“I will continue my story of a failed hipster,” Fahim jokes with the crowd at Massawa Café in Edmonton. In the first half of the event “A Place Called Home: Immigrant Writers’ Stories,” he related the differences between his “Hollywood” idea of the writer’s life prior to arriving in North America, and the overwhelming reality of a rigorous Canadian graduate program on a student visa. But now fierce persecution of the blogging community in his home country, Bangladesh, inspires him to find the time to write in digital spaces and to remotely support his fellow bloggers.
Five of the six 2015 Borderlines Writers Circle participants stage a reading and question and answer period as a jointly coordinated event of the WGA and LitFest, Edmonton’s nonfiction festival, on the subject of the “immigrant writer.” Kicking off with a few words from Beryl Scott of the Canadian Multicultural Education Foundation, the event proves to be literary, funny, informative, and thought-provoking.
During the question and answer period, an audience member representing the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, asks the presenters, “Do you find Edmonton to be a welcoming place?” The general response is yes, though Yasser admits that, “For two years I was isolated. I lived in a bubble.” Yasser wrote a piece—a striking literary reflection on aching loneliness and resulting slips into nostalgia—in Arabic for the event and had it professionally translated for an English-speaking audience. He describes for us the bustling sounds of an Egyptian suburb formative in the life of a youth who eventually leaves his homeland for North America, settling in a suburban house in Edmonton where the immense quiet is interrupted only by the on/off of a dull furnace.
When complications forced the Writer-in-Exile program—historically an initiative of PEN Canada, and made possible in Edmonton by a partnership among the University of Alberta Faculty of Arts, Athabasca University, Edmonton Public Library, Edmonton Arts Council, LitFest, and the Canadian Literature Centre, supported by Canada Council for the Arts and administered by the Writers’ Guild of Alberta—to discontinue, the organizations convened to reimagine how local immigrant writers might be supported. Thus, the Borderlines Writers Circle was born and has included four to six participants every year since 2012. Recently, the program has been supported by Edmonton Arts Council, Edmonton Community Foundation, and Alberta Association for Multicultural Education. Creating community and offering professional development are the two main foci of the program.
Massawa Café, open on Sunday especially for the event, is full. Patio chairs are wiped down and placed inside wherever possible. People line the service counter where there is standing room only. Each audience member has their own reasons for hearing immigrant stories, and they’re listening intently.
“Who is an immigrant writer’s audience?,” someone asks from the floor. Alma responds, “I am influenced by the tradition of Spanish writers and I see myself in that tradition.” Alma continues to write in her native language and publish in Mexico. Over the course of her time in the Borderlines Writers Circle, she struggled with translating her work into English with sometimes less than satisfying results. This led to questions of identity: “Who am I when I am writing in English? I look at what I’ve translated and it doesn’t sound like me. And who is an immigrant writer?” In her presentation, Alma cites authors—García Marquez, Witold Gombrowicz, Kundera, Nabokov, Conrad—who either wrote in a language not their mother tongue, or lived in a place not native to them. “Did they consider themselves immigrant writers? Do we?,” Alma asks.
Picking up on Alma’s articulation of her struggle with identity, Marina says, “As an immigrant in a new country, the most important thing, the thing you are conscious of all the time, is language.” Marina gave up on translating her previous work, discovering instead that she could write in English in a different genre. Thus, she writes screenplays in English and continues to write fiction in Russian. Though she feels she is working with “fewer tools” in English, she embraces a both/and strategy rather than choosing one language over another.
After several years of “gathering,” Susana is able to embrace English as a possible language for her poetry. “Chileans are passionate about their literature,” she reminds the audience, “and will engage in any bar fight to defend it!” But to keep things friendly, Susana offers an alternate understanding of the word “immigrant,” one less static and more fluid. She suggests the idea of “a wanderer,” able to pass through all places. Susana has many roles in her life, she says, but “poetry is her homeland.”
In my correspondence with Anamol Mani who was unable to be at the event, he shares that it is not easy to start over and “stand on your own feet.” While political instability and corruption in South Asia was an issue, he primarily left Nepal for the adventure and challenge of finding something new and discovering who he could be in a new context. Now, the characters in his stories reflect the multicultural world he finds himself in, and his message is to never give up one’s fundamental values. Though he continues to struggle with English, he says, “Language is not necessary to feel love… See[ing] life clearly in a little brightness” can also be found in the landscape.
Looking forward, the 2015 and 2016 Borderlines Writers Circles will together create an anthology of their work. It is the hope of the WGA that more immigrant—or rather, wandering—writers will see the Borderlines Writers Circle as a friendly companion as they begin their journey through the complexities of a writing life in Canada.
Thanks to Donna Fong for all images except Massawa Café 2.
Profiles of the 2015 Borderlines Writers Circle participants can be found here.
Julie Robinson coordinates the Borderlines Writers Circle. She is part of the WGA team in the Edmonton office. She usually writes poetry, and periodically teaches Creative Writing at MacEwan School of Continuing Education and King’s University.