& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Citizens of nowhere by Debi Goodwin

Guest post: 
Subhadeep Chakrabarti
(book review)

Canada is a nation of immigrants with a million different stories of loss and arrival, acculturation and adjustments. 

In her new book Citizens of Nowhere, former CBC journalist Debi Goodwin introduces us to an amazing group of young people who faced immense odds before starting their new lives in Canada. 

This is the story of African refugee youth who have been offered one of a few coveted positions in Canadian universities under the student refugee program called the SRP (together with permanent residence in Canada) that would be their only chance of escaping a life time of statelessness in UNHCR camps. 

Ms Goodwin follows 11 bright young people – eight men and three women, as they move from their wretched refugee camp to hopeful futures on Canadian campuses, leaving behind everything they had known in their short lives.

The story begins in Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world in the late summer of 2008. Dadaab is home to over a quarter million refugees, the vast majority of them Somalis fleeing a two decade long civil war. 10 of the 11 youths we meet in the book are Somalis, each born in the relative stability of late 1980s Somalia, who grew up knowing nothing but war and life in the refugee camps. 

The camp also houses a small number of political refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea, including the 11th member of this group, an Oromo schoolteacher sent into exile for his political beliefs. 

Debi Goodwin meets these people for the first time when they have just learnt about their selection into the highly competitive program. As they discover more about their Canadian destinations and prepare for the long journey, these bright young people also face the certainty of leaving their old lives behind, possibly never to return. 

In the camps they had been among the best and brightest, working in UN sponsored projects as teachers, mediators and social workers; quite often they had been the only breadwinners. As the day of departure comes, most are emotional to leave behind their families (at least whatever is left of them-several are orphaned) and the only home they have known for much of their lives.

Goodwin travels with her subjects to Toronto, where the close-knit group is split up as they move on to different campuses across the breadth of the country. She notes the sense of wonder and bewilderment that faces these tough but smart people in their first few weeks as they navigate the initial settlement procedures and grapple with the pressures of student life. 

Most also feel pangs of homesickness yet reach out to other students in building friendships across the cultural divide. We meet some amazing helpful people in the campuses, students and staff alike, who try to do their best in helping these newcomers adjust to Canadian student life. 

Anyone who has been an immigrant or an international student would appreciate the challenges and tribulations faced by these brave young people in their first few weeks in the new world.

Over the next year, Goodwin follows up on the students as they settle down into their Canadian lives, do well in school, learn to cook, get jobs, send money to their families and get accustomed to their new lives. Some grapple with their religious traditions and identity, while others immerse themselves headfirst in the Canadian way of life. 

The stories that come out are those of a group of smart and resilient people who are determined to make the most out of the only chance at a decent normal life. 

By the end of the year, as they prepare to take on loans and jobs in order to be self-sufficient (student refugee program only provides full support for the first year in Canada), we find the youths at a far more confident state, assured of their own place in Canada.

As a former international student myself, I find the stories of these refugee youth extremely moving and inspiring. Kudos to Ms Goodwin for her awesome narrative and special thanks to the young men and women who agreed to share their lives with the world.

The student refugee program: http://www.wusc.ca/en/campus/students/SRP

Calcutta-born Dr Subhadeep Chakrabarti lives in Edmonton. He was a PhD student in the University of Calgary between 2002 and 2006.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

At readings

Attending readings is a good way to stay in touch new writing and new writers. It’s also a good way to stay in touch with friends and make new ones. Recently, I met Pratap Reddy at a reading. He told me he has published a short story on Maple Tree Literary Supplement. Read the story here. Ramki and the New Christmas Tree

A week or so later, at the Small Press of Toronto readings, I met Jasmine D’Costa, Fraser Sutherland, Gemma Meharchand and Ava Homa. Jasmine had new material to read, Fraser read poems from his acclaimed new collection and Ava read the Glass Slippers, the best story in her exquisite collection Echoes of Other Land. What I like about the story is Ava’s non-judgemental narration and a brilliant eye for detail.

Later this month, I’ll brave the cold and Sunday lethargy when I attend Michael Frazer ‘s Plasticine Poetry Series because this edition features Dawn Promislow. Dawn will read from her collection Jewels and other stories.

I attend these book readings and book events to achieve twin objectives – to get new material to write my blog and to be inspired by new writers who have successfully achieved what I’m aiming to achieve – to become a published author.

Writer’s block

Writing requires more discipline than any activity, especially for an unpublished writer who is learning the craft. For such a writer, having a writer’s block is natural and continuous. By the time the new writer has done half-decent work, it’s quite likely that s/he is a crazed lunatic seeking peace and solace.

The only way I know how to deal with the writer’s block is to write and then rewrite and then rewrite again and then to delete and restart.

The December instalment of the Brockton Writers Series dealt with the issue of writer’s block. Writers from Canadian Voices I & II read from their work and discussed their remedies when experiencing the writer’s block. Farzana Doctor, who curates the series, has written about it on her blog. Read it here: Blogwala

Different writers have different approaches to remedy the writers’ block. About her own experience, Farzana says, “When I first started writing, I snuck an hour here, thirty minutes there. It was a hobby begging time from the rest of my life. Over the years, it has expanded so that it now gets more space than everything else. Perhaps because I took so long to get here, there just isn’t any time to be blocked.”

Saturday, December 04, 2010

GAB is 2

Generally About Books celebrates its second anniversary this month.  What began as an experiment that I didn't think would last long, has. It has become a part of my routine. I feel guilty if I don’t write every week. Although writing every week is becoming increasingly difficult since I began working at the Chamber last October. I don't have the luxury of time to read and write as freely and frequently as I did before and the only reason I’ve managed to have regularly updates is because I have a rather hectic social life attending book launches.

Of the many books that I read this year, two will stay with me - Katherine Govier’s The Ghost Brush and Dawn Promislow’s Jewel and Other Stories
I read unpublished manuscripts of my friends Yoko Morgenstern’s novel and Joyce Wayne’s novel (only the first 70 pages). I’m confident that when published, both will be well received. 

My own attempt at writing my novel is progressing steadily but slowly. 
Two chapters of the novel have been published in two different collections – TOK 5, Canadian Voices Volume 2. Early next year, Indian Voices 1 will publish the third chapter.