The Woyingi Blog

Book Review: Miroirs et Mirages by Monia Mazigh

Title: Miroirs et mirages

Author: Monia Mazigh

Language: French

Country: Canada

Year: 2011

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.

Personal Reflections

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.

Further Reading:

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

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Black Canadian Profile: Fil Fraser

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.

Fil Fraser

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.

Further Reading:

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)

Black Canadian Profile: d’bi young

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.

d’bi.young runs her own dub theatre mentorship program, anitAFRIKA! dub theatre. In an interview with AfroToronto.com in 2009, young described her work at anitAFRIKA as follows: 

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, photo by Paula Wilson

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?

Personal Reflections:

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.

 Further Reading:

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

Ijaw View of the Personality by Margaret Laurence

Posted in Canadian Literature, Countries: Nigeria, Peoples: The Ijo by the woyingi blogger on July 21, 2009

Acclaimed Canadian writer Margaret Laurence’s only work of Literary Criticism is about early Nigerian Literature in English. In Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952 -1966, originally published in 1968, she studies such internationally famous Nigerian writers as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. She also studies the work of two less widely known writers of Ijaw heritage, Gabriel Okara and John Pepper Clark. In her chapter on the work of John Pepper Clark she explains the Ijaw concept of the soul.

I am half Ijaw and I find it is very difficult to find information about Ijaw religious traditions beyond descriptions of deities in the pantheon. Unlike with the Yoruba, an ethnic group I am also descended from, there has not been many Ijaw writers who have written academic level studies of Ijaw religious philosophy. If you are aware of any works of this nature I would greatly appreciate information about them.

What follows in an excerpt from Long Drums and Cannons in which Laurence describes the Ijaw concepts of teme and biomgbo:

Ijaw View of the Personality

According to traditional Ijaw belief, before a person is born, a part of his soul decides his destiny. There is also a village destiny. The ancestors and the gods continue to play a parental role, and the living, as in most tribal societies, remain in the role of children. This, obviously, creates irritations for the adults in a community, but it also provides emotional security, for a man is never utterly alone. An individual’s fate is influenced not only by his conscious efforts but also by his lineage and by his teme, that part of his spirit which decided his fate before he was born and which will continue to live after his death. But-and here is the really essential difference between the deeply tribal outlook of the Ijaw and the deeply tribal outlook of the classical Greeks-according to the Ijaw, a man’s destiny can be changed. With the proper rituals, his pre-natal wishes can be altered. Unlike Oedipus, or Antigone, or Agamemnon, his destiny is not inevitable.

The personality, in the Ijaw view, is layered, just as it is in the Freudian view. The biomgbo or personal soul, containing the individual’s desires and feelings, corresponds to the conscious mind. The teme or steersman of the soul is comparable to the unconscious, whose aims are unknown to the conscious mind and often in diametrical opposition to it. If a man’s fate is to be changed, however, it can be done only with the proper observance of rituals, not by the individual acting alone.

I have often wondered how I would fit into Ijaw religious traditions as a person of mixed ethnic heritage born far away from my father’s ancestral village. If your destiny is also connected with the destiny of your village then what if you are born far away fromt that village and never visit it?

Recommended Reading:

Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966. Edited by Nora Foster Stovel. University of Alberta Press. 2001 Review available online

African Interests: White Liberalism and Resistance in Margaret Laurence’s “Pure Diamond Man” by John C. Eustace (essay available online)