By: Tazeen Inam in Toronto, ON
Canadian literature continues to diversify as more stories look to include a wider range of content set locally and abroad. Language barriers, migration trauma, cultural discrepancies and family responsibilities; women authors of diaspora are defying the odds, breaking through different obstacles to have their voices heard.
Ayelet Tsabari and Fartumo Kusow are two examples of determined women whose journeys outline what so many must overcome to become Canadian authors.
Breaking through Language Barriers
Ayelet Tsabari, who is from Israel, worked as a Hebrew journalist until she came to Canada at the age of 25. Writing, she believes, completes her. But in what was once a strong suit, language now became a challenge, pushing Tsabari to stop writing altogether. She could speak and read English, however it took her about eight years to gain the confidence to start writing.
Tsabari’s development started with her enrollment in a writing program, which she coupled with Canadian content she would read. As time passed, English began to flow into her work more naturally.
Tapping into her long lost passion, she began to create original pieces in the hopes of being published. But, to no avail as her lack of success prompted one of her teachers to suggest she read books other than Canadian literature.
“I realized that it’s not just language but it’s your heritage and even your mother tongue are still in you when you are writing in a new language. So certain things didn’t work for the publishers,” Tsabari explains.
Tsabari broadened her scope and soon she was reading literature from an array of multicultural writers. This broke the prison that had withheld her imagination, allowing her to finally express her voice.
“I just thought that if I started writing with that in my mind, just be you and do what you are and that’s what ended up getting me published,” she says.
Her dream came to fruition when her first book, "The Best Place on Earth", was published in 2013. The collection of short stories challenges the connection of spiritual heritage with modern life. Met with good reviews, it went on to win several distinctions, including the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Feeding off her first book’s momentum, she is now working on her second. In addition, she is also currently working with immigrant writers at the Toronto Public Library to improve their writing skills.
Fartumo Kusow was born to a farmer’s family in Somalia, as the seventh child. From a young age, she had difficulties establishing social connections with her peers and preferred to write instead.
“Instead of socializing with them I always had a notebook in my hand, that my father gave me and I would write in the notebook,” Kusow recalls.
As per Somali tradition, she married young, becoming a wife at the age of 16. Subsequently, this was also the same year her first fictional story was published in the national newspaper, where she worked.
Her husband had a job in the Middle East, which kept them financially stable. But when the civil war started in 1990, she was forced to leave. Already pregnant with her third child, she immigrated to Canada with her then-husband and two children.
Holding onto her dreams, Kusow knew that she wanted to become an author.
Unfortunately, Somali is her first language, Arabic her second. And due to war, she had little to no transcripts that could prove her credentials. However, she didn’t give up, completing her Bachelor’s in English before going on to a teaching program in Windsor. She has now been teaching since 2000.
Despite her successes, war trauma combined with move factors led to a failed marriage. She was left with no choice but to put her dream on hold as she filled the role of breadwinner for herself and her five children.
As she supported the household, her inner writer continued to itch at her until she resumed writing in 2011.
“When the kids are bit older and my career and my profession is [a] little more stable, I decided to spend an hour a day just to write something,” states Kusow.
Perseverance trumps Rejection
Nothing could stop her, not even the 104 rejections could dare be a hurdle to her dream. Though she finished her fictional piece in about three years, it did not garner much publisher interest. Sleepless nights turned into frustration as she pondered the reasoning behind her struggles. Until she came to the realization that the rejections were not personal but rather that publishing was simply a business.
With this in mind, she persevered, eventually getting published in 2017, when she produced "Tale of a Boon’s Wife".
Reviews speak to Kusow’s ability to clearly depict the issues stemming from the traditional Somali caste system, while simultaneously detailing the sufferings of the country’s civil war.
Kusow’s children are very proud of her and look up to her as a stronghold of leadership.
Though it has not been long since Canadian literature has started promoting more diverse content, its clear the industry is moving in the right direction. Several initiatives such as the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) constantly take steps to ensure progress continues.
While both Tsabari and Fartamo are giving back to the community in the form of teaching, it is important to provide aspiring writers with the opportunities to develop their skills. Through mentorships and training the next generation of writers will make an even bigger impact on Canada’s literary landscape.
This piece is part of the "Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario" series.
Ever since Sukhwinder Singh Sidhu met and secretly married his one true love, his life has been one of pain, torture and false imprisonments in Punjab, India.
This week as the architects of his misery are extradited back to India, Sukhwinder aka Mithu has a message for them: “Was our love a crime that Jassi had to be her killed?”.
Speaking to Jupinderjit Singh, one of the authors of the book Justice for Jassi, Mithu said; “Finally, my wife’s killers will face trial for murder. My sole wish is to see them behind bars.”
Mithu, now a truck driver, said: “I’m still her husband. I can’t share my love for Jassi with anyone. I want to tell her mother that my love is true and eternal.”
MIthu was commenting on last week’s Supreme Court of Canada decision that finally paved the way for his wife’s uncle Surjit Singh Badesha, 72 and her mother Malkit Kaur Sidhu, 67, to be sent back to India to face murder charges.
Police allege the millionaire blueberry farmer Badesha and his sister Malkit Sidhu hired contract killers to kill Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu aka Jassi because she had married Mithu, a lower-caste auto rickshaw driver in Punjab.
Punjab Police investigations confirmed it was a so-called honour killing plotted by the mother and uncle while the duo were at home in Maple Ridge, Canada.
Born and raised in Maple Ridge, BC, Jassi Sidhu, 24, was killed in June 2000 by hired killers while living with her husband in Punjab, India. In an attack, Mithu was left for dead while Jassi was abducted and later killed.
Police traced 266 phone calls between Jassi's maternal uncle, Surjit Badesha, to the hired killers, becoming a basis by which India formally requested extradition in 2005 of Badesha and Malkit Sidhu to face murder charges.
Last week, 17-years after Jassi was found dead with her throat slit in a ditch outside the industrial metropolis of Ludhiana in Punjab, the Canadian chapter of this tragedy came to a close.
India formally requested Canada in 2005 to extradite Jassi’s mother and uncle to face trial after charging and convicting a band of hired killers in connection with the murder.
In May 2014, the British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver ordered that duo must be deported to India to face trial.
The struggle to obtain justice for Jassi, however, was set back the following when the British Columbia Appeal Court overturned the extradition order against Jassi's mother and uncle. The appeal court expressed concern that the both of the accused will be beaten and tortured in Indian jails.
The Canadian apex court last week reinstated the original order.
Harbinder Singh Sewak is the Vancouver based publisher of The South Asian Post which won a Jack Webster Award for its work on the Jassi case and is the co-author of the book Justice for Jassi. He stressed that the struggle for justice for Jassi will continue. “This case has shocked many people… many think this murder is about honour and religion… it is about greed,” said Sewak.
Fabian Dawson, the lead author of the book said while the Canadian chapter of the Jassi case may have come to an end, the Indian chapter is beginning.
“There is a still a trial and appeal process in India before justice for Jassi is finally achieved,” he said.
The book, Justice for Jassi, documents the entire saga and is narrated from the perspective of Mithu, who since his wife’s murder has continued fighting to see justice done for his wife, despite threats and attempts to silence him.
The authors scoured through thousands of police and court records in Canada and India, as well as hours of tape interviewing officials. The book shows how her mother and uncle orchestrated Jassi’s murder from Maple Ridge.
“We kept the website www.justiceforjassi.com going and we kept the story alive. We will continue to do so until there is justice for Jassi,” said Sewak.
Since Mithu and Jassi fell in love, there have been several attempts on Mithu’s life and at least six occasions where he has been falsely arrested and jailed.
The first time he was arrested, Mithu was jailed for allegedly marrying Jassi at gun-point. Indian police were given a false affidavit signed by Jassi in Port Coquitlam to effect the arrest. Jassi, however, went to India to say she married Mithu of her own free will and got him released.
In another case, after Jassi was murdered, Mithu spent about 44 months in jail for rape.
Sewak, the publisher of the South Asian Post hired sleuths and lawyers in India to show that the accuser was paid to make the false allegations against Mithu.
Mithu has recently petitioned the Justice Mehtab Singh Commission, which is probing “false” cases registered by the Punjab Police in the past 10 years.
All in all, Mithu has been arrested in six cases, of which he has been acquitted in four.
He claims all of them stem from the revenge-motivated family of his murdered wife who want him not to testify against them.
At various other times, he has been offered millions of rupees and land to stay silent.
But he vowed again this week to fight on for Jassi.
“I’m still her husband. I can’t share my love for Jassi with anyone. I want to tell her mother that my love is true and eternal.”
“The cops who arrested me told me to forget about Jassi,” Mithu said.
“Whenever I refused an offer for a compromise, another case was slapped on me,” he has claimed before the Justice Mehtab Singh Commission. On the basis of his testimony, notices have been sent to the police to appear at the hearings.
“From the initial offer of about C$30,000 and 14 acres of land and a passport to Canada, supporters of the accused have promised it all to me.
But I can’t trade my love for all this. I just want Jassi’s mother and uncle to be punished for what they did to her and me,” said Mithu.
Republished under arrangement with the Asian Pacific Post.
By: George Abraham in Ottawa
In 1972, President Idi Amin expelled residents of Indian descent from Uganda. The move's impact was felt throughout the region as Indian-Africans in surrounding countries found they were met with the same hostile environment. Faced with theft, vandalism, and government seizures; a mass exodus ensued that forced hundreds of thousands to leave the only homes they had ever known.
Mansoor Ladha, who was living in Tanzania at the time, remembers the experience vividly. His novel, "Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West" details the journey he was forced into following exile. New Canadian Media conducted an interview with the author via email:
Q: Your life has encapsulated multiple migrations and at one point you write "Canada will be my final resting place". Can you explain how you came to this conclusion?
A: My book talks about my search for a homeland. I left Tanzania, stayed in Nairobi, Kenya, have been to London England several times and finally landed in Canada which has given me the feeling of being at home.
I had also considered [the] United States where I have family but the violent nature of that society doesn’t blend with my nature, philosophy and temperament. Looks like I have finally found my resting place [in] peaceful, tolerant Canada.
Q: Your memoir is also a journey in journalism - across continents, across political philosophies, ethnic and civilizational divides. Do you think Canada could have been more appreciative of your evident talent?
A: There are plenty of examples of mistreatment that I have received in Canada. First as a job seeker and later even as a newspaper publisher. It gives me the impression that Canadians are always fearful of the unknown. This fear is especially applied to people of colour. There used to be a stereotypical belief which cast doubt on all immigrants’ ability to do a job. Hence, most employers were then reluctant to hire immigrants. However, once Canadians see your performance and are impressed with it, then that fear is gone, replaced by acceptance and respect.
Q: Immigrants tend to have more riveting life stories and this is surely true in your case. What's the one message about immigration that you'd like your readers to take away from your book?
A: My message to employers is don’t indulge in stereotypical thinking and don’t judge immigrants because of their colour. Give them a chance to prove themselves on the job-try them out on probationary period and then make a decision.
To [my] fellow immigrants. My message is don’t be disappointed by failures or hurdles that you encounter during your time of settlement. Keep on trying and you’ll finally succeed.
Q: You have written for mainstream media, owned town newspapers and contributed in many ways to the telling of Canadian stories. How would you describe the state of Canadian journalism today?
A: These are very uncertain times for media in Canada, especially newspapers. In most Canadian cities, newspapers have either folded or are owned by newspaper chains. In many major markets, the chain has also bought their competition, creating a virtual monopoly. With the result: editorial staff has been cut down to a bare minimum, local stories have been replaced by wire stories and the number of pages has also dwindled.
Canada has a lot of excellent journalism schools in every city, churning out J graduates in huge numbers who don’t have a job to go to. It’s a sad and pathetic time for those planning to enter the profession.
My suggestion to J-graduates is to start knocking on doors of weekly newspapers and forget about working on dailies as an entry point.
Q: Lastly, if the forced emigration from East Africa were to happen today, do you think Canada and the average Canadian would be just as welcoming as in the early 1970's when you arrived?
A: The prevailing mood in Canada today is pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, partly because of Justin Trudeau [and the] Liberals’ policy to welcome immigrants and refugees.
Since the 70s, Canadians have learned what immigrants can do and how hardworking they are. Several immigrants have sought civic, provincial and national public office and have done remarkably well in these areas. In business, professions and politics, immigrants have shone brilliantly and the society at large have been appreciative of their contributions. They are now respected by the main stream society.
George Abraham is the founder and publisher of New Canadian Media. A former Nieman Scholarship recipient at Harvard University, he has over 26 years of newsroom experience, including work with publications such as aljazeera.net, the Toronto Star, the Ottawa Citizen and more.
By: Ted Alcuitas in Vancouver
The ‘paper son’ who became a community leader and literary pioneer
“Knowledge does not set you free – it enslaves you.”
Strong words from a strong man.
Jim’s insatiable appetite for history and what he learned motivated him to “create a new reality”, giving birth to such organizations like the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW) which he co-founded.
The 68-year old Wong-Chu died on Tuesday, July 11, 2017 after a stroke he suffered earlier this year.
In his last TV interview (February 2016) he told Sid Chow Tan of Access TV that there was “no inspiration” for him when he started the seminal literary grouping, Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop back in the 70s.
"There was no inspiration – it was euphoria and discretion,” he recalls the beginning of the movement to create a space for Chinese Canadian writings.
“Bellyaching” with him at the time was Paul Yee and SKY Lee who later rose to prominence with their writings.”
“ We asked ourselves : What if? And Why not?”
“None of us were writers and we didn’t know the basics. We started from scratch.”
The ‘paper son’ who never finished Grade 11 first dabbled in photography before pursuing a degree in Creative Writing at UBC.
“I was working in a cafeteria and photography was just like making coffee,” he told Tan in the interview.
He finished a photography course at the Vancouver School of Art, now called Emily Carr University of Art + Design.
His collection of photographs of Chinatown taken from 1973-1981 lay dormant until 30 years after when he realized he had a treasure trove of historical significance.
The 80 photos (out of 500 negatives) was shown in an exhibit at Centre A Gallery in October 2014.
It was accompanied by his own poems and Paul Yee’s.
Born in Hongkong in 1949 two years after Chinese Canadians were granted the right to vote, Jim came to Canada as a ‘paper son’ by an aunt when he was four.
Paper sons and daughters adopted false identities at a time when Canada restricted Chinese immigration.
It was not until he was seven years old that his aunt told him – “I am not your mother”.
That discovery completely devastated him, knowing that he did not belong neither to the country he was raised or the country he was born into.
Up and until his death this month, Jim was still haunted by the ghosts of his past.
“It feels like you’re not a part of everything around you, that your participation is not welcome and not well-received…” he told writer Nikki Celis of The Georgia Straight on April 16, 2016.
“In my late teens and early 20s, I was very confused. You’re constantly haunted by this idea that you’re not legal. It destroyed me totally as an individual,” he says, stone-faced. “That’s identity for you—when you talk about identity to the infinite extreme, it feels like you’re a fake.
Giant of a man
Jim Wong-Chu was quite literally a giant of a man.
He stood not all of 5’ -5” but he could talk to you about almost anything – from books to history and politics and everything else.
Some called him the ‘Moses’ of the Asian Canadian literary world for finding and nurturing emerging writers and eventually having their works published.
The list includes Paul Yee, Wayson Choy, SKY Lee, Evelyn Lau among others.
Madeleine Thien, the recent winner of the Governor’s Award for Fiction and the Giller Prize was hired and mentored by Jim to be editor of Ricepaper magazine even before anybody knew her.
“I remember going to met Jim and being amazed at all the knowledge at his fingertips, all the stories and memories he had,” Thien recalls in an interview for B.C. Bookworld.
Jim lamented the lack of visible minority writers in mainstream literary festivals and saw the need for one that showcases visible minority writers.
“In the past, many of the mainstream literary festivals were good at recognizing diversity and inclusiveness but as we are seeing, including one or two token visible minority writers is hardly a way to illuminate the writing of a community.,” he told BC Bookworld in September 2014.
He was the driving force behind LiterAsian, an annual literary festival launched in 2013.
The first of its kind in Canada, LiterAsian seeks to promote and celebrate works of Asian Canadian writers through readings and workshops.
This year’s event will be on September 21-24 during which the recipient of the now-renamed “Jim Wong- Chu Emerging Writers Award” will be announced.
One of the most enduring legacy of Jim is Ricepaper magazine published by ACWW.
It was started as a newsletter in the 60s and its first editor was architect and author David Wong who went on to write ‘Escape to Gold Mountain’, a graphic novel about Chinese immigration to North America.
Now a webzine publication, Ricepaper celebrated its 20- year anniversary in 2015 with an anthology – AlliterAsian: Twenty Years of Ricepaper Magazine co-edited by Jim Wong-Chu, Julia Lin and Allan Cho.
This was Jim’s last anthology although he revealed in his Access TV interview that he was working on a book about Chinese immigration in B.C. for the provincial government. The publication of that book nor its title has not been confirmed.
Wong-Chu also spearheaded a Chinese Canadian radio program called Pender Guy and collaborated with Todd Wong to start Gung Haggis Fat Choy .
Among Wong-Chu’s books:
Chinatown Ghosts (Pulp Press, 1986)
Many-Mouthed Birds (D&M, 1991) co-editor.
Swallowing Clouds: An Anthology of Chinese-Canadian Poetry (1999)
Strike the Wok: An anthology of contemporary Chinese Canadian fiction (Toronto: TSAR Publications, 2003) edited by Lien Chao and Jim Wong-Chu.
AlliterAsian: Twenty Years of RicePaper (Arsenal Pulp 2015) co-editor with Allan Cho and Julia Lim.
Ted Alcuitas is the editor and publisher of the online newspaper-philippinecanadiannews.com. He has known and collaborated with Jim for a number of years as a board member of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop.
By Florence Hwang
In Mansoor Ladha’s new book, Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West, he contrasts life in Africa to Canada, and how a person’s skin colour can make a difference. He writes about his journey from Zanzibar, Tanzania to Canada and the adjustments he had to make along the way. He hopes his book helps people deal with the problems and issues that immigrants encounter. He also hopes these problems and issues can be avoided.
“Employers have to be reasonable and fair in hiring immigrants and not demanding Canadian experience as a prerequisite,” says Ladha, who is a freelance journalist.
“It was amazing that employers demanded Canadian experience from South Asians from East Africa because here was a community which was educated, westernized, spoke English well and believed in western values,” he added.
The book spans from Ladha’s childhood to adulthood. He was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania, brought up in Lindi, southern Tanzania and worked in Dar es Salaam as a copy and features editor of The Standard, the largest circulating English daily in the capital city. He says his experiences have made him a better person and better equipped to tackle problems.
“I have gone through problems of discrimination, displacement, acceptance and search for a home. With hard work and with the grace of God, I have been able to surmount these,” he says.
He now considers Canada his home and is quite comfortable living here as there are less political tensions that are prevalent in Africa, which is still undergoing political maturity and economic uncertainties.
He left Tanzania in 1972 when Ugandan president Idi Amin expelled Africans of Indian descent, which caused a massive exodus from the region. At that time, Ladha was living in Nairobi when he decided to leave and come to Canada.
His book is available on amazon.ca
Republished with permission from The Asian Pacific Post
by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga
A graphic novel that creates awareness about sexual abuse among immigrant and refugee women has upped its print order barely a month after its launch in Ontario. The overwhelming demand has come from far beyond just refugee and immigrant-settlement groups.
"We have requests from outside of the province, from other parts of the country as well as internationally," says Krittika Ghosh, senior coordinator of women sexual violence at Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI).
This demand is a clear indication that there is a dire need to help such women who are new to the country due to the scarcity of their resources. Smaller friend circles coupled with language barriers and limited education result in suffering in seclusion.
Statistics tell that one in three women in Canada encounters sexual abuse or violence in one way or another.
Breaking down barriers
Titled "Telling Our Stories: Immigrant Women's Resilience", the unique novel that is written by and for immigrant and refugee women looks to break down barriers that hinder the reporting of abuse.
The project is a joint venture between the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI) and Le Mouvement Ontarien des Femmes Immigrantes Francophones (MOFIF).
The novel, launched on March 2, illustrates four stories of newcomer women – victims of domestic abuse, workplace abuse, and date rape. The book helps create a narrative around this deeply sensitive topic and enables victims to empower themselves to shine a light on this often unreported crime.
Unlike other story formats, the graphic novel was written with input gathered through workshops conducted with 40 immigrant or refugee women, who shared their stories and worked with illustrator Coco Guzman.
"Each story is the outcome of a four-day workshop of newcomer or refugee women and many cases were survivors of sexual and intimate kind of violence," says Ghosh.
It helps people realize that there is no need to suffer in silence as help is available.
It also challenges stereotypes of survivors and to show that they are resilient and capable of organizing to end violence themselves.
Explaining the choice of format, Ghosh says, "We wanted it to be in a format that would be more available and accessible and something that people would want to read."
Professionals and groups beyond social workers, teachers, public libraries, immigrant and refugee welcome groups and the police are reaching out for the book.
The book is available free of cost and is not meant for sale.
The novel is available in 11 languages, including French and English.
OCASI and MOFIF had 7,000 copies in English, 3,000 in French and 1,000 in nine other languages including Arabic, Tamil, Chinese, Punjabi and Somali, in the first print run. The plan is to also have the stories available online.
OCASI website has an online form, where the book can be ordered. So far, it has received around 80 orders from different individuals and settlement agencies.
"They range from people asking for one copy for a library, to some agencies asking for 500 copies in each language. So it's really unique," according to Ghosh.
Fear of blame
The novel highlights that fear of blame, along with possibilities of racial, ethnic and religious discrimination never stopped these real-life characters from acting with courage and resilience.
Intervention brings positive twists to these live stories.
Kose's story revolves around deceit and marital rape accompanied by threats of deportation. Magali's story is based on workplace sexual abuse, whereas, Amal's story portrays student-teacher sexual harassment and Manuela's story is an illustration of date rape.
In all of the stories there is a caring individual, whether it be a friend or relative, who intervenes with educational information. This portrays how people can counter violence against women by beginning conversations and taking action within their communities.
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 Phil Gurski
Belief is a novel by Mayank Bhatt, a Mumbai-born resident of Toronto. It tells the story of the son of Indian immigrants to Canada who cooperates with terrorists to identify Canadian places to bomb, in part to avenge the death of Muslims in Afghanistan by Canadian soldiers.
The book parallels to a certain extent the 2006 case of the “Toronto 18”, a terrorist cell that planned to explode truck bombs in Toronto and at a military base in eastern Ontario to punish Canadians for the decision to deploy the Armed Forces in Afghanistan after 9/11.
This work of fiction is billed as a look into what “makes young people give up their sheltered, secure lives and take up causes that are sure to lead to catastrophe, for others as well as themselves”.
It does not quite achieve that goal, but does contain a good look into the effects of terrorism on a family. We see the devastating effects on the mother and father, immigrants who fled violence in India to seek a new home in Canada, but had to struggle to make a new life in a new land. We see the anguish of a pregnant sister whose husband’s promotion may be canceled because of Rafiq’s actions.
We see a South Asian police officer, Ravindar, who tries to help the family but who is not trusted completely, perhaps because of his role as a representative of the law.
The book does delve slightly into what has often been put forward as the ‘causes’ of radicalization to violence in Canada. There are references to the slaughter of Muslims in India and to discrimination and bias against immigrants in this country.
Neither theme is developed in this novel. It also does not explore other reasons why individuals go down the path of radicalization.
Early in the novel the author includes excerpts from emails sent by the terrorist ‘mastermind’, a man named Ghani Ahmed, to Rafiq, the young man arrested and accused of participating in a terrorist plot. These excerpts are full of the rhetoric most commonly associated with terrorist recruiters: innocent Muslims are being killed and no one is doing anything to stop it. Ahmed appeals to the faith of Rafiq and tries to convince him that fighting back is a religious obligation.
Ahmed is an intriguing character and more could have been written about him. Who was he? Where did he come from? Who else was involved in his plot? How did he identify Rafiq as a willing participant? .
The one character who remains an enigma is Nagma Khala, a woman who runs a Muslim crèche and who had an extraordinary influence on the young Rafiq. She is deeply religious, but it is never clear whether her faith contributed in any way to Rafiq’s openness to radicalization.
Flashbacks to India
I welcomed the introduction of two officers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), although their portrayal is superficial and unsatisfactory. It would have been interesting to introduce a main character from CSIS and show how that person was trying to understand the scope of the terrorist plot and Rafiq’s role in it. That may have been beyond the author’s expertise, though.
The book contains many flashbacks to life in India and provides interesting background into the lives of the protagonists, although the link between these episodes and Rafiq’s decision to become a terrorist is not obvious. They do provide insight into the circumstances behind the parents’ choice to leave India, but these are tangential to the book’s primary plot.
Throughout the book the author seeks to present Rafiq as an unwilling dupe whose involvement in terrorism is peripheral. While Rafiq regrets his choice, he also seems to minimize his role.
It is only at the end of the novel, when Rafiq learns of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai (in 2008 – a real event) that he grasps the enormity of what he was part of in Canada and (spoiler alert!!) tries to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. The author’s attempt to paint Rafiq as a character to be pitied does not come off strongly, even when he writes of the bullying Rafiq received at the Maplehurst Detention Centre in Toronto.
Overall, the book flows and reads well, with the exception of the flashbacks. These occur at times at unexpected intervals and detract from the story.
The book does a good job at showing the destruction of a Canadian immigrant family when one member becomes involved in terrorism. The emotional responses of the characters are believable and compelling.
As long as the reader does not see this novel as an actual book on homegrown terrorism in Canada it is a good read.
Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/
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.
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-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit