& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Descant - Masala

People of Indian origin create a little India wherever they are. Arjun Appadurai terms this phenomenon as “ethnoscapes.” In his study of Indian immigrants in North America (Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, 1996), Appadurai contends that “when Indian immigrants settle in North America, they do not completely assimilate but construct what he calls “ethnoscapes” or landscapes of group identities¹.”

The 162nd issue of Descant with its Masala theme is a literary depiction of Appadurai’s “ethnoscapes.” It is a collection of short stories, poems and visual art that brings to life the immigrant experience. It contains rains, ragas, and racism, colour and identity, music and memories – a bit of everything that makes for an Indian experience in an alien environment – “ethnoscapes”.

Why is it that immigrants take to writing so avidly? Perhaps it is the quiet desperation of adjusting to a strange place, or perhaps it is the constant fear of losing one’s past forever that compels an immigrant to write and record.

Some of the best literature in English language has been (and is being) created by immigrants. It is a noticeable trend, especially among people of Indian origin, or people whose ancestors left the Indian shores to reach far corners of the globe. They started new lives in places that while similar to their home, were so far away that they could return to their homeland only in their memories.

Miraculously, the idea of India didn’t (doesn't) fade away from the collective consciousness of the second and third generation immigrants born and raised outside India – in East Africa, the UK, or North America. In fact, it thrives. And when they take to writing and expressing themselves, they create a world that redefines their Indian roots that is breathtaking and heartbreaking.

In Descant Maasla, yaqoob ghaznavi describes this emotion vividly in the Home, a poem that narrates the life of a second generation Canadian woman with no connection live to India:

yet how do I understand
fascination with the homeland
far from the air I breathe

longing constantly changes shape
enters maps in me I had no knowledge of
tears me into sweet bitter solitudes

Descant Masala includes some superlative work incorporating diverse voices and touching upon varied leitmotifs within the overarching theme of immigration. Appropriately, the issue begins with Wasela Hiyate’s Gold (an excerpt from a novel), which narrates the story of a family’s decision to immigrate from the Hindi heartland to the Caribbean. Enticed by fanciful promises of limitless riches (gold), the family leave India only to find themselves in purgatory of bonded labour and destitution.

Often the portrayal of heartrending reality by second and third generation Indian immigrants is a result of their realization that the world will never let them forget their Indian roots. 

Evadne Macedo, born in England, now living in Canada, with only a remote sense of India, tries valiantly to answer the question common among the second and third generation immigrants: Who am I? It’s a question that unsettles her. About those who ask her, “Where are you from?” she says, “…the ones who ask where I am from see me first and foremost as Indian and want me to confirm that I am nothing more than what I appear to be.”

Many narratives talk about the universal experience of racism that non-whites faces in places where whites form a majority. However, what often remains unacknowledged is the inherent racism that Indians have for people of other races. Their unspoken awe for the whites, and their contempt for the blacks; their unconscious attempts to turn into coconuts: brown outside, white inside.

Descant Masala has Mona Zutshi Opubor’s remarkable memoir The True Story of a South Asian Micegenator. She reveals the deep rooted racism that is inherent to most Indians (wherever they may be). Describing her parents’ horror that she was marrying a black African from Nigeria, Mona asks: “Which was more shameful: if your child married a black or a Muslim? The unanimous agreement was that different religion was preferable to mixing aces. ‘Why would that be the case?’ I asked my mother…’How is race more divisive than religion?’ ‘Indians are colour-conscious,’ she said. ‘No one has to know if you have a Muslim in the family. They look like we do. But how could we hide a black son-in-law?’

There are many gems in Descant Masala. Pradeep Solanki, the guest editor for the issue, has prepared a Gujarati thali – a complete meal that has everything in just the right proportions. Conspicuously missing is cricket, which incidentally is the fastest growing sport in Canada.

¹: Quoted from Growing Up Canadian Ed: Peter Beyer & Rubina Ramji, McGill-Queen’s University Press 2013

Celebrating a 100 years of Tagore's Nobel Prize

Tagore aficionados couldn’t have imagined a better evening than the one last Sunday (9 November 2013) at Toronto’s George Weston recital hall organized by Inspirations 2013 to celebrate the centenary of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was the first Asian and non-European Nobel Laureate (Literature, 1913).

The creative team for the evening comprised Manasi Adhikari of the Gitanjali, Ananya Mukherjee-Reed of York University and Enakshi Sinha of Mrudanga.

In a message explaining the raison d’etre of Inspirations 2013, the creative team said, “With Inspirations, we celebrate those aspects of Tagore’s vision that are universal and utterly contemporary. The fundamental equality between all human beings, the need to resist all forms of injustice, and the infinite possibility of deepening our understanding of each other – these are some of his values. Tagore saw the arts as a powerful medium of social change. It enables us to reach new heights of creative self-expression where everyone can come together – irrespective of language, identity, race, nationality or religion.”

The Tagore Anniversary Celebrations Committee of Toronto (TACCT) pivoted the organizing of the program with many organizations collaborating. The TACCT had organized many programs during Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary in 2011.

Grace Hong
Debshankar Roy
The evening began with musical renditions of Tagore’s compositions performed by a unique combination of choir and orchestra music. Debshankar Roy of Violin Brothers was the conductor and Grace Hong was the concert master. Mansi Adhikari was the music director.

The highlight of this musical prelude was the English rendition of Tagore’s most famous Ekla Chalo Re written when Bengal was Partitioned in 1905. It was Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite poem. Listen to Amitabh Bachchan's rendition of the classic here (from the film Kahani; dir: Sujoy Ghosh; music Vishal Shekhar): Ekla Chalo Re

The second part of the program was the presentation of Inspirations Spirit Awards in honour of Rabindranath Tagore to some of Toronto’s leading citizens who have contributed to improving our world by making it more inclusive. 

John Van Burek, the artistic director and founder of Pleiades Theatre, and director of Tagore’s Dak Ghar, and Ananya-Mukherjee-Reed, Professor, York University hosted this segment of the program.

The Inspirations Spirit Award were given to:

Dionne Brand, Canada’s leading poet of social justice, for Poetry and Social Justice
Matt Galloway, host, Metro Morning, CBC, for Diversity and Social Inclusion
Inner City Angles & its Executive Director Jane Howard Baker, for Empowerment through the Arts
Ontario Co-operative Association and its Executive Director Mark Ventry  for Building Inclusive Economies

Chandalika, Tagore’s timeless saga of a young Dalit girl’s love and sacrifice, was the grand finale to the evening. “The production brought together several forms of Indian classical dance accompanied by live music, drama and narration.” 

Manasi Adhikari directed the dance drama, and Ananya Mukherjee-Reed translated the epic into English. For other credits see here: Inspirations 2013

The audio-visual slides that translated Tagore’s poems from Bengali to English helped the non-Bengali knowing audience understand and appreciate the magic of Tagore’s poetry. Also, it was heartening to note the support the event received from Tagore lovers. The large hall in North York was nearly full.

Images: https://www.facebook.com/Inspirations2013toronto?fref=ts 

Friday, November 08, 2013


Left to Right: Mayor of Markham, Frank Scarpitti, Janie Chang, Author, Lauren B.Davis, Author, Margaret Drabble, Author, Nicole Lundrigan, Author, Lewis DeSoto, Author & Host, Helen Argiro, Executive Director of the Markham Arts Council, Sheniz Janmohamed, Arts Administrator, Nirmala Armstrong, Chair of Markham Arts Council, Mary Pan, Vice Chair of the Markham Arts Council. — with Jeremiah Hill at Cornell Community Centre and Library.

The International Festival of Authors (IFOA) Markham had an all-women panel of authors comprising Janice Chang, Lauren B. Davis, Margaret Drabble, and Nicole Lundrigan reading at the Cornell Community Centre and Library. The theatre at the library has a warm feel to it, allowing for a more intimate relationship between the audience and the writer.

The little theatre at the Cornell Community Centre and Library in Markham has a warm feel to it. It allows for a more intimate connection between the audience and the writer. The connection turns magical when the writers are an eclectic group of woman that represent diverse experiences, even of three of them – Janice Chang, Lauren B. Davis and Nicole Lundrigan – were from Canada, and only one of them – Margaret Drabble – was a true celebrity.

Chang, from Vancouver, has lived in Philippines, Iran and Thailand. She read from her debut novel Three Souls, a historical novel narrated by a ghost. The novel “was inspired by the tragic story of her grandmother, whose life, like so many generations of women in China, was not her own.”  

Lauren B. Davis read from her semi-autobiographical novel The Empty Room, which is a story about a woman whose “worst enemy – and only friend – is the bottle.” Davis quit alcohol 18 years ago. A memorable line from the passage she read was: “The apartment was impossibly, accusingly quiet.”

Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire Margaret Drabble read a passage from The Pure Gold Baby about a single mother of an unusual daughter. When asked by moderator what compelled her to write, start a new novel, Drabble, who is the author of The Sea Lady, The Seven Sisters, The Peppered Moth and The Needle’s Eye, and biographies of Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson, replied in all seriousness: “Boredom.”

Nicole Lundrigan read from The Widow Tree, “which finds three teenagers facing life-altering consequences after they conceal a valuable discovery in a small village post-war Yugoslavia.

The Mayor of Markham Frank Scarpitti not only inaugurated the festival, and gave a brief speech, but sat through the entire session, visibly enjoying himself. 

Sadat Hasan Manto & Ayesha Jalal

Ayesha Jalal
Wednesday November 6, I attended Ayesha Jalal's reading from her latest book on Sadat Hasan Manto The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life andWork Across the Indo-Pakistan Divide, organized by Committee of Progressive Pakistani-Canadians in collaboration with Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq Toronto, Progressive Writers Association Canada & South Asian Peoples’ Forum.

Jalal lived up to her reputation of being one of the liveliest scholars and a public intellectual on all subjects South Asia, and especially the Partition. Manto is the voice of the subcontinent’s Partition. His stark and brutal portrayal of the mindless carnage that swept the region during that era is unparalleled.

I’m no expert on Manto. I’ve read him only in translation, and only in anthologies on Partition literature. I’ve cherished the little I have read. Manto has attained unbelievable fame posthumously, and every little detail of his life has been written and commented upon especially during his centenary year in 2012. Jalal’s biography has been acknowledged as one of the finest tributes to a writer who continues to fascinate people across the world.

Jalal holds a special place for anyone with rudimentary familiarity of the subcontinent’s history and historiography. Her epochal work on Mohammed Ali Jinnah (The Sole Spokesman) has altered perceptions about arguably one of the most tragic figures of Indian history; the biography makes one question deep-seated prejudices about his role in Partition.

The unbeatable combination of Jalal, Manto and Bombay turned the evening memorable. At the reading, Jalal's selections of passages from her book that pertained to Manto's life in Bombay were heartwarming. Jalal's captures the angst and the sense of loss Manto experienced (forever) after leaving Bombay.

She narrated an anecdote about the paranoia that had gripped him during those dark days. Once Manto accompanied Ashok Kumar in a car and passed through a Muslim mohalla in Bombay. The car had to navigate its way through a baraat (wedding procession), and Manto, wearing khadi, and only vaguely familiar with his religion, was afraid that the members of the procession would recognize Ashok Kumar and lynch them both, mistaking him also for a Hindu. Ashok Kumar remained unperturbed and told Manto to relax. The crowd did recognize the matinee idol and instead of lynching him, actually guided him out of the mohalla. After they passed the procession, Ashok Kumar gently said, “They don’t bother artists.”

Jalal narrated many other incidents from Manto’s life in Bombay – his friendship with Shyam, Ismat Chugtai; his work as a script writer; his success, his anxiety. During the Q&A that followed, I asked her about the influence Bombay had on Manto. Jalal’s answer captured the quintessence of Bombay: “He couldn’t forget Bombay. It lived within him. Lahore couldn’t give him what Bombay did.” One of Manto’s finest stories set in Bombay during the Partition riots is of a young, voluptuous Jewish woman’s (Mozel) sacrifice to save a Sikh Tirlochen and his love Kirpal Kaur.

Munir Pervaiz’s introduction of Jalal touched upon some unknown facets of both Jalal and Manto. 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

"I’m incredibly grateful for the kids and families who are enjoying my work," Lisa Dalrymple

Interview with award winning author of children's books Lisa Dalrymple

Lisa Dalrymple
Q. You have done three books for children, the third, Bubbly Troubly Polar Bear, having been released just this past weekend. You obviously love writing books for children…
Lisa Dalrymple: I do! There’s a certain kind of imagination that can be engaged in writing for kids that I love. Sometimes it’s silly–nobody bats an eyelash when a polar bear toboggans down the stairs on an ironing board–and sometimes it’s deeper, like when a lizard starts questioning what it says about his identity if his colour starts changing. Always though, when I’m writing for kids, I feel a strong connection with my child audience and my inner child’s voice. If I don’t, that’s my number one barometer that a particular piece isn’t working.
Q. Skink on the Brink won The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Writing for Children Award, so you’re obviously very good at doing what you’re doing. What is the most difficult thing about writing for kids?
I think writing for kids has all the same challenges as writing for adult audiences. There are always concerns about character development, plot credibility, respect for the reader and voice. I guess, in writing for kids, there is also the issue of word count. However, I know that many writers, when writing for adults, struggle with the word count of their novels as well.
For children’s picture books, in particular, which is what I’ve been publishing to this point, I know many editors say they won’t accept a book that’s over 1000 words and it’s only getting tighter. I know, if I write a book and the "final” word count comes in at over 500 words, that’s a sign to me to go back and assess whether there’s anything superfluous in the text. With a picture book, every word has to carry its own weight–and the weight of several others.
Writing picture books is, in essence, a crash course in how to eliminate adjectives, how to choose the most evocative verbs and nouns and how to do all that without resorting to an overly advanced or elevated vocabulary. It’s humbling, really.
Q. Is getting published easy in the children’s category?
All I can say is that my path to publication certainly wasn’t easy. I began submitting in 2009 and, by the time I received my first acceptance letter in 2011, I had logged 226 rejections or non-responses to my submissions. (These numbers even include rejections of Skink on the Brink, the very piece that won The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Writing for Children award and that was recently honoured with a starred entry in Best Books for Kids and Teens 2013.) I feel that, whatever kind of writing you do, landing a traditional book publishing contract is very much a game of perseverance, research and luck.
We also have fewer publishers in Canada who publish children’s books. There are only a handful of Canadian publishers who won’t publish books for the adult market, but there are many publishers who won’t consider books for kids, and even fewer who will publish picture books (typically defined as being for the 4-8 year old market.) Picture Books are a huge investment of time to create and of money to produce. Then, with so many talented writers in the Canadian children’s book industry, the competition for those elusive publishing spots every year is pretty steep.
Lisa reading to children
Q. I saw you read at WOTS in Toronto. It’s obvious you’re a great performer, too, in addition to being a writer. Does that come naturally or is it an acquired trait?
Thanks, Mayank. That’s always great to hear. I’m not entirely sure how to go about answering your question though. I certainly feel that developing an engaging and interactive presentation has been another sharp learning curve for me. I’m grateful to the friends and mentors who have guided me along, helped me develop my presentation style and create a full and flexible repertoire for school visits.
The performance aspect does seem to be one of the key differences I can identify between publishing for adults and publishing for kids. When reading or presenting to young kids, it’s even more crucial to be receptive to those initial cues about the attention spans of the members of the audience. It’s also important to be able to pick up on the wide variety of temperaments and learning styles of the listeners. It’s not often, in my years of presenting to adults, that I had no choice but to address the fact that Steven had a hole in his shoe or that my audience is feeling a bit lethargic because it is 2 pm and many of my listeners might otherwise be napping if they were at home.
Q. You’re a mother. Does that help the process of writing for children? Will you write young adult fiction as your kids grow up? Have you attempted adult fiction? Do you intend to?
I’ve always written where I find my voice at the time. I’m sure having children and being immersed in the world of books for young people probably channelled my voice in a certain direction but, even so, learning the craft of picture book writing was–and continues to be–extremely challenging.
When my oldest son was about 3, I started writing children’s books (in isolation) and I continued like that for about six years. When I’d developed as far as I felt I could on my own, I joined writers’ organizations and critique groups. Looking back, I can see how much I still had to learn and how much my craft developed as I learned from more experienced writers and became able to see others’ writing–and my own–with a critical eye. After having spent 9 years to get to a place where my writing for kids is being pretty well received, I can’t imagine switching gears right now. I’m incredibly grateful for the kids and families who are enjoying my work and for the publishers who are interested in publishing it. I feel like I’m where I’m meant to be at this point.
However, as to whether or not I can see myself writing for different markets in the future, I guess it depends where that inner voice takes me.

Images from Lisa Dalrymple's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DalrympleLisa