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Monday, March 31, 2014

Exile and Belonging: Stories of Immigrant Experience - II

Rohinton Mistry
Recently, I attended a six weeks program on Exile and Belonging: Stories of Immigrant Experience conducted by Sanja Ivanov of the University of Waterloo at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library (Spadina and College).

I couldn’t attend the concluding session because of extraneous disturbances not under my control.

I blogged about the series in February, but the observations in that blog were primarily derivative and based on just one session. The subsequent sessions gave the series new meanings, and new insights.

With each new author the group discussed different aspects of the theme of exile and belonging.

David Bezmozgis

We read and discussed five stories by four authors:  Roman Berman, Massage Therapist and The Second Strongest Man (from David Bezmozgis’s collection Natasha and Other Stories); The Inert Landscapes of Gyorgy Ferenc (from Tamas Bobozy’s Last Notes and Other Stories); Squatter (from Rohinton Mistry’s Tales of Firozsha Baag); and No Rinsed Blue Sky, No Red Flower Fences (from Dionne Brand’s Sans Souci and Other Stories).

Each author deals with the issue of exile and belonging differently, each is steeped in a specific cultural milieu, and each is situated in Canada (in fact, in Toronto – and I guess the Toronto Public Library must have insisted on that).

Each of the story is deeply disturbing, even if it occasionally some scenes in the stories evoke chortles or at least an amused smile (especially Squatter).  

In all the stories, the newcomers are unable to adjust to a new life, a new thinking, to their changed circumstances. They become so alienated that their own people seem alien.
In some cases the – as with Gyorgy Ferenc in Dobzy’s story and the Caribbean woman in Brand’s story – the characters experience mind-bending turmoil and become paralysed with fear and loathing.

In No Rinsed Blue Sky, No Red Flower Fences, Brand describes the transformation thus:

Dionne Brand
“Returning home her imagination tightened the walls of the apartment giving them a cavernous, gloomy look. She would lie on the floor and listen for footsteps in the corridor outside. The phone would ring and startle her. The sound would blast around in her chest and she would pray for it to stop never thinking to answer it. It would course its way through her arms so that when she looked at her fingers they would seem odd, not hers or she, not theirs.”  
And while Dobzy’s story is about the father Gyorgy Ferenc, and his utterly hopeless spiral into a world that cannot exist, a great insight into the immigrant’s perennial dilemma is revealed towards the end of the story when Gergo (the narrator) returns briefly to Hungary. 

He describes his experience thus:

Tamas Dobozy
“It was only many weeks later, when I’d fully realized what it was to lose a country – after I had gone astray in the streets of a city I thought I knew as well as myself, after I’d seen the growth of apartments on the outskirts of Debrecen, after I’d stepped onto the Hortobagy and been unable to shake the sense of infinite distance between the soles of my shoes and the ground they stood upon – that I remembered where I’d last seen the smile Akos had worn at the airport. You see, either everything had changed in Hungary, or I had changed, and what was most disquieting about the trip for me was not only that I couldn’t stabilize my sense of being in the country, but that I couldn’t even fix upon the country I was trying to stabilize myself in relation to.
“The greatest nightmare was that both of us had changed – the country and myself – and that we were constantly changing, which made the possibility of us ever connecting again a matter of complete chance, the intersection of two bodies on random flight patterns, ruled by equations so different there was little chance of us resting, even for a second, on the same co-ordinates.”
As I said, unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the last session and so missed my chance to thank all the wonderful participants and Sonja Ivanov, the amazing program instructor.

Sonja conducted the series with deft competence and confidence, giving opportunities for all the participants to dwell on the subject, giving each of us time to explore and expound on the theme.

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