdi after his violent arrest in Ottawa and the 2015 police shooting of Andrew Loku in Toronto challenge the “meanwhile in Canada” dichotomy that says racial profiling only happens in America.
Racial profiling by police is not a new phenomenon. The ability to now document aggression by law enforcement against Black Canadians and Americans and other visible minorities and broadcast the footage around the world makes this long-standing injustice hard to ignore.
At the same time, we meet a younger cohort that is forcing down those walls in order to be heard.
More story needed
Short stories go well with short attention spans, delivering the main elements of a good story in one quick dose.
At the same time, they can leave many questions unanswered. To sum them all into one: “What happens next?”
Most of the stories in All My Fallen Angelas fall into the latter category.
Just as we are on the cusp of getting to know the characters, and finding our way around the intricacies of their lives, we are abruptly halted and told to move on.
This is a sign of Patriarca’s ability as an engaging storyteller, but also begs whether some endings could be more convincing.
After much pondering, it is hard to determine whether it’s better for the author to provide more finality to her stories, or to allow readers to explore the possibilities on their own.
Alice Munro, arguably Canada’s most well-known short story writer, also gives readers much to think about through her writing.
On writing short stories, Munro told The New York Times 30 years ago, “I don't really understand a novel. I don't understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story . . . I kind of want a moment that's explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”
Historical roots to popular images
Like Patriarca, Munro also writes about women; she has been called a feminist writer. While her stories focus mostly on women in Southwestern Ontario, Patriarca’s reside in Toronto, from the 1960s onward.
We are introduced to characters that bear resemblance to the stereotypical Italian nonna — the grandmother who is the family’s cook, religious authority and resident matchmaker. The classic image of the Italian male with slicked back hair and leather shoes also makes an appearance.
Though these characters seem caricatured in most other settings, Patriarca’s stories provide a glimpse into their historical roots.
We learn about some of the traditions that Italian immigrants brought with them to Canada and their cultural importance.
While traditional interests, such as prayer and homemaking, persuade many older characters, the younger ones express the desire to break away from old customs by becoming entrepreneurs, refusing arranged marriages and deciding not to have families.
“Do I tell her that a man is not what I want?” ponders the narrator in “My Grandmother is Normal.”
“Rather, marriage to a man is not what I want. My time, this place, allows me that choice. How do I make her understand that the world has changed?”
What was vs. what is
The stories also show us how some predominantly Italian neighbourhoods in Toronto have evolved as immigration to Canada has expanded.
“The new residents in the neighbourhood, whose long braids are often covered by lovely scarves, seem reluctant to come into her shop although on occasion Vicky is challenged by the requests of a new customer who will bare her head to reveal black torrents of lustrous hair,” writes Patriarca about Vicky’s salon in the story “Blonde Forever.”
The older characters also note the way they see their neighbourhood changing as a result of gentrification, technology and new social norms.
In “Anna at the Window,” Anna laments the declining attendance at her church, the long distances she must travel for her groceries, and the fact that young gentlemen no longer tip their hats and open doors for her.
“The area now catered to a different crowd, a different way of life, and although she understood that time had moved and that was the natural way of the world, it did not make her feel any better. Time is about loss, she thought, and loss is never a good thing.”
The contrast between young and old, between what was and what is now, is explored throughout All My Fallen Angelas and asks the reader to reflect on whether all change is really for the better, or whether as Anna suggests, it represents some loss.
These contrasts also suggest that while men have historically done most of the decision making in politics and business, it is women who witness and bear the brunt of how these choices affect society at large.
While women today may be better positioned to have an impact on the world around us, Patriarca’s stories are a reminder to never dismiss the sacrifices of our nonnas and other women that brought us here.
Rosanna Haroutounian is a freelance writer and the assignment editor at New Canadian Media. She studied journalism and political science at Carleton University and now splits her time between Quebec City and Peterborough, ON.
by Elvira Truglia in Montreal
The stories in the Best of All Worlds represent seven of the most commonly spoken immigrant languages in Canada’s largest cities.
“When children see their heritage languages in books, they instinctively understand that their languages are valued and their cultures are important in Canada,” says Gina Valle about a collection of multilingual children’s stories which she brought together in The Best of All Worlds.
Published in 2015, the illustrated book features seven stories in their original languages — Arabic, Farsi, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish — as well as in English and French translations.
The stories were selected from the winning and finalist submissions from the Multilingual Kid Lit Award competition organized by Toronto bookstore Rainbow Caterpillar. Valle initiated the project to mark 15 years since the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established International Mother Tongue Day “to promote diversity and international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism.”
Multilingual stories, multicultural perspectives
Questions are to children what texting is to smartphone touting teenagers – second nature. The Best of All Worlds provides many opportunities to tap into children’s inquisitive nature as it exposes them to culturally-specific symbolism, such as the Japanese kappa, and various writing systems including the Latin alphabet, Arabic script and Chinese characters.
New myths grounded in Canadian history, such as the ‘Tulip Fairy’ who helps keep the Tulip Festival alive in Ottawa, and original stories about what it means to be human and Canadian in today’s world, can spur a flurry of questions as young children read along with a parent, grandparent or teacher in their language of choice or ability.
And if the stories don’t pique a child’s interest, the vivid illustrations will stand in, each with a unique style.
Kings, giants, fairies and fables
The Best of All Worlds has something for all tastes. From fables to fairy tales of kings, giants and other fantastical characters, each story has elements that make children’s books fun to read for children and adults alike.
My 11-year-old daughter Sabina’s favourite story was “The Happy King,” originally written in Portuguese, because it was “weird, in a good way.” Cursed with being sad by a wizard who wasn’t invited to the royal party, love is what broke the curse and made the King happy again, explains Sabina.
But her interpretation of the “message of the story” was an afterthought. What kept Sabina’s attention was the quirky King who reminded her of the curses, wizards and witches she read in tales as a younger child.
“The Happy King” and other stories are filled with familiar tropes and original twists. The internal struggles and choices of the characters mirror lifelong and universal quests.
Sabina is an avid reader in English and French and is starting to read in Italian and Spanish – her first languages. When reading The Best of All Worlds on her own, she zig-zagged between all four languages and eventually stuck to one of Canada’s official languages.
Reading a book in multiple languages is tricky. Like many children growing up in Canada, she needs some priming to continue speaking and reading her heritage languages.
Keep talking your mother tongue
Krista Byers-Heinlein, an associate professor of psychology at Concordia University, specializes in language acquisition and early bilingualism. She spoke to Panoram Italia Magazine about the three-generation rule: “In the first generation, the language is strong – it’s how people communicate. In the second generation, there is a solid understanding of the language, but the writing or reading is weak. By the third generation, the language is at risk."
When it comes to language, you either use it or lose it. Passively watching TV won’t do the trick, but reading together and having conversations about what you’re reading is a great way to interact in your mother tongue.
Schools are an important audience for The Best of All Worlds and a great context for validating first languages. According to Valle, some 20 library systems across the country have ordered the book and a curriculum guide for Ontario teachers is currently in the works.
Making multilingualism a new norm
Valle says the book reflects who we are as Canadians.
“We can speak many languages and live with many cultures and be at ease with each,” she says. “We can speak Mandarin at home, French at school, English on the soccer field and feel that no matter what we speak or where we come from, we can be full citizens in this country.”
The Best of All Worlds was put together over 18 months with a team of writers, illustrators and translators who originate from some two dozen countries.
“There are bilingual books but there are no multilingual children’s books in Canada,” says Valle.
For that, The Best of All Worlds, is an important and new contribution to Canada’s literary scene.
Elvira Truglia is a Montreal-based journalist who writes about the intersections of culture, politics and social issues. She has recently written for New Canadian Media, The Huffington Post, and the social justice radio program, Making Contact. She is also an emerging photographer whose documentary photos have recently been published in New Canadian Media’s online library. Elvira has worked in the non-profit sector for more than 20 years, focusing on communications, education and human rights.
by Vincent Simboli in Montreal
“The library is a mirror of the universe,” writes Argentinian-Canadian author Alberto Manguel in his 2006 book The Library at Night. As print loses traction in our increasingly digitized world, are we in jeopardy of losing access to these sacred mirrors?
The Grande Bibliothèque in Montreal challenges this notion by using cutting-edge virtual-reality technology to connect contemporary audiences with the magic of libraries across space and time.
The Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) opened its virtual reality exhibit The Library at Night (based on Manguel’s book of the same name) at the Grande Bibliothèque in October 2015. The exhibit explores 10 of the world’s “most fascinating libraries,” exposing their “philosophical, architectural and social foundations.”
Exploring an author’s library
Guests begin by entering a replica of Manguel’s personal library while they hear his voice explain the important role that books have had throughout his life. In the recorded introduction, he also muses about the importance of collecting knowledge and stories in a physical location, giving the poignant example of the clandestine library kept by children in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp.
After Manguel’s voice fades from the speakers, exhibition co-ordinator Alexis Benoit enters and tells guests to put on their Virtual Reality (VR) headsets. We walk past a revolving bookshelf and into an underground forest filled with books, desks and synthetic trees.
Manguel grew up in Tel-Aviv during his father’s tenure as the Argentinian ambassador to Israel. He returned to Buenos Aires in 1955, when he was seven.
In June 1968, when the Argentine military junta began its “Dirty War” on its own civilians and literati, Manguel took cues from Julio Cortázar and other Argentine intellectuals and left the country for Europe to live and write without fear of being oppressed by the paramilitary forces running the country.
By 1982, he had emigrated to Canada and settled there to raise his family, eventually obtaining citizenship in 2000. He identifies primarily as Canadian, although his transnational experiences have had major influences on his career as an essayist, anthologist and author.
Witnessing culture being destroyed
Though the exhibit uses impressive VR technology, such as footage of life-sized birds flying about the Library of Parliament in Ottawa, by far the most emotional moment of the exhibit for me was the subtle and brilliant use of music and sound effects in the segment about the Vijećnica library of Sarajevo.
Vijećnica was built as the library and city hall of Sarajevo, Bosnia, in the late 19th century, and served as an architectural reminder of the city’s multicultural heritage. The library was also a cross-cultural meeting place for the exchange of ideas among Sarajevo’s Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim populations.
The viewer is invited to look up at the ceiling while Manguel explains the significance of the architecture and the hundreds of thousands of priceless Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian manuscripts, marking Sarajevo as the “Jerusalem of Europe.”
Meanwhile, the distant sound of gunfire can be heard.
“During the Siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996, Vijećnica was targeted by the Republika Srpska army in an attempt of ‘historicide,’ the erasure of a people’s cultural patrimony and identity,” Manguel explains.
As the gunfire gets louder, a man in a tuxedo walks down the stairs of the virtual library. We are introduced to Vedran Smailović, a cellist in the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra.
His cello begins to drown out the gunfire, and though flames consume the regal library and destroy most of its collection, Smailović doesn’t stop. The incredible true story of the cellist of Sarajevo, playing his mournful eulogy for the lost heritage of Bosnia, is an emotional one, but to experience it in virtual reality with enhanced sight and sound is indescribable.
As the cello music fades from the headphones and Smailović walks away, the viewer is left with the sound of gunfire and the quiet roar of flames, pondering what can and must be done in the face of historical and literary destruction.
Libraries as personal histories
Benoit says that one of the goals of the exhibition is to make clear the importance books have in a person’s life story.
“During his introduction, we learn about what Manguel explored, where he went, and what accompanied him throughout his life,” he says. “Those things were his books. They define what a personal library is – a library is the story of oneself. [Our exhibit] is about a transfer from a personal library to a public library, where the goal is to accumulate all the knowledge we all have."
Benoit says the isolation of the VR headsets allows guests to experience the exhibition free of self-consciousness inside a “bubble” that nobody can burst.
“You see books you had when you were a kid, books you have now, and they remind you of what happened in your past when you were reading them,” he says. “When you collect all these in the same space, you have this history about yourself.”
Vincent Simboli is an American journalist based in Montréal. He is a recent graduate of McGill University where he studied international development and Hispanic literature. Simboli primarily covers issues of human migration and immigration reform for the McGill Daily, Forget the Box, Graphite Publications, and New Canadian Media. His portfolio is available at https://www.clippings.me/vincentsimboli.
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
Queer activist Arsham Parsi took a risk when he left Iran and began to help other Iranians escape persecution for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).
At a reading for his book Exiled for Love at the Toronto Public Library’s St. James Town branch, Parsi recalls the first time he attended Toronto’s Pride Parade 10 years ago, where he met an Iranian woman enjoying the parade.
He gave her his business card, hoping to get support from his own community.
“‘This is not us, this is them!’ she said and turned her face and walked away,” Parsi recalls. “I think I must have ruined her day because she couldn’t believe that Iranian LGBT exist.”
In search of a community
Instead of clustering in Iranian-populated communities, Parsi says he chooses to reside in Toronto’s LGBT-oriented enclave in the Church and Wellesley area. While Canada is embracing his sexuality, he says his own countrymen still deny him and other Iranian queers.
“[Former Iranian] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not the first one to say that we don't have homosexuals [in Iran],” says Parsi. “I clearly remember that lady saying, ‘We don’t have it.’”
Parsi was already active during his early 20s in providing support to gay men in Iran through an online community. Still in Iran, he planned his 22-year-old birthday party at home and invited all his gay friends, only to be warned by a relative that there would be a police raid.
He says he called off the party at the last minute and learned that the police were using the Internet to entrap gay men.
While he was never arrested, he knows other homosexuals in Iran who were. Of his gay friends who were taken into custody, some received 175 lashes on their backs, while others were tortured during interrogations.
Parsi says the immanent danger he felt every day was intolerant, forcing him to escape Iran. He told his family that he was going to study at a university in Cypress, but instead took a train to Turkey and sought asylum through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ankara.
From exile to acceptance
Parsi writes about being attacked with another gay Iranian refugee in Turkey while onlookers stood by. It took him a little over one year to finally receive refugee status and be accepted to Canada.
“Since arriving at the Canadian Embassy in Ankara, I had been treated with genuine openness and warmth,” Parsi writes in Exiled for Love. “The man smiled. I hoped that everyone in Canada would be like him.”
Upon arrival in Toronto in May 2006, Parsi says he, “inhaled deeply and felt the tears create wet paths across my cheeks . . . I felt as if I could breathe without pain.”
Parsi was 25 when he came to Canada as a government-sponsored refugee in the Refugee Assistance Program. During his first 12 months in Canada, he received financial assistance to cover basic needs – $604 a month to be exact.
“Not much, but it helped,” he says.
Parsi still receives threats from the Iranian community – something he says he deals with, but tries to ignore.
“I have professional relationships with the Iranian community, but I don't participate in their events because sometimes they make me very upset,” he explains. He says there are members of the Iranian-Canadian community who are intolerant and don’t support each other.
“I don’t care what they say,” says Parsi. “I continue with my work. It’s still risky, but I don’t like to admit it.”
Railroad of support
In 2008, Parsi founded the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR). As of December 2015, the IRQR has helped more than 1,200 Iranians who identify as LGBT claim refugee status.
According to the UNHCR in Ankara, more than 26,500 Iranian refugees were registered as of May 2016. UNHCR has registered 1,177 refugees who identify as LGBT as of June 2016 – 1,046 being from Iran, representing gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.
Parsi and the IRQR are following 820 of the 1,046 LGBT refugee applications to help them go through UNHCR processes and eventually lead them to gain refugee status in Western countries. During the process, IRQR provides support and counselling to members of Iran’s LGBT community.
“I would accept the generosity and security Canada offered me. I would use it to continue my work for others back in Iran,” writes Parsi in Exiled for Love. “This wonderful country would be where I would live, but one day I would go home. Until that day came, I would be in exile.”
by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga
Many leaders of the East who fought to decolonize their countries from Western authoritarian rule were also educated in the West. Upon returning home, they became trapped in a mental rift – they owed their education to the Western system, which also worked to colonize and ruin their countries and people.
It was usually lawyers or social scientists who became leaders and policy-makers to fight rigid authoritarian powers. However, in Thanh’s story, a group of Vietnamese nationalists enlist their friend – the refined, educated Vietnamese physician Dr. Georges-Minh Nguyen – to poison the French general and his garrison.
Dr. Nguyen has a medical degree from Lycée Condorcet in Paris. What he owes to the French and how they’ve taken over Vietnam clash to carve rifts in his psyche and cause him to slowly go insane.
The close-knit group of friends makes up a revolutionary cell called the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. They plot revenge on the French for the oppression they forced upon the Vietnamese – an act they hope will send a message to the colonizers that revolution has begun in Vietnam.
The book is based on the true story of the Hanoi Poison Plot of 1908, which took place in Saigon.
Dr. Nguyen is overcome by the guilt of the prospect of killing someone, until his pregnant wife escapes a rape attempt by a French soldier.
“Though he hadn’t told [his friend] Khieu about the rape his anger about it had made him steely. Most of the doubt was gone from his mind now. He was quite certain he could kill a man. Part of him was looking forward to trying.”
Khieu, a determined member of the revolutionary group, has his mind set on plotting revenge. His commitment is what allows the plan to continue.
However, the plot is foiled when cooks at the garrison confess to it, providing the names, places and dates of the plan to a priest. This forces the Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains members to flee to other provinces.
Dr. Nguyen avoids capture, but must leave his wife and his newborn son behind after they are caught by French soldiers.
“He’d never imagined kissing her for the last time. Not once. He’d never imagined last times for anything. He simply ran.”
The book depicts the era of the French colonial period in Indochina, during which people were suffering from social deprivation and using drugs to quell their anguish. It sheds light on how discrimination by French imperials aimed to make the Vietnamese feel shame and responsibility for their plight.
Dr. Nguyen encounters a French doctor at the Centre for Infectious Disease Control to discuss the “Paddy Fever,” or yellow fever. He is taken aback when Dr. Michaut calls the Vietnamese “teachers of moral vice” because he believes they have “corrupted” the French soldiers.
“What was this man on about?” thinks Dr. Nguyen. “If only he didn’t need his help, his lab, his equipment, he’d pop him in the jaw.”
Instead, Dr. Nguyen suggests Vietnamese boys engage in prostitution in opium dens to pay for their own opium habits, or to acquire goods they can’t afford.
From the French doctor Michaut’s perspective, the offence is less evident: “I don’t include you in these comparisons. You studied in Paris, like me,” he says to Dr. Nguyen.
Suffering under colonialism
Thanh tells us stories of capricious characters that go to great lengths to overthrow their colonial oppressors. Her characters survive living amongst imaginary, yet dangerous, ghosts.
She takes us to a savaged, but vivid, colonial Vietnam, where streets are filled with fierce threats in the form of killing, rape and rebels’ chopped heads mounted on bamboo poles as warnings.
After his marriage with Dong, Dr. Nguyen lacked solace and drifted away from his wife. Once, in conversation with her, he justifies his absence by explaining the historical colonization of Vietnam by one power or another, resulting in turmoil and agony for the country’s women.
“Our country is in crisis," he said. "Men abandon their families and leave their wives in charge of feeding the children. The women have no money and they do what they must to survive. This country was the possession of the Chinese, and now is the mistress of the French. For a thousand years we’ve lived under the dominion of others. It’s why everyone’s going mad.”
Vietnam’s colonial history reflects some of today’s challenges of occupation and abuse of people’s land. In war zones like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and many others, colonialism results in the total disarray of a country’s inhabitants, and leaves their attempts at survival and revolution against past oppressors unfulfilled as they are quickly taken over by new ones.
Thanh’s novel shows that the lust for power results in horror and misfortune for the colonized and is ultimately reflected in the truest form of human tragedy – the loss of innocence.
Tazeen Inam is passionate about both print and electronic media. She has a master's degree in mass communications, has worked as a senior producer and editorial head at Pakistani news channels and has contributed to BBC Radio Urdu in London, England. Inam is presently pursuing a course in digital media studies at Sheridan College.
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
Without saying anything, Farrah Khan hands out a clipboard with a piece of paper on it to each person in the room.
“Now, I want each of you start to draw what was in your head at 9 a.m. this morning,” she says. “When time is due, you’ll hand the clipboard to the person next to you and continue on another person’s drawing.” Khan then plays a song by Beyoncé on her iPhone.
Several participants, including Khan, finish drawing different parts of each other’s pictures before they are returned to the original artist. The result is a joint effort made by each member of the group to explore their fellow participants’ mindsets.
Politics in comics
It is the starting point for The Panel Is Political, a discussion on how to use comic books for social change, at Another Story Bookshop in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.
The discussion is also led by Seemi Jamil, a youth group coordinator at the Afghan Women’s Organization in Mississauga, and Nicole Marie Burton, a comic book illustrator and founder and co-owner of Ad Astra Comix – North America’s first publisher dedicated to comics about social justice themes.
Jamil and Burton worked together early this year to develop a youth program that teaches immigrant and activist youth to draw and express their feelings. The program involved one-and-a-half hour sessions, held once a week for eight weeks.
“Nicole [Burton] comes by and does workshops with the youth groups and teaches them how to do graphic-novel style storytelling,” Jamil explains.
“We wrote a paragraph about a challenge we had to deal with in anonymity,” begins Burton, describing one of the group’s activities. She says the written paragraphs were ripped into pieces, folded, and mixed in a hat.
“Everybody drew out a story and had to tell it in a comic form,” she adds. “It was incredible to me how much could have been done with that,” says Burton about the activity.
Other activities focused on character design, practising different dimensions and shapes, and drawing about current events. She adds that there never seemed to be enough time in each session to meet the youth’s high level of interest in each activity.
“I was trying to get low-income youth groups to have some art form where they can talk about their own stories,” Jamil says. “They are interested in talking about what it is like to be low-income in Canada but also assimilated within society.”
An example of a political comic book that helps youth understand global events, says Jamil, is Persepolis – a graphic novel about the revolution in Iran.
“We’ve seen a large trend in youth groups trying to express themselves through different art forms as opposed to just writing,” she continues.
She says the program’s young female participants are of Afghani and Pakistani descent, and that the workshops focus on minority voices, people of colour, women of colour, and political situations all over the world.
Graphic novels, Jamil says, not only help immigrant and refugee youth to understand, but also to be able to learn how to tell, their own story. She stresses that for marginalized groups who do not have the same vocabulary or English proficiency as other Canadians, art can help them understand and share ideas.
Political comics gaining momentum
Burton started Ad Astra Comix in 2013 in Toronto. She says she is passionate about social justice and wants to see more political comics that touch on topics such as sexism, racism, colonialism, homophobia and transphobia.
Ad Astra Comix not only publishes, but also creates its own graphic novels, including its first full-length graphic novel Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, a collection of stories by Indian women about topics including harassment, race, class and political struggle.
Khan, the inaugural Sexual Violence Support and Education Coordinator at Ryerson University, has more than a decade of experience speaking about violence against women.
As a trauma counsellor, she has led several educational programs, including comic book projects, to help women express their feelings and fears through drawing.
In 2012, Khan put together a program to run a comic book workshop specifically for South Asian women. She says white comic book artists often portray South Asian women stereotypically.
The project resulted in a comic book called Heartbeats: The IZZAT Project, featuring stories and illustrations by South Asian women about violence and resilience in their lives.
The book was chosen by the Tahirih Justice Centre to be part of a tour to raise awareness about forced marriage in the United States.
One of the stories the book features, titled “Cage,” resulted in the escape of one of the program’s participants from her abusive family. Khan says the young woman was able to find help at a women’s shelter two cities away from her home during the project.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit