& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, May 16, 2016

GAB talks to Pratap Reddy

Pratap Reddy is a Toronto author whose first collection of short stories Weather Permitting and Other Stories (published by Guernica Editions) is being launched at the Supermarket Restaurant & Bar Toronto on Sunday June 5. 

In a interview with GAB, Pratap talks about his stories and himself

Congratulations on your forthcoming short story collection, Pratap. When and why did you start writing fiction?

I started writing after I immigrated to Canada. All the new experiences, the challenges one had to face as an immigrant gave the kickstart to an urge which was lying dormant. I love to read, and I had always hoped that one day I too would start writing.

What is the short story collection about? Is there an overarching theme that binds the stories together?

These fictional stories use immigration experience as the background – lack of jobs, non-recognition of credentials, absence of affordable daycare – there was a rich vein waiting to be mined. It’s a world as seen through the eyes of people who have recently immigrated to another country.

You have published short stories in several other anthologies; please name the anthologies and the stories that were published in these anthologies.

I’ve been published in magazines like Anokhi and The Maple Tree Literary Supplement. And in anthologies like Canadian Voices, Indian Voices, South Asian Review and, I am most proud to add, ‘Breaking the Bow’, an anthology of speculative fiction brought out by the reputed Indian publisher ‘Zubaan Books’.    

You are working on a novel, please let us know how the creative process is different while writing a novel and working on a short story collection.

This is only my first collection and I’m writing my very first novel – so I would like to be guarded in my response. The first thing is the matter of theme, in short stories most of the action is around an event or an idea, novels can be more ambitious and can encompass many elements. If I could draw a parallel, short fiction is like a snapshot whereas a novel is more like video shoot. Secondly, the treatment. In short stories you cannot range too far out from the plot – everything needs to be absolutely relevant. While writing novels, you have more elbow room, and you can be more discursive.

How significant is your identity to you when you write?

As of now, I write, and I want keep writing, about things I know best. So the matter of identity is not really uppermost in mind. My writing is about an individual’s reaction to the world around him.

How do you describe yourself? As a Canadian, Indian, or a Canadian writer of Indian origin. Please explain your choice.

I would like to be described as person who ‘loves to read and loves to write’. But the fact that I have lived more than half my life in India and that I’m now working in Canada will have bearing on my work, whether I like it or not.

If you liked the interview, you may be interested in reading another between Pratap and his publisher: Guernica's interview with Pratap Reddy

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Faith & Fiction at The FOLD

In his memoir Joseph Anton that describes his nine years of living underground, Salman Rushdie, writes about his fascination with faith. “It was curious,” he says about himself, “that so avowedly godless a person should keep trying to write about faith. Belief had left him but the subject remained, nagging at his imagination. The structure and metaphors of religion (Hinduism and Christianity as much as Islam) shaped his irreligious mind, and the concerns of these religions with the great questions of existence – Where do we come from? And now that we are here, how shall we live? – were also his, even if he came to conclusion that required no divine arbiter to underwrite and certainly no earthly priest class to sanction and interpret.”

A few pages earlier, he describes his father Anis thus: “Anis was a godless man – still a shocking statement to make in the United States, though an unexceptional one in Europe, and an incomprehensible idea in much of the rest of the world, where the thought of not believing is hard even to formulate. But that is what he was, a godless man who knew and thought a great deal about God.”

I remembered these lines from Rushdie’s memoirs when I attended a panel discussion on Faith and Fiction at the first Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) at the grand Peel Art Museum and Archives (PAMA). Canadian authors Vivek Shraya, Zarqa Nawaz, Ayelet Tsabari and Cherie Dimaline held a lively discussion on the subject. Eufemia Fantetti moderated the discussion that delved deep into questions about faith.

“How does faith influence the creation and the shape of our stories? Do traditions and beliefs inspire or inhibit the worlds that arrive on the page?” The four authors with diverse religious backgrounds (although none counted themselves as deeply religious) “discussed the development of plot, character and stories and the inspiration behind them.”

The panelists reflected on how they were deeply influenced by the manner in which they had been raised, and how, in small yet significant ways, they had begun to question at a young age the received wisdom of their respective faiths to develop their own understanding of rituals and religion. They shared their journey of reflection which awakened in them a quest to find their identity that while not quite uprooting their faith, certainly made them question the fundamentals, and redefine their faith into something that was substantially more accepting and tolerant.

For Zarqa Nawaz, the egalitarianism of Islam was obvious in the community in which she was raised. But she also found several aspects of this culture such as the segregation of women in mosques fundamentally unfair. In a telling comment, she said, “You can be secular or religious, but by being fundamentalist in your belief, you can deprive women their basic human rights.” Ayelet Tsabari, articulating what many writers feel, said in order to write you need tremendous amount of faith. She said fiction has the ability to make “tiny little changes” and “make someone feel something deeply.” Ojibway and Métis writer Cherie Dimaline described her structured upbringing where nobody talked about things that could disturb the status quo. “Stories are my faith,” she said; stories of seven generations back and forward assume importance to the First Nations culture especially when they are rapidly losing geography. Vivek Shraya spoke about her fascination with Hindu male gods who wore jewelry and had women friends – something she could relate to when she was young and trying to understand herself and her orientation. Raised in an orthodox atmosphere, she began to question the portrayal of the “other” in narratives deployed to define faith-based identity.

Faith and Fiction panel discussion was held on May 7, on the second day of the three-day Festival of Literary Diversity. The FOLD brought together writers in a celebration of Canadian diversity. I had interviewed Jael Richardson, the artistic director of FOLD for my show Living Multiculturalism on TAG TV. Here’s the video clip of the interview:

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Author-activist Noor Zaheer discusses India’s fight for secularism

Lecture on ‘India under Modi and the struggle for secularism,
women’s equality and workers’ rights’

Munir Pervaiz introducing the program and Noor Zaheer 
Noor Zaheer, an author, and a member of the Communist Party of India, is in Canada to inform people about the worsening human rights situation in India under the Narendra Modi government. The first lecture in the series was held at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga Saturday.

Forthright and frank in expressing her views, Noor Zaheer said the Modi government is determined to propagate its peculiar brand of right-wing Hindutva nationalism that is impervious of India’s inherently liberal democratic traditions. She said Modi’s government is not just against the minorities, but even the majority that differ with the Sangh Parivar on the fundamental issue of the basis of Indian

Analyzing the last two years of the BJP-led government in New Delhi, Noor Zaheer, who is the President of the Delhi unit of National Federation of Indian Women, and the Indian People’s Theatre Association, said that in addition to targeting the minorities, the government has targeted the farmers by several policy decisions aimed at cutting subsidies; the Adivasi (indigenous) population because it occupies lands rich in minerals that the government wants to parcel out to transnational corporations; and against the student community.

Delving deeper on the subject of persecution of the students, she said the determined manner in which Modi’s supporters have been attacking students in universities such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the Hyderabad University, and the Jadavpur University reveals that the ultra-right is determined to take control of the educational institutions and prevent democratic debate. Noor Zaheer said writers have a duty to raise their voices against such an oppressive regime.

Earlier, she traced the history of the Progressive Writers’ Association, of which her father Syed Sajjad Zaheer was one of the main founders. She said even writers who have no linkages with the left ideology have returned their government bestowed awards in protest of the Modi regime’s and the Sangh Parivar’s anti-minority actions.

The organizers of the program also launched the book Progressive Ideas and Ideals in Urdu Literature (with special reference to Syed Sibte Hassan and the Progressive Writers’ Association) edited by Khalid Sohail, Omar Latif and Abbas Syed.  Two of Noor Zaheer’s books Denied by Allah and My God is a Woman were also made available at the event.

My God is a Woman is a novel; Denied by Allah is a book that about “stories of women for whom even God does not seem to have mercy.” It “discusses medieval laws irrelevant in the 21st century sexist biases that pass for conventions, life impacting decisions made only by men which have denied women basic respect and protection; dignity and humaneness, often in the name of religion.”

Dr. Khalid Sohail introducing the book 'Ideas & Ideals...'
The program was organized with the support of the following organizations: Alternatives; Centre de recherché et d’action sociales; Committee of Progressive Pakistani-Canadians; Family of the Heart; Hari Sharma Foundation for South Asian Advancement; GTA West Club Communist Party of Canada; Indo-Canadian Workers’ Association; Progressive Writers’ Association Canada; Writers’ Forum Canada, South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy.

Photos by Meena Chopra

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Poems about identity

Racism should have no place in a society that constitutionally guarantees multiculturalism. However, that is pure fiction as anyone who lives here knows and understands. Everyone encounters racism every day in some form or the other. We all learn to tolerate it, ignore it, live with it, and get worked up over it. Different people and different groups experience it differently.

Two recently published volumes of poetry deal with racism – Michael Fraser’s To Greet Yourself Arriving (Tightrope Books) and Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white (Arsenal Pulp Press); although the treatment is different.

Michael Fraser’s To Greet Yourself Arriving is a collection of poems that profile black heroes. The poems are revelatory, educative, and inspirational. They tell (or retell differently) stories of heroes – some admired, loved; but many unsung, forgotten.  As Michael said in an interview to Open Book Toronto, “To Greet Yourself Arriving is expository in nature for readers who are oblivious to these great Black historical figures.”

That this is a historically significant book is evident on every page. In his foreword to the collection, George Elliot Clarke, puts it simply: “I think this book is an event in Anglo-Canadian poetry, which is usually about (white) anti-heroes: Billy the Kid, Louis Riel, even serial rapist and teen-girl-murderer Paul Bernardo (see Lynn Crosbie’s Paul Case). Moreover, these other portraiture poems tend to be of disturbed – and /or disturbing – personalities. But Fraser gives us characters who, even if tortured by their experiences of “race” and / or racism, win through to a stardom that edges into heroism, not just (justified) narcissism. The “Panthers” were bad black brothers in black leather and black berets, but they also “fly-kicked / and cold-slapped cotton-hooded laws with upstart intensity.” Can I get an amen? Fraser doesn’t just show his subjects with scars and flaws, gold stars and halos, but almost always with a generous, cinematic light, eliminating any notion of Squalor.”

What makes the collection memorable and masterly is that none of the poems are hagiographical. Each has been crafted and carved, polished and chiseled with care and attention. Here is one that will resonate with global audience.


I never allowed my feet to
drift the way others did,
even when my age occupied
the area of two splayed hands.
I placed flags and kicks in
the collective mind slavery erected.
I shattered racism’s edge and
introduced Brasil to itself while
Garrincha and I were TV heroes,
two of eleven disciples conducting
sermons on pitches greener than our
flag, the future’s symbol. It’s spinning
globe shouts, “ordem e progresso,”
order and progress through all the months
of February. When this carnival nation
started bleaching itself into oblivion,
I ushered in acceptance of black players
and distilled laughing sambas through
the ball’s movement. In a polyglot
world, there is only one true
language, and I’m its ambassador.

I interviewed Michael in March, just prior to his book launch, on my show Living Multiculturalism on TAG TV. Here's it is:

Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white is often an angry cry but is also sardonic, sarcastic plainspeak that doesn’t mince words. It frequently has the reader wincing at the raw and passionate exposure of wounded emotions. Articulate and vocal about her orientation and preference, Vivek often uses words as a knife, with a clear intention to wound not kill, just as racism doesn’t kill, but leaves a deep, permanent gash that never heals. Her poems are wounds that she shares with us, wounds that fester forever.

In a recent profile on the Toronto Arts Council website, Shraya describes the collection thus: “… [P]oetry allowed me to articulate truths and pose tough questions without needing to provide answers.” Shraya, who sees poetry as a freeing genre, in part, because there’s no sense of pressure to create a resolution for the reader. She goes on to explain that “Discussions around racism are often met with defensiveness so I am hoping that readers will allow the words to sink in and work through the questions posed in the poetry.”

Writing about the poems on the back cover of the collection, George Elliot Clarke, says, “even this page is white demands that all of us account for our visions of ‘colour’ and / or ‘race’ frontally and peripherally, with ocular proofs. Shraya is the poet-optometrist, correcting our vision and letting us see our identities without rose-coloured glasses, but with naked optics. Her book isn’t even-handed, but dexterous and sinister, in demonstrating, in revelatory poem after revelatory poem, why ‘often brown feels like but’ and why even a good white person – with a ‘golden heart’ – ‘can be racist.’ Reader, you have work to do!”

The collection is stark in its portrayal of everyday racism, the everyday encounters of prejudices and biases, and how these affect us all. Here’s a great sample from the collection:

the truth about the race card

is that even before i knew what it meant
i knew not to play it refused

to spin brown into excuse let it hold me back
believed you when you said we are the same

blamed my parents and camouflaged to prove
you right no wonder you couldn’t see me

people who said racism were whinny or lazy
and i was neither

but there’s no worth for my work no toll for my toil
when you hold the cards keys gavels

unravelled, brown is not a barrier you are
and when you say don’t play the race card

you mean don’t call me white.

I'm going to interview Vivek Shraya on my show in June. I'll post the video link once it's uploaded.