Monday, July 16, 2012

Indian Summer Festival closes with a stellar panel

The second annual Indian Summer Festival wound down with a literary panel on the subject of identity. Hal Wake, artistic director of the Vancouver International Writers Festival, did his usual great job as a moderator. The three panelists, all acclaimed novelists with roots in India, and were asked to address the question "Who do you think you are?" (a nod, said Wake, to Alice Munro, though in her story the question is not serious but rhetorical.)

Gurjinder Basran left the land of her birth when she was only 20 months old, moved to England with her family and then came to Canada and grew up in Delta. Part of what drove her to write Everything Was Goodbye was a feeling of betweenness. In the Indian community, she didn't feel Indian enough, and in Western Canadian context, she felt too Indian.

Basran's novel began its life with Mother Tongue Publishing in 2010, and won the BC Book Prize and the Ethel Wilson fiction prize. Subsequently it was picked up by Penguin and re-published in 2012, and became the Chatelaine Magazine Book Club Selection. Ms. Basran's reading and her answers to Wake's provocative questions were thoughtful, intelligent and heartfelt.

Anosh Irani, whose told the audience his given name means immortal, grew up in Bombay, where his grandparents immigrated from Iran. Since he overcame his initial homesickness after coming to Canada in 1998, he considers himself a man with two homelands, and also feels strong ties to his Persian roots. He resists answering questions about identity that have been framed by others, and he sees the Canadian identity as being in a constant state of evolution, with his own identity being a small part of that change.

Ancient cultures like those of India, he says, have strong oral storytelling traditions. When these stories are written down, something is lost and something is gained. Irani has published three novels and a play. A story of religious violence in Bombay, told through the eyes of an orphan, The Song of Kahunsha (2007) was a finalist for the Ethel Wilson and CBC Canada Reads, and has been published in thirteen countries, becoming a bestseller in Canada and Italy. His job as a writer, says Irani, is to disturb. Characters, he added, can lead the writer to abandon the facts, which leads to a higher spiritual or emotional truth. He read from his latest novel, Dahanu Road (2010).

David Chariandy, from Scarborough, Ontario, is a member of the Faculty of English at SFU. He agrees that the ethics of writing serve a higher truth. Calling Toronto a "diaspora capital" for people from the Caribbean, he explained that his mother is black and his father of Indian descent. When his five-year-old son showed signs of Caribbean speech patterns, he was amused but his father was disapproving. Attitudes change with generations.

His comments on identity were interesting. When people ask who he is the answer he gives depends on who's asking, why they're asking, what they want from him. He believes we construct our identities both by remembering and by forgetting. He read a poignant passage from his novel Soucouyant (2007), in which the protagonist's mother is losing her memory:

"She began to excuse herself from the world we had come to know."

The audience asked interesting questions, and the evening was most enjoyable. As I left the auditorium, a Shiamakdance leader tapped my arm to compliment my dancing. He recognized me from the fun Bollywood Grooves session that preceded the panel at SFU Woodward.

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