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Friday, May 10, 2019

The World is Here: Novels Navigating Love and Conflict

From L to R: Manjushree Thapa, Josh Scheinert,  Eva Salinas
Uzma Jalaluddin and Sharon Bala
at a discussion on
'The World is Here: Novels Navigating Love and Conflict
at the Festival of Literary Diversity  

The Festival of Literary Diversity’s fourth edition was held recently in Brampton. The festival has grown steadily in participation and popularity over the years, attracting the best literary talent that Canada offers.

In 2016, just prior to the launch of the first festival, I interviewed Jael Richardson, the founder and artistic director of the festival, for TAG TV (see the interview here: https://youtu.be/vDklJugI6Xg). Jael said the idea of the festival came to her in 2014 when she participated in a book conference in New York and was stunned at the lack of diversity in the lineup of the authors. Dalton Higgins, author and events organiser, pointed out to Jael that the situation wasn’t too different in Canada.

Jael and a group of people who shared her interests got together and decided to launch a Festival that would celebrate diversity in all its forms – race, faith, sexual orientation, abilities (physical and mental). The purpose was to create space in the world of literature that would reflect the Canadian reality of multiculturalism. Earlier this year, the Writers’ Union of Canada recognised Jael and FOLD with the 2019 Freedom to Read Award.

Since its start in 2016, I have attended all the four festivals in Brampton. In 2017, I was privileged to be invited as an author. And every year, the festival has featured many authors who congregate in the first week of May to talk about themselves, their books, their readers, other authors, Canada, diversity, multiculturalism, and have fun.

This year, the festival’s main venue was the landmark Rose Theatre in Brampton. Spring had finally arrived, and the longish commute from Toronto didn’t seem too arduous, especially because the session that I’d chosen to attend – ‘The The World is Here: Novels Navigating Love and Conflict’ – had fine authors, all of whom had their debut novels published in Canada recently.

The panel included

Sharon Bala (The Boat People which was a finalist for Canada Reads 2018 and was awarded the 2018 Amazon Canada First Novel Award);

Uzma Jalaluddin (Ayesha At Last, a revamped Pride and Prejudice that is soon to be made into a film);

Josh Scheinert (The Order of Nature, set in Gambia, portraying the struggles and fears of being gay in West Africa) and

Manjushree Thapa (All of Us in Our Own Lives is her first novel to be published in Canada).

Eva Salinas, managing editor of foreign affairs news site OpenCanada.org and a freelance journalist, moderated the discussion.

Sharon’s and Uzma’s novels are about their protagonists coming to Canada, and Josh’s and Manjushree’s novels are about their protagonists leaving Canada. In all four novels, the borders between home and away get blurred, and lives are transformed because of physical and emotional dislocation.

Eva asked the panelist about the different kinds of borders in their stories, and how their characters and they as writers respond to these borders.

Sharon, whose novel is about Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, landing off the coast of British Columbia, says that more than personal, physical, and geographical borders, her characters navigate the liminal spaces of silences and secrets. 

In Uzma’s Ayesha At Last, the boundaries are purely personal. A character in the novel, Khalid, knows he appears weird to the world because of in-your-face refusal to abandon his ethnicity and cultural rootedness; but he doesn’t worry overtly about this because he contends that he is who he is because of his belief; the reader is not expected to like him rather spend time with him to understand him.

“People cross borders often without having a choice,” Josh says. In his novel, which explores the relationship between an American (Andrew) and a Gambian (Thomas), the protagonists cross the continental borders, and the borders of control drawn by the society and families. In Manjushree’s All of Us in Our In Our Own Lives, Ava Berriden goes from Toronto to Nepal to find meaning in her life, but realises that she is unwanted despite her power.

The discussion dealt with issues that are common to Canadian milieu – issues such as acceptance, belonging, identity and home. “What gives us our identity, and how much of it is related to race?” asked Eva, whose careful choice of questions accentuated the inherently Canadian character of these authors.

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