& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, October 02, 2017

‘Canada offers stories of different diasporas’: Mariam Pirbhai


Mariam Pirbhai’s collection Outside People and other stories, published by Inanna Publications, will be launched this week. She is Associate Professor, English and Film Studies at the Wilfrid Laurier University. Mariam explains, the stories in her collection explore “what it means to have to experience forms of migrancy (even as someone impacted by another’s immigration) at different levels of precarity or isolation”


Q. Your soon to be launched collection of short stories 'Outside People and other stories' is your first foray into fiction. How different is the experience of writing fiction compared to academic writing?

There is great cross-over, for me, in my academic and creative life so I don’t find this difference—between fiction and academic writing—as delineated as others might. There are many similarities between the two experiences, in fact. I can find myself wrestling with one sentence for days on end in both forms. I have to research many of the subjects that drive both my fiction and academic writing.

Both are outward expressions of the things that matter or come to matter and thus need to be said, in varying degrees of urgency. Having said this, when I write creatively, I find myself thinking more about the writing process: of such things as style, technique, form, etc. But here, too, it would not be such a far stretch to say that my academic training as a literary scholar is working on me and through me as well, putting me in the rather schizophrenic position of both writer and critic.

I can only hope that when one kind of writing--the creative or academic—starts to cross over into the other, however subconsciously, the end result delivers a coherent self or at least a collaborative fusion.  

Q. Outside People includes Pakistani Canadian perspective and also touches on issues of Islamophobia and recent legislation targeting Muslim Canadians, among other minority perspectives. Please tell us more about the collection.

As a Pakistani-Canadian who has lived in Canada for thirty years—since my late teens--it is impossible for me not to be concerned with the issues and struggles impacting Muslim Canadians. Having said this, I do not necessarily identify with any one community, ethnic or other, and I have grown up in various parts of the world, including England, the Philippines and Dubai, all of which have influenced this collection in various ways.

What really brings the stories in this collection together, then, is not so much a Muslim-Canadian point of view or a Pakistani-Canadian point of view, but rather what it means to have to experience forms of migrancy (even as someone impacted by another’s immigration) at different levels of precarity or isolation.

If minority-hood is already one kind of outsidership, how is this experience further compounded by gender, socioeconomic disadvantages, precarious forms of citizenship, religious beliefs, etc. In each of these stories, various states of migrancy (the temporary worker, the second-generation, the family members left behind, etc.), are filtered through the perspective of those (predominantly women) who find themselves facing dilemmas that are created at the nexus between the personal (e.g., fears, hopes, challenges, regrets) and the public (e.g., those larger forces like Islamphobia that govern our world).

For instance, one story takes a look at the anxieties of a domestic worker becoming increasingly estranged from her children living at the other end of the world; another story delves into the insecurities of a factory worker in Brampton undergoing cancer treatments who distances herself from the Muslim community for reasons of shame, as her son (a second-generation Canadian), her sole caregiver, starts turning to the very same community for support; another story that is loosely inspired from one of the worst road accidents in Southern Ontario’s history, traces the unlikely bond that arises between two agricultural labourers from the Caribbean and Latin America as they wait out a snowstorm on a chicken farm; and another story is told from the perspective of a young Pakistani-Canadian woman who is trying to forge her own cultural and sexual identity independently from that of family and state, as she witnesses a protest march against Québec’s proposed Charter of Values bill targeting Muslim Canadians’ religious freedoms).       

Q. You are a scholar on the subject of immigration fiction genre and have specialised in fiction by the diaspora from South Asia, Africa, the Asia-Pacific, and the Caribbean. What do you find dissimilar in terms of the narrative styles and the sharing of experiences between authors from different diaspora?

One of the gifts of living in a country like Canada is the opportunity to hear or read the stories of people from so many different diasporas. One of the first patterns that start to emerge is how very mixed up we all are, in the best possible way. Very few of us arrive here along some linear trajectory consisting of Point A to Point B, a fact that is sadly not always reflected in stereotypes about migration or the émigré. More often than not there is also a great deal of overlap from one diasporic community to another.

For instance, South Asians might be coming from anywhere in the world, not just the Indian subcontinent, and thus could belong to several diasporas, including Africa (someone like M.G. Vassanji or Tasneem Jamal) or the Caribbean (someone like Shani Mootoo or Cyril Dabydeen). To further complicate such geographic permutations, writers are further influenced by the particular traditions reflected in the hybrid constellation of their own diasporic communities.

Thus, one might find a Caribbean writer of any origin (African, South Asian, etc.) deeply influenced by the Creole languages of the region. Or one might find the sacred epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana providing the mythological and cultural landscape of a writer from Malaysia as much as that of a writer from Trinidad or India.

I try to reflect this cross-pollination of peoples and styles in my own writing. In this collection, for instance, a Mexican man meets an Anglophone woman of South Asian origin from Guyana, and this confuses his mother to no end because, as she says, “she never thought of Latin America as anything other than Spanish.” I guess it comes down to this: narrative styles can be as highly variegated as the circuitous ancestral routes or cultural genealogies of our diasporas and, invariably, of ourselves.

Q. What future does multiculturalism hold in Canada, considering it’s been summarily rejected in Europe and the US?

This question arrives on what appears to me to be a very hopeful day: the day after Jagmeet Singh, a lawyer from Brampton who bears all the outward symbols of his Sikh religion, just became the first “visible minority” to head one of this country’s major political parties, and thus holds the potential to serve as the future Prime Minister of Canada. Did the principles of multiculturalism have something to do with this landmark event?

Is this recent win a sign that we have entered a “post-multiculturalist” Canada? Or did the force of this individual and his convictions have something to do with this incredible achievement? I am inclined to think that however many racial or other barriers positive events such as this suggest we have broken through, we should never become complacent.

We need to keep reminding ourselves of the principles of equity, diversity and social justice that must be advocated for and protected, not only in spirit but also in law. Without a legal system to defend and ensure those rights, multiculturalism, like any rhetorical policy or set of ideals, falls short of the mark. 

To buy the book online, click here: Other People...