& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia: An Anthology

Earlier this month, Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia: An Anthology was released at Windup Bird café. Edited by Theodore W. Goossen and Anindo Hazra, this anthology of literary and dramatic works introduces writers from across Asia and the Asian diaspora. The landscapes and time periods they describe are rich and varied, including a fishing village on the Padma River in Bangladesh in the early twentieth century, the slums of prewar Tokyo, Indonesia during the anti-leftist purge of the 1960s, and contemporary Tibet.

Even more varied are the voices these works bring to life, which serve as testimony to the lives of those adversely impacted by poverty, rapid social change, political suppression, and armed conflict. The works the anthology convey an attitude of spiritual and communal survival, and even of hope.
The anthology presents the complex dynamic between diverse Asian lives and the universalized concept of the individual “human” entitled to clearly specified “rights.” It also asks us to think about what standards of analysis befit historical periods in which universal human rights and civil liberties are considered secondary to the collective good, as has so often been the case when nation states are undergoing revolutionary change, waging war, or championing so-called Asian values.

Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia’s use of the term “Global Asia” reflects an interest in rethinking Asia as more than an area determined by national borders and geography. Rather, this book portrays it as a space of movement and fluidity, where societies and individuals respond not only to their local frames of reference, but also to broader ideas and ideals. Many of the works anthologized here are the subject of scholarly analysis in Human Rights and the Arts: Perspectives on Global Asia, also published by Lexington Books.

Theodore Goossen
About the editors: Theodore W. Goossen is professor of humanities at York University and founding member of the Department of Contemporary Literary Studies at the University of Tokyo. Anindo Hazra is a PhD candidate in English at York University.
Anindo Hazra

In a brief email interview, the editors discuss the anthology.

Q: Please clarify: Does Asian mean the people who hail from the entire continent? Or are the editors of Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia: An Anthology using the term Asian in the North American sense to only include East Asians (Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese).

A: With regard to the region, we the editors consider Asia and Asians as encompassing not merely “East Asia,” but the entire part of that world, including Indonesia, Japan, and Korea. But we must point out that our use of the term, “Global Asia” seeks to broaden further the scope of how “Asia” and “Asians” are understood. We do not limit our approach to Asia and its peoples to finite geo-political boundaries, whether regional or national. Rather, we seek to engage our readers with more fluid and/or porous representations of this region. The qualifier “Global” as we use it responds to the mobility of goods, services, peoples, and cultures effected (and affected) by complex social and economic processes brought into play in and by contemporary globalization. So, even as this anthology highlights the particular, daily contexts of living in different parts of Asia, it also seeks to make the point that neither Asia nor Asians are fixed in place. In this way, we seek to pluralize Asia. All this to say that our editorial aim has been to persuade our readers that there can be no one way of talking about “Asia."   

Q: Briefly describe the anthology, and especially, why does it includes works from both writers who are in Asia and Asian diaspora writers.

A: The following is taken from our introduction to the anthology, and works well as an answer to the first part of your question:

"This anthology of literary and dramatic works has a twofold purpose. The first is to enrich the experience of readers who have consulted its companion volume, Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia, edited by Susan Henders and Lily Cho. Many of the selections in this volume are discussed in that collection of critical essays. Second, this anthology introduces writers from across Asia and the Asian diaspora, some appearing in English for the first time. The landscapes and time periods they describe are rich and varied: from a village on the steamy banks of the mighty Padma River in Bangladesh in the early twentieth century to the slums of prewar Tokyo, from Indonesia during the anti-leftist purge of the 1960s to contemporary Tibet—and a multitude of places and periods in between. Even more varied are the voices these works bring to life. Many of these voices are raised in anger or lament, testimony to the hard lives of common people who pay the price of poverty, conflict and rapid social change. There are songs of suffering and harrowing loss, tales of abuse and exclusion, accounts of human rights abrogated or cruelly neglected. Yet in the end, the works in this anthology convey an attitude not of defeat but of spiritual and communal survival and even of hope."

As to why we chose to collect works from writers based both in Asia and in the Asian diaspora, I would direct you back to our response to your first question. If we are to think of “Global Asia,” then we also have to consider the voices of those whose lives and histories have been conditioned by the experiences of travel and migration. There are, of course, significant differences in the perspectives of authors writing in the diaspora, but we do not agree with a binaristic opposition in which “Asian” authors and “diasporic” authors are cordoned-off from one another, as it were.

Q: As the largest continent, Asia is vast, varied and complex. Any attempt to club the multiplicities of ethnicity and cultures into a single unit may appear on the one hand to be an exercise in futility because of the immense diversity that the continent represents, but on the other hand a bold and radical attempt to bring together a whole range of different creative expressions and experiences into one volume. What motivated the editors to undertake such a daring project?

A: Our anthology was prepared as a collection of different texts representing a range of perspectives, histories, communities, and individual lives. If our anthology enables a forum in which readers can engage with some of the particular contexts in which the writing of human rights narratives occurs, that will be a gratifying experience for us.  

Q: In the Canadian context, Human Rights have a contextual relevance to the many Asian ethnicities that have made Canada their home. As immigrants, as newcomers, Asians (and people from all over the globe) face challenges as they struggle to settle in Canada. Violations of their Human Rights, while probably not as flagrant as in Asia, are a reality. Does the anthology take cognisance of this phenomenon?

A: This is certainly a noteworthy phenomenon, and, while our anthology focuses largely on continental Asia, the work of a poet like Bushra Rehman would arguably be a good starting-point for a discussion of how well settled (or not) the diasporic individual is in North American society. Our anthology is paired with a critical volume of essays also published by Lexington Books (Human Rights and the Arts: Perspectives on Global Asia, edited by our colleagues at York University, Professors Susan Henders and Lily Cho). Readers of that volume will find scholarly discussions of the issue you raise: a couple of places to begin would be Prof. Theodore (Ted) Goossen’s chapter as well as Prof. Cho’s Afterword.

Human Rights and the Arts in Global Asia: An Anthology is published by Lexington Books. To buy the book online, click herehttps://rowman.com/ISBN/9780739194133

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Firesmoke - Sheniz Janmohamed

It’s been four years since Toronto poet Sheniz Janmohamed published her first collection of English ghazals. 

Bleeding Light was a bold attempt at fitting into a form that is not natural to the language, but she seemingly enjoyed the “discomfort of squeezing yourself into a form.” 

She described ghazals as “the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered by a hunter and knows it will die.”

Her first collection had some memorable ghazals.
The one that stayed with me was In Crimson because of its rich imagery.
In Crimson
A man sells packets of socks in a gully where most men walk barefoot.
What can he do but rest his head on that ledge, hastily painted crimson?

In Old Town, Allah hu Akbar pounds the walls of crumbling Fort Jesus.
A taxi cuts us off, Allah is Great plastered on his window – in crimson.

At the Coast, we bargain shillings for bags and kisii stone elephants.
Indians are not good customers. The seller brands our skin crimson.

Bombs detonate at the steps of every mosque, in the throat of every believer.
If Allah is a war cry, how can we lift Bismillah from asphalt stained crimson.

If only we planted a thousand trees for each page we discard and crumple.
When her last pen snaps, Israh will draw blood and scrawl words in crimson.

Recently, TSAR published Sheniz’s second collection of poems Firesmoke. It’s a combination of ghazals, free verse and short verse. The poems are in three sections – kindling (ghazals), fire (free verse) and smoke (short verse). 

In the Preface, Sheniz says, “…to write this poems, I had to locate, gather and lay down the kindling of my past – my attachments and fears – and watch them burn. I had to let go of my idea of what the future would hold and watch it disappear like smoke. The only presence that was present was the life of the fire itself.”

Time transforms everyone, ageing us, slackening our muscles, making our bones brittle, turning our breath sour. For all of us it’s an entirely avoidable process, especially because it doesn’t make us any wiser. Time transforms the poet, too, but in an entirely pleasant manner. It helps the poet discovers her voice, and although the journey is perhaps no less painful for the poet as it is for you and me, it is tremendously more enriching for the poet than it is for us, this is because time doesn’t necessarily mean the same to the poet as it does to us.

In Firesmoke, Sheniz has found her voice – wanderer, lover, mendicant, and activist, a lover of nature, and, of course, a woman. Some poems have a rough texture to them, the hoarseness of sloganeering. Some are impervious, impermeable. As in the first collection, the ghazals in the second collection weave a rich tapestry of imagery and emotion.
I liked Unleashed – perhaps because it describes a common Bombay occurrence.

They believed a witch unleashed a storm when she loosened her hair.
How many hurricanes have hurled through towns because of your hair?

Leaning against a traffic light, a ragged street doll clasps her hands together.
A couple of coins will never rinse the pain out from her dirt-streaked hair.

Each strand of her hair is silk spun from the night. She will never tie it.
She tells me her power is not in her hands, lips, eyes. It’s in her hair.

Her glance is an arrow cracking the oak of your heart.
Even thunder whispers when Israh unties her hair.

Israh is Sheniz’s takhallus

Saturday, November 29, 2014

More Matata - Braz Menezes

Authors like M G Vassanji have brilliantly covered much of the Asian experience in East Africa. But Goa, now a part of the cultural mosaic of India for over 50 years, has been somewhat neglected. Portugal imposed its religion and culture on Goa and its people for over 450 years, creating a distinct blend of Indo-Portuguese. 

Early in the 20th century, the rulers of British East Africa were desperate for administrators and accountants; bartenders and bakers; cooks and clerks; musicians and mechanics; engineers and tailors; doctors and doormats. 

The people of Goa fit the bill perfectly and they created no matata (trouble). They spoke English, wore western attire and drank Scotch whisky. They played card games and cricket. Although they gyrated to the mando and dulpod, they also danced the lancers, the waltz and the foxtrot.

They were Catholics and were considered reliable to handle the public purse strings. They stayed with their faith and never strayed into politics. They did what they were told and were always loyal and docile. Above all, when compared to the cost of British labour, they could be had cheap — very cheap indeed. They flocked to East Africa by the hundreds.

Braz Menezes, the author of More Matata Love after the Mau Mau, says, “When I sat back to reflect and digest the facts, I decided their story needed to be told: how a small community from Goa, played an inordinately important and quiet role in the administration and the services economy of British East Africa. When it was time to leave Kenya, many went. Others stayed behind in the land they loved. In previous novels by European authors, especially those set in Kenya, the Goans were merely minor ‘props and shadows’ in other people’s stories. That is how the Matata Trilogy was born.”

‘Matata’ means trouble in Swahili. The trilogy is set against the evolving nation of Kenya and the twist and turns that political decisions taken in London, Lisbon and elsewhere affect everyday life.

The first book, JustMatata – Sin, Saints and Settlers (Matata Books) is from the view point of a 11-year-old (Lando), a Catholic Goan, trying to understand the dichotomy and conflicts of his parents' and community culture (Catholic-Portuguese India) and the different realities in Kenya, with its entrenched racial segregation (colour bar) and religious separation.

For example, Catholic Goans were not allowed in European Catholic schools, and kids (especially boys) were sent to Jesuit-run boarding schools from about the age of 10, to complete high school and university in Goa, Bangalore, Poona and Bombay. They would return to Kenya at age 23, strangers to their siblings. Fascinating travel by steamship, and very interesting and poignant account of life in boarding school and clever maneuver to escape back to Kenya.

More Matata is a continuation of the story by the same narrator (Lando). It is based on true events, and is a story of a teenage boy growing to manhood, at the same time as Kenya strives for Independence. It takes place in the early 50s during a brutal struggle, initially by mainly one tribe, the Kikuyu, against colonial Britain. Schools and residential areas were segregated by race until 1955. The Mau Mau fighters were driven by British military forces, from the settler-dominated ‘White Highlands’ first, into ‘African Locations’ in urban areas, and then, into the servants’ quarters of non-Africans, pursued relentlessly by security forces.

Lando attends an Indian high school adjacent to the African areas and later enrolls in the first multiracial college in Kenya. In a chance meeting after graduation as an architect, he meets the irresistibly beautiful, biracial, Saboti. The intertwined stories of political and ethnic strife, cultural differences and forbidden love, are set against the history and natural beauty of Kenya.

The trilogy – two novels have been published, and the third is being written – has been a labour of love for Braz. He says, “I took my first creating writing class at George Brown in 2006 at age 67. I started to tell another story, instead as I researched events, I got sucked into a bigger story of how the relatively small community, unwittingly played a key role in implementing Britain's colonial administration Kenya. I never expected to find the art writing, so satisfying, absorbing, and yet complicated. I never expected to have to self-publish, and even less to handle the marketing.”

The final book continues the intertwined stories of the key characters, where all the tables on race and privileged are reversed and a new set of unintended events are set in motion, leading to new and unexpected consequences.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Professor Chelva Kanaganayakan

Professor Chelva Kanaganayakan passed away in Montreal Saturday 22 November 2014. He was 62.

The first time I saw him was at TSAR’s fall launch in 2009, when his English translations of Tamil poems was released. Subsequently, I got to know him better when MG Vassanji invited me join the managing committee of the Festival of South Asian Literature and Arts (FSALA) that is now called the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts.

I met him formally in 2010. Vassanji had called for a meeting at his place, and just before the meeting was to begin, he remembered he had to pick up his son from the airport. So, Chelva and I, meeting for the first time, both guests of one of Canada's preeminent authors, chatted for an hour about literature in the absence of our host. 

Chelva spoke of new writing in India, especially since the 1980s to the present. We discussed Allan Sealy, who Chelva thought deserved more attention that he had got. When you are in the company of someone who is both knowledgeable and erudite, time loses its meaning. By the time Vassanji returned home with Kabir, Chelva and I had become good buddies.

During the festival Chelva contributed with ideas, arranged for the different venues, and was instrumental in getting eminent authors and film makers from South Asia to participate in the festival, these included, among others, Mahesh Dattani, the eminent Indian playwright; and Prasanna Vithanage, the Sri Lankan filmmaker.  He was also instrumental in getting Hari Krishnan’s InDance involved with the festival, and getting Dalbir Singh, his student, to interview Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani in 2011.

The literary festival got together highly individualistic bunch of people to work together. This inevitably led to friction. At the end of the 2011 festival, Chelva threw up his hands; he had had enough, he had decided to quit the committee. When I heard about it, I wrote to him the following note:

Hi Chelva,

I cannot claim to be your friend, but over the last year or so that I've come to know you a bit better, I've begun to respect you as a person. I knew about your professional and literary achievements in a very general sort of way till FSALA-11, and then I heard you recite poetry and deliver a speech. I was particularly impressed with your rendition of Cheran’s poetry in English...

You make scholarship and creativity sit lightly on your shoulders, which I think is a mark of any extraordinary human being. You prefer to be in the background, even while you make sure everything falls into place and works.

Chelva, this long and meandering preamble may confuse you and try your patience, so let me come straight to the point. I want you to reconsider your decision to quit FSALA organising committee. If there is anything I can do to change your mind on your decision, I’d be more than happy to do so.

I cannot imagine FSALA without you, so please don't quit. I look forward to a positive response from you.



He responded immediately:

Dear Mayank:

Thanks very much for your kind words. They mean a lot to me. And the feeling is mutual. You tread lightly, but you have been a very important presence. And you are a good friend.

My intention in writing the note was simply that I was finding it increasingly difficult to budget my time. But your point is well taken. I will continue to be part of the team although during session time, I might not be able to attend meetings regularly.

With warm wishes,


After the 2013 festival, everyone was tired and nobody wanted to take the initiative to start the preparations for the 2015 edition. I met Chelva at the Munk Centre when Mahesh Dattani was in Toronto last year to release his book Me and My Plays. He insisted that we should start working for the 2015 edition, and galvanized everyone to work together.

We met at Sawitri Theatre Group’s stage shows, and on occasions at the Munk Centre, where he would critique an insightful dissertation on postcolonial literature. I met him a few weeks ago when I attended the performance of Dance Like a Man.

Yesterday, Vassanji informed me of his appointment as the Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (the highest literary recognition in Canada), and we planned to have a small get together to celebrate his achievement.

In the evening, Chelva left us forever, without even a goodbye.

He will be missed.