& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, May 09, 2011

Writing about 'New York, run by the Swiss'

Paul Vermeersch, Alissa York, Amy Lavender Harris,
Farzana Doctor & Susan G. Cole

The Atlantic has published the fourth installment of Cities of Opportunities – a joint effort by PwC and Partnership for New York City (PNYC).

The report lists “the world’s most impressive metros in a new survey of global capitals of finance, innovation and tourism,” and grades “26 cities from Stockholm to Santiago on business opportunities, culture, liveability, and innovation.”

Toronto grabs the second spot, just after New York.

My FB friend Susan Hopkinson, who’s originally from Toronto, but has made Brussels her home, explains this result thus: “Second to NYC - it makes me think of Peter Ustinov, who called Toronto ‘New York, run by the Swiss’.”

The authors of the report term Toronto as a ‘beta’ city that has all the building blocks of a superlative international city, beginning with smart ideas about sustainability and innovation.

Toronto is, indeed, a beautiful city. It’s been my home now for 34 months.

Without being immodest, I’d say that it people like me – immigrants – who make this city what it is. It’s what makes my former home Mumbai (Bombay) great, too.

The report states this explicitly. “A great city is all about growing, retaining and attracting talent. Whether it's Stockholm with its strong education system or Toronto benefiting from its smart immigration policies, getting and keeping talent matters.”

A city’s beauty is not merely its physical manifestation, howsoever impressive it may be. The beauty is in the various different ways in which its inhabitants, both old and new, make an emotional connection with it.  

As Helen Walsh, editor of TOK 6: Writing the New Toronto, says, “this shared urban environment belongs to everyone who calls it home regardless of how long they have been here, and from where they came.”

Amy Lavender Harris in Imagining Toronto says, “In the iconic Toronto novel In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje writes, ‘Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting.’ With vivid language Ondaatje shows us how the city is conjured into being by acts of imagination that flesh out and give form to its physical and cultural terrain. As we navigate the city in restless pursuit of accommodation, commerce and community, we give the city meaning through narrative, through stories that help us chart a course between the concrete, lived city and the city as we understand, fear, remember and dream it.”

Lavender Harris was one of the authors who read at Writing Toronto, this month’s Brockton Writing Series. She read Parkdale, Scummy Parkdale from Imagining Toronto

The other authors in the series included Alissa York, who read from her new novel Fauna, poet Paul Vermeersch, and Farzana Doctor, who read from her new novel Six Meters of Pavement.

Susan G. Cole of Now magazine was the 'guest host' of the evening.

It was one of the most scintillating sessions in the series. 

Image from Brockton Writing Series' Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150249096960786&set=o.176001662856&type=1&theater

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Open House Festival

I heard Miriam Toews at Humber School for Writers’ Summer Workshop in 2009. Then, I read her much-acclaimed novel A Complicated Kindness – one of those books that stay with you for a long time.

I signed up for the Open House Festival’s Great Fiction Writers event on April 30 when I read that she was one of the readers at that evening.

She alone would’ve been good enough for the ticket price. But there were other interesting writers, too, that I hadn't heard about before.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria, Justin Cronin from the US and Irvine Welsh from Scotland. Martin Levin, the books editor of the Globe and Mail was the moderator for the evening.

The Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library – an ideal venue for such a global event – was filled to capacity.

The Open House Festival started three years ago and is a “Random House of Canada production in partnership with the Globe and Mail.”

According to Louise Dennys of Random House of Canada, the festival’s objective is, “to offer our Toronto community the pleasure of a weekend-long involvement in literature and ideas.” In addition, the festival raises funds for literacy, freedom of expression, and author-related charities.

Toews read from her new novel Irma Voth, which has been widely acclaimed (read the novel's review in Walrus magazine. Click here: Irma Voth review in Walrus.

You immediately like some people. Justin Cronin is one such example.

Although I heard him for the first time that evening, I instantly began to like him when he described his essence of relationship with his teenage daughter thus: “14 is the new 30.”

I’d change that to “14 is the new 45,” for sons.

In his poem Rainbow, William Wordsworth wrote ‘Child is the father of Man.’ My 14-year-old son hasn’t read that poem but has reached the same conclusion.

I constantly seek his approval for everything I do, but seldom meet his expectations.

Cronin read a disturbing passage from his work about a desperate young mother staving off abuse and trying to survive with her daughter.

Irvine Welsh’s reading was riveting because of his stage presence and his booming voice.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In my opinion, the evening, however, clearly belonged to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from Nigeria. She read from her short story Shivering from the collection Things Around Your Neck

Adichie is author of two novels Purple Hibiscus (2003) and Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and is the recipient of innumerable literary awards.

Gujarati Diaspora Literature

Dr. Balwant Jani
Language is an incendiary issue in the Indian context.
It unites, it divides and it turns normally rational, reasonable, peaceful and law abiding people into abnormally unreasonable, irrational hordes willing to take “law in their own hands,” (as a popular Bollywood line goes).

Gujarati is my language of birth. I speak and read the language fluently and write it with extreme difficulty.

I haven’t tried translating Gujarati into English so far, but I’m confident I’d be good at that.

Although my understanding of Gujarati literature may seem updated and contemporary, it is secondary and derived from my occasional conversations with my mother and my sister.

I’ve read a few short stories in Gujarati, but most of my reading was limited to newspapers and magazines.

After my father’s death 14 years ago, my link with the language and its literature has all but extinguished because I didn’t even speak the language at home.

To those who know my family, this may sound – well, blasphemous, if you will.

Then, something strange happened to me upon my immigration to Toronto.

I suddenly became acutely conscious of my Gujarati roots – not in a jingoistic way, but merely from an identity perspective; something I didn’t want to lose or give up on without an adequate appreciation and understanding.

It was with all this heavy emotional baggage from the past firmly strapped to my back that I decided to attend my first Gujarati literary event on May 7 in Toronto.

The event was organised jointly by the Mehfil Group of Toronto and Gujarati Sahitya Sabha of Ahmedabad.

Dr. Balwant Jani, a Gujarati litterateur of eminence, is on a tour of North America on a Delhi University-entrusted project of compiling information of Gujarati writers and poets in North America.

He has compiled a list of Gujarati writers in the United Kingdom. Dr. Jani has studied the Diaspora Gujarati literature and authored many scholarly works on the subject.

Dr. Jani, in his short but evocative speech, gave a glimpse of his scholarship, lauding the Diaspora writer for her commitment to continue writing despite remaining unknown and unacknowledged in India.

The event didn’t attract Gujaratis in any great numbers. With more than 100,000 Gujaratis, Toronto has probably the largest Gujarati Diaspora population than for any city in North America. There were just about 30 people in the meeting room and almost everyone above the age of 40.

But it was good to see both Hindu and Muslim Gujaratis at the event, and even a Gujarati from Karachi, who now lives in Toronto.

There were several literary and social luminaries including the eminent Jai Gajjar. 

Several speakers at the meeting lamented the decline in the Gujarati language and decried the apathy of the local Gujaratis towards their language.

My views on this issue are different.

I believe that language is a living entity and it constantly evolves and changes. It may die, too, especially if it ceases to be the language that open doors to a better life.

In Toronto, I’ve met many second or third generation Indo-Canadians who don’t speak the language and barely understand it.

Indians are pragmatic and adaptable. They take to any language that will make them prosperous – which is why they learnt Persian, and have mastered English in a world where the stakes are global.

Appreciating a language and especially its literature is ultimately an individual’s choice.

Image: http://aksharnaad.com/2010/12/21/santvani-vichar-gosthi-2010-part-1/

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Friday Nights with Diaspora Dialogues

Friday Nights with Diaspora Dialogues – the just-concluded series of three literary nights in April – featured readings and performances from Toronto’s brightest writers and artists. This was the sixth year that the series was part of the Toronto Public Library’s annual Keep Toronto Reading Festival – a celebration of books and reading in Toronto.
Antanas Sileika
The last reading of the series (April 29) featured two writers who have supported me in so many different ways to fulfill my dream to become a novelist – Antanas Sileika and Joyce Wayne.

Antanas is the artistic director of Humber School forWriters and author of the recently released Underground. It’s a “story of a troubled romance between Lukas and Elena, two members of the underground Lithuanian resistance movement in mid-1940s.” He read an excerpt from the novel where Lukas shoots a room full of Soviet workers.

Joyce founded the Canadian Journalism for Internationally Trained Writers program at Sheridan College. I met her at the College in 2009, and she is my well-wisher, mentor and friend. 
Her story When Belle Walked Along Spadina is in TOK 6:Writing the New Toronto (each year the TOK cover gets better). The story is “about a little band of hapless Eastern European immigrants who end up spying for the Communist Party in Canada during the 1940s. It is about how brutally Canada treats its political dissidents.”

Other writers, poets spoken word artists who made the evening memorable included Adebe DeRango-Adem, Jacob McArthur Mooney, Angelica LeMinh. 

The program concluded with a reading from Rebecca Applebaum's Complex (Karl Ang, Serena Parmar, Lisa Codrington and Araya Mengesha; directed by Tara Beagan). 

Of course, all my friends at Diaspora Dialogues were also there, and it’s always a pleasure to meet them. For me (and I’m sure for many others), Diaspora Dialogues is home.


Richard Johnston's pen sketch of Antanas Sileika from http://antanassileika.ca/?p=530 (the sketch was originally published in The National Post on April 16, 2011 along with Philip Marchand's review of Underground. Read the review here.)