New Canadian Media

by Maria Assaf in Oxford, England

Imagine being a child bride in pre-revolutionary Iran – suffering abuse on a daily basis, being forced into a joyless marriage and having children at the age of 13. There is no law or organization that can protect you, as the entire affair is perfectly legal.

Now, imagine having a beautiful husband and children, a mother and father, and then losing them all in a genocide.

What hope could remain in a human heart after enduring such calamities?

Could an intense desire to right the wrongs or change the world bring back life to a suffering soul?

In Amity, author Nasreen Pejvack makes her reader wrestle with such questions, page after page, as she recounts both the painful and happy memories that form the lives of her two main characters: Ragusa, a survivor of the Yugoslav ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, who is on the verge of taking her own life, and her unknowing rescuer, Payvand, who is an Iranian activist with a tragic life story of her own.

Paradox of the West

Amity shows that there are moments in some peoples’ lives in which hope does not materialize from suffering. There are times when the soul has been so utterly shattered, that the mere suggestion of finding meaning within its pain is insulting.

Pejvack presents a panorama of a Western world – with its affluence and the seeming peace of its clean streets – which hides many truths and stories of refugees or others who have fled conflict and reached what seems like a safe haven.

As the stories in Amity show, the suffering of many of those individuals will not cease once they have a Canadian passport.

As the stories in Amity show, the suffering of many of those individuals will not cease once they have a Canadian passport or British citizenship. The marks that their pasts have left on their souls will accompany them forever, like a shadow surrounding the most trivial moments of their lives.

Yes, many of them have been saved; the lucky few have even re-married in their new countries and found jobs and successful careers. But who can take away the pain of the memories, the tears, and the nightmares that keep survivors trapped in their minds as if in a prison of their pasts?

Pejvack’s book is heartfelt throughout. It is honest and direct and her phrases are simple, clear, and concise.

For those readers who are fortunate not to have suffered the misfortunes of war, oppression and tragedy, this book will provide insight into the lives of the millions of people worldwide who are experiencing similar fates as Ragusa and Payvand.

Understanding each other, and the world

Amity is a testament of sympathy with victims and the experience of sharing an understanding of tragedy and pain; of expressing empathy towards those who feel that no one could possibly understand the depths of their suffering. 

This book grabs the audience’s attention rapidly, with its strong life stories and its vibrant political, economic and historical debates, made intentionally easy to read.

Her book is incredibly timely and relevant in the context of the present turmoil in the Middle East.

The writer’s political debates illustrate the evils that have plagued Iran and the nations that formed the former Yugoslavia, creating strong sentiments between two women who shared impassionate days and brought joy to each other in their pain.

The book succeeds at making the audience care about global politics and the way it creates wars that lead to the kinds of crises that have made these two protagonists suffer so much in their lives.

As Payvand tries to pull Ragusa back to life by telling her stories, this book also grabs the reader’s attention and curiosity from the beginning by making us want to learn more about the fascinating characters Pejvack describes in each chapter.

For those interested in the histories of the places where conflict has struck recently, this book embarks on detailed accounts of Iran’s recent past, explaining how the country came to be what it is now.

Pejvack’s explanations are nuanced and politically knowledgeable. Her book is incredibly timely and relevant in the context of the present turmoil in the Middle East.

… Pejvack writes in a way that is every bit poetic as it is political and invites people to care, to take action, and to participate in her revolution.

Call to action                        

Each of Pejvack’s characters is an activist in her own right.

Ragusa, a Croat, married a Serb – something inconceivable during tense times in which Croatian and Serbian populations were at war.

Payvand, an Iranian revolutionary, had to see her comrades die and experience the disappointment of witnessing the onset of what she calls an ignorant revolution.

From the portrait of violence Pejvack presents comes a call for revolution. Formerly a writer and poet for an underground activist publication in Iran, Pejvack writes in a way that is every bit poetic as it is political and invites people to care, to take action, and to participate in her revolution.

The call for unity regardless of nationality and other differences is one of the most beautiful premises this book proposes. This work is a must-read for inspired young citizens of the world, as Pejvack appeals to those who are trying to make a difference and are in need of some accessible guidance on how to contribute positively to the world.

Maria Assaf is a Colombian-Canadian freelance reporter who writes for Latin American, Filipino and other immigrant publications in Canada, including New Canadian Media. She completed her bachelor's degree in journalism at Ryerson University and is currently pursuing a master's degree in development and emergency practice at Oxford Brookes University, where she is researching refugee freedom of expression.


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books

Monika Horvat was only three years old when she and her family fled the political upheaval in the former Yugoslavia in 1993. The beauty queen is now using her experiences to make the transition to Canada easier for other immigrants, and her pageant platform as a finalist with Miss Universe Canada 2015 to make the […]

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Published in Arts & Culture
Friday, 26 September 2014 09:50

NCM NewsFeed: Weekly Newsletter Sept. 26

In this edition: Our review of the Scottish referendum by a Canadian who experienced the break-up of the former Yugoslavia + controversial opening of the CMHR in Winnipeg + the new age of philanthropy... and much more


 

NCM NewsFeed

 

Here and Now

The week gone by demonstrated yet again the broad reach of our coverage. Leading our line-up was a review of the Scottish referendum from the perspective of a Canadian writer who lived through the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. “I constantly fail to fully understand the desire to become a citizen of a smaller and less significant country than the one you currently live in,” writes Zoran Vidić.

Marika Washchyshyn followed up on a story she first reported on last year about the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. A host of immigrant groups have written an open letter disowning the museum, asserting that the just-opened institution has not done enough to reflect their particular historical perspectives. See also Harmony Jazz below for another perspective. 

Who knew self-absorbed millennials (those born since 1980) were interested in philanthropy? Kumaran Nadesan and Anupama Ranawana offer a surprisingly comforting take on their charitable giving, including the Sri Lankan diaspora in Canada – the largest outside the South Asian island nation.

In other headlines: 

 

 

Ripples

Creating a major splash this week was the report issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stating between 550,000 and 1.4 million people in West Africa could be infected with the Ebola virus by January 20, 2015. The top range of the estimate assumes that the number of cases officially cited so far, 5,864 according to the count kept by the World Health Organization, is significantly underreported, and that it is likely that 2.5 times as many cases, or nearly 20,000, have in fact occurred.

Sending ripples from outer space was India’s first interplanetary mission. It placed a satellite into orbit around Mars and catapulted the country into an elite club of deep-space explorers. “We have gone beyond the boundaries of human enterprise and innovation,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a live broadcast from the Indian Space and Research Organization’s command centre in the southern tech hub of Bangalore.

“We have navigated our craft through a route known to very few,” Modi said, congratulating the scientists. Reaching the fourth planet from the sun is a major feat for the developing country of 1.2 billion people. India has a robust scientific and technical educational system that has produced millions of software programmers, engineers and doctors. 

And literally creating ripples nearer home is the underwater discovery near Haida Gwaii, B.C. that could rewrite human history. While the sonar images acquired by scientists from the ocean floor aren’t as dramatic as those of the recently found Franklin ship in the Arctic, the images of a cluster of rocks and unnatural rectangular shapes are just as important. For decades, archeologists have been searching for proof of the earliest human presence in North America and these underwater photos could be it.

Harmony Jazz

The opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights continues to attract controversy from a number of communities. Jon Kay captures some of the absurdity of the debates in The Canadian Human Rights Commission must establish a special human-rights tribunal to address human-rights complaints pertaining to the presentation of human-rights issues at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

With the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq, and the large number of Canadians and others joining ISIS/ISIL, Canada and other governments continue efforts to contain the risk in Canadian government revoking passports of citizens trying to join extremist groups and fears that this will be abused in Plan to revoke passports raises concerns

Increased security, while necessary, needs to be complemented by engagement in Muslim communities key to tackling rise of Islamic extremism? and The Key to Defeating ISIS Is Islam. The opening of the Ismaili Centre in Toronto and related museum of Islamic art provides a welcome counterpart to more narrow interpretations of Islam as exemplified by the Aga Khan’s message in Ismaili Centre: place of prayer, cradle of friendship.

Our friends at iPolitics.ca report a rather strange legal defence in the defamation suit brought by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM): “Prime Minister Harper is not vicariously liable for the actions of staff members in his office.”

Lastly, a reminder that we are often captive to the shared beliefs and understanding of our surroundings in Victoria Ferauge’s Tribes and Truth, and the challenge we all have in overcoming these inbuilt biases.

Back Pocket

This year marks the fifth anniversary of Culture Days, an annual, three-day national celebration of arts and culture, taking place this weekend, September 26, 27 and 28. Established in 2009 to encourage all Canadians to participate in the nation’s cultural life, Culture Days events take place at sites all over the country, hosted by volunteer artists and cultural workers of all kinds who make their work available free of charge in order to introduce themselves to new audiences. On Saturday you could attend a pow wow in Waterloo, Ontario, a belly-dancing demonstration in PEI, or a Taekwondo workshop in Vermillion, Alberta. Or you can find an event near you on the Culture Days website.

We were excited to read about North America's first public tandoor oven, which has been installed in a public park in Toronto’s predominantly South Asian neighbourhood of Thorncliffe Park neighborhood. The Thorncliffe Park Women’s Committee began work in 2009, advocating for various improvements to their community’s park. Led by Sabina Ali, a newly-arrived immigrant from India, the committee sought to transform a neglected city park into a vibrant public space, and the tandoor oven is just part of that vision. It’s often fired up for markets and festivals hosted in the park, which now also has a splashpad, basketball courts, benches, and garden plots. It’s an inspiring story about what a dedicated group of citizens can accomplish and the important contributions, large and small, that immigrants make to their communities.


With that, have a great weekend and don’t forget to look up the next edition of NCM NewsFeed every Friday morning! We will soon be launching an e-mail version of this newsletter, so please subscribe by clicking here.

Publisher’s Note: This NewsFeed was compiled with input from our Newsroom Editors and regular columnist, Andrew Griffith. We welcome your feedback.

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Published in Top Stories
Tuesday, 23 September 2014 19:24

Scots are Better Off in a United Kingdom

by Zoran Vidić in Toronto

The referendum for the independence of Scotland from the U.K. is behind us, but the fallout has yet to settle. 

The pro-independence party has been getting thousands of new members since the vote and disappointed Scottish nationalists are crying foul over the easy-given and even-easier-forgotten promises by the leaders of the major British parties to cede more control to the Scots over their own affairs.

Just to the south of Britain, Catalan nationalists are marching in hundreds of thousands asking for the same right as Scotland – to vote for the independence of Catalonia from Spain.

And this is just the beginning. There are many independence movements all over Europe and the world, including our own in the heart of Canada: Quebec. 

Having been born and raised in a country that no longer exists thanks to the explosion of viral nationalism followed by bloody disintegration, I constantly fail to fully understand the desire to become a citizen of a smaller and less significant country than the one you currently live in.

Also, I am still flabbergasted by the irresponsible, cynical and vengeful support for the separation of Kosovo from Serbia by the Western powers. Following some very confused and highly inconsistent logic, their act has opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box and evil spirits are out, wreaking havoc over international laws and norms.

And this is just the beginning. There are many independence movements all over Europe and the world, including our own in the heart of Canada: Quebec.

Yugoslavia as superpower

As a citizen of the late Yugoslavia, I was proud to live in a country that included different religions, cultures, languages and even histories. It was a country of roughly 25 million people, four religions, five major languages and dozens of minority ones. It stretched from the Alps and Adriatic Sea to the valleys and mountains of Macedonia. Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians and many other “nations and nationalities” (as it was stated in the Constitution), living in a state of “brotherhood and unity” (Sic!).

Yugoslavia was a founding member of the UN, leader of the Non-alignment Movement and an important buffer between the East and the West. We all rooted for the Yugoslav national team consisting of players from Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and we revelled in their victories. Yugoslavia was a superpower in basketball, water polo, handball, volleyball, and we had a respectable soccer team and internationally-renowned coaches.

Insignificant statelets

Fast forward 25 years and all these federal republics are now independent states, including a few stillborn statelets such as BiH and Kosovo. None of them has even a fraction of significance, respect or power the mother country had. Slovenia was relatively fortunate to avoid bloodshed and managed to maintain a high standard of living, but hardly anyone has heard of Slovenia, and those who have, frequently confuse it with Slovakia (to add to confusion, they have very similar flags, too).

Despite the promises of “democracy” and instant membership to the EU offered by Croatian nationalists in the 1990's, it took over 20 years for Croats to gain their EU passports. In these two decades, Croatia went through a civil war, extreme nationalism, economic decline and ethnic cleansing of nearly 240,000 of its citizens of Serbian origin.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it ended up much worse than that. After four years of a bloody civil war between the indigenous Serbs, Croats and Muslims, almost 100,000 dead and with the economy teleported back to 1950, it is a dysfunctional, corrupt and inefficient state, split in two-and-a-half entities and governed by inept leaders.

None of them has even a fraction of significance, respect or power the mother country had.

Serbia as pariah

Serbia ended up as a pariah state and is generally blamed for everything that happened, although it was the only ex-Yugoslav republic that was against the disintegration of the unitary state. Unfortunately, the leaders at the time were Slobodan Milosevic and his clique, and their stupidity and inability to keep pace with changes in the world around them led them straight to The Hague and an early grave. Except for those who survived and are now “pro-western democratic leaders.”

Montenegro remained as insignificant as it has always been, and is more or less, private property of the cigarette smuggling ringleader Milo Djukanovic and his cronies.

Kosovo, the latest gem in the crown of American geopolitical engineering, is a failed statelet whose political leaders are indistinguishable from drug lords. Members of the government are being investigated for kidnapping and killing Serbs and selling their organs, and over 60 per cent of the population is unemployed, while the birth rate is among of highest in the world.

The only people who profited from nationalism are local chieftains, who aroused the masses with cheap slogans and makeshift history in order to seize power locally, because deep down they knew that was their limit. No great vision, just narrow-minded self-interest.

I constantly fail to fully understand the desire to become a citizen of a smaller and less significant country than the one you currently live in.

A mini EU

Today, almost a quarter of century after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, one of the main promises the politicians make to their electorate is that “by 2025, we will have the standard of living we had in 1990.” Every sane person who remembers Yugoslavia agrees that it was a “mini-EU”, a peaceful, safe, beautiful and colourful country, admired by then less-fortunate Eastern Bloc countries for high living standards and unprecedented freedoms they could only dream of.

So, where were we? Aha, independence. Answer to all out problems? Not at all.

Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec, Texas … will not be better countries on their own. They will be small, insignificant corners of the world, vulnerable to the geopolitical changes and whims of history. It takes an effort to build and maintain. Demolishing is the easy part.

So, yay or nay?

Eh?

Zoran Vidić is a communications expert and journalist. He began his career in 1997 as a reporter for a major daily in Belgrade, Serbia, and moved to Canada in 2001.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary
Tuesday, 05 August 2014 09:35

How I’m Coming to Terms with Rejection

by Zoran Vidić in Toronto

It's been exactly a year since job hunting became my full-time job. 

“Send out 300 résumés, get 10 interviews and one job” read the golden rule of job hunting featured in the “101 – Intro to Canada for Immigrants” booklet, which I read religiously while getting ready to finally start a “better life” in a “better country,” famous for its spirit of acceptance and famously polite people.

Many months and years have passed me by …  I am currently completing my 14th spin around the Sun while in Canada and I still think Canadians are extremely nice people. However, I am beginning to doubt Canadian employers’ spirit of acceptance when it comes to hiring a communications specialist with a foreign background and accent (well, I guess British or Australian don’t count since they are perceived as “sought after”).  

Staggering numbers

In the past 12 months, I have sent several 1,000 job applications (close to 3,000 by my rough count). I received a few hundred “thank you for your applying” letters, spiced up with polite-yet-utterly-soulless phrases such as “… but we have decided to pursue other candidates” and ”… please keep visiting our career section.” I almost prefer being sent a rejection letter full of expletives and insults. It would at least feel like I’ve been rejected by a person and not by some cutting-edge software.

I did land one face-to-face interview with RBC’s (Royal Bank of Canada's) communications manager and five or six telephone (screening) interviews, one of them with IBM. Every single time, while preparing for the interview, I could see myself as a rising star in the company, being the creative force behind their success and finally gaining respect and appreciation for my knowledge and skill.

I almost prefer being sent a rejection letter full of expletives and insults. It would at least feel like I’ve been rejected by a person and not by some cutting-edge software.

Alas, as soon as the overly polite and full-of-praise recruiters started interviewing me, I could almost visualize their enthusiasm jumping on to a passing train of thoughts and fading away into misty nothingness.

 

Fairly intelligent guy

Hey, after all, I like to think of myself as being an educated, informed and fairly intelligent guy, with more good than bad personality traits (well, at least I hope).

Math was never my strongest suit (that’s one of the reasons I studied journalism), but it doesn’t really take Stephen Hawking to realize the improbability of this statistical outcome: a dude at the apex of his career, with a Master of Journalism degree from a reputable Canadian university and many years of experience (most of it Canadian), cannot find a job in his field of expertise in the city where some 65% of Canadian media industry is found. And I’ve been sending résumés day in and day out. I can enter all my personal information into the “register your profile” fields blindfolded.

Three thousand résumés, six interviews. One year.

Nada, zero, zilch, null, no jobs!!!

50% my fault

There must be something else at play here. Either that or I should consider visiting that black-magic curse removal parlour in my neighbourhood that used to make me chuckle every time I passed by. Perhaps that Haitian old woman who tied some sort of hairy string around my wrist had something to do with my unemployment situation?

Call me crazy, but I prefer to think it’s only 50% my fault. I have read more career advice articles than I can remember. I tried every single approach, from “shotgun” to “sniper” distribution. I polished my résumé to the point where it can be used as a mirror for the latest generation of space telescopes. I networked (as much as possible when on a low budget), learned new skills (even started learning Mandarin), and even took classes on public speaking at Ryerson. The only thing I didn’t do was to beg. I don’t do begging.

I’ve seen people much less skilled and educated making it up the corporate ladder by skipping several steps in one go.

It is not hard to imagine why this happens. People are, in general, hard-wired to distrust strangers. Of course, no one likes to admit it because it goes against the official policy of inclusiveness and feeling of self-righteousness, but modern corporate language is sophisticated and meaningless enough to convey all the ambiguities one can come up with. So, please, feel free to apply for any job, because they have thousands of extremely polite ways to reject you: “Although your qualifications were impressive, we regret to inform you that you have not been selected for an interview” means: “I don’t think you can do this job as well as someone born and raised in Canada.”

This is a vicious circle and self-fulfilling prophecy, because the people who don’t get opportunities cannot gain experience, and without experience they cannot get a job. Without a job, people lose self-confidence and become desperate or bitter. And no one likes to work with the bitter desperados.

Invisible force field

It is also a part of the deep-seated subconscious defensive mechanism that insiders in every human society (yes, it does include Canada, too) use to protect their status and privileges. I am certainly not the first nor the last person to experience this invisible force field, and much ink has been spilled over this phenomenon, but this problem persists in being the major hurdle for immigrants in Canada.

Surely, people can be more useful to Canadian society than sending out countless CV's.

People are, in general, hard-wired to distrust strangers.

I am aware of the contemporary mantra that “It takes only seven seconds to make a first impression,” which is deeply ingrained in the neural patterns of Human Resources (HR) folks. I also know that 90% of all candidates are automatically eliminated by the screening software. I am not completely oblivious to the fact that cutthroat competition and return-on-investment rules do not tolerate risk and mistakes, making everyone in the business, including HR people, fear for their jobs more than “Game of Thrones” actors.

What boggles my mind is the fact that members of the general public would rather “Ooooh” and “Aaaah” about a “cute puppy” story than take a minute to think about how much knowledge, education, hard work and invaluable potential is wasted by judging immigrants superficially. We are all biased in one or another way, but for the sake of this country’s future, don’t listen to how I speak. Listen to what I am saying.

Zoran Vidić is a communications expert and journalist. He began his career in 1997 as a reporter for a major daily in Belgrade, Serbia, and moved to Ottawa, Canada in 2001. Upon completion of his Master of Journalism degree at Carleton University, he worked as a communications officer for the Métis National Council, and completed various contracts for the governments of Canada and Ontario. Since 2012, he has been based in Toronto and can be reached at vizor3@gmail.com.

Read also: Zoran's review of Josip Novakovich's Shopping for a Better Country, Dzanc Books, 2012

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary
It’s time to take a look at race and racism in our community
 

by Province deputy editor Ros Guggi

 

I didn’t speak a word of English when I started kindergarten in Ontario.

My dad, from Austria, and my mom, from Yugoslavia, met on the boat to Canada in the early 1950s. They were in their late teens and early 20s, fleeing the poverty of postwar Europe. I was born here, but we spoke only German at home.

We were considered “other,” on our street and in my school. My full name is Roswitha and I cringed whenever I started a new class and the teacher made a big deal out of trying to pronounce it. My last name, Guggi, was just as tough. I just wanted to fit in. But being of German descent in the ’50s and ’60s wouldn’t allow that. There was a lot of hatred of Germans after the war and parents passed that on to their kids, who passed that on to me in the schoolyard.

Successive generations of immigrants to Canada have gone through the same things. There was discrimination against the Irish when they first came, and the Italians, and the Ukrainians. In my school, most folks had last names like Smith and Jones and Carmichael.

If your name was different, you didn’t fit, and you felt it.

Now we are no longer a country of largely British and French descent, First Nations people or European immigrants with hard-to-pronounce names.

Since the early ’70s, most of our immigrants have non-European ancestry.

They’ve been coming from Asia and India and the Philippines, with hard-to-pronounce names.

The streets of Metro Vancouver are filled with visible minorities, who have brought their culture and values with them. But many newcomers are living in self-segregated areas, where they are close to their own kind and don’t need to mix with the larger community.

While we look like a model of inclusivity, it’s clear many new immigrants don’t feel welcome. There are tensions bubbling beneath the polite surface of our official multiculturalism in B.C. and they are in full roar in Quebec. Our aboriginal people feel disenfranchised and experience open racism.

We felt we needed to take a look at race and racism in our community.

It’s the hardest project I’ve undertaken in more than three decades as a journalist. And it is the bravest project our team has done. The writers have been tasked with exploring racism without provoking it. What we do want to provoke is a community discussion about the issues that divide us, and what needs to change to make ours a more inclusive place.

Over the next 17 days, we’ll be exploring all aspects of the issue, and we’ll be encouraging you to join the conversation. While we want this to be an honest discussion about issues of race, culture and values, we do not want to become a platform for racists. We will be doing our best to vet comments so the conversation is constructive, rather than destructive.

Before we started work on this multimedia series last spring, I met with many community leaders to discuss the issues we should explore. We thank them for their insights and help in opening doors for us. They include Mo Dhaliwal, Ujjal Dosanjh, Tung Chan, Alden Habacon, Naveen Girn, Wade Grant and Janet Austin. My colleague and friend, Province Deputy Editor Fabian Dawson who immigrated here from Malaysia in 1988, provided invaluable advice.

We also want to thank the scores of people who opened up to our journalists about racism they’ve experienced.

The essays of nine community leaders will appear, along with your feedback, throughout the series.

Please read the series and check out the compelling online videos and multimedia features we’ve produced. Then join this very important discussion by sending your stories about racism you’ve experienced or your thoughts on the issues we’re raising to racism@theprovince.com.

Tell us what you think needs to change. How can we make this province a more inclusive place and create a better community?

Ros Guggi is The Province’s Deputy Editor and the project leader.

Republished with permission from The Province. Read original reporting here

Published in Top Stories
Thursday, 14 March 2013 20:43

Some of us shop for the Blues

Book review by Zoran Vidić for New Canadian Media

Josip Novakovich: Shopping for a Better Country, Dzanc Books, 2012

We shop.

If we need to eat, we shop for groceries. Need clothing? Go to The Bay (or Armani if you’re picky). In the 21st century, as Croatian-American turned Canadian writer Josip Novakovich explains in his new book, we even shop for new countries.

Some of us do it because we think we deserve a better country.

In shopaholic terms, we upgrade.

Others do it because their current country has suffered damage not covered by their insurance policy (losers – from the perspective of more fortunate country-shoppers). There are even people who collect new nationalities just for the heck of it.

How do you know when your current country doesn’t work anymore and needs to be replaced by a new, better one? Is there a “country replacement indicator” that blinks somewhere in your heads?

Is our country a conjecture of the mind, an elusive phantom of our flickering dreams and impressions or is it real? Is it the smell of freshly baked bread and coffee emanating from the narrow streets of your hometown, chatter of your aunts, cousins and friends gathered at your mother’s house for a family celebration, or is it the passport you carry?

What if your original country ceases to exist and you are left roaming the world, chasing a ghost?

In the case of Novakovich, this seems to be true. Although he describes leaving Tito’s workers’ paradise – Yugoslavia, as an escape from a cage to freedom, the zombie of the old country still breathes down his neck, and he can’t seem to stop writing about it. Three decades after leaving Yugoslavia, his descriptions, metaphors, allusions and narrative still seem to be more meaningful to people like me (who come from the same non-existent country as Novakovich, although not from the same side of the fence that replaced it), than they will ever be to the most of his American and Canadian readers. It is as if he is in the perpetual culture shock that works both ways.

Suspended in a limbo

Perhaps this ability to see the reality from at least two different angles is the principal quality immigrants bring to their newly acquired countries. At the same time, it can be their worst curse as many remain suspended in a limbo between the two different descriptions of the world, unable to fully relate to either.

“We as Americans,” ruminates Novakovich, “are being exiled from our country of liberty through the general paranoia being injected into our asses. The total spying which we suspected in Yugoslavia, Hungary and East Germany, is only now possible, in the States, through credit cards, computers, EZ passes, surveillance cameras, and well-meaning neighbors.”

How is that for a perspective that is hardly comprehensible to most North Americans as a result of many decades of cold war propaganda in which East Europe is an Evil Empire and the US of A is the embodiment of freedom?

An immigrant knows that the truth is found somewhere between these two “absolute truths.”

“Shopping for a Better Country” is a collection of narrative essays. Flashes of the author’s memory take us through his formative years in Yugoslavia/Croatia, his first travels, his American life and challenges that life as an expat generously provides (“It’s not the ex, but patria that defines you. The question is which patria is stronger, the new or the ex…”).

Novakovich writes about his son’s musical education and their centuries-old cello being confiscated by Russian customs officers; about being Baptist in a Catholic Croatia; his addiction to friendships (and perhaps to alcohol?); his impressions of North Africa, Hungary, Berlin, and The Balkans. He is very candid in trying to explain why he cannot write erotic stories, and he claims his sleep apnea is in part responsible for his literary talent.

Writing about one of his friend’s “successive polygamy with women and nations,” Novakovich notices a “striking parallel”: “You can divorce, but if you have children with someone, you never fully do. You can leave the country of your birth, but you never fully do.”

Or, perhaps your country of origin never leaves you, stuck somewhere between your neurons. For one of his characters, a ninety-year old man (and for most people in the former Yugoslavia), the notion of “country” took a series of bizarre and confusing turns. Even though he never travelled more than 40 kms. from his hometown, his country changed names eight times. Each of these national incarnations visited him.

“Shopping for a Better Country” is an easy read filled with profound questions that must be answered on an individual level. To paraphrase my good friend George, “Being immigrant is the most difficult of all human endeavours.”

So, when we shop for a country, we sometimes end up buying music of a slightly different genre. For some of us it’s Rock n’ Roll. For others it’s the Blues. – New Canadian Media

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Books

Poll Question

Do you agree with the new immigration levels for 2017?

Yes - 30.8%
No - 46.2%
Don't know - 23.1%
The voting for this poll has ended on: %05 %b %2016 - %21:%Dec

Featured Quote

The honest truth is there is still reluctance around immigration policy... When we want to talk about immigration and we say we want to bring more immigrants in because it's good for the economy, we still get pushback.

-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit

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