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Migration – the movement of humans from one place to another with the intention of settling – has been top of mind in recent weeks given certain political changes and policy implementations in certain western countries, in recent months in response to the failure of state in Syria and the outflow of refugees from that region, and in recent years characterized by a heightened sensitivity to the possibility of east-west terrorist attacks.
In Canada, we have been learning over a number of decades, and continue to learn, collectively, what it means to participate in a pluralist, diverse, yet still healthily patriotic society. Perhaps this country is a beacon to others, and perhaps we still have much learning to do. What better way to inform ourselves, on both counts, than to read books and engage in meaningful conversations about these issues of our time?
To increase the depth and breadth of those conversations, we recommend these twelve salient Talon books on the topic of migration, refugees, and the immigrant experience.
1. Shattered Images: The Rise of Militant Iconoclasm in Syria by Fred A. Reed
Our managing editor, Ann-Marie, recommends the books of Fred A. Reed, a respected specialist on politics and religion in the Middle East. She says, “His book Shattered Images has been on my mind throughout the Syrian conflict and gives good background on the rise of militarism there. Reed himself is a refugee from white, middle-class America – Catholic Pasadena, California, to be exact. His memoir Then We Were One: Fragments of Two Lives is the beautifully told tale of his escape from 1960s America and as an intrepid survivor in Islamic communities in Francophone Montreal.”
2. Citizen Suárez by Guillermo Verdecchia
These short stories are about people travelling, wandering, or lost among countries and languages – people caught between the impulse to flee and the desire to belong. Sex, geography, and politics grip these protagonists, demanding promises, compromises, and resolutions. These are stories about power – personal, civic, sexual, filial, political – and how, lubriciously, it slips between the fingers. Quiet, careful, and witty, these stories document and celebrate survival – consolations, complicities, and accommodations in the face of indifference, cruelty, and fear. The characters of these stories are known to the reader, intimately known, because they are revealed to us in the way that only we know ourselves – in those darkest recesses of the desires and fears we imagine but hide from others, and thus, also from those we love.
Talon’s production co-ordinator, Chloë, has just added this Talon book to her own to-read list.
3. dream / arteries by Phinder Dulai
In 1914, the Japanese steamship Komagata Maru set sail for Canada with 376 Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu migrants travelling from Punjab, India. They were refused entry at Vancouver, even though all passengers were British subjects. The ship sat moored in Vancouver’s harbour for two months while courts decided the passengers’ right to access – and while the city’s white citizens lined the pier taunting those onboard. Eventually, Canada’s racist exclusion laws were upheld and the ship was forced to return to India.
Through a hybrid poetics, Phinder Dulai connects these 376 passengers with other New World settler migrants who travelled on the same ship throughout its thirty-six-year history, including to ports of call in Hong Kong, Japan, India, Turkey, Halifax, Montreal, and Ellis Island. By drawing on ship records, nautical maps, passenger manifests, and the rich, detailed record of the Komagata Maru, Dulai demonstrates how the 1914 incident encapsulates a broader narrative of migration throughout the New World.
Spencer, who does much of Talon’s sales and marketing, recommends Dulai’s poems.
4. Nuri Does Not Exist by Sadru Jetha
Our office manager and submissions editor, Vicki, recommends Nuri Does Not Exist – one of her personal favourite Talon books.
Within a swirl of profoundly different but concurrent beliefs and prejudices that seems only nominally Islamic, Nuri is born and comes of age in the bosom of his multicultural family and its community in Zanzibar. As far back as he can remember, he knows that Nuri is not his real name. His grandmother told him as a child that his real name was hidden, to protect him from the evil spirits that lurk everywhere in search of identities to do their awful bidding. We accompany Nuri on his quest to understand how servitude transcends slavery, fealty transcends servitude, and community transcends fealty. Amid a sea of dystopian world literatures haunted by the fractious claims of identity politics, Nuri Does Not Exist is an astonishingly charming collection of linked short stories that engages us with the utterly believable innocence of its Utopian vision.
5. My Name Is Bosnia Madeleine Gagnon
In this novel, Sabaheta is a literature student at the University of Sarajevo when war breaks out in Bosnia-Herzegovina. After her brother is taken from the family by armed thugs and her mother descends into madness, she goes into the forest with her father to join the guerrillas, where she dresses as a boy and fights side-by-side with the men.
When her father is killed in combat, Sabaheta gives him a makeshift funeral and vows one day to leave her homeland and seek a country where she can pursue her studies and live in peace. Although she is not an observant Muslim, she decides once again to wear the traditional headscarf, and changes her name to Bosnia, making her way alone to Sarajevo to reunite with her friends. After many months, having burned every available piece of furniture to keep warm, they are forced to burn their books, their most precious possessions. Chapter by chapter, they consign each book to memory before setting it alight, and then recite it by heart in front of the fire.
The war continues to take its deadly toll on those close to her, and Bosnia finally decides to leave the genocide of her homeland. She makes a new life in Canada, where she finds a measure of happiness. My Name Is Bosnia is Madeleine Gagnon’s celebration of the power of the imagination to heal and remake our lives.
6. Amigo’s Blue Guitar by Joan MacLeod
Those of us who live in safer countries can learn much from refugees as well. So does one young Canadian in Joan MacLeod’s play, Amigo’s Blue Guitar. In this play, a college student’s life is given meaning when he chooses to sponsor Elias, a Salvadoran refugee, as a class project. When Elias arrives, his hosts Sander and his family learn what it means and feels to be a refugee and how to relate to someone who has endured such intense personal grief. The warmth and humour of the characters invite us to embrace the situation – to be at once moved and threatened by it – and to consider how we ourselves would react.
7. The Refugee Hotel by Carmen Aguirre
Two events gave birth to this play: the 1998 arrest of Augusto Pinochet by the Spanish courts and the 1995 death of Aguirre’s uncle, who drank himself to death on Vancouver’s skid row, never able to return victorious to his country. It has taken decades of silence for Aguirre to understand and come to terms with her family’s experience as refugees and exiles: “The few times we spoke about it to other people, we were accused of being pathological liars and being crazy,” she says of those years.
Set in a rundown hotel in 1974, only months after the start of the infamous Pinochet regime, The Refugee Hotel introduces eight Chilean refugees, who struggle to decide whether or not ﬂeeing their homeland means they have abandoned their friends and responsibilities. More than a dark comedy about a group of Chilean refugees who arrive in Vancouver after Pinochet’s coup, this play is Carmen Aguirre’s attempt to give voice to refugee communities from all corners of the globe.
8. Jabber by Marcus Youssef
High school, like no other social space, throws together people of all histories and backgrounds, and young people must decide what they believe in and how far they are willing to go to defend their beliefs. Inside a veritable pressure cooker, they negotiate cross-cultural respect and mutual understanding. Marcus Youssef’s play, Jabber, does its part to challenge appearances – and the judgments people make based on those appearances.
Like many outgoing young women, Fatima feels rebellious against parents she sees as strict, but perhaps more so, because it just so happens that she is Egyptian-born and wears a hijab. When anti-Muslim graffiti appears on the walls of her school, Fatima transfers to a new school. The guidance counsellor there, Mr. E., does his best to help Fatima fit in, but despite his advice she starts an unlikely friendship with Jorah, who has a reputation for anger issues. Maybe, just maybe, Fatima and Jorah start to, like, like each other …
(Also on Meta-Talon: Read the scene in which Fatima and Jorah first meet.)
9. Cosmophilia by Rahat Kurd
In Cosmophilia, Rahat Kurd explores her Kashmiri and Islamic background. Of this book, Rita Donovan wrote, “Rarely have I seen the purpose or importance of art better or more beautifully portrayed than in the Cosmophilia sequence.” Meredith Quartermain described Kurd’s work as “exquisitely stitched together; full of all the things that really matter.” The emotionally powerful collection follows the elaborate, unexpected turns of the poet’s imagination, enlisting intricate details of memory and language and the occasional plain truth – “the hard solitude of the maker.” Cosmophilia translates multiple glittering facets of Muslim culture into, and reflects back from, the immediacy of embodied, urban Canadian experience. Cosmophilia is comfortable in its discomfort; its sadness is adorned in beauty.
10. Reading Sveva bu Daphne Marlatt
Talk about the healing power of art! Marlatt does, in her poetic responses to Sveva Caetani, an Italian émigré who grew up in Vernon, British Columbia.
Daughter of an Italian prince, leftist, and scholar of Islam, Sveva grew up with the multilingual and highly cultured European traditions of her parents who moved to Vernon in 1921, when Fascism was on the rise in Italy. At age eighteen, after her father’s death in 1939, Sveva was forced into home-seclusion for twenty-five years with her grieving mother. When her mother died, she entered the community of Vernon and flourished as a high school teacher and respected painter. Her life experiences took the form of an extensive series of dry-brush paintings modelled on the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as poems and philosophical commentary.
Bringing her own perspective as an immigrant and as a woman, Marlatt illuminates the life of this forgotten female artist whose work is a testament to the struggle of the female artist and the search for a sense of belonging.
A double recommendation: a play and its sequel!
The Adventures of Ali & Ali and the aXes of Evil is an elaborate agitprop theatrical collaboration in which the internal contradictions and duplicitous double-speak of the “war on terror” are exposed as the propaganda vehicles for the neo-colonialism of the west that they are. “Ali Hakim” and “Ali Ababwa,” refugees from the imaginary country “Agraba,” attempt to seduce their audience into providing them with food, refuge, security, freedom, and the material benefits of western consumer society, failing miserably at every step. This political satire is not for the faint of heart.
A few years later, following the election of U.S. president Barack Obama in 2008, the team revisited the hilarious characters in a sequel, Ali & Ali: The Deportation Hearings, in which collective optimism for a more tolerant, peaceful, and co-operative post-Bush world has spread to Canada – and to the backroom of Salim’s Falafel Shoppe in Toronto. There, Ali Hakim and Ali Ababwa, refugee entertainers from the fictitious, war-torn country of Agraba, are inspired to write a stage play in celebration of the new president’s message of “hope and change.” The premiere of their Yo Mama, Osbama! (or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Half-Black President) halts abruptly when an RCMP constable arrives at the theatre and arrests the pair for its financial ties to the Agrabanian People’s Front, an alleged “terrorist organization” on the Canadian government’s watch list. In the midst of this biting comedy, serious questions are raised about the cost for some when we endeavour to protect the “freedoms” of others – something that has become top of mind again in light of recent policy changes down south.
At first glance, Rossi’s autobiographical trilogy of plays tells a classic story of immigrant families, of the lives they build in the new world, and the lives they leave behind in the old. But there is something more at play in Hellfire Pass than the conflict of a nostalgia for a romanticized past confronting the excitement of a brighter future. After World War II, decorated Italian war hero Silvio confronts the father who left him before the war; which of Eduardo’s families is “legitimate” – the one he abandoned in Italy or the one he raised in America? And can Silvio attain the legitimacy he considers his due without destroying the members of both families?
Carmela’s Table finds Silvio settled in a new suburb of Montreal with his wife, Carmela, their three children and his mother, applying for immigrant status. Surrounded by other Italian immigrants in his new community, Silvio processes the horrors of the war – sometimes lashing out at his family and neighbours and mystifying his children. In the end, Silvio is forced to understand that to have consistently chosen not to act on what he has always known has also been a choice – one that now finally threatens to overwhelm and destroy his family.
In the final installment, The Carpenter, Silvio’s life comes to an end – but not without a fight. As events from Silvio’s past come back to torment him, his hauntingly staged hallucinations grow more frequent, his moments of lucidity become fewer and fewer. Set in the early 2000s, fifty years after the war and in the midst of a family now well established in Canada, we watch Silvio’s son, Luciano, struggle with the process of writing the very story we are watching; this is the trilogy’s one overt touch of post-modernism, and it reminds us of the power of art in reconciliation and overcoming trauma.
These twelve Talon books on the topic of migration, refugees, and the immigrant experience are only a few among the many voices from the margin that we represent and have published over the past fifty years. More is yet to come. This fall, look for Anima by playwright and novelist Wajdi Mouawad and Wayside Sang by poet Cecily Nicholson, among many other excellent literary writers.