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