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The ‘Garden of Literary Delights’ is in Bloom

South Asian writers celebrate the multitudes in their literary cultures

On October 1, the Kabir Cultural Centre’s annual ‘Garden of Literary Delights’ ran in its third iteration at the Atwater Library. Established as a platform for writers of South Asian heritage to present their work and engage directly with their audiences, this year’s event featured four remarkable artists conquering an incredible breadth of literary exploits. With a focus on exploring diversity in “form, style, subject, and genre,” the panelists drew on their wide range of creative backgrounds and cultural experiences in sharing their processes for writing and reading from some of their most impactful stories.

Introduced by writer Veena Gokhale, the panel – made up of Farzana Doctor, Zahida Rahemtulla, Shailee Rajak, and Angela Misri – took their spots on one side of the Atwater Library’s auditorium. They were joined by an additional, empty chair; a silent acknowledgement of writers around the world facing imprisonment and suppression.

Ghokale’s introduction was followed by a wry apology for the lack of male writers featured at the event, sending a ripple of laughter around the room. Between the four women on the panel, almost every literary genre was more than amply represented – Farzana Doctor has published a series of short novels garnering critical acclaim; Zahida Rahemtulla writes plays exploring themes from the comical to the profoundly human; literary scholar Shailee Rajak made her creative writing debut with a graphic novel addressing ancient mythology to young students; and novelist Angela Misri has written works of fiction spanning countless micro-genres. Yet despite the wide variety of backgrounds and approaches present, subtle commonalities were quick to emerge from the successive presentations.

Many writers in today’s world, particularly those from diasporic cultural backgrounds, find an increasing need to reconcile with a collective, and sometimes evasive, past. In an emotive reading from one of her best-known mimetic novels, Seven, Farzana Doctor illustrated the fragility of this pursuit as a chase after “memories of memories.” This particular yearning for definition around one’s history strikes a familiar chord with many readers from fractured cultural backgrounds whose collective familial memories draw a similar blank. The particular effectiveness of Doctor’s prose demonstrates a subtle and piercing understanding of the interplay between culture and individual mentality that informs how many of us engage with these unremembered pasts.

Doctor, who has a developed career as a private psychotherapist in addition to her published writing, spoke to finding harmony between her pursuits. Although her psychotherapy practice doesn’t contribute directly to her writing, she finds certain parallels between the two processes that enhance her understanding of the way characters – and real people – work. In doing both, she finds herself asking the same question: “How will [my work] be understood?”

Understanding the audiences who engage with their narratives is often instrumental for writers to develop their storytelling technique. Zahida Rahemtulla, who is seeing her newest play go into production (imminently), has been conscious of a gradual shift in demographic among the people taking interest in her work. “Audiences are changing,” she said, referring to the growing number of people discovering her plays who don’t necessarily share her South Asian background. As her work gained more attention with the diversification of attendance, Rahemtulla adapted accordingly — for example, by introducing hints to clue in new audience members on the specific cultural references that occur in her writing. Facilitating understanding between one side of the stage and the other is of considerable importance in cultivating authentic appreciation.

Rahemtulla’s new play, Frontliners, explores the social and cultural dynamics revealed by interactions between social workers, new refugees, and Samaritan volunteers on the Canadian west coast. She animates arrestingly accurate characterizations of young workers at a non-profit organization who stretch their resources and personal faculties to aid a number of Syrian refugee families. Based in part on her own experiences as a social worker in British Columbia, Rahemtulla also drew on insight she gained from working alongside Syrian colleagues over the years to weave together the play’s spirited discourse and unmistakable humanity into a nuanced depiction of personal and cultural interchange.

The celebration of parallels and differences between disparate cultures, it seems, refuses to be limited to a single medium. Graphic novels have surged in popularity among young readers attracted to the irresistible combination of narrative prose with the equally powerful potency of imagery and design. CBC Radio recently hosted an interview with McGill alumnus Shailee Rajak on Helen and Sita, her graphic novel for young people, which she created in collaboration with illustrator Priyadarshini Banerjee. Written in a clear and poignant tone, the book assumes the points of view of two of the most famous women in world mythology — Helen of Troy and Sita from the Indian epic Ramayana — and thoroughly humanizes them by narrating their thoughts and feelings around the fateful marital arrangements made for them by their families. In a fluid visual language that allows text and imagery to flow synchronously from one page to the next, the book places the women’s stories side by side and allows the reader to realize the universality of the longing to control their own destinies.

As for the two myths from which she drew her material, Rajak sought to highlight numerous parallels between the Ancient Greek and Indian moral institutions that led Helen and Sita down their twin paths. These similarities point to the deep connections — “cultural, linguistic, and pedagogical” — between branches of the ancient Indo-European continuity she examines as a literary scholar.

The cultural sense of identity has long been tangled with the idea of a certain level of ownership over the stories and traditions that make up each person’s individual awareness. While it is easier to become attached to narratives that bear a certain amount of resemblance to what is familiar to one’s own background or experiences, the incidental worlds and stories encountered by an impressionable young mind can make for lasting and surprising inspiration. Angela Misri was raised by Indian parents in London, where she was introduced at an early age to works by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle. Her career as a writer since has been marked with a willingness to engage with the impossible, as well as a distinctly dry tone of humour. Her newest novel, The Detective and the Spy, follows a young woman living alone who discovers her familial connection to the life of Sherlock Holmes and relocates to London, creating a “fish-out-of-water” scenario reminiscent of the way Misri describes her own childhood.

For Misri, some of the most important creative and professional relationships in her career were developed with her editors — the people she credits with holding her to the task of organizing her own ideas. Often, it is during the editing process that she realizes some explanation is missing between the stages of one of her fast-paced stories. Understanding a narrative on the reader’s part begins with an author’s invitation. Telling any story, after all, does entail owing a little explanation — if only sometimes to oneself.