Culture | “Bringing the margins to the centre”

Montreal Serai: a resting place for cultural travellers

“It’s taken for granted that we’ll be at the edge of things,” says Montreal Serai editor Patrick Barnard. Montreal Serai, one of the first Canadian webzines, has been publishing progressive cultural material since its founding in 1986. Cultural arts, thorny political issues, and the written word are seen by many radical publications as mutually complementary. Current progressive cultural writing is building on a long tradition that reaches back to such long-standing publications as Serai.

Serai publishes “thoughtful essays, reviews, commentaries, short stories, poems, artwork, videos, music, and much more,” according to its website. Over its 26 years of existence, Serai has published the work of over 400 different contributors. “People write for us from Australia, India […] the whole world,” explains Rana Bose, a Serai founder. Along with regular issues, which are released every two to six months, Serai also has daily columns such as Maya Khankhoje’s coverage of Montreal’s International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA). Serai now has 250,000 hits per month and reaches international audiences, boasting nearly 2,000 regular subscribers. “We want to expand beyond 3,000,” notes Bose.

Serai’s origins are tied in with Montreal’s South Asian Women’s Community Centre. A few Serai founders, most of whom are South Asian and Indian immigrants, were also writers for the Centre’s magazine. “Serai started with an anti-racist focus,” explains Bose. Serai began as a monthly print magazine, continuing to print for the next three years, until it could no longer afford the primary costs. As a result, Serai subsequently began online publication in a quarterly format. Bose agrees that the switch to web was a “blessing in disguise,” preventing Serai from being “confined to a certain community.” Bose explains that “the times have changed and the magazine has evolved.”

Serai is Persian for ‘resting place’ or ‘place of transience’ for a traveller. “In the mid-1990s,” says Bose, “the composition changed considerably to include more than just immigrants.”

“It [tells] the story of an evolving allophone community,” says Barnard, who describes Serai as “a collective.” Every issue is curated by a different editor who seeks out relevant and thought-provoking content. The Serai team is notably diverse, reflecting the webzine’s mandate to “bring the margins to the centre.” One editor is a well-known Montreal musician, another is a professor-cum-environmental activist. Columnist Khankhoje, another founding member of Serai, was born of Belgian and Indian parents and grew up in Mexico. Bose himself is somewhat of a nomad: having left his native India to study engineering in the U.S., he lived south of the border for five years before moving to Montreal, where he has now been living for 35 years. He describes himself as “an engineer, but also a poet and writer.”

“Our readership is mostly English, as are the writers,” explains Khankhoje. He explains that submissions in other languages are “welcome,” despite the fact that they are “the exception rather than the rule” in this overwhelmingly English publication. In the past 26 years, Serai has received 14 submissions in French, and has also published pieces in Spanish.

Serai’s current issue, “The Literature Issue – Subtlety in Stigmas and Stereotypes,” has a prominent poetry and short fiction focus, but also includes book reviews, essays, and interviews. “We try to put out a literature issue every year,” says Bose. “Along with other [regulars], such as our annual cinema issue.” The most eye-catching content in Serai are the pieces that fold political issues into the arts.  Highlights of their current issue include an interview with Indian cinema curator Meenakshi Shedde entitled “Indian Expressionism – The Fascinating Marriage of Indian and German Cinema,” as well as an editorial by Bose himself, “Literature and Remaining Idle No More.”

“They spoke in literature and words that moved mountains and churned up the rivers,” writes Bose of the First Nations women who began the Idle No More movement.

Although Serai’s mandate is to provide coverage of the arts, their analysis of popular culture’s political implications alongside their creative content frequently causes a splash. Bose explains that “anything that deals with Quebec issues” is particularly attention-grabbing. “[We published] an issue on Palestine that was popular a few years ago,” he adds. Bose describes the growth of Serai’s influence as “exponential,” as both the diversity of contributors and the readership base grow. Past thought-provoking pieces include Sujata Dey’s “Community Organizing in Côte-des-Neiges Then and Now,” Mirella Bontempo’s “The Multicultural Panic,” and Shubhobroto Ghosh’s  “‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others’: an examination of identities.”

A not-for-profit publication, Serai has been receiving funding from the Canada Council for the Arts for the past five or six years under the electronic publishing category. “We were the first magazine to apply for it,” says Bose. He laments, however, that Serai has been plagued by “diminished funding,” which creates “a lot of pressure” for the webzine. The editors are all volunteers – funding serves to pay contributors. The volunteer basis of the Serai team reflects the personal connections editors feel to Serai’s mission. For instance, Patrick Barnard, a Westmount resident, first got involved in 2007 with an article called “A big story in a small place.” An environmentalist, Patrick Barnard tackles “the turf war” that pitted local residents against the City of Westmount over the latter’s proposed replacement of all the green spaces in Westmount Park with synthetic turf.

Serai’s upcoming issue, “Class, Caste: Cultural labels?” will explore how Canada’s political issues are influenced by class. “[This theme] covers lots of issues,” explains Bose. Serai, which Bose describes as an exploration of “the minorities within the minorities,” promises to keep pushing the envelope in upcoming issues. Their coverage has a wide span, and the fact that they’ve been finding new margins to bring to the centre, staying fresh since 1986, should be applauded. While “the minorities within the minorities” is not an obvious interest for many people, it is by writing about these issues and topics that we can bring them closer to the mainstream, and popular concern.