& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, March 04, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 7

Che and Mahrukh on our weekly bus ride
Che in his new glasses

Immigration is all about losing one’s identity and gaining a new one. It is about finding oneself in a new environment, making friends, trusting strangers. Often, this process is not easy. In our case, we came to Toronto without knowing anyone here. So, we had no choice but to trust strangers. And, in retrospect, it’s worked out well.

In the middle of the Sheridan program, Joyce Wayne recommended me to Antanas Sileika, the dean at Humber School for Writers, to volunteer for its week-long intensive writing program conducted annually in summer. My co-students never forgave me for what they subsequently described was "blatant favouritism." 

The program was to commence in July at Humber’s picturesque Lakeshore Boulevard campus. I dressed in my best official suit to meet Antanas, but by the time I could reach the campus, a brief but intense rainstorm drenched me to my bones.

Antanas welcomed me to the program and placed me in an all-women group led by author Isabel Huggan. I Googled her name and went to the Amesbury library to borrow Isabel's linked short story collection The Elizabeth Stories. Reading it before meeting her made my interaction with her easy. My new acquaintance with Canadian literature – thanks to having browsed through the two volumes of Canadian literature in English that Joyce had insisted all her students at Sheridan buy – also helped.

The Elizabeth Stories is a fine collection of short stories. Isabel was pleased that I’d read it and liked it. Her group, which I assisted, comprised seven women, all working on their manuscripts and all deeply engaged in the process of creating. Isabel’s approach to writing was introspective. And she also gave me my writing mantra: “All writing is rewriting.”

The one session that remains etched in my memory even though nearly a decade has passed by, involved remembering a favourite photograph from one’s life and looking for what is missing in that photograph.

With the Humber Summer Workshop group
The exercise took all the participants in different directions, and many of them teared up when describing their experience of talking about their favourite photograph and then for the first time ever looking for what was missing in the photo. I guess Isabel’s purpose for conducting this exercise was to make all the participants understand the importance of unburdening one’s emotions and be true to oneself.

There were several simultaneous sessions going on at that time conducted by illustrious authors. They included Wayson Choy, Martin Amis, and Nino Ricci. I couldn’t have celebrated my first anniversary in Toronto any better. The Humber School’s summer workshop was perhaps instrumental in many ways in determining the course of my life.

I’ve written about the experience on this blog as well in the Canadian Immigrant experience. 

If you’re interested in reading more, please click on these links:
Mahrukh at 1440 Lawrence Ave W

All Writing is rewriting (Canadian Immigrant column)

2009 was turning out to be an extremely fruitful year. My interest in writing had propelled me into a new world and I was making new friends all the time. I signed up for several author groups on email and went to a session of Writers and Editors Network at a nice little traditional tavern in Islington.

Jasmine D’Costa was the president of this association. She is a banker from Bombay and has devoted her life to creating literature since she immigrated to Canada. Jasmine’s collection of short stories was published in May 2009 and it was tremendously well received. 

Over the years, she has consistently encouraged many of us newcomers with aspirations to become writers. She published extracts from my novel as short stories in two volumes she edited.

(Read about Jasmine here: Asian Writers; I used the term ‘Asian’ to describe South Asian writers, without realising then than Asian in North America only meant people from the Far East or South East Asia).

At Jasmine’s event at WEN, the main speaker was Robert Morgan, the publisher of BookLandPress. Subsequently, Robert held a workshop on publishing at the Runnymede branch of the Toronto library. Yoko and I participated in the session (Robert Morgan’s tips for writers).

I learnt that BookLandPress conducted an annual novel competition, which was decided on the basis of the first 50 pages of the manuscript. I decided to build my short story into a novel, by giving a backstory to the four main characters.

I fished out an incomplete manuscript that I’d started several years ago in Bombay when I decided to write fiction after reading my friend Richard Rothman’s collection of phantasmagorical short stories. In a small way, I was instrumental in egging Richard to get his stories published.

Robert’s BookLandPress didn’t accept my submission, but that was only to be expected and by now, I was serious about working harder on my fiction. I got Mahrukh to edit the short story that I’d been working on for several months now and submitted it to the Diaspora Dialogues, a Toronto not-for-profit that promotes creative expressions in diverse people, for the short-form mentoring program.

I submitted the short story (The New Canadians) in May 2009 without any expectation of being selected for the mentoring program. But I was pleasantly surprised when I got an email in June 2009 informing me of my selection. It was a moment that I’d been waiting for. 

The Diaspora Dialogues group 
I was among a select few aspiring writers selected by Diaspora Dialogues for the mentoring program; the list included a great group of creative people who have gone on to become acclaimed authors Leslie Shimotakahara and poets such as Michael Fraser, and among them was Dawn Promislow, who is today a dear friend.

Helen Walsh, the head of Diaspora Dialogues, has since then been a constant support in all my efforts to become an author. On several occasions, she has provided me with a platform and put me before an audience. She got Diaspora Dialogues to audio record my blog about my first Christmas in Toronto; she selected me as a speaker at the fantastic Spur festival that she organises annually; she got me interviewed recently when she relaunched Diaspora Dialogues.

And, of course, she’s also had an indirect role to play in the publishing of Belief, but I’ll talk about that later. Julia Chan, then at the Diaspora Dialogues, was also extremely supportive.

I remember when my submission was under consideration at Diaspora Dialogues, I was reading The Assassin’s Song (2007) by MG Vassanji, which I’d borrowed from the Amesbury Park branch of the Toronto library. It is one of the finest novels that I’ve read, and in my humble opinion, one of Vassanji’s best. The In-Between World of Vikram Lal (2003) and The Book of Secrets (1994) got him the Giller Prize. 

Serendipitously, Vassanji was to be my mentor. Mahrukh declared, "Allah only listens to you!" (Needless to say, that assessment riled my atheist sensibilities comprehensively, but for once, I wasn't complaining).

Not entirely unexpectedly, Vassanji turned out to be a tough mentor. He was a Guru in the true sense. I consider him my Guru even today; a status that, I’m sure, he’d find deeply embarrassing, if not entirely offensive.

He’d little patience with niceties, clear, incisive and blunt in his comments. And I was the eager student.

Here’s an extract from the first email I got from him: 

“This story, to be honest, is in the ‘good immigrant’ or ‘grateful immigrant’ mode. It has a message about citizenship. But it is not realistic; it does not dig deep into human motives and behaviour. This, of course, is how I see it. It is the kind of story that may find a place in a community or government magazine. I don't know what you have in mind.”

My interaction with him started in July and continued till September 2009. By then, the story had metamorphosed into a completely different being, vastly improved, with much depth, nearly all the excrescences removed, or at least so I thought. 

In a later episode of this memoir, I’ll write about how he made me rewrite this story, which had become the first chapter of the novel, more than 17 times, and even after that remained dissatisfied.

Read about this unique experience here: Write Stuff (Canadian Immigrant column)

By October 2009, I’d to submit the completed story to Diaspora Dialogues for consideration in its annual short story publication – TOK: Writing the New Toronto. I wasn’t sure whether it’d be accepted, considering there were so many good aspirants. It seemed a long and agonizing wait although it was only two months before I learnt in mid-December from Helen that my story was accepted for TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto, the collection was edited by Helen.

2009 was turning out to be a year that I’d remember forever. Thanks to Joyce’s efforts, I got an internship in Ontario government’s ministry of community and social services. It was a temporary job that held the promise of being turned into permanent after some years. I was out of the internship within a month.

Mahrukh in her Medix uniform
And, it was now Mahrukh’s turn to go to school. She decided that she’d do a program in social work and joined Medix College in October 2009. I’d never seen her as excited as she was when she began her program.

Mahrukh has always remained an unassuming person, who shuns any sort of limelight, and never pushes herself upfront to let the world become aware of tremendous and varied skills. She’s highly educated, has remarkable editing skills, and is a natural people’s person; one of the most affable persons. For the first time, she was determined to get what she knew she deserved.

Of course, she can be completely horrible with me when she gets mad, but that’d be true in any marriage that has lasted two decades and more, and one shan't talk about it now. 
Che at his school concert
Che was already a Canadian and was talking like one. When we told his school teacher that he was now speaking with a Canadian accent, she corrected us and said, “No, he’s losing his Indian accent.” Sometime later that year, he also had to start wearing glasses, at approximately the same age as when I’d had to wear glasses. But, of course, Mahrukh blamed me, claiming that it was my preference for warm lighting in our home that'd caused our son’s weak eyesight.

Finally, we’d commenced our process of settling down and setting our roots in Toronto.

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