Title: Miroirs et mirages
Author: Monia Mazigh
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Miroirs et mirages is the first novel by Tunisian Canadian Monia Mazigh, who is better known for her work as a human rights activist. Mazigh came to Canada in 1991 to study Finance in Montreal. She subsequently met and married her husband, Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, started a family, and moved to Ottawa. When her husband was wrongfully rendered to Syria in the hysteria that followed 9/11, she campaigned successfully for his return. She has written a memoir about her struggle, Hope and Despair, which has been translated into English.
Miroirs et mirages is quite a departure from her activism as the scope of the novel is relatively small; it simply follows the sometimes intersecting lives of several women living in Ottawa. But the novel is delightful in its focus on these women’s inner lives, their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the many challenges they face. There is Emma, a Tunisian, who has fled her emotionally abusive husband and now has to figure out how to rebuild her life with her young daughter in toe. There is Samia, a Palestinian, who enjoys finding new ways to spend the money of her husband, a businessman working in Dubai. There is Samia’s daughter, Lama, a university student, who is trying to figure out just where she fits in her family, her community, and Canada. There is Sally, a second-generation Pakistani Canadian university student, who has taken to wearing the niqab (face veil) much to the chagrin of her dotting parents. There is Louise, a French Canadian university student, who has converted to Islam and hopes to marry the man who introduced her to the faith. Then there is Alice, Louise’s mother, who is appalled by her daughter’s conversion and fears she may be losing the most important person in her life.
The title Miroirs et mirages illustrates the overall theme of the novel as the reader explores how the inner struggles of one character reflect those of another and how several of the characters are struggling with the illusions they have constructed in their attempts to create new identities for themselves.
I greatly enjoyed reading the novel for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it is set in Ottawa. Ottawa is probably one of the most neglected cities in Canadian Literature with few Canadian writers of renown finding it worth writing about-exceptions being Black Canadian writer Andre Alexis and classic Canadian Children’s author Brian Doyle. It was refreshing to read a Canadian novel which describes locations I know and explores the fascinating interactions across culture, language, and religion which are possible in our rather unassuming Nation’s Capital.
Mazigh is a striking new talent in Francophone Canadian fiction who writes with confidence and demonstrates a versatility in the creation and handling of her diverse characters. The reader sometimes only catches glimpses of these women’s worlds yet these glimpses are enough to create powerful impressions of these women’s histories and personalities.
I had the opportunity to attend the launch of Mazigh’s novel in Ottawa at Librairie du centre, a French-Language bookstore on 435 Donald Street . The majority of those in attendance were French Canadians who had read and greatly enjoyed the novel. They asked probing questions about the theme and “message” of the novel. Mazigh asserted that the novel has no “message”; it is not a polemic. Since that event, I have been thinking seriously about the importance of fiction that allows us to “walk in the shoes” of people we may never meet in real life. Fiction, or I should say good fiction, is not polemical, it does not provide easy answers but instead shows how there often are no easy answers and the world is more often full of shades of grey instead of stark Black and White.
At a time when there is so much debate around the presence of Muslim communities in Canada, particularly Quebec, Mazigh’s novel should definitely be welcomed because it simply allows readers to see the diversity and complexity of Muslim women’s lives and experiences. It certainly does not depict an idealized or romanticized view of Muslim women’s lives, as a great deal of the polemical writings by Canadian Muslim women seem to do as a form of resistance to Islamphobia. As Suzanne Giguere writes in her review of the novel in Le Devoir:
À l’heure où les débats autour du voile ne font pas l’unanimité — le voile est perçu par plusieurs intellectuels comme un symbole de l’oppression de la femme, un emblème politique —, Monia Mazigh refuse d’ériger des barrières et tente de créer avec son roman un espace de dialogue. À la fois analyse sociale et peinture intimiste, Miroirs et mirages évoque les questions identitaires auxquelles les femmes immigrantes de religion musulmane sont sans cesse confrontées. Leur situation a souvent été évoquée dans des ouvrages à portée sociologique qui ne prennent bien souvent qu’insuffisamment en compte les données humaines que retranscrivent ces témoignages, ce que permet l’oeuvre romanesque.
The novel points to some quite serious social problems facing Muslim communities in diaspora, some of these problems, like domestic violence, are common to Canadian society as a whole, some, like the conflicts which religious fundamentalism can cause within a family, although perhaps shared by other faith communities, are more particular to Canada’s Muslim communities. By exploring these issues through fiction, Mazigh is able to avoid the many pitfalls we see when these issues are tackled in the form of polemics, which are often defensive and reactionary. She simply presents the reader a situation to reflect on.
Mazigh’s novel isn’t just about Muslim women. My favourite character in the novel is Alice. Alice disapproval of her daughter Louise’s conversion to Islam comes from a variety of experiences and beliefs which are far more complex than simple Islamophobia. The struggles of Quebecois women of Alice’s generation are not well understood outside of Quebec or by newcomers to the province, but it is clear that Mazigh has worked to try to understand women like Alice and this comes through in her writing.
I highly recommend the novel for anyone who enjoys writing about women’s lives. It is currently only available in French but I encourage those of you who are bilingual but have never read French for pleasure to check it out as the French is quite easy to read. The movement to create a Bilingual Canada was aimed at bridging the social and cultural divides between English and French Canadians and facilitating dialogue between these “Two Solitudes“. The fact that many new Canadians like Mazigh are also writing in French should make it even clearer that using the language to explore other people’s worlds through fiction is crucial to building a more socially inclusive and integrated Canada.
Monia Mazigh’s Blog
Review in French by Le Devoir available online
Audio Interview (2011) in French with Radio Canada International available online
Audio Interview (2011) in French with Radio Canada available online
Black Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill has won international acclaim with his novel The Book of Negroes but my review is of his first novel, Some Great Thing, first published in 1992 and reissued in 2009 by Harper Collins Canada.
I chose to read Some Great Thing while travelling by bus to Winnipeg, where the novel is set. This was my first trip to Manitoba and I had a 33 hour bus ride to survive. I easily lost myself in Some Great Thing, with its array of contrasting characters, its insights on Canadian local media, and the cultural context of Canada in the early 1980s.
The central character of the novel is 25 year old Mahatma Grafton, a light-skinned Black Canadian who has reluctantly taken a job as a journalist with The Winnipeg Herald after taking a Double Major in History and French at Laval University and a Masters in Economics at the University of Toronto. Hill describes Mahatma as:
…an intellectual bum. No. He was worse than a bum. He was an M.A. graduate over his head in student loans. He had no particular job skills and no goals in life. What thinking citizen would place his life, or his liberty, or even his bank savings in the hands of an economics major? What Mahatma had discovered about journalism was this: it was the only pseudo-profession left in the world that still hired bums.
Mahatma has also had to move back in with his father, Ben Grafton, a widower and a former Railroad Porter, who he hasn’t kept in touch with during his studies. It was his father who decided to name his son Mahatma, feeling that it was necessary that his son have the name of a great man.It is been who urges his son to do “Some Great Thing”, which is what African American pioneers who came to the Canadian West were urged to do. Ben Grafton’s past as a Railroad Porter is a tribute to the Black presence in early 20th Canadian History, unlike the US, Canada has a relatively small Black population of recent origin. Black Railroad Porters, often originally from the US, worked and sometimes settled in Canadian cities like Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal. In the novel, we get to learn about Ben Grafton’s and his fellow Railroad Porters experiences of racism. The relationship between Ben and Mahatma as they rediscover each other is subtly developped throughout the novel. The novel opens with Ben and Mahatma’s first meeting. Hill writes:
His son was born in 1957 at the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg, before men had to start watching their wives give birth. Asked about it years later, Ben Grafton replied, “What’s a man to do in a place like that, except grow all bug-eyed and wobbly and make a shining fool of himself?”
On that windless January night, Ben Grafton didn’t enter the delivery room. He didn’t consider it. He waited until Louise was “finished,” poked his head in the door and shouted “atta way Lulu!” Wearing a blue woolen cap that stopped short of his huge brown ears, he followed two nurses who took the infant to the nursery. Ben Grafton was not invited. Nor was he self-conscious. He was a forty-three-year-old railroad porter who had coped with all sorts of nonsense in the past and had long stopped wondering what people thought of his being this or that. They turned to tell him he couldn’t stay in the nursery. He said he wanted to look at his little man.
The novel traces his journey from a cynical, apathetic, reluctant journalist to a passionate writer who wants to stand for something. Many of the issues Mahatma becomes passionate about are related to Winnipeg and Canada’s history in the early 80s. For example, Winnipeg has a significant French-Canadian population who consider themselves marginalized. French-English disputes become fodder for The Winnipeg Herald and Mahatma, who unlike many of his colleagues, is bilingual, befriends with French Language Rights activists and their community’s plight. Mahatma also covers the many triumphs and tragedies of Jack Corbett, a disabled welfare recipent who becomes a public figure through is protests against having his welfare payments cut. Mahatma also encounters a Cameroonian journalist, Yoyo, who makes a hero out of Jack Corbett in Cameroon. In an interview, Hill says that Yoyo is his favourite character in the novel:
But my favourite character in Some Great Thing is Yoyo, for his complete astonishment at the silly, inexplicable ways that we live in rich, developed nations. I like the way his being a foreign visitor to Manitoba offers the reader a fresh lens through which to see Canada and its foibles.
I particularly was fascinated with Betts, the editor of The Winnipeg Herald, and his obsession with the city’s mayor, Novak, who he believes is a communist and therefore will not be allowed to pass through the United States. This novel is set during the Cold War and the paranoia around alleged communist affliations reminds me of what we are living through now with the “War on Terror” and the media’s obsession with “Islamists and Muslim Radicalization”. This makes the novel particularly timely.
Many aspects of the novel are obviously autobiographical, as Hill says:
I could never have written Some Great Thing without having worked as a reporter in Winnipeg. The characters and their flight paths are of my invention; it is truly a work of fiction. But working in a newsroom and pursuing stories daily for two years in Winnipeg offered experiences—sad and hilarious, personal and professional—that made it possible for me to imagine the novel. After I had been away from the world of journalism for a year or two, I had enough emotional distance to look back and begin to concoct Some Great Thing.
Mahatma was urged by his father to do “some great thing” in life, and my own father certainly did the same. I stepped into the world of newspapers feeling somewhat cynical, as does Mahatma. And we both moved from that initial cynicism into a place of personal engagement with journalism. The novel does reflect my voice and its construction reveals the way my mind operates, so in the deepest sense it is autobiographical.
Hill faced obstacles in getting his first novel published because it was set in Winnipeg, but, as he states, there was no where else this story could take place:
The first time I sent the novel in draft form to a prospective agent, I was turned down and encouraged to consider setting the story in a more interesting place than Winnipeg. The argument went that if I set it in Toronto or New York, it would no longer be seen as a regional novel. To me, this was hokum. It suggested that a novel is “regional” if it is set in Winnipeg, but of global, universal reach if it is set in a big metropolis. But Winnipeg is pretty well the only city in Canada where this novel could unfold. The novel gives Winnipeg a communist mayor in the 1980s. What Canadian city, other than Winnipeg, could have had a communist mayor at that time? And the particular French-English conflict that provides the socio-political backdrop for Mahatma Grafton’s growth on the job could only have taken place in Manitoba. I do not like to think of Some Great Thing as a regional novel. I prefer to think of it as a novel set in a specific time and place— Winnipeg, in the 1980s, during a crisis over the constitutional rights of French Canadians in English Canada—that will, if it works successfully as fiction, appeal to a wide swath of readers. I love novels that are anchored in specific times and situations. This doesn’t make them regional. It makes them real.
Lawrence Hill’s Website
Lawrence Hill Discusses Some Great Thing (interview available online)
Browse Inside Some Great Thing on the Harper Collins Canada Website
I recently just got back from Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was my first time visiting this province so in honour of my trip, I decided to write a profile of one of the province’s first Black settlers. The Black population of the Canadian West grew quite slowly in the 19th and 20th Century, with most migrants coming from the United States. One of the first and best documented Blacks to migrate and settle in Manitoba was William S. A. Beal aka Billy Beal.
Billy Beal was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on January 16th 1874, the son of Loretta H. Freeman and Charles R. Beal. Billy Beal grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota where he graduated from high school. Minnesota was a region where the Manitoba government was focusing its immigration advertising at the time. Beal immigrated to Canada in 1906 where he worked in the Swan River area of Manitoba as a steam engineer at a saw mill. The area was mainly settled by Icelandic, Scandinavian and German immigrants. Beal describes life on a pioneer homestead in the region as follows (I have made spelling corrections to the original):
The idea of taking a homestead did not occur to me at that time. It was in the fall of 1906 that one of my acquaintances asked me to spend the winter on his homestead. That was in the district that is called Lancaster now. We went out there to fix up the house and things because he had a wife to share his good fortune with him. The scrub was so dense out there that we had to climb a tree to see much of his possessions. I had originally come from the city and I thought a man must have an awful grudge against a woman to take her out in the woods like that.
Unlike many other Black immigrants to the Canadian West, Beal was not initially interested in building a homestead, but he soon changed his mind under the influence of men at the sawmill and a book he read. He decided to settle in the Big Woody region. He writes:
Two years after at the sawmill where I worked most of the men were homesteaders and there was nothing but homestead talk every evening in camp. They would set around the table talked and joked each other about their braking and clearing. […] This and a book that I read that summer inspired me to try homesteading myself. So in the fall when the summer season at the mill was over, I applied at the land office in Swan River for a permit to file on a homestead. The only land then available near Swan River was ten miles North West of town some new land just opened for settlement. It was not then even included in the municipality and I was the first one to locate there. This was in 1908. It was very discouraging looking then, all heavy bush or rather dense trees like a forest and I had to clear and break fifteen acres in three years. There were no roads of course of any kind. Then too, there was the Woody River between it and town and no bridge. I had to cut a road in to haul material in to build my first shack.
But instead of focusing on clearing his land and farming, he started building a library. He collected catalogues from publishing houses and sent away for hundreds of books including the works of William Shakespeare, the Bible, Scientific Literature, Astronomy, and Philosophy. Unfortunately, Beal’s library was lost in 1911, burned to the ground in a spring fire which swept through the Swan River Valley. After this disaster, Beal focused on farming but gave it up in 1916 and returned to working for local lumber companies, just returning to his homestead on off seasons.
Beal was something of a renaissance man. Beal even built a homemade telescope out of lengths of stove pipe and rolled metal from tin cans. Some even believed he had medical training and he even assisted in giving inoculations in the diphtheria scare of 1915, the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the smallpox outbreak of 1920.
In 1912, he was involved in the formation of the Big Woody School District and was elected its first Secretary Treasurer, a position that he held for 37 years. Beal helped to establish a circulating library within the school system. He was the first secretary of the Big Woody Sunday School. He also formed a literary society and debating teams, directed plays, and organized poetry readings and musical concerts.
On top of all this he was also an amateur photographer. Most of his photographs are of people from the Swan River Valley, pictured in their homes of outside in natural settings so that the photographs do not look staged. A selection of his photographs were featured in the self-published 1988 amateur biography entitled Billy: The Life and Photography of William S. A. Beal Beal by Robert Barrow and Leigh Hambly.
Beal was a life-long bachelor. After he retired, he moved to the volunteer run Eventide home in the Pas in 1955. He died penniless on January 25th 1968 at 94 years of age. He was buried in an unmarked grave in The Pas Cemetery.
Very little is known about Beal’s life before he immigrated to Manitoba. Beal wrote an 8 page memoir in the 1950s but it begins, unlike most memoirs, with his immigration to Manitoba, not his birth. The memoir begins:
I came up to this country during Laurier’s land boom and effort was being made to settle the west by giving every man a “homestead” for $10.00, three years residence and fifteen acres cleared and broke. I did not come to this part of the country to homestead then but to follow my trade of engineer as there [were] many saw mills being operated.
Barrow and Hambly, who wrote Beal’s biography, interviewed neighbours, friends, and aquaintances of Beal’s in order to learn more about his early life. Much that they uncovered was only rumour and speculation as Beal didn’t tell many people about his past. According to Tom and Mary Barrow, two acquaintances of Beal’s, Beal immigrated because he was the dark-skinned child of a family that could pass as white, in an interview they state: “Well, he was a—he had Negro blood in him and it really came out in him, and his family, I guess, persuaded him to come up to this country so they wouldn’t be embarrassed having this fella who showed so much Negro in the family.”
Filmmakers Ernesto Griffiths and Winston Washington Moxam have written and produced a feature film about Beal’s life, entitled Billy. Griffiths stars in the film, playing Billy Beal, and Moxam directs. The film’s webpage on Telefilm Canada provides the following description for the film:
In 1967, a young journalist arrives at a retirement home to interview Billy, a 94-year-old black man. Billy tells him the story of his eventful life dating back to his early recollections of when he left the United States to move to northern Manitoba. He recalls his struggle as a homesteader, the racism he endured, his love of a woman, and his gift of photography.
Billy is the story of one man’s constant search for acceptance.
The filmmakers received the 2010 Human Rights Commitment Award of Manitoba for their film.
The Black Prairies: History, Subjectivity, Writing by Karina Joan Vernon (thesis available online)
Billy Beal: One of the First Black Pioneers in Manitoba by G. Siamandas (article available online)
Profile of Beal by The Manitoba Historical Society available online
Webpage for the film Billy on the Telefilm Canada website
Interview with Ernesto Griffith about the film Billy Beal available online
Trailer for the film Billy Beal available online
Fil Fraser is a broadcaster, journalist, biographer, television program director, human rights activist and a radio, television and feature film producer. His career has spanned over half a century. He is the first Black Canadian broadcaster. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1991 for his contributions to Canadian broadcasting and journalism. He is currently based out of Edmonton.
Born to Caribbean parents in a French Canadian community in the East End of Montreal in 1932. Fraser experienced racism as a child growing up. He was called a maudit négre and often had to fight his way home from school. However, he believes that he learned coping skills that allowed him to feel comfortable within in mainstream (white) Canadian society.
Fraser began his career in Canadian broadcasting as a teenager when he hosted the afteroon teen program Club 800 on Radio CJAD. He went on to work for Foster Hewitt’s CKFH in Toronto in 1951. He later worked in radio in Timmins and Barrie, Ontario.
In 1958, Fraser headed west. He moved to Regina in 1958, and worked in public relations in both government and private sectors before founding and publishing, in 1960, the Regina Weekly Mirror, which chronicled the introduction of Medicare by the Tommy Douglas Government. Between 1963 and 1969, Fraser began working in the field of public education on the issue of addictions. He was the Director of Education at the Saskatchewan Bureau on Alcoholism, and in 1965, he moved to Edmonton to work in the same capacity with the Division of Alcoholism of the Alberta Department of Health, now known as the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC).
But Fraser continued to work in media. In 1969, he became the program director of Canada’s first educational television station, the Metropolitan Edmonton Educational Television Association (MEETA), forerunner of Alberta’s ACCESS TV NETWORK, which went on the air in March, 1970. He was the “co-anchor” for CBC Edmonton’s supper hour news and public affairs program from 1971 to 1973. In 1974, Fraser got to host his own show, the Fil Fraser Show, on ITV Television. During that same year, he founded the Alberta Film Festival, now known as the Alberta Motion Picture Industries Association (AMPIA) awards. he same period, he formed his own production company and wrote, produced and directed several educational films for television. After founding his own production company and writing, directing and producing several educational films for television, Fraser produced one of Canada’s most successful feature films, Why Shoot the Teacher? starring Bud Cort (Harold and Maude). In 1979, Fraser founded the Banff International Television Festival.
Fraser rarely experienced racism in his career. As he explains:
Being Black was rarely an issue in my career. There were only two occasions on which I faced overt racism, and I didn’t know about the first until long after it happened. I was working at CKBB, a radio station in Barrie, Ontario in the 1950s as the Sports Director and Assistant News Editor, doing the play-by-play for the Barrie Flyers hockey games. Apparently one of the sponsors didn’t like the idea of a “Black boy” doing his commercials and told Ralph Snelgrove, who owned the station, to get rid of me. It was years later, when I was being inducted into the quarter century club of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, that Snelgrove told me about the incident. He told the sponsor to take his business elsewhere – and never mentioned it to me.
I was in Saskatchewan in the early 1960s, publishing the Regina Weekly Mirror, when a landlord refused to rent an apartment to me because of my colour. I called up the province’s attorney general, who had just passed a fair accommodation practices act and told him about it. The case was the first to be prosecuted by the legislation. The company offered me an apartment, which I declined.
However, Fraser has fought against racism within Canadian society. He was appointed in August 1987, to the Canadian Multiculturalism Council by the then Honourable David Crombie, and was Chair of the Council’s media committee. On behalf of the Federal Minister for Multiculturalism, the Honourable Gerry Weiner, Fraser organized and chaired a National Forum on Broadcasting and Multiculturalism, “Reflections in the Electronic Mirror”, which took place in Toronto in May, 1988. Fraser served as the Chief Commissionar of the Alberta Human Rights Commission from 1989 to 2002. As he writes:
But I have always been keenly aware of the subtle racism than animates so much of Canadian society, and I have very good radar to detect it. When I saw racism in my own life, I simply refused to tolerate what I perceived and volubly identified as ignorance on the part of the perpetrators. At the same time I was angered by the racism faced by other members of the Black community, and, as a journalist and later as Chief Commissioner of the Alberta Human Rights Commission, spoke out against it.
In 1990, Fraser was appointed to sit as a member on The Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, a Federal Royal Commission also known as the “Spicer” Commission, named after its chairperson, Keith Spicer. Established on the advice of then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the commission was a response to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. Its goal was to discuss the future of Canada in the face of linguistic and regional divisions with Canadian citizens across the country in town-hall style meetings. The commission’s report was released in June 1991. Some of the reports recommendations influenced the subsequent Charlottetown Accord. Also in 1991, Fraser was inducted as a member of the Order of Canada by the then Govenor General of Canada, Ramon Hnatyshyn.
From 1995 to 2000, Fraser was President and Chief Executive Officer of Vision TV, a multifaith, multicultural cable channel. In 2001, Fraser gave the inaugural lecture of “The Fil Fraser Lecture Series”, presented annually by The Canadian Association of Black Journalists. The series was created to focus on the important role that cultural and social diversity can and should play in the Canadian media. Fraser was also director for a time at CBC Newsworld and Telefilm Canada.
Fraser was granted an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University or Alberta in 2007. Fraser currently teaches a graduate course on film policy at Athabasca University, Canada’s pioneering distance learning institution.
Fraser is also a prolific writer. His books include:
How the Blacks Created Canada (Lone Pine Publishing)
Across the country and throughout time, Blacks have played pivotal roles in the unfolding of Canadian history. Woven into the fabric of the country itself, they have made serious contributions to this great nation.
In the early 1600s, African navigator Mathieu De Costa used his knowledge of Mi’kmaq languages to enable communication between the Europeans and Aboriginals. Arriving in 1605, he was the first Black to come to what would become Canada.
Over two centuries later, Sir James Douglas recruited 800 former American slaves and freemen to settle in Victoria, BC, where they staved off the threat from an America that would gobble up land and stretch up the west coast from California to Alaska.
Josiah Henson escaped half a lifetime of slavery and came to Dresden, Ontario through the underground railway. He established a highly successful business, met Queen Victoria, had dinner with the prime minister and became friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also an unofficial ambassador for Canada.
And, more currently, Blacks have made great strides in Canadian sports, entertainment and politics, as well as business, academia, the judiciary and a broad range of public service. So take a seat and discover the surprising and satisfying history that is finally making it in the mainstream.
Running Uphill: the Fast, Short Life of Harry Jerome (Lone Pine Publishing)
Harry Jerome was among the greatest runners the world has ever seen. He battled serious injuries, racism and periodically a hostile domestic press as he smashed numerous world records and represented Canada at the Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan-American Games through the 1960s. Running Uphill: The Short, Fast Life of Harry Jerome is the first biography ever published of this important Canadian, who stands as a genuine hero for Canada’s Black community.
Fraser has also written a memoir about Alberta in the 1970s entitled Alberta’s Camelot: Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years (Lone Pine Publishing)
This memoir is a personal view of an extraordinary period in the life of Alberta, and of a time in my own life that still astonishes me. When I look back through the lens of the political and economic realities of the early twenty-first century, it is hard for me to believe that for a decade and a half, in the 1970s and early 1980s, the government of Alberta supported culture in ways unmatched, with the possible exception of Quebec, anywhere, anytime in Canada. Premier Peter Lougheed, with the active encouragement of his wife Jeanne, supported the arts with strongly positive attitudes and with generous, well-placed funding. The government treated culture as if it really mattered. And, in the proc-ess, it changed the way that many Albertans, myself included, saw themselves and their communities.
According to Fraser, the role of the writer is effective communication. He writes that:
“We communicate more and more in cliches, which mean different things to different people and nothing to a lot of people. We need to find a new way to communicate across gender, the ethnic, cultural and age divides that separate us. That is the role of the writer.
Fil Fraser’s Website
The Participation of Aboriginals and Other Cultural Minorities in Cultural Development by Fil Fraser (1994 Article available online)
Fil Fraser: Alberta Culture Vignette (Video available online)
Books by Fil Fraser:
How the Blacks Created Canada (Lone Pine Publishing)
Running Uphill: The Fast, Short Life of Canadian Champion Harry Jerome (Lone Pine Publishing)
Alberta’s Camelot: Culture and the Arts in the Lougheed Years (Lone Pine Publishing)
Hamdi Mohamed is currently the Executive Director of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). She is also a historian, feminist, mother, and “institution” here in the City of Ottawa.
But Hamdi, like so many of her generation, was raised to be a leader within the elite of her homeland of Somalia. At 24, Hamdi had graduated from the Somali National University with an Honours Degree in Education. However, as a refugee in Ottawa, Canada Hamdi had to struggle not only with the trauma of a civil war that tore apart so many extended Somali families as well as the country, she also had to take on rebuilding a sense of community and belonging within the Somali Diaspora in the West. While studying for her Masters Degree in International Diplomacy at the University of Ottawa, Hamdi, along with a group of other hardworking and talented women and men, began the difficult task of helping their fellow Somalis resettle in Canada while contending with a country that had never seen such large numbers of African refugees, particularly Muslim refugees, and a city that was, at the time, not very multicultural.
Hamdi was up for the task. She worked with several local community health centres and organizations and was involved in founding the now defunct Somali Centre for Youth, Women and Development. At the height of this centre’s achievements, Hamdi became a key spokesperson for the Somali community in Ottawa. While Program Manager at the Somali Centre, Hamdi spoke out against the Federal Government’s proposal to stop recognizing the Somali passport as legal identification. In a 1999 Ottawa Citizen interview, Hamdi stated: “From the community perspective, this is a very racist piece of legislation and we think it’s the way of curbing Somalis from coming into the country.”
When Canadian filmmaker Helen Klodawsky, writer and director of the film Family Motel, decided that she wanted to look at the issue of homelessness among Ottawa’s Somali community, she went to Hamdi. According to Klowdawsky:
Hamdi Mohamed was our first contact in the community. She’s a brilliant woman and her contribution has been vital. Hamdi posed a number of key questions. Who owns this story? she wanted to know. And I really appreciated that discussion. It helped to focus the story. She also insisted that our protagonist not be presented as victim, that she be a resilient and resourceful character.
I learned that you are never a victim unless you accept victimization. You always have the power to choose the path for your life. While I have experienced the legacies of colonialism and have been victimized by sexism, racism etc throughout my life, I never thought of myself as a victim.
Hamdi went on to complete her Ph.D in History at the University of Ottawa and lectured on human rights issues at the School of Social Work and the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University for five years. She served as the Executive Director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre where she gave priority to developping the organization’s cultural competency.
In 2000, Hamdi became the proud mother of a son, Adam. In a 2009 interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Hamdi admitted that although feeling that life was good at the time, she became overwhelmed with saddness a few days after her son’s birth. She said:
I suddenly became consciously aware of the fact that I couldn’t show my son where I had lived, the trees I had climbed, the sand I had played in, the friends I had had. I wanted to share these things with my son and I couldn’t.
This is the plight of the exile who finds herself in a foreign land and who has no choice but to make a new home for her children. Hamdi is committed to making her new home a welcoming place for refugees and immigrants. She is now the Executive Director of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). In this capacity, she has focused on expanding Ottawa’s oldest newcomer serving agency’s mission. According to the Ottawa Citizen:
…since she took the job four years ago, Mohamed and her team have been crafting an expanded mission, one that reflects what they see every day: building a new life means more than finding a job and getting a roof over your head, it means feeling accepted in a new home while having the freedom to mourn the old.
Hamdi believes that immigrant issues should not be just a concern of the immigration sector but of the entire community. According to Hamdi:
…in Ottawa, the notion of being diverse is still new. We’re generally kind and generous people but when it comes to difference, we hesitate. But now, the numbers are pushing us to ask, ‘Who are we now?’
Profile of Hamdi Mohamed available online
Resistance strategies: Somali women’s struggles to reconstruct their lives in Canada by Hamdi Mohamed (essay available online)
“The Somali refugee women’s experience in Kenyan refugee camps and their plight in Canada.” by Hamdi Mohamed In Mending rips in the sky : options for Somali communities in the 21st centry, ed. by Hussein M. Adam and Richard Ford (1997)
Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization’s Website
Opiyo Oloya is a Ugandan Canadian educator, journalist, and African music enthusiast and radio show host living in Toronto, Canada.
He is the subject of Voice of Freedom, a documentary in the series A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada about immigrants to Canada.
I first came across Opiyo Oloya when I was doing research about the Canadian-based organization GuluWalk.
Opiyo Oloya describes Gulu Walk as follows:
The Gulu Walk is organized by two young Canadians Adrian Bradbury, 35, and his friend Kieran Hayward, 30. The immediate objective of the walk is to highlight the plight of Acholi children who trek each night for personal security to town centers in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts in northern Uganda.
The children are afraid of staying in the villages less they become victims to abductions by Lord Resistance Army rebels (LRA), rapes and wanton murder by lawless individuals. To draw the attention of Canadians to the “night commuters”, Mr. Bradbury and Mr. Hayward will walk 13 km. every day in July.
Along with supporters, they don a bright orange t-shirt with the Guluwalk emblem at the front and stroll along the busy Danforth Avenue, to Yonge Street and finally to Nathan Philip Square in front of Toronto City Hall.
Every night they are joined by large groups including members of the Uganda community. The final goal is that the Guluwalk will become a worldwide event, putting pressure on the government of Uganda to seek permanent peace so that the children of northern Uganda will not have to walk to town any more in order to find security.
Gulu Walk has been key in raising Canadians’ awareness about the plight of children in the war-torn areas of Northern Uganda. It is no surprise that Oloya would be involved with the organization and try to promote its work to his fellow Ugandans. Oloya himself is an Acholi from Gulu Town.
Opiyo Oloya works as the principal of Divine Mercy Catholic School, an elementary school in Vaughn, Ontario. To my knowledge, there are not many Black school principals in Ontario, so being able to become a school principal both as a Black man and a refugee is something of a feat in and of itself. He also writes a weekly column for New Vision, one of Uganda’s national newspapers, is the founder of International Resources for Deaf and Blind Children as well as the Acholi Diaspora Association of Toronto. He started Karibuni, an African music show on CIUT 89.5 FM.
Oloya grew up on the savannah of Gulu where he played with cows and goats. It was also in Gulu that developed his love of music. He writes:
My interests in music started at an early age. In fact, I can’t remember a day when music was not a part of my life. I remember how we would wake up to one or the other of my brothers whistling in the brisk morning wind. Later in the day, as she pounded millet or grounded simsim paste, my mother would be humming a tune.
It was his student activism that eventually led to his decision to flee to Canada in exile. Oloya attended Makerere University from 1979 to 1981 as a political science student. This was a pivotal time in Uganda’s history. 1979 saw the exile of Idi Amin and the return to power of Obote. Ugandans had hoped that this would be the end of dictatorship but this was not to be. Opiyo Oloya was elected as the President of the Makerere University Students’ Guild. Although, one might not think of student politics as of any importance here in Canada (although this is a misconception as most student politicians I know have gone on to work for political parties) in many developing nations, student politics can be quite influential and therefore are seen as threatening to repressive political regimes. Oloya’s presidency was overruled by a veritable “coup” in 1981. He subsequently fled to Kenya from where he applied for refugee status in Canada. He states that among his many reasons for fleeing Uganda was a fear that the Obote government was trying to promote ethnic divisions in the country, something which Oloya deeply opposed having been raised by a father who, he states, “never saw Baganda or Acholi”. While in Canada, he continued his studies at Queen’s University, graduating with a political science degree in 1986. He went on to attain his Master’s of Education at the University of Ottawa.
Oloya has helped to bring African music to Canadian ears as host of Karibuni on CIUT 89.5 FM. This is fitting as it was the radio that exposed him to the beat of Africa. He writes:
African pop music first came to me through the radio, which we used to carry around everywhere, even when we working in the fields. Radio Kinshasha and Bunya (both in Zaire) were our favourite stations. This is how I first learned names like Zaiko Langa Langa, Empire Bakuba, Lipua Lipua and Bella Bella, all upstart groups in the 70s. Franco and Rochereau were already big in the 60s on Radio Uganda.
Opiyo Oloya came to Canada with the name Joseph, but decided to return to his Acholi first name while here. When asked why he gave up his “religious” name in a 2010 Interview, Oloya replied:
I am a Catholic and we go to church every Sunday. One of our children, Oceng, serves as an altar boy. We don’t use Christian names because we feel that it’s not important to be Christians with Christian names.
Oloya stumbled upon teaching as a career unintentionally. He states:
Making it as a teacher was one of the best experiences I’ve had. It was a turning point because I never knew I was going to become a teacher. I was doing graduate work when I discovered that I am passionate about teaching.
I was a replacement teacher for a day at a school in Ottawa. I told the children a story with a sad part and pretended to be very sad. They all came and fell over me and I felt panic stricken because I thought I was going to suffocate under this mountain of kids. But I found that teaching is something I love doing and I was completely at home with.
Oloya went on to become the principal of Divine Mercy Catholic School. One of his students, Hannah Godefa, an Ethiopian-Canadian, who while in Grade 4 decided to organize Pencil Mountain, a supply drive to collect 20,000 pencils to send to Ethiopian students. On a family visit to her homeland, Hannah had been shocked by the country’s poverty and the fact that many Ethiopian children did not have such basic school supplies as pencils. Hannah sought her principal’s help to bring her idea to fruition. Oloya was initially hesitant to support Hannah’s idea because of her young age and the fact that he wasn’t sure how serious she was. But Hannah’s persistence won him over. Hannah worked with local businesses in Vaughn to help with the “pencil-raising” and with her fellow Divine Mercy students to sort and package the pencils. She was able to raise 25,000 pencils which she delivered to students in Ethiopia. To learn more about Hannah Godefa’s activism visit her website.
Oloya had this to say about Hannah:
“I have never encountered anybody in Grade 4 who has come up with some idea to save the world,” he said. “She’s very committed and very focused.” Mr. Oloya describes Hannah as a smart girl whose understanding of poverty has a lot to do with her recent trip. “She saw the difference between the life she was leading here and the life of children her age there,” he said. “She realized she should be able to do something because she is a lot better off.”
Along with being an educator here in Canada, Oloya tries to educate his fellow Ugandans through his weekly column in New Vision, one of Uganda’s national newspapers. I have always disagreed with the idea that immigrants to Canada should cut all ties with their homelands out of sense of loyalty to Canada. When people accuse immigrants of not “letting go of their baggage” because they try to raise awareness here in Canada about issues facing people in their countries of origin, people who could very well be their own family members, I am appalled. But I hear this quite frequently, even from immigrants themselves. I agree that one should not continue conflicts here in Canada but it would be a missed opportunity to not try to enlighten one’s fellow Canadians about these conflicts, even from a biased perspective. I feel this is doubly important for immigrants, and anyone of African descent. The image of Africa is so obscured here that it is important to have African voices trying to educate both Africans and non-Africans about what is going on. I have found Oloya’s articles, along written with a Ugandan audience in mind, very useful for me as a Canadian of African descent trying to understand what is going in on the continent.
Oloya’s articles discuss a variety of topics from genetically modified foods, to the use and abuse of Ugandan workers by Security corporations in Iraq, to Uganda’s involvement in Somalia’s civil war, to the Ugandan government’s treatment of homosexuals. It is on the last two subjects that I would like to discuss Oloya’s writing in some depth.
Uganda’s involvement in Somalia
Oloya actually went to Somalia this year to write about the conditions there and even had an opportunity to meet the current President. Uganda, along with Burundi, currently supply the bulk of the troops sustaining the US backed African Union’s Somali Mission. It is for this reason that Uganda was targeted by the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab for retaliation on July 11, 2010. During a gathering of large crowds at a local restaurant and a local Rugby Club to watching the final match of the FIFA World Cup this year in Kampala, Uganda, three explosions went off killing over 74 Ugandans and injuring 70. Oloya had expressed his concern about such possible retaliation by Al Shabaab in earlier articles. He also has been quite to point out the following:
It would be counter intuitive to start clamping and harassing peaceful law-abiding locals of Somali heritage living within the country, say in Kampala or Bujumbura. They are the eyes and the ears to first alert authorities on suspicious individuals and events.
This is an important point as there are many Somali people living in diaspora in East African countries like Uganda. One would also hope to hear this from a Ugandan Canadian who is active in Toronto’s African communities seeing as the Somali make up the largest communities of African descent in Canada.
In his 2010 article, Miracle in Mogadishu, Oloya writes about the doctors working with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to treat women who suffer from obstetric fistula. He recounts the story of Fatumah Sheik Hassan as follows:
Hassan’s problem began with the birth of her first child, now 14 years old. The birth was difficult because the baby would not come out, and had to be coaxed out by the midwives. The baby lived, but Hassan began to have problem controlling her rectum. With each birth, the problem grew until became intolerable to those around her. Nobody wanted to talk about it because of the shame associated with it, and Hassan became a leper in her village, avoided by neighbours and laughed at by children.
As luck would have it, Hassan’s sister came to Mogadishu for a visit and heard rumours from other Somali women about the miracle “daktari Amisol” who could cure women. Although the sister could not believe it at first, she met a woman who claimed she had been cured.
She rushed back to Baidoah to tell Hassan who wanted to leave the very next day for Mogadishu except she did not have money for transport. She had to cool her heels for a month to raise funds which she did by selling four goats for about $100.
On July 20, 2010, Fatumah Sheik Hassan was “liberated” by AMISOM doctors who operated on her, and fixed the problem she had lived with for almost two decades. According to Commandant Dr. Evariste Nintunga, a surgeon with the Burundi contingent, and who operates alongside Col. Dr. Kiyengo on women with Fistula, Hassan will not have any side effect. “She should have a normal life when she returns to her village”, he said.
It appears that the purpose of articles like this is to reassure Ugandans that their involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia is welcomed by its people and actually proving successful.
Uganda’s Treatment of Homosexuals
Beginning in 2009, Uganda made international headlines not because of the plight of communities living in Northern Uganda but because of proposed legislation to sentence Ugandan homosexuals to life imprisonment, as well as sentences for people who rented to known homosexuals and knew homosexuals and didn’t report them to police. Although homophobia in Africa has been known to be prevalent this proposed bill appeared extreme to say the least. Oloya had written about the issue of treatment of homosexuals much earlier. In 2005, Oloya wrote a letter to the then Commissioner of Special Education, Guidance and Counseling, Martin Omagol, expressing his concern about Omagol’s urging of head teachers to do whatever it takes to stop the spread of homosexuality in Ugandan schools. Oloya presents a voice of reason, making two very important points. He writes:
Two issues arise from your statement. First, your statement suggests that homosexuality is like the common cold that is passed on from one person to another.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Though debate about the cause of homosexuality continues, scientists and social theorists tend to agree that nobody chooses to be homosexual. Available data from the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere in Europe tend to place the homosexual population between 3-8% of the total population. Here, in North America where gays live and work alongside heterosexuals, the gay population remains steady. You don’t see young people suddenly catching the “homosexual disease” simply by interacting with homosexuals. In other words, without data that suggest increase of homosexuality in Uganda schools, you are merely fanning homophobia.
Secondly, by crying that the sky is falling and we must do something about it, you are perpetuating the stereotypical notion of homosexuals as social deviants who must be stamped out.
In 2009, Oloya wrote a letter to Ugandan Parliamentarians, outlining his concerns about the proposed “Anti-Homosexuality” Bill. He makes a very important distinction between homosexuality and the rape of children by adults of the same sex, which is pedophilia. However, the bill considers pedophilia by members of the same sex as “aggravated homosexuality”. It appears clear that there has been and on-going panic in Uganda about the rape of children by homosexuals as well as their “recruitment” to homosexuality. However, Ugandans do not seem to be equally concerned about the rape of young girls by men. As Oloya writes:
….by using the term “aggravated homosexuality”, Bill 18 gives the appearance that a homosexual man raping a boy has committed a far more serious crime than a heterosexual man raping a little girl. In reality, whether a male pedophile rapes a girl or a boy, the consequences of these heinous crimes are the same; the child is scarred for life. The low life criminals in both cases are pedophiles who must be punished to the fullest extent of Uganda’s law.
First, look at rape as rape, and then look at homosexuality as a stand alone issue. Once you have separated the two issues, keep in mind that just as only a tiny minority of heterosexuals rape girls and women, only a tiny minority of homosexuals rape boys or adult men. Should you choose to make homosexual rape of a boy punishable by death, then you also have a duty to make heterosexual rape of a girl punishable by death. Both are victims of rape who deserve to see their molesters face the same justice. It is that simple.
Oloya is a practising Roman Catholic who is sensitive to African cultural and religious sensibilities towards homosexuality; however he time and again reminds those in government that Uganda is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He understands rightly that if you erode the human rights of one group it is only a matter of time before other groups will be attacked as well. In a country grappling with ethnic conflict and poverty as well as coming to terms with a history of dictatorships, opening the door to such stark violations of human rights could be opening a floodgate. I personally found Oloya’s articles on this subject comforting as my discussions with Africans and Ugandans in particular had been very unsettling due to the level of paranoia they expressed about a global “conspiracy” organized by human rights organizations and homosexuals to “recruit” African children to homosexuality. Who is telling them this?Many Africans I spoke to seemed more concerned and knowledgable about this “conspiracy” then they were about the conflicts in their region, the state of their country’s economy, or even their country’s literature. Focusing on such a half-baked conspiracy theory seems to be a distraction from addressing the real life and death issues affecting the continent.
Opiyo Oloya is both a committed Ugandan journalist and dedicated Canadian educator. One need not give up one identity in order to properly fulfill the other. I am sure that Oloya is performing both roles just fine.
Profile on Roots World available online
Profile from A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada Voice of Freedom Documentary available online
Interview (2010) with Opiyo Oloya by Elizabeth Namazzi available online
Webpage for Karibuni on CIUT 89.5 FM, this program is available to be listened to online
Oloya’s Articles on Ugandans working for Security Corporations in Iraq available online:
Others on the subject:
Hundreds Seek Work as Guards in Iraq by Daniel Wallis (2005 article from Reuters available online)
Oloya’s Articles in about the treatment of homosexuals in Uganda available online:
Others on the subject:
The U.S. Christian Right and the Attack on Gays in Africa by Kapya Kaoma (article available online)
Homosexuality and HIV/AIDS in Uganda by Victor Mukasa (article available online)
Oloya’s Articles on genetically modified foods in Africa available online:
Monsanto Had Their Agenda (2003)
Others on the subject:
Uganda’s Position on GMOs: Whose Position? Reflections on Uganda’s Policy Making Process on GMOs by R. Naluwairo and G. Tumushabe (ACODE Policy Briefing Paper available online)
Interviews with African musicians by Oloya available online:
d’bi young is a Jamaican Canadian poet, playwright, and actor. Raised in the working class district of Whitfield, Jamaica, she is the daughter of Jamaican dub poet Anita Stewart, who gave birth to d’bi young when she was only 15. In her teens, d’bi young studied at the Jamaica School of Drama. In 1993, she immigrated to Canada, studied at McGill University in Montreal, where she got involved in the local spoken word scene. She settled in Toronto, Ontario in 2001. d’bi young self identifies as queer and has had some of her plays presented at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which is dedicated to the promotion of queer artistic expression. Now in her early thirties and a mother of two, d’bi young is an internationally recognized performance artist. She defines herself first and foremost as a storyteller.
d’bi young, who was named Debbie Young at birth, doesn’t like to use capitals for her own name and the titles of her plays, citing the influence of fellow Jamaican Canadian poet and director ahdri zhina mandiela.
I’m working with 13 people whose ages range from 19 to 60 and basically I teach them how to write dub solo shows using these principles that I’m developing right now, and been developing for the last 3 years, called ORPLUSI princlpes of storytelling. Which are orality, rhythm, personal is political, political is personal, language, urgency, sacredness and integrity. [These are] guiding principles towards the creative process. That’s the most exciting thing for me because I’m at Guelph as well doing my Masters developing theory around oral storytelling and traditions that come out of the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora.
d’bi.young’s style of poetry is best described as dub poetry. Dup poetry developed out of the artistic renaissance in the Jamaica of the 1970s. The term was first used to describe Jamaican disc jockeys who would sing or spout their own lyrics over “the dub versions” -instrumental remixes on the B-Sides-of reggae records. It is deeply influenced by the intonations and speech patterns of Jamaican Creole (Patwa). The dub poetry movement in Jamaica is exemplified by the work of Jamaican dub poet Oku Onuora, born Orlando Wong. Dub poetry is essentially an oral form of performance, however, it became acceptable for it to be written as well. In 1974, Onuora, who was used to performing his poems in front of crowds as opposed to writing them down, was doing time in a Jamaican prison for armed robberies (crimes he said he committed in order to finance community projects for youth in Kingston’s ghettos). His poetry and plays began to be disseminated from prison in written form. In 1979, Onuora defined dub poetry as:…a poet that has a build-in reggae rhythm -hence when the poem is read with out an reggae rhythm (so to speak) backing […] one can distinctly hear the reggae rhythm coming out of the poem.” Emerging out of the context of Black activism and Jamaican independence, Dub poetry is also a form of poetry that is to be used a tool of political activism. Dub poetry spread throughout the Jamaican diaspora, to Britain, producing celebrated poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, and to Canada, most notably Toronto, producing such poets as Lillian Allen.
d’bi young’s work is suffused with her Jamaican heritage and African sensibility. Her performances are woman-centred and focus on the lives of Black women as they survive the traumas of magic, migration, sexual violence, childbirth, motherhood, death and rebirth. d’bi.young’s artistic influences included her mother, dub poet Anita Stewart aka Anilia Soyinka, who was a member of the pioneer dub poetry collective Poets in Unity and Mikey Smith, a famous Jamaican poet on whose life d’bi young has developed a play.
Her accomplishments as an actor:
At 13, d’bi.young was cast as Odale in a production of Kamau Braithwaite’s Odale’s Choice, an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone. In 2001, d’bi.young performed in South African playwright Zakes Mda’s play And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses. d’bi young performed in the 2005 production of Trey Anthony’s ‘Da Kink in My Hair, a play that follows the lives of the hairstylists and patrons of a Caribbean Hair Salon in downtown Toronto (The play has since been developed into a TV Series on Global, in which young appeared as a spoken word artist). In ‘Da Kink, young powerfully portrays a young incest survivor. young was nominated in 2003 for two Gemini Awards for Best Individual Performance in a Comedy Series and Viewers Choice Award for Favorite Comedian for her performance as the teenaged Crystal in Lord Have Mercy!, Canada’s first Caribbean-Canadian TV sitcom. young, who helped to develop Crystal’s character, described her as follows:
Crystal has hair under her arm-pits, none on her head. She wears gender neutral clothing, and she also wears tight-up, tight-up mini…whatever. She speaks English and Jamaica’s national language fluently. She goes in and out…she’s a dub-poet. She’s extremely intelligent, selfish, and self-absorbed. She thinks she knows everything and is searching desperately for her grandmother to love her. She’s searching for herself within in the context of the church. Her granny is old-school and she’s new school. They’re actually not very different. They’re both strong-headed women.
Her accomplishments as a playwright:
d’bi young, in collaboration with fellow Black Caribbean Canadian poet Naila Belvett, co-wrote and performed in Yagayah, a two-woman play following the childhood friendship of two Jamaican girls who are separated when one immigrates to Canada. This play was published in Djanet Sears’ Testifyin’: Contemporary African Canadian Drama II. d’bi young often writes plays for solo performances. She has developed what she calls “biomyth-monodrama”. According to d’bi young, bio-myth is “a form of creation where the artist uses biographical information as a starting point and then applies poetic license to broaden or deepen it.” ‘Monodrama’ combines d’bi young’s roots in dub poetry and theatre. d’bi young has written a one-woman play entitled blood.claat, the first in the Sankofa trilogy following three generations of Jamaican women. Dramaturged and Directed by Ethiopian Canadian Weyni Mengesha, d’bi.young’s long-time collaborator and friend, the play has been performed across Canada and internationally. In blood.claat, young performs over 8 different characters. blood.claat has been published by Playwrights’ Canada Press. In 2006, the play won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards. She was artist in residence at the Soulpepper Theatre Academy. young’s most recent work is a play called She, which explores a young woman’s obsession with a pop icon, and is inspired by young’s interest in Rihanna and how her life is portrayed in the media. young often holds talk-back sessions at the end of her performances. According to young:
I’ve learned that I can’t present controversial subject matter and expect my audience to go home and be okay. There has to be a process where we can dialogue about the work. A storyteller is there first and foremost for the transformation of the community, and they must be responsible to the people who will allow them to be on stage.
Her accomplishments as a poet:
In 2003, young was voted “Best dup poet and storytelling actor” by Toronto’s NOW Magazine. She won CBC’s Poetry Face-Off 2004 Poetry Slam competition for the City of Toronto. young has produced several CDs of dub poetry. Her debut, “When the Love is Not Enough”, came out in 2000. Her second album xperimentin dub was a live jam album made in collaboration with musicians Beau Dixon and Gregory Roy’s dub trinity. Her subsequent albums include xperimentin dub Havana cuba and dubbin.revolushun: blood demo. She has collaborated with Cuba’s Paso Firme reggae band, Cuban hip hop producer Pablo Herrera, and exiled African American activist Assata Shakur. She has also appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.
d’bi.young on storytelling:
I really do believe that we’re all storytellers. I mean not everybody could do it professionally but I think that we all have a responsibility to acknowledge that we’re storytelling in whatever it is that we choose to do. The minute we acknowledge that then we can make choices around how we actually communicate with people.
d’bi.young on dub poetry:
dub is rooted in oral storytelling tradishuns that enslaved afrikan peoples brought to the Americas. the main elements of dub are 1. language 2. political content (simply meaning ‘of the people’) 3. musicality 4. orality. when I write for theatre, these are the elements that make up my foundation, therefore my work is rooted in issues that concern the many communities that I belong to as a womban, as an afrikan, a mother, as an artist, as a queer-identified person, as a working person, an able-bodied person, etc. engaging the audience is essential in communicating the story with them so it permeates the head and eventually rests in the heart, music and rhythm and humour and honesty are good for that. the elements that I use to engage the audience as a dub poet are the same elements I use to engage the audience as a playwright.
d’bi.young on Da Kink in My Hair:
During ‘Da Kink, we were reminded by older women in the community that the wheel was not being re-invented …there was a herstory long pre-dating ‘Da Kink of black woman theatre. Because of the racism and because of the systemic discrimination and alienation in choosing what kind of herstory is preserved and presented, it seemed like we were re-inventing the wheel with ‘Da Kink. But in fact we were just building on a tradition that was already there.
d’bi.young on her play benu:
…benu is the second of a trilogy that began with blood.claat. It looks at the daughter born at the end of the show-she’s grown up, and it starts with her having a baby of her own. I’m trying to look at three generations of women because I’m obsessed with lineage and passing on the bloodline-and what happens with each generation. It’s about death and rebirth, physically and metaphorically. The benu is the predessor of the phoenix bird, its Egyptian ancestor.
d’bi.young on what Canadian Theatre can learn from Ghanaian artists:
one of the adinkra symbols from Ghana is called sankofa, which translates to ‘return and get it’ or ‘learn from the past’. for us as Canadian theatre makers, to move into the future we must learn from the past. there are some dialogues we need to have about canada’s past that we are unwilling to have. but if we don’t have them how can we hope to do different, do better for our children’s future and the seven generashuns to come?
I was lucky to be able to attend a performance of d’bi.young’s play blood.claat when it was staged at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in early 2010. (See The Woyingi Blogger’s Play Review of blood.claat) I attended the play with Somali-Canadian poet and playwright Habiba Ali. At the end of the performance, d’bi.young hosted a talk-back with the audience. d’bi.young’s vibrancy as well as her commitment to theatre as a form of personal exploration and healing, I found truly inspiring, and her influence has led to my own creative exploration of my identity as a Black Canadian of mixed heritage. d’bi.young’s work reminds me that our lives are stories which we are constantly telling to ourselves, our families, and our friends. d’bi.young’s work has helped me to better understand the complexities of the experiences of Jamaican Canadian women, who, as a driving force in the artistic, activist, and academic institutions of Black Canada, have played a pivotal role in the development of my identity as a Black Canadian woman.
d’bi young’s website
anitAFRIKA dub theatre’s website
Literature Alive Profile of d’bi young available online
blood.claat, a play by d’bi young available to order from Playwrights’ Canada Press
Interview (2010) with The Montreal Mirror available online
Interview (2010) with Capital Xtra available online
Interview (2009) with AfroToronto.com available online
Textualizing Dub Poetry: A Literature Review of Jamaican English from Jamaica to Toronto, an academic essay by Katherine McLeod available online