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.
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
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 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.
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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 Beatrice Paez in Toronto
As a child, it wasn’t unusual for Ann Y.K. Choi to be at work behind the counter of her family’s convenience store in Toronto. She and her two brothers were expected to help their parents when they finished school.
Choi’s teenage daughter, a third-generation Korean-Canadian, isn’t familiar with the ins-and-outs of running a variety store – no more stocking shelves with instant noodles, no more keeping a wary eye out for shoplifters.
But Choi says the children of immigrants shouldn’t be spared from learning about the sacrifices their parents made to ensure their children would not undergo the same hardships they endured.
It’s one of the reasons she wrote Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, a fictional, yet deeply personal, account of life in a downtown Toronto convenience store. Mary, the novel’s headstrong, yet conflicted, protagonist, is a composite of Choi and other young Korean women she knew whose stories had yet to be told to a wider audience.
Preserving Canadian history
Choi says she wasn’t ready to pen a memoir for her debut as a writer, but wanted her daughter and other young Canadians to be aware of the Korean-Canadian experience.
“Nobody has gone on to inherit the store, and if I [didn’t] write this story, this whole history would be lost,” says Choi. “This is a part of Canadian history.”
The Choi family moved to Toronto from South Korea in 1975. Choi’s parents worked miscellaneous jobs before saving enough money to buy a variety store on Queen Street West.
What distinguishes the immigrant experience of Koreans, says Choi, is that they had to bounce from neighbourhood to neighbourhood to compete in the convenience store market. Owning a mom-and-pop shop was unlike having a restaurant, which could exist alongside others on the same block.
“We were scattered all over Toronto. We got to experience and live in every pocket,” says Choi. “It gave us insight into Toronto on a bigger level . . . And in some ways, it helped us integrate.”
They led a somewhat “nomadic” life. Moving was dictated by the rising and falling fortunes of the family business.
Mixing family and business
The store demanded so much of the family that Choi says it was like their “baby.”
Looking after the store barely gave them time to unwind together. There were no family dinners and no socializing until after the convenience store closed at midnight.
“We were all very aware that we needed the baby to thrive because our success depended on it,” she says.
It was only when she became a mother herself that Choi says she fully appreciated the courage and nerve it took her mother to run a store that was always at risk of being robbed.
“It’s hard not to be resentful [growing up], but looking back, I realize she must have been so afraid, but she didn’t show it,” says Choi.
Taking on taboo topics
At a Toronto Public Library event organized as part of its eh List Author series, Choi recalls how she came to write the book, which explores the relationship between mother and daughter.
It took a little nudging from a former student back in 2007, says Choi, who works as a high-school guidance counsellor. She explains how he flipped the question about his ambitions back at her and persuaded her to fulfill her dreams.
“I told him I wanted to write a book, and he challenged me to do that,” she says.
For five years, she would write after her family went to bed at night. “It seemed safer to delve into the Korean psyche when it was quiet,” she says.
She took several writing courses, eventually graduating from the University of Toronto’s creative writing program in 2012. Her final project, Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, was presented before a literary panel and earned the attention of renowned editor Phyllis Bruce, who acquired the novel for Simon & Schuster.
What struck her editor, Choi explains, was that the book tackled themes of depression and anxiety from the perspective of a Korean-Canadian.
As universal as people’s struggles with mental health issues are, for Choi and other Korean women she interviewed, such anxieties were rooted in a deep resentment toward their mothers. They were seen as an “obstacle” to their desire to be Canadian.
Although aspects of Korean culture have become mainstream, literature still lags behind K-Pop and kimchi in popularity.
This is what partly led Wai, a Chinese-Canadian immigrant, to Choi’s library reading.
“I’m interested in literary diversity,” she says. “I’d like to hear about the Korean experience. Most of it is a universal theme, but it would be nice to hear different perspectives.”
Choi hopes her book will open up the space for other Korean writers who are reluctant to share their experiences.
“There’s a little bit of fear,” she says, adding there are things that Korean Canadians as a cultural group do not discuss.
“We’re very guarded about sharing pain. It’s one thing to share music, food, but stories are so intensely personal.”
by Danica Samuel in Toronto
Café Babanussa is a story about mental illness that has never been told before. Through the journey of a young, mixed-race woman exploring Germany in the 1980s, we see how mental instability creeps into the lives of even the most beautiful of characters.
Living in Germany after its separation following the Second World War, Ruby Edwards must adjust to the racist backlash she receives as a Black Canadian in Europe.
The book’s author, Karen Hill, had her own struggles. She was unable to maintain a nine-to-five job due to challenges with tasks such as getting dressed, arriving at work on time, and dealing with co-workers. She neglected work, which led to her living in poverty and having to survive on welfare.
Eventually, she took on creative hobbies such as cooking, art and poetry. As a poet, she became known for her work “What is my Culture?” and “A Breath for you.”
Café Babanussa mirrors Hill’s life and she debated making it a memoir. She wrote the novel – her first – from 1989 to 2012.
Freedom from a mental cage
As a child, the book's main character, Ruby, had reoccurring dreams of a man smothering her that continued to plague her into adulthood. She would write in her diary, lock herself up in her room, and argue with figments of her imagination.
Now a young adult, Ruby’s need for freedom and independence takes her to Germany, where her past demons and current insecurities intermingle to wreak havoc on her mind and personal relationships.
She explores West Berlin and nearby France. A young man named Werner, a British friend named Emma, and a mysterious drug dealer named Dom – Ruby seeks acceptance from them in a time of racial tumult, as well as an escape from the growing turmoil in her mind.
After becoming pregnant and not knowing whom the father of her child is, Ruby has an abortion that takes a toll on her mind and body. Dom dies from a drug overdose, leading Ruby to slip deeper into depression. Hill described this process as a form of self-isolation.
“Ruby was beginning to slowly lock herself up inside her mind. More and more people were prying their way into her head talking to her,” Hill wrote. “She became entranced listening to all their voices, searching for some truth in their words.”
Ruby later finds out that her mother also dealt with mental illness. Hill reflected on this aspect of Ruby’s life in an essay included at the end of the book. She wrote about mental health problems in her own family and described her personal experience with mental illness as “being crazy.”
A short reprieve
Towards the end, we learn the significance of the book’s title. Café Babanussa is a haven where Ruby and her friends go to escape their stressful lives. At the café, she finds solitude for the first time and comfort in being unapologetically Black and ultimately, herself.
“She felt grateful for having been accepted into the club,” Hill wrote. “The feeling of belonging to one race as opposed to none empowered her.”
At Café Babanussa, Ruby meets a new lover, Issam, and becomes pregnant again. She later gives birth to a child and moves back to her parents’ home in Toronto. Her adventure is over, yet her internal struggles continue.
“The architecture in Toronto seemed so bland – new and ugly,” Hill wrote. “[A]lmost every night she went to sleep crying for what she no longer had [and] for weeks she wrestled with dark clouds that seemed to follow her wherever she went. She was tired and listless.”
Understanding a common illness
What makes Ruby’s story so relatable is the fact that we are all familiar with the places that Ruby has encountered on her journey to adulthood. Trying to be encouraged and spirited while dealing with responsibilities, social issues, love and growing-up can be stressful.
Hill’s realistic portrayal of someone who cannot cope with these pressures provides a better understanding of mental illness.
She did not identify Ruby’s illness as a rare and isolated occurrence, but as a struggle that people often encounter in life. She showed that it is easy to succumb to the bullying thoughts, fears, and demons that many of us confront.
Before her death in 2014, Hill wrote a letter that talked about her lonely walks, physically and mentally, which was also included in the book. After being out of institutions and hospitals for three years, she had sympathy for those who remained locked-up and suffering as victims of their minds.
“I feel I have finally reached a place of some stability. From here I can reach out and become a healthier and more active participant in the mental health and wider communities. Sadly, this is still not true for many others who struggle with mental illness.”
Danica Samuel is a freelance journalist from Toronto. She is a compulsive writer who is constantly searching for new stories on the streets and through social media. Samuel has written for the Huffington Post, New Canadian Media and ByBlacks. She prides herself on her creativity, charisma and provocativeness, while always being committed to content that is memorable, relevant and original.
by Susan Korah in Ottawa
Canada’s foreign policy is caught in a precarious balancing act between the “sunny ways” of election promises and the realpolitik of weapons sales to countries with dubious human rights records.
In his new book, Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future, former Senator Hugh Segal suggests a solution that he says is focused, principled, and based on two foundational principles – freedom from fear and freedom from want.
Segal’s expertise in foreign policy was acquired through more than 30 years of involvement in foreign and security policy. This included chairing the Senate Foreign Affairs and Special Anti-Terrorism committees and the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies, as well as a serving term as President of the Institute for Research and Public Policy (IRPP), a non-partisan think tank and research institution.
Introducing his book at a launch hosted by the IRPP in partnership with the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival, he explained that while he has the highest regard for some of Canada’s hardworking diplomats and other foreign service personnel, he is concerned that foreign policy is a mess of shifting priorities swinging from right to left, according to the ideology of the government that happens to be in power.
His aim, he said, is to give some clarity and direction to foreign policy, which in his opinion, should not be dependent on party politics.
More foreign aid
Elaborating on freedom from want, Segal said it is in Canada’s interest to see that families, communities and nations around the world live in reasonable prosperity, buoyed by a sense of hope for the future.
“Living in a state of economic and social despair can produce huge and even cataclysmic consequences, not only for those living in despair, but for their neighbouring communities and countries,” he pointed out, adding that the total absence of hope leads to violent behaviour based on a “nothing-to-lose” attitude.
“Putting those two freedoms – freedom from want and from fear – at the centre of our foreign policy would make it more coherent and the world would understand better what we stand for as Canadians,” Segal said.
He added that if extreme poverty is the root cause of violence, we have to ask ourselves what we can do to diminish this cause.
“I think that both in terms of foreign aid and international development and in terms of doing our fair share militarily, we are not doing enough,” he said. “In the [Prime Minister] Lester Pearson era we contributed 0.7 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP) to foreign aid, but in recent years our numbers have been much lower.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently pledged to boost funding to the global fight against HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, but said Ottawa will not meet the goal to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid anytime soon.
Increase military capacity
Another key point that Segal makes in his book and highlighted at the event, is that Canada needs to reinforce its values-based foreign policy with an appropriate military capacity.
“We have a great military, but we need more of them,” he said. “Canada should probably have Armed Forces of 150,000, of which 100,000 are regular forces and 50,000 are reserves rather than our present number which is in the 50,000 to 60,000 range.”
He said Canada also needs a 60-ship fighting navy, rather than one that has 20 or 30 ships, that can be deployed on humanitarian and diplomatic missions “to send a clear message about Canadian values.”
Giving some examples of how such military strength could help Canadians and those abroad, Segal said, “We need to make sure the Chinese respect the territorial integrity of Taiwan and other people.”
“Our failure to engage with [Bashar al-] Assad three or four years ago is why we have such a horrendous situation now,” he added, referring to the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Using a Western Canadian expression, he said: “We have a big hat, but no cattle,” a reference to cowboys whose boastful talk is not matched by action or even the capacity for action.
Decline since Chrétien era
“There has to be more cohesion between our foreign policy and defence policy,” he emphasized.
Segal’s central thesis is strongly reminiscent of a 2003 publication While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World by Ottawa writer Andrew Cohen. Both authors lament the decline of Canada’s foreign policy and its military, especially since the glory days of Prime Minister Pearson.
Both consider that it took a turn for the worse under the leadership of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Segal points out that in that era, by sending delegations of Canadian business people and politicians around the world to increase trade, it became necessary to tread carefully so that no potential trading partner would be offended.
Both Segal and Cohen call for a values-based approach.
“The notion that this book might contribute to that debate in some constructive way would be my fondest hope,” said Segal.
by Beatrice Paez in Toronto
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz owes his early literary education to the two local librarians who nurtured his love for reading.
The all-too-familiar story of unsupportive Dominican immigrant parents equating success with being a doctor applied to him, too, he said.
Diaz attended public school in a poor community in New Jersey, staffed by overworked teachers with little guidance to spare. He struck an unlikely friendship with two local librarians, though, who handpicked books that they thought he would enjoy.
“I didn’t receive the traditional mentorship,” Diaz said, addressing a diverse crowd at Mind the Gap: Crossing Imaginary Lines at the Toronto Reference Library.
Paying it forward
As part of Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) Canada’s Ideas in Dialogue 2016 series, Diaz engaged in a lively discussion with Sri Lankan-American novelist and fiction writer Sunil Yapa about a writer’s relationship with readers and family, the notion of privilege, and their own upbringing.
“I did have very close relationships with my librarians, who introduced me to the things that mattered most,” he said. “They meant the world to me.”
Indebted to the librarians who broadened his outlook, Diaz said he decided years ago to pay-it-forward by helping to create space for other writers of colour in his work as a writing professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and through activism.
“There were folks who had even less than I did. I found myself wanting to be helpful because part of me was dreaming of that for myself,” he said. “You still feel the debt you owe the world is enormous – even coming from an immigrant family.”
Resolving conflict in writing
Family was a natural point of conversation between Yapa and Diaz, who each had their own anxieties about being seen as different.
For Yapa, it was his dad’s inability to accurately pronounce the expression, “Hunky dory,” which describes something that is satisfactory. Diaz said he grew up “hating all that is Black,” even though he was well aware of his origins.
That much of his work revolves around family, as Yapa notes, is not lost on Diaz.
“Families are an evergreen subject,” he said. “We are attracted to the machinations of family because this is the vernacular we speak best.”
In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, about an overweight, nerdy boy obsessed with science fiction, Diaz mined the familial conflict in his own family by exploring the fraught relationship between mother and daughter in his characters.
“I had to first imagine not only my sister’s deep problematic relationship with my mother, but I actually had to figure out how they might figure out a way to gain compassion for each other,” he said.
He added that it was largely a way for him to reconcile his own relationship with his sisters, who had borne the brunt of their mother’s excessive discipline, which he escaped because he was a boy.
His sisters were punished for coming home at ungodly hours, while he wasn’t. Even as he witnessed this, he said he didn't grasp how it had affected their relationships until he realized he had failed to sympathize with them.
“It was important to me to maintain the innocence of my privilege,” he said. “People always insist on their innocence when they’re guilty.”
A family of readers
Still broaching the concept of family, Yapa asked whether Diaz was forced to create his own literary family in the absence of one that supported his pursuit of writing. Diaz said unlike most writers, his “natural community” is other readers.
This is partly because he considers himself a reader before a writer, and partly because he said an author’s most important audience is readers, not other writers.
“If I have any secret to my artistry, it’s that when I close my eyes, all I see is readers,” he said.
As a writer, he writes with readers in mind – people who he said are an author’s fiercest defenders and who embrace a book despite its flaws.
Diaz later fielded questions from the audience – fans and writers alike – wrestling with issues of identity and writing from the margins.
One woman asked how he contends with the “pressure to get it right” on behalf of his community and other minorities, to which he bluntly responded: “Why torment yourself with this idea that there’s this enormous group of people who need you to get it right? . . . Our work is not going to sing less, it’s not going to right injustice.”
For writers hoping to use their work to gain their parents’ acceptance, he had this to say: “Know that perhaps it can’t do anything there, but that there may be another young person wrestling with the same question who awaits you. That’s perhaps the family you may save . . . Because I was saved by artists who had never imagined themselves saving me.”
by Elvira Truglia in Montreal
Kim Thuy’s fourth novel continues the author’s style of recalling her own journey to Canada and crossing linguistic and cultural boundaries.
“I don’t mind at all being considered as migrant literature, Asian literature, Canadian literature, or Quebec literature,” says the award-winning author, who just published Vi. “It depends on the person who’s reading it and what the person sees in it.”
Vi tells the story of a woman, Vi, who returns to Vietnam after growing up in Canada. Vi is on a journey to discover the vastness of life, or 'vie' in French. At the same time, in Vietnamese, vi means microscopically small.
“Like we say in Vietnamese, [with] every single step that we make, we come back with a basket of knowledge,” says Thuy. “To me, Vi is about learning to become a person, to become a human.”
Although “the family situation of Vi is not me, the vision of Vi is a lot like I see life,” says Thuy. The character Vi studies translation and then law, much like Thuy who has reinvented herself throughout her life – first as an interpreter, then a lawyer and restaurateur, and now an author.
Life provides a springboard
In her 2009 novel, Ru, the author traces a young woman's trek from her home in Saigon, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War, to a Malaysian refugee camp, and then to Quebec where she struggles to adapt. With a plot line based on her own life chronology, Thuy writes what she knows. She says this is the only writing process that works for her.
”I stick with women . . . because I think women are so extraordinary and many of us are misunderstood or underestimated,” says Thuy. “Vietnamese women are often considered submissive or obedient or kind and attentive,” she adds. “I wanted to show that . . . social codes sometimes mislead our interpretation of the person.”
Thuy says paintings of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese women portrayed, “with a little tiny dot of red for the mouth,” act as a cultural metaphor.
“Women are not supposed to speak if they want to be elegant and dignified women . . . so that’s why they are very often misunderstood.“
A story that resonates
In many ways, Thuy speaks for those unable to tell their own stories.
“She was one of the boat people,” says Jenny Lam, referring to her mother and the Vietnamese refugees who fled to Canada after the Vietnam War. Lam says that while literature is not her thing, she does read Kim Thuy and even attended a recent launch for Vi featuring Thuy in Montreal.
Reading Thuy’s novels is like reading her mom’s story, she says.
Sabrina Cordy says she also seeks to feel connected through Thuy’s “spontaneous” writing. Adopted by Belgian parents, the 24-year-old of Korean descent now lives in Montreal and says Thuy’s writing “reminds me of my culture.”
Thuy says she is “touched” that so many Asian Canadians read her novels and attended the launch of Vi, and notes that many of them are young women.
“Most parents don’t talk about their experiences,” she says. She adds that Ru “triggered a conversation between the parents and the children about that episode in their life.”
Accessing immigrants’ stories
A best seller in Quebec and in France, her first novel, Ru, has sold more than 235,000 copies abroad and has been translated in 25 languages.
The popularity of her books is partly due to their poetic and accessible style, or what Francois Godin of Quebec publisher Libre Expression calls her ability to “create literary bridges.”
“I like the images, the simplicity, the human element of her writing,” says Catherine Emond, who has read all of Thuy’s books, adding that as a “dyed-in-the-wool Quebecois [a Quebecer of French Canadian descent], Thuy’s books are educational about the immigration story.”
In 2015, the English translation of Ru won CBC Canada Reads as the Book to Break All Barriers thanks to Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival, who championed the book.
“A lot of Canadians have grown tired of being nice to newcomers. That’s the barrier that we’re trying to break and Ru reminded me why migrants matter,” Bailey said in 2015.
“Ru did that with a deep and moving beauty. It’s a hopeful book. It invites compassion and draws a wide circle of readers in.”
Reflecting on the competition, Thuy says she is happy she won, but wasn’t out to break barriers when she wrote Ru.
“When we arrived here, people welcomed us with open arms . . . And if I wrote Ru, it was to thank all these people who have given me access to everything,” says Thuy. “In Ru, it’s about how life is perfect after all, even though it is hard and there are so many challenges, it is still perfect in the end.”
Thuy says life is beautiful because it is difficult.
“You cannot have one without the other,” she says. “You cannot appreciate white without knowing black.”
by Danica Samuel in Toronto
A discussion on democratic transitions highlighted the need to include the role of women when examining how world leaders have created democratic societies around the world.
The discussion took place at the launch of Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders, hosted on March 31 by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) at the University Club of Toronto.
“The beauty of the book is that from nine case studies of nine countries, it addresses issues that should be looked at for future generations that get involved in these important democratic processes and transitions that take place all over the world at various times,” said IDRC President Jean Lebel.
Between January 2012 and June 2013, co-editors Sergio Bitar and Abraham Lowenthal interviewed 13 world leaders on the processes of establishing democratic political systems during times of political upheaval and change. Former President of the Philippines, Fidel V. Ramos, former Prime Minister of Spain, Felipe González, and F.W. de Klerk, the last politician to serve as state president of South Africa during the apartheid era, were among those interviewed.
“It’s the only book on transitions that have succeeded in four continents,” explained Bitar. “[These transitions] are described not by an academician or by a journalist, but by the leaders and presidents themselves.”
Each chapter identifies the process and research that was conducted to address topics such as establishing trust, economic management and social mobilization.
Single chapter on role of women
A popular topic of discussion among audience members at the book launch was the role of women in democratic transitioning.
In the chapter “Women Activists in Democratic Transitions,” Georgina Waylen, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, examines how women supported and enhanced political participation by different social groups and promoted policies that strengthened women’s rights and gender equality.
“Many women who actively sought to ensure positive gender outcomes during transitions were active in social movements, the bureaucracy and academia – not just in political parties or in the inner circles of men who became democratic presidents when elections were held,” writes Waylen.
Professor Ana Isla of Brock University said she was confused as to why there was a separate researcher responsible for examining the role of women.
“Why weren’t these world leaders and representatives able to answer questions when it comes to women?” asked Isla during the question-and-answer period.
“Every aspect of society is intersected by women’s issues,” she continued. “The fact that women are not incorporated anywhere in the world is problematic. We are still second-class citizens.”
“All these women initiated the transition from dictatorship to democracy,” she said. However, they are the ones who are missing in this book because instead of looking at the women or the social movements, the focus is on the [men in power] who were able to change their minds.”
Leaders ignore role of women
The book’s introduction notes, “Unfortunately, there are no surviving women leaders of these transitions, and few of our interviewees provided much insight about women’s participation in them.”
Bitar confirmed that male leaders are very reluctant to have a conversation about women’s contributions to democratic transitions.
“Normally, the response is, ‘These women are coming again with the same story, and we have to listen,’” Bitar said, imitating the male leaders interviewed.
He went on to explain that the male leaders usually assume the women think they are not relevant to the process of improving democracy, or that if they become powerful, they will not allow men to act or decide on policies.
“It’s the power of women that must change politics and change men,” said Bitar. “It takes lots of time, but we have realized that better democracies exist when there are more women participants in policies and law-making.”
Democracy a tool, not a solution
Bitar said he and Lowenthal learned that every leader possessed the courage to take risks during times when their families, friends and colleagues were being killed or in danger.
“All of them had to combat fear – a very important element in the hands of any dictator,” he said. “Fighting against fear was something we found very prevalent.”
Researchers and influencers like Lebel and Bitar, who is also president of Chile’s Foundation for Democracy, said they know that democracy isn’t the solution to problems such as gender inequality, poverty, and environmental destruction.
“If we all took on democracy, someone naïve will say the world will be much better,” said Lebel.
“Democracy is only a tool … it doesn’t solve everything, but it gives the opportunity to have people speaking freely, institutions that are strong and take care of problems, avoid inequity, and transform social problems.”
by Shan Qiao in Toronto
A campaign to collect books and other resources to enhance educational opportunities for black children in Toronto is gaining support, while the Black Lives Matter Toronto continues to challenge anti-Black racism in the city.
A book drive took place recently at A Different Booklist, an independent bookstore in Toronto. It encouraged people to purchase books and donate them to Black Lives Matter Freedom School, a summer program focused on teaching black children aged four to 10 about black liberation history.
“[Children of African descent] do not get exposed enough, if at all, to the history of blacks in Canada or North America and around the world during the regular school year,” said Natasha Henry, an elementary school teacher and author. “The book drive is a way to engage them in their learning, contributing to the community, and really empowering them with knowledge that will help them to continue their education, whether at school or in the community.”
Movement targets education, police
LeRoi Newbold, a director of Black Lives Matter Toronto and the organizer of the book drive, said the black community should have control over what black children are learning, independently from school boards.
“In Toronto, 40 per cent of black children did not graduate from high school,” said Newbold. While that number has decreased recently, black students still experience high suspension rates and low graduation rates.
“It’s alarming and unacceptable,” said Newbold. “We’re not waiting for that system to change. We’re creating our own schools, our own institutions.”
Black Lives Matter Toronto is also collecting resources for the school through an online Indiegogo fundraising campaign. To date, the campaign has raised $10,361.
Not far from the upbeat book drive that had a few dozen people packed into the tiny single-unit bookstore, Black Lives Matter Toronto protested for the seventh day in-a-row outside Toronto Police Service headquarters to draw attention to anti-black racism in the city.
The demonstrations began in part to protest the Special Investigations Unit’s decision not to lay charges against a Toronto officer who fatally shot 45-year-old Sudanese immigrant Andrew Loku. The group also announced a lawsuit against the Toronto Police Service for allegedly raiding and searching the home of Jean Montaque, a black mother, without warrant.
“We’re fighting for justice, freedom and dignity for all black people, and the right for black people to not experience violence [at] the hands of the police force,” Newbold said of the protest.
Teaching the history of black activism
[Block quote: sharing a pioneering black activist’s accomplishments and legacy show how the struggling for freedom has evolved over time.]
“Often of times, historians are very interested in the past, yet young people will say ‘What does that have to do with us today?’” Henry told the crowd. “So it’s very important that we provide the historical context, but mix it with what is going on today in our communities and around the world.”
In Firsts, Henry focuses on many “firsts” in the African-Canadian community and other African diaspora communities. The cover features an image of Michaëlle Jean, the first black person to serve as Governor General of Canada.
“When we’re looking at the markers of ‘the first’ African descent, it gets us to think critically about why some of these ‘firsts’ are just happening in the 21st century, despite the fact that Africans have been in Canada since the 16th century,” Henry said. She described how the stories of “firsts” began a legacy of anti-black racism and how that is manifesting itself today.
“Whether it is over-policing, police brutality, the unemployment rate of young black people – which is much higher than the general population – student dropout rates… these are all a legacy of how black people have been marginalized,” she says.
Henry read a part from the book about Viola Desmond, who was a black businesswoman born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In the 1940s, Desmond fought for her right to sit on the main floor of a movie theatre after being told it was reserved solely for white patrons. Henry stressed that sharing a pioneering black activist’s accomplishments and legacy show how the struggle for freedom has evolved over time.
Community’s struggles not isolated
Another presenter, Nadia Hohn, demonstrated traditional African songs and dances during the book drive. Born to Jamaican parents, she is now an elementary school teacher and author and uses traditional music as a teaching tool for kindergarten children.
“We want our freedom and to live in dignity,” she sang to the crowd, holding one wrist with the other hand, then taking them apart to demonstrate freedom.
“There are many different groups in Canada that have experienced different degrees of discrimination,” Hohn said. “What happens to one group affects all of us in different ways. It might not be a direct impact, but it has ripple effects on others.”
Similarly, improvements in one community also have a positive impact on others, she added.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit