Immigrant Literature: A two way mirror

U.S. Customs and Border Protection / Public domain

Not so long ago, I discovered immigrant literature through a novel which completely changed the way I perceived current news about illegal Mexican immigrants. Not only had I gained more insight into their plight, I saw our own North American culture from their point of view — and it was unflattering.

With this season’s theme of cultural awareness in literature, I sought to present to the Club five fictional books which address ongoing immigrant issues in North America, written in different styles and dealing with different cultures. I had a wealth of choice, and when I had run out of time to read more, I selected these:

Environmental: The Tortilla Curtain (above-mentioned) about illegal Mexican immigrants (Author T.C. Boyle, 1995)

Suspense: The House of Sand and Fog about Iranian-Americans (Author André Dubus III, 1999)

Legal drama: The Boat People about Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Canada (Sharon Bala, 2018)

The two books below are in many categories, or perhaps defy categorizing. You will laugh and you will cry while reading their narrators’ highly quirky, often funny, recounting of tragedies.

Coming of age (the best I can do… unlike any other book I have read:) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao about Dominican Republicans in New Jersey (Junot Díaz, 2007)

War/spy novel/mystery/comedy/tragedy… : The Sympathizer about Vietnamese refugees to the United States (Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015)

Why search out immigrant literature? Fiction will humanize immigrants in a way news reports cannot. Novels make us more aware of the enormous challenges immigrants face and can deepen our understanding, empathy and compassion for those who hope to find a better life here.

YOU CAN READ MORE HERE.

Janet Halls

Susanna Moodie and Her Teacups Come to Canada

Image from azquotes.com

Moorea revealed how foreign our own Canadian culture can be by sharing her study of Susanna Moodie, a 19th Century British settler, whose book about the realities of Roughing it in the Bush; or, Life in Canada (1852) was not the encouraging guide to promote emigration its publishers had envisaged!

Susanna Moodie is important historically, providing a window into what was then Upper Canada (Ontario.) For a genteel British family — who had expected to rise to the top of colonial society, the reality was not what they expected. Mrs. Moodie, who was already a published author in Britain, became a pioneer of Canadian literature, and has influenced writers such as Carol Shields, L.M. Montgomery, Timothy Findley and Margaret Atwood.

This courageous immigrant shared her experiences through the art of writing, while she adapted, not always easily or willingly, to a culture more foreign than she had expected — and which would be largely foreign to Canadians today. Link to Moorea’s insightful summary by CLICKING HERE.

[Webmaster’s addition: Enjoy stumbling upon what is almost certainly THE MOODIE HOMESTEAD, THROUGH THIS LINK. It is an artist’s watercolour images, someone who would have gone to enormous effort to reach the Moodie homestead shortly after the family had moved from the bush.]

Diana Gabaldon: Storyteller extraordinaire: Bold. Beautiful. Beloved.

Image by George Hiles on Unsplash

It’s no wonder that the “father of geology” James Hutton was Scottish, as is the Loch Ness monster and Scottish bagpipes: What a country and culture! Cecilia opened her presentation with Wings’ Mull of Kintyre. The “earworm” hasn’t left me since (in a good way!) The opening music for the TV series, “The Skye Boat Song,” is equally haunting, with traditional lyrics telling of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape to the Isle of Skye.

Cecilia felt as entirely immersed in the world Gabaldon paints in the Outlander novels, as her son had been many years ago escaping into J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter.

In 1988, a scientist, university professor and contributor to professional publications, decided to try her hand at writing a novel, for practice only. Diana Gabaldon by chance caught a Dr. Who episode with a compelling 18th century, kilted Scottish character. That was the catalyst for what has become The Outlander series. By using time travel, the author was able to provide modern perspectives. As a counterpoint to the fantasy, Ms. Gabaldon weaves in reality using her meticulous research of history, medical practices and medicinal plants.

Regrettably, I can’t provide a link into the 18th Century, but FOLLOW THIS FURTHER TO DIVE DEEPER INTO CECILIA’S REFLECTIONS

Orhan Pamuk: The story of Istanbul

Old Plate from Turkey

In reviewing my notes from Shawna’s presentation on October 29, 2019 of prolific Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, what jumps out at me now, in this one month of physical distancing, is the book Balkon. Over a five-month period (2012-13) Mr. Pamuk took over 8,000 photos of Istanbul from his balcony (Wikipedia) resulting in this photo journal, as well as an art exhibition in 2019. Let’s hope we don’t have four months to go, but what an inspiration!

Shawna began her presentation with a quote, which I caught in my handwritten notes. In other words, this may not be word-for-word.

I ran away but I returned and will continue to tell its story. This is the best place I know. (Orhan Pamuk)

This author, who had early aspirations to be a painter, then architect, eventually painted word pictures — so well that his Turkish books are translated worldwide, and have received many prestigious awards, including the 2006 Nobel Prize.

CLICK HERE to find out why Shawna enjoys Orhan Pamuk so much and why you might too.

(A note on the image: The Turkish plate is one I received from my worldly Uncle George, who was born in Victorian times. Viewed from the back, you would see that the plate was badly broken and considerably mended, showing how much the art was treasured by my Uncle. Still is! Janet Halls)

“The Danger of a Single Story”

On October 22, 2019, Program Chair Sandra Ens challenged us to something novel — a panel discussion of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s presentation, “The Danger of a Single Story” (2009)

In this “Ted Talks” video, the author describes growing up in Nigeria reading books from Britain or the United States. However, Nigerian literature was missing entirely. Attending college in the U.S., Ms. Adichie was taken aback that North Americans know next-to-nothing about Nigeria specifically, and she felt patronized or pitied as an “African.” She realized that our opinions are (still!) based on “a single story.” To make matters worse, we extrapolate that story across all the countries, cultures and diverse peoples living in the entire African continent. Ms. Adichi’s own books, along with strong support she and her publisher give to other Nigerians to write and publish their own stories, will help readers broaden perspectives and dispel negative stereotypes.

After the video, members referenced examples from their own experiences, especially of different cultures and faith traditions, in general agreement with Ms. Adichie’s thesis.  Recognizing that it is easy to fall into the trap of stereotypes, we were reminded of the importance of being open to other stories and of learning to appreciate that the story being told, including our own, is often incomplete but still worthy of consideration.

You may listen to Ms. Adichi herself, if you weren’t at our meeting.

(Thanks Helen, for your always outstanding Minutes, which I have used for this post! I’m sorry I missed out on this special meeting. Janet H.)

Jaspreet Singh: CPL Author in Residence

KennyOMG / CC BY-SA
Kashmir

On October 15, 2019, we welcomed special guest Jaspreet Singh, an internationally renowned novelist, essayist, poet and short-story writer. He was accompanied by Christine Gingerick of the Calgary Public Library Foundation, our marvelous tour guide when the new library was unveiled, and Calgary poet Rosemary Griebel. Mr. Singh is the 2019 Calgary Public Library’s Author in Residence.

Mr. Singh read excerpts from ELENA FERRANTE, of whom he is a huge fan. He spoke of the art of Ms. Ferrante’s English translator Ann Goldstein, which segued smoothly to reading part of his essay “My Mother, My Translator,” which you can (should!) read in entirety (link provided below.)

This poignant essay begins with a relatively short visit his mother made to Canada. Her son’s first book, 17 Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir, had been published. She had arrived with her own translation into Punjabi of the first of the fourteen short stories contained in his English work.

Mr. Singh was impressed that his mother had so eloquently captured in Punjabi the emotional impact of the story. In six weeks, she had handwritten translations of 13 of the 14 stories but had skipped the 9th. When she mailed it later, her son — the author — was upset, as she had made some specific changes to the story. She insisted the story then should be left out, should he not make her changes! Eventually, they compromised by adding a Translator’s Note.

However, “the 9th” was more her story, and became the catalyst for her to write her own memoirs of a woman born in British-occupied India, who had experienced the 1947 partition creating Pakistan and the 1984 Sikh Massacre. It is now her son Jasmeet who is learning much more of his mother’s life, while translating from Punjabi to English. We look forward to being able to read these memoirs someday!

Mr. Singh also mentioned briefly two of his novels, Chef and Helium. They are perfect reading for gaining deep insight into India, Pakistan and Kashmir, for our season of Cultural Awareness Through Literature.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE FULL ESSAY (Granta.com) and to coincidentally discover a most interesting quarterly and book publisher.

Richard Wagamese: Building bridges with literature

Dan Harasymchuk / CC BY-SA

Doloris shared with us “an author who understood the fundamental role that storytelling can play in building bridges of cultural understanding.” It wasn’t until age twenty-three that Mr. Wagamese reconnected with his own Ojibway (Anishinaabe) people. Fortunately, he gives us all an opportunity to understand them so much more, through his writings.

Richard Wagamese was part of Canada’s 60’s SCOOP when it was common practice to ‘scoop’ newborns from mothers on reserves, placing them with mostly middle-class Canadians of European descent. His parents, victims themselves of a residential school system that “tried to scrape the Indian out of their insides,” (Richard Wagamese) had abandoned their children. At three, he was separated from his siblings and sent to various foster homes before being adopted at nine. At sixteen, he was living on the streets, escaping an abusive home life.

Doloris has written about so eloquently about this important and incredible Canadian indigenous writer: PLEASE CONTINUE TO READ HERE

HERE’S A TRIBUTE by Shelagh Rogers to her “Chosen Brother,” which Doloris recommended.

The Uncommon Reader and other gems by Alan Bennett

Thanks, Betty, for choosing to present Alan Bennett, a perfect end to our entertaining and thought-provoking season of humour, irony and satire!

Alan Bennett 1973 by photographer Allan Warren [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Betty read from the charming novella The Uncommon Reader, wherein Queen Elizabeth gets hooked on reading after chancing upon a mobile library van while walking her corgis. This book had been the first book Betty had read by Alan Bennett, and thereafter she was hooked. After Betty’s presentation, CWLC members are too!

Many of us had seen — if not read — The Lady in the Van, the funny, poignant story about the actual relationship Mr. Bennett developed with a true eccentric. Betty noted that Alan Bennett’s works have been said to be “too English.” Betty would argue that anyone can enjoy them.

READ BETTY’S EXCELLENT SUMMARY HERE TO LEARN SO MUCH MORE.

CHECK HERE for the Wikipedia page and note especially the body of work by this actor, playwright, screenwriter and author, and the numerous awards and nominations. It is awe-inspiring to see how much someone can do in a lifetime — and is still active! .

Liz Howard: Remarkable poet and person

The CWLC webmaster is many steps behind our program in 2019. Not sure Christmas is her best time to get caught up, but she’s trying!

Book cover image from penguinrandomhouse.ca

On April 16, CWLC welcomed Liz Howard, poet and the University of Calgary “Canadian Writer in Residence.” Liz was introduced as a writer of “humility and brilliance” by Caitlin Spencer, Coordinator for the Calgary Distinguished Writers program.

Ms. Howard spoke about her poetic practise, her background and how she became a writer. She grew up off-reserve, in Chapleau, a small northern Ontario logging town. She obtained a B.Sc. in Neuroscience and Psychology from the University of Toronto and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph.

Her poetry reflects the sense of being balanced between the worlds of her Anglophone mother and her First Nations father.

Ms. Howard’s remarkable presentation included readings from her first book, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2016. A too-brief discussion on “the problem with Canada” followed.

Hear and read an excerpt here!

Taken from Robin’s CWLC Minutes, with an addition or two from the Webmaster.

Natalie Meisner Play Dec 9

Masks portraying Greek tragedy/comedy
Buskin & Sock

Here’s another chance to enjoy more from Natalie Meisner, as playwright and actor! The Calgary Public Library downtown is hosting a free play, but with only 40 spots available, it’s worthwhile to book a seat for the 7:00 – 8:30 pm performance. You can reserve seats, if you follow the link below.

CLICK HERE, FOR THE CPL LINK