Home: Stories Connecting Us All is a celebratory anthology of multicultural stories edited by Tololwa Mollel and assistant editor Scott Sabo. Several Edmonton and provincial organizations initiated the compilation and publication of this e-book founded on the belief that sharing stories is a way of addressing issues that many newcomers to Canada face. “Perhaps sharing our stories is the first step to reconciliation to a new place or belonging; to feel at home; to develop empathy for what others had to go through on their journey to get here; a place many of us take for granted.” (from the introduction, pg. 16)
A grand total of eighteen (18!) contributors are current or former WGA members (I’ve listed them at the end) many of whom are alumni of the Borderlines Writers Circle. The stories are honest and wise: “to discern a person’s life you must know their language, but it is not a condition of loving them,” says Anamol Mani, one of the authors. And some will make you cry.
I asked four WGA authors to give us greater insight into their contribution. Here are their words of wisdom:
Julie: In your personal story we see your heart change from fear to forgiveness and understanding, and your tormentor’s heart change from the darkness of harm to the light of caring. I was struck by the line: “as the hurt rises, I remind myself of the other parts of the story.” Does this “other side of the story” factor into your writing, and are there conditions in which stories are best received and shared to effect transformation?
Natasha: It’s tempting to be reductive with characters—to have the good guys wearing white hats and the bad guys, black—and have a story with a Hollywood happy ending. Real life, however, tells us a different tale. Sometimes the bad guys can be empathetic and relatable. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much that person loves animals or how well they treat their mother, they’re still the person who is going to hurt you. It’s the same thing with the happy endings in our lives. Sometimes, they’re just endings, and we choose to make them happy. Since story-telling is about reflecting life, it’s important to me to always factor in “the other side of the story,” because that’s where the gap resides, the space for knowledge, reflection, and experience. That’s the place, I think, where we find a better understanding of ourselves and each other.
As for the second question, I suspect most of us have had the “whoops, that was not a good time to have shared this story,” moment. However, in the larger scope, I don’t know if perfect conditions exist, or if we have to make them. I think that’s where the importance of reading/knowing your audience comes into play, where we look and gauge energy, openness, and tailor—not the content of the story—but how we tell that story.
Julie: At first, the unbearable cold and the inability to work in your profession clouded your hope of a better life in Edmonton, but two things turned this around: fathering children here who embraced Edmonton as home, and remaining connected to the language and literary tradition of your homeland while learning to read and embrace the Canadian literary tradition. You write, “My involvement in literary culture helped to strengthen further my bond to Edmonton, and gave me a growing sense of belonging in the Canadian society.” Eventually, you became comfortable translating works, such as Erin Mouré’s poetry and your own writing, from one language to the other. Can you say more about how important it was to stay connected to the Arabic language to maintain a sense of yourself, and whether embracing both literary traditions has impacted the writing you do today?
Maitham: It is very important for me to stay connected to my mother tongue as it is the factory from which I can access the images I have stored in my memory. Arabic words ignite these images in my mind, whereas English words are just sounds with translated meanings. No matter how far I advance with my reading and writing in English, I still use Arabic language to develop my thoughts/ideas. That is, the process of writing in Arabic is faster and easier than English. When writing in the English language I must take the extra step of translating my words. Furthermore, beside my works-in-progress (in both languages), I continue to read in Arabic as a way to ground me and keep me connected to my community.
Yes, embracing both literary traditions has impacted the writing I do today. Generally, embracing different literary traditions (as I have done with the bilingualism) is very beneficial to a writer. It enhances the writer’s knowledge, and helps expose him/her to different styles, subject matters, and techniques. All in all, I feel that embracing the English language has helped me grow as an Arabic writer and reader.
Julie: You relocated to Edmonton to pursue education, leaving your husband and young daughter in China. As a result, your immigration experience has been overlaid with a sense of conflicting values, namely, making the best decisions possible for your child, and pursuing a career. Eventually, your husband and daughter joined you. You write that your daughter was “an 8-year-old suddenly ripped out of all the comfort and pampering of home and dropped into a new life, a new culture, a new language.” But over the years your daughter has harnessed the opportunities here and you have watched her acquire a strong sense of independence. How did it feel to come to the realization that she is flourishing in spite of the uprooting, and what advice do you have for women (and men) struggling between recreating home and living out the decision to come to Canada in the first place?
Leilei Chen: The quote in your question represents my hindsight of the challenges Sarah encountered in Canada at the moment when the motherly sense of guilt devoured me. Actually, when deciding to bring Sarah to Edmonton, I was full of optimism, believing that I was offering my daughter a good opportunity to learn a new language and a new culture. The later realization of her vibrant growth in spite of the challenges of living in a new country gives me tremendous joy and contentment. More importantly, it sets me free from the ideology of motherhood that had tormented me, which you can see from “Cleaning Sarah’s Room.” Her growth in the new country enlightens me, allowing me to think critically about the kind of maternity that had shackled me and, consequently, to come to terms with myself. I’m grateful that Canada offers the space for both of us to grow together.
My best advice for those struggling between recreating home and living out the decision to come to Canada is: believe in your choice. Embrace your new country by being an active member of the community where you live and where you work. Do not be afraid of learning new things or interacting with people who are different. Do not be afraid of introducing and sharing your home culture with them. While it can be a great challenge to live out the decision to move to Canada and to reestablish yourself here, you also enjoy the privilege of speaking at least two languages and the fun of knowing two cultures. Have faith in Canada as a country that will offer a position for anyone who embraces it as home.
Julie: Your story in the e-book is about an encounter with a cab driver in Inuvik that left you with more questions than answers, and this helped you recognize how many untold stories exist among Canadians. You write, “…Amin got me thinking actively of Canada, this country consisting of a visible and invisible tangle of heritages unified by our desire to co-exist and to grow together.” You also say that our stories imprint one another. Can you say more about the power of story and how we can validate and celebrate one another?
Tololwa: Stories show who we are and what we are about. Knowing each other’s stories is tantamount to knowing one another better. Knowing one another better is a way of celebrating the sum total of what makes a community a community, made up of diverse human beings who operate according to the mysterious laws and principles that brought them into being and made them what they are. Knowing each other through stories that make us who we are, is a way of affirming our existence to each other as rounded and complex human beings.
J: You were also the lead editor for the collection. Did you encounter any surprises during that process?
T: Oh yes, I did. That’s what kept me going. I was surprised at how eager people were to share their stories once I found a way to motivate them, and they discovered, through my excitement, that the world may actually like to hear their stories. I was also surprised at how trusting people were with their stories. The majority of the writers were great about me editing their stories. Some of them were just happy for me to ‘fix’ their stories for they either didn’t have the time or the inclination to writer draft after draft to make the story presentable.
I was also pleasantly surprised at the eagerness of professional and serious writers whom I approached, to contribute to the project without being paid.
J. Do you have words of wisdom for anyone considering putting together an anthology?
T: Yes. Give yourself months to do a project like this.
For me I had a short time, less than three months, due to funding issues, to do everything all at once: promoting the project; soliciting stories and acknowledging them; preliminary reading of them and working with writers to submit viable drafts; first and second round of editing; relaying edits to the writers and gauging and dealing with their response to them; finalizing the stories for editing; proofreading and preparing the stories for the e-book designer; correcting proofs from the e-book designer, etc.
That was too much work to do within the short time I had available. Ideally the project should have been divided into phases.
Other WGA contributors: Mila Bongco-Philipzig, Marty Chan, Alison Clarke, Lisa Dublin, Luciana Erregue-Sacchi, Shimelis Gebremichael, Savithri Machiraju, Anamol Mani, Peter Midgley, Kate Rittner-Werkman, Asma Sayed, Marilyn Scott, Alice Major, Nermeen Youssef