& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, May 29, 2015

‘If language is wings, poetry is freedom’ - Anar

Anar (Issath Rehana Azeem) (Sri Lanka) writes poetry in Tamil, and several of her poems have been translated into English and appeared in journals including Tamil Women’s Poetry: A Current of Contemporary Voices (2009, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi).

She has won several awards, most notably the Government of Sri Lanka's National Literature Award , the Tamil Literary Garden’s (Canada) Poetry Award and the Vijay TV Excellence in the Field of Literature (Sigaram Thotta Pengal) Award.

Anar writes regularly on her blog, anarsrilanka.blogspot.com. She lives with her husband and son in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka at Sainthamaruthu. 

She was the one of the international authors who participated in the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts (Fsala-15). The following is her speech she delivered at the session on South Asia (Is their unity in South Asian writing?)

Dear friends,

Each of us has stories to tell, they may be the same or they may be different. They may be about your footsteps towards your proud achievements. In the same manner, I, who come from a Muslim village in Eastern Sri Lanka, from a very orthodox Muslim family, also have a story – a story about loneliness and struggle. I survived that kind of suffering to write simple poems. You know how valuable any small thing will be when it is born out of struggle. I had to stop my schooling at a very early age and from then my life became a limbo in the dark. At that time, the only thing that gave me confidence was my mother tongue, Tamil.

If language can be described as wings, then poetry is freedom. So, I provided that freedom for myself and language became my wings. The gap between the space that a society provides for a woman and the space in which the woman wants to exist is dangerous. For a Muslim woman the fear instilled by these dangers speaks on different levels and brings various challenges. Her religion begins from her hair and ends in her toes.

For a Muslim woman to write poetry after getting married is a huge challenge. Her poetry is always seen through the lens called religion and gets problematized. As a woman, especially as a Muslim woman the challenges she faces are enormous and very painful. Our writing lies at the centre of these challenges.

Life and death existed in a close proximity then. At times they seemed to be the same for me. Death roamed like the roaring noise of a helicopter. At the same time, inside the locked doors poetry floated like a spell within me. I was dreaming about filling my sheath with poetry. I think poetry is a language about language. It articulates our boundless dreams and imaginations.

I articulate the sensibility between that which is understood and that which is not, between wounds, the experience of music between the eyes and the heart. That is, my poetry is about that fire known as language, which a woman carries under water.

As far as the Tamil language is concerned, even though it is the same language spoken in different Tamil speaking regions, ideologies and challenges of communities are not the same. The issues handled by authors, whether in the political or in the cultural realm are in peril of being often misunderstood. When questions are raised on the issues of an individual or a community or any other problematic situation, it becomes a controversy between fundamental groups and small communal groups. Many writers avoid expressing anything directly and instead use a censored way of writing or some may even completely avoid writing about particular issues. Authors who use English language as their medium are less prone to such controversies, compared to writers in the vernacular. Besides, the freedom in expressing in English provides them with better acceptance and attention. Consequently, writers in English wield more power through their writing than their vernacular counterparts.

Due to the rapid growth in telecommunication, the internet and such, I think readership in English and in Tamil has declined. Yet, I can say that ebooks have not taken the space of regular books completely. In the sphere of Tamil writing, along with other reasons, the love for English language has also been a reason for the declining readership.  On the contrary, literary works in Tamil have enjoyed good readership as they were not affected as much as commercial writing or commercial magazines. Literary works that call for undivided attention are being published more than ever before. So it is hard to point one particular direction when there are continuous changes taking place in the field.  However, what kind of ripples those works create and what dilutes the connection between readers and poetry are questions beyond my scope here. Also those questions need to be answered from socio psychological perspective.

There are many common threads in literary themes among South Asian writers. The unity between feminist writers is even stronger. Dalit writing, literature on caste divisions, on war, on relationships between men and women, education, family, communal, political, challenges in personal life and economic inequality can be considered as some of the reasons for this. Yet, we also have to consider the differences in literature produced in various regions within a country.

One can observe that among the people speaking in Tamil language, ideologies, political views, writing and virtues exist differently. For instance, in Sri Lanka, Tamil writing in Eastern province differs from the North and the mountain regions. Indian writing in Tamil and Tamil diasporic writing are also very diverse in their engagement. This can also be applied to other South Asian countries. Just like how life is not monolithic, so too are literature, emotions, ideologies and realities. Therefore, it is not possible to come to a single conclusion and there are multiple possibilities.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pico Iyer in Toronto

Pico Iyer redefined travel writing with his Video Nights in Kathmandu. Nearly three decades ago, he was among the first to help us know the evolution of a global culture, its fluidity, its impermanence, and its seeming rootlessness even though the American pop culture appeared to be its fountainhead.

By far, his most influential work, of course, is The Global Soul, which laid the foundations of understanding how immigration was shaping the world, and was shaping its new identity. In this book, Iyer argues, “in the modern world, which I take to be an International Empire, the sense of home is not just divided, but scattered across the planet…I begin to wonder whether a new kind of being might not be coming to light – a citizen of this International Empire – made up of fusions (and confusions) we had not seen before: a “Global Soul” in a less exalted (and more intimate, more vexed) sense than the Emersonian one.”

Iyer came to Toronto early May to deliver the inaugural lecture at the Global Diversity Exchange (GDX), “the think and do tank based at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University and funded by Maytree. Under the leadership of founding Executive Director Ratna Omidvar, GDX identifies and amplifies the links between prosperity, diversity and migration and anchors these in policy, research and practice.”

Iyer expanded upon the themes that are dear to him, and which he has discussed in his works during the last three decades. Migration, he said, has transformed the world gradually, and in the 21st century, in some respects, we are all migrants and we are all minorities. The new reality is that soon migrants would constitute the third largest nation in the world, although they would be dispersed across different countries, and it is these migrants who are shaping global consciousness.

He cautioned that although immigration has changed the world, it is not in a position to bring about an end of some inherent characteristics that determine identity. For instance, tribalism isn’t going to go away. If globalism has made some walls disappear, people have created new ones. He emphasized that it would be simplistic to contend that the new globalism was making the world homogenous and flat; in fact, the world is becoming more complex. Referring to the McLuhan ‘Global Village,’ Iyer contended that it “is a consoling term;” however, “we’re living in a global city…where the sound is gangsta rap.”

Iyer is a self-confessed admirer of Canadian experimentation in globalism. “No country is looking at globalism more honestly than Canada,” he asserted. He reiterated some of the contentions he had originally made in the 2001 lecture he delivered at the University of Toronto (Imagining Canada:An Outsider’s Hope for a Global Future).

I quote two representative passages from the original lecture that captures the essence of his position about the triumph of globalism in Canada, and Toronto.

“Now, as I walked around what seemed to be a concrete, physical version of what Wired magazine, in honour of Marshall McLuhan had called “mosaic thinking,” I felt I was seeing in some respects, a liberated England and an elevated America that seemed ideal for an Indian who came at once from everywhere and nowhere. I recognized the skepticism I heard in many voices, but it seemed free of the bitterness it might have carried in England. I responded to the earnest optimism and hopefulness of the place, but it didn’t feel as heedless of the past, and of grounding realities, as California often did. History was a given here, I suspected, as it was in The English Patient, but it didn’t have to be a confinement. I found myself exhilarated, too, by the quick wittedness and intelligence of a culture that seemed free of the competitive bustle and noise. I might expect to find in New York. Here, I thought, was all Manhattan’s software without so to speak, its hard drive.

I came away with a sense of possibility I hadn’t felt as I’d traveled to other of the globe’s defining multicultures, whether in Singapore or Cape Town or Melbourne, on the one hand, or in Paris and London and Bombay, on the other. On paper, at least the logic was clear: Toronto was the most multicultural city in the world, according to the UN’s official statistics and it was also, statistically, the safest big city in North America and, by general consensus, the best organized. Put the two facts together, and you could believe that a multiculture could go beyond the nation—states we knew and give a new meaning to that outdated term, the “Commonwealth.” Add further my sense that Toronto had the most exciting literary culture in the English-speaking world, and you could believe that it not only offered an example of how a country could be even greater than the sum of its parts, but presented visions of what that post-national future might look like.”

Among the two other observations Iyer made, and which must have resonated with the audience were:

·   I want to be defined by my passion and not by my passport
·   Home is where I’m going, not where I’ve come from

Subsequent to his lecture, Doug Saunders, the eminent Canadian journalist, chatted with Iyer.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Fsala-15: A report

Even as the economic efficacy of globalization comes under increasing scrutiny, its cultural influence remains strong and potent, especially in the manner in which it has given a commercial dimension to the question of identity and creativity.

This is especially true in the developed world which has failed in preventing the unwashed masses from amassing at its shores. As immigrants, both legal and illegal, struggle perennially in an alien and unwelcoming environment, a hyphenated existence has become both the cause and impetus for creative upsurge.

For three decades and more, politics of identity has dominated the creative discourse, even though it has remained on the margins. The impact of globalization has been the cooption of identity politics into the mainstream, and its successful commercialization.

At the just-concluded Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts (Fsala-15), the issue of identity, different dimensions of its politics, and its commercialization, dominated the discussions in different forms. Some discussions were heated, some were not, but all were immensely engaging.

The festival hosted over 40 authors from across Canada and from the developing world (Caribbean, Africa, South Asia, and the Philippines) in Toronto. Spread over three days, the festival’s fourth edition had over a dozen literary discussions and four music and dance performances. 

The festival’s highlight was the world premiere of The Book of Sandalwood on 16th May. It was a Bharatanatyam recital by the inDance. The recital included selections from Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara (Sanskrit), Sivakkolundu Desikar’s Sarabhendra Bhupala Kuranvanji (Tamil), and Chtrakavi Shivram Rao’s Tanjavuri Hori Lavani (Marathi). 

The performance was a tribute to Professor Chelva Kanaganayakam, the co-founder of the festival. The inimitable Kasi Rao, who is an authority on Canada-India bilateral relations, and is also a brilliant master of ceremonies, with a strong and stage presence, beautifully encapsulated Chelva's personality by quoting Kalidasa.

Kasi said, "Yesterday is but a dream, tomorrow is only a vision, but today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”  Chelva’s life was indeed “well-lived”.  May I acknowledge the presence of Mrs. Thiru Kanaganayakam and the family."

{Read more about the performance here}. 

Prior to this performance, three authors – Tololwa Mollel (Tanzania-Canada), Elizabeth Nunez (Trinidad-Canada-US), and Jose Dalisay (the Philippines) – read from their literary works to an appreciative audience.

The festival commenced on 15th May with an animated discussion between theatre practitioners Diana Tso, Jasmine Sawant, Jawaid Danish, Rahul Varma and Shailja Saxena on the evolution of the ‘New Theatre in Canada,’ with Rahul Varma emphasizing that display of diversity has often been confused for the content of diversity. 

Thereafter, a global panel of authors that included Walter Bgoya (Tanzania), Jose Dalisay (Philippines), Asma Sayed (Canada/Gujarat), Geetanjali Shree (India), and Dannabang Kuwabong (Canada/Ghana), had a lively discussion on ‘Writing for the West,’ and how writing for a western audience molded creativity.

Sheniz Janmohamed, the ebullient and effervescent poet and performer, was the master of ceremonies for the formal inaugural of the festival later that evening where Olivia Chow, former MP and former Councillor, and Toronto’s hope during the last mayoral elections, delivered the keynote address. Olivia spoke about the tough circumstances during her formative years as a new immigrant in Toronto, and how her love for books helped her cope with her adversities. After a brief interlude of African guitar by Tichaona Maradze, three authors – Shauna Singh Baldwin, Madeleine Thien and Kagiso Molope – read from their literary works.

Day 2 began with a discussion on ‘Growing Diversity, Untold Stories,’ The Changing Modes of Writing & Publishing: the impact of self-publishing on the telling of stories. The panelists included Charles Smith, Tasneem Jamal, Sang Kim, Dawn Promislow, and Safiz Fazlul; Narendra Packhede moderated the event. 

Concurrently, Cheran (Tamil), Harish Narang (Hindi), Anar (Tamil), Walter Bgoya (Swahili), and Jose Dalisay (Tagalog) discussed ‘The World, and English: The Challenges of Writing and Publishing in Another Language,’ Is the audience shrinking in the face of growing English influence?. Arun Prabha Mukherjee moderated the discussion. 

Thereafter, Dannabang Kuwabong, Anand Mahadevan, Olive Senior read from their works and Elizabeth Nunez moderated the discussion that followed the reading.

The final panel discussion on Day 2 was a first for the festival when Canadians authors of East Asian origins discussed on the relevance of hyphenated identity. The panel included Denise Chong, Madeleine Thien, Terry Watada, Diana Tso and C Fong Hsiung. The inimitable Sang Kim moderated what turned out to be one of the most nuanced debates of the festival, and provided different (and differing) dimensions to the concept of hyphenated identities.

Day 3 was the day of South Asia, and Meena Chopra set the tone by moderating a discussion on ‘Is their Unity in South Asian Writing?’ Harish Narang, Geetanjali Shree and Anar participated in an energetic debate that explored the politics of identity, race, gender, religious orthodoxy and growing intolerance in South Asian societies. 

Kamini Danadpani, who has performed at the last three festivals, gave a brief but evocative Carnatic vocal recital that included a Tamil poem by Subramania Bharati. 

Suman Ghai chaired the final session on ‘South Asia in Canada.’ Cheran (Tamil), Aparna Halpe (Singhala / English), Gurdev Chauhan (Punjabi), Nasim Syed (Urdu) discussed ‘Can w define a South Asian Canadian identity through literature?’ The session provoked a lively debate on the definition and the relevance of South Asia, the dominance of the idea of India on the South Asian identity, the hegemony of the state, and the status of people in South Asia without a state.

Fsala has emerged as a truly global arts festival with a difference, promoting writers from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, and those not writing in English, who are major figures in their own countries though not always known to the global “mainstream.” 

I will conclude the post by quoting Kasi, who quoted Kalidasa, while bringing the Saturday's dance recital and reading to a close. "We have watered the trees that blossom in the summer-time.  Now let us sprinkle those whose flowering time is past.  That will be the better deed, because we shall not be working for the reward."

For photos of the event, please click here

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Love in a time of Technology

My friend Sasenariane Persaud sent me his latest collection of poems Love in a time of Technology (Tsar/Mawenzi 2014) several months ago.

I’m no literary critic, and my understanding and appreciation of poetry is non-academic. I like poetry that touches my heart and makes me misty eyed. And by those simple standards, Sase's latest collection is one of the most exquisite collections of poems I’ve read in recent times. 

I read it and re-read it several times.

I wanted to review it in April, which is celebrated as poetry month in Toronto.

Divided into four parts, the poems are about love, longing, and belonging; about remembering, nostalgia, and memory; and about desires that are both carnal and chaste. The poet is on a journey and wants to take you on the ride of a lifetime.

In the first section – Love in a time of technology – the poems that stay with you for a long time are 'In Hickson Park: Tampa on the River,' and 'The Promise.' 

In the first, the poet wants to take you “where laughter fills the night.” And in the second, the poet reminiscences longingly about the girl who has transformed, as he reminds her that “the apology wounding as much as it heals.”

In Hickson Park: Tampa on the River

I want to take you
where white lights
glow on deleafed winter
 oaks like icicles,
where the dark river
floats a rubber slipper
inland – away from the bay
invading our souls,
where water erupts
under spotlights
like our love once
I want to take you
where laughter fills the night

The Promise 

The falling coin striking tiles
rolls into a corner
you have ceased looking at.
Where is the girl who gave
unreservedly whose eyes held
promises you could not keep;
where is she whose silence
freed and trapped you
in a sub-tropical garden?
The fallen disc rests on cold ceramic –
your pocket is laden with plastic
that slide in and out of readers
accepting your promise to pay tomorrow –
is today a circle cartwheeling out of reach,
the apology wounding as much as it heals.

The section Elsewhere is about places that the poet hails from and / or belongs to both physically and metaphorically. The poem 'In Our Heads' captures the ephemeral essence of the section.

In Our Heads

Fireflies light our heads
in an afternoon
when there are none
must be pre-festival fireworks
or the stars that light
journeys to other worlds

This feeling of an immigrant’s loneliness is exemplified manifold in the next section – Storm, where in 'Tulips,' the poet laments

And if in spring
I sing promises to tulips
instead of marigolds
 daffodils instead of oleanders
or at my desk bite
an apple instead of a turmeric
mango – not concealed pleasure
on the side – it is because
I have no country
but the country of Gandhi’s Gita.

The two masterpieces in the collection are 'Returning to a Far Country' and 'Georgetown,' and both are about a time that has gone by, a time that won’t return. Although 'Far Country' concludes triumphantly, it’s a tragic remembrance of a time that won’t return:

and there was no greater rain
and there was no greater city
on no greater country
in no greater time
than this time of our love

Georgetown is the most evocative poem in the collection


For evenings on the seawall
drinking soup thickened with coconut milk,
melting cassava, sweet potatoes and plantains;
for your smile in the mornings, a wave
from your platform as we pass, the trade wind
in our faces; for parched peanuts jumping
out fingers unto sand and breakers exploding
on old brick groynes jutting into the Atlantic’s
belly and tempering tides as stars flick on;
for conversations on galaxies, or monologues,
what if we are from beyond beyond,
aliens in this space and the ocean spray
sprinkling spectacles and moistening lips;
for a first kiss, or second riding around
the bandstand, the dance of street lights
in your eyes, I would return. I would dare all gun-wielding bandits to walk, linked fingers
with your ghost on the sapodilla brown sand.