In Tracing the Lines: Reflections on Contemporary Poetics and Cultural Politics in Honour of Roy Miki. Eds., Maia Joseph et al. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2012.

"Passionate critic, principled citizen, attentive reader and editor, and energizing teacher – Roy Miki is all these and more, a poet whose writing articulates a moving body of work. The two main areas of his passionate research and writing – social critique and poetics – inform each other in these essays, poems, and artwork compiled to mark a milestone in the life of an important public intellectual."

I got to know Roy Miki in the Writers’ Union of Canada during the late 1980s when activists in the Union began to work issues of race. This eventually led to two national meetings of writer-of-colour convened by the Union. Roy led the committee that organized the second and larger one, Writing Thru Race in 1994. In June 2009 a conference to celebrate Roy’s extraordinary life as a writer, thinker, teacher and activist was held at the Firehall Theater in Vancouver. Tracing the Lines is a collection of the presentations made by a host of artists, writers and academics who participated. What I most remember of the occasion was a conversation with Phinder Dulai when I lamented the fact that the work done in the Union had not led to long term change. In response he noted that while a tiny minority of writers at the Writing Thru Race had published, in the intervening 20 years most of them had been. So progress has definitely been made.

Download a PDF version (468Kb) of  the essay: “The Public Intellectual.”

Writing for Social Change — Betsy Warland & Fauzia Rafiq

Betsy Warland and Fauzia Rafiq were our featured writers in November, on back-to-back Sundays. They are both spirited feminists and activists, committed to a way of writing that reflects the real personal and political experience of women. So, as women and writers they have lived and worked close to the edge, challenging the norm; Betsy as lesbian, and Fauzia a non-practising Muslim.

I met both women in the eighties in Toronto, and so their visits to Kogawa House were opportunities to reread their work. It was delicious going back to Betsy’s early books, submerging myself in her exploration of words and meanings, her archaeological expeditions. Serpent (w)rites from 1987; Open is Broken in 1984. After a while I could see poetry in the Table of Contents. Nothing is in not considered in these texts; the visual composition of the poems matters, the bibliography matters. Here it is cast as prose, gathered  in a single paragraph.  Nothing is sacrosanct.  Quotes from other books are used, and references to feminist theory and archival documents made.  So, non-fiction poetry?

Then there is Bloodroot. A personal essay/memoir about her mother’s dying, it is at heart a meditation on how her mother dealt with homosexuality and in the end, as death approached, found a way around it to her daughter.

With Fauzia, it’s her short story “Birth of a Murder” I return to. About the stoning of a baby in front of a mosque in Karachi, that was published in This Magazine in 1989. Her 2007 novel Skeena might be taken for as a portrait of that baby’s mother, for it’s the universal story of Muslim women. In this case, the little village girl become student in Lahore, and then a wife in Toronto and at each stage finds her wings clipped, confined to the prison within the family. (At the end, though, it is the Surrey Police in the aftermath of 9/11 who put her under house arrest.)

The group at Betsy’s reading were full ideas and interjections, and asked about the changes over time in her work. Not just the forms, but the ideas and arguments.  They expressed a delight in her reading, and I felt the same. It was as if Betsy had scored the passages she read. The repeated pauses, the drawing of breath.

When I introduced Fauzia to the gathering, she told us about the impact Obasan had on her when she read it shortly after arriving in Canada.  In Joy’s novel about Japanese Internment during the War she saw tremendous harshness and suffering, yet there was a gentleness, a kind of peace underlying the telling. She admired that, and aspired to do something similar in her own fiction.

Much of the talk that afternoon revolved around language — Punjabi, Urdu, and English.  Fauzia writes in all three, and she spoke about her voice differing in each. Several other writers joined in, Tariq Malik, Phinder Dulai, Ashok Bhargava, and Ajmir Rode included.

All of these writers have gotten behind a new initiative, Surrey Muse, which hosts monthly get-togethers at the Surrey Public Library with an open-mike and scheduled readers. “Interdisciplinary arts and literature presentations” which deliberately cross-over and invites intruders. It’s first meeting was on November 25th and I read along with Greek poet Manolis, and a very young and talented playwright, Sana Janjua, who read a passage from her play that had people in tears. The highlight of the evening was a young man who stumbled upon the meeting, and stayed to listen. He asked interesting questions, and before the evening was done, we’d ascertained he was a poet and pressed him to recite something. Which he did, in Ukrainian. (Manolis had also read in Greek.)

“I believe the writing we value is writing which springs from necessity.”                       — Betsy Warland

Writing for Social Change — Tara Beagan

Tara Beagan arrived on the redeye from Toronto on Sunday  morning, Native Earth’s annual playwrights’ workshop Weekesageechak Begins to Dance having concluded its 22th  season the night before.  A two week intensive collaboration between playwrights, choreographers, actors, directors and dramaturge, Weesageechak always ends with public “readings” of the new work. Well readings that are usually blocked out performances, and the actors often know their lines.

It was at Weesageechak that I first saw Dreary and Izzy, Tara’s play about sister love and loyalty across race, adoption and the ravages of foetal alcohol syndrome.  The play went on to full production at Factory Studio Theatre in Toronto, and even before it opened the response from one corner of the Aboriginal community was to demand it be closed. The objection?  Beagan was stereotyping the Aboriginal community by associating it with FAS.

The show went on. And Tara talked to us about being shocked herself when she learned about FAS. Despite its widespread effects, like many, she had had no idea. It was her sister, a schoolteacher in Alberta, who  first described its effects to her, and this was the inspiration for Izzy, the  adopted Native sister, and her younger “elder” sister Dreary.

The excerpt we read – I did the lines of Mrs. Harper, the white neighbour, and Tara did all the other voices – described the horror of newborns on withdrawal, as well as the grace in children like Izzy not understanding what they’ve lost.  At the heart of the play is the relationship of the two sisters, characters who rise to the occasion, defying stereotype.

Tara talked about how real events can spark a play — as a review in the Toronto Star of Native Earth’s production of A Very Polite Genocide, or the Girl Who Fell to Earth did for Anatomy of an Indian. Despite the backgrounder Native Earth prepared for press coming to see the preview of the play, the review used the term Indian in the first sentence. Apparently the Star’s “style guide” overruled the use of Native. The term Indian, it claimed, “while objectionable to some, is perfectly useable.”

The great thing about drama is the way it can bring rhetoric down to the personal. The play involved the audience and two actors (one Caucasian, the other Lorne Cardinal) who test out how “useable” insulting epithets are in real life. Write your own worst insult on a label and see how you like hearing it announced from the stage…

Tara spoke of several other plays that do that, take a dead-serious issue and turn it whacky.  In her short play Here, Boy, a gay couple and a homeless Native man who’s living in the park and trapping small animals for food are brought together when Maurice’s partner Dale decides to approach Jesse for an apology. Maurice, who’s inconsolable at the loss of his beloved pet dog , needs closure.  (Seriously. )

In short, keep an eye open for Native theatre/performance going on near you. Don’t think that it’s only for Aboriginal audiences.

Writing for Social Change — Eric Enno Tamm

Eric Enno Tamm was the second writer to visit Kogawa House. A journalist with two books to his credit, both involving historical figures, vast amounts of research and arduous travel, he arrived at the house with a slideshow in his flash drive. The living room wall became a screen, and off we went on a time-travelling tour of Central Asia.

Eric’s latest book, The Horse that Leaps Through Clouds, chronicles the five month journey he took overland from St. Petersburg to Beijing following the route taken by Baron Gustav Mannerheim in 1906, and likewise travelling by boat, train and on horseback. Mannerheim later became the hero of Finland when he outsmarted the Red Army and saved the nation in 1940. But in 1906 he was a spy for Tsar Nicholas II. Masquerading as an ethnographic collector, he was actually collecting information for the possible invasion of China. “He was the last Tsarist agent in the so-called Great Game, the struggle for empire between Britain and Russia.”

One hundred years later, Eric finds history repeating itself.  He draws parallels between that time and this: China opening itself to the West in the wake of the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and China’s contemporary embrace of Western capitalism; the battle between old authority and the forces for change, then and now, the clandestine presence of missionaries in the hinterlands, the efforts of the State to deal with the ethnic minorities by encouraging the emigration of Han Chinese to the region.

The little living room was packed — it only takes about twenty-five people! But it worked. The photos were vivid, the maps understandable sideways, and Eric is a spirited raconteur.  Even the appearance of late-comers couldn’t throw him off the narrative. The conversation afterwards ranged from the dangers of travelling as he does, of being a foreigner and a Caucasian, and to the challenge of finding guides and interpreters locally. But he also spoke of his research, which included putting in some time riding before leaving Canada as he’d actually never ridden a horse.

The photo here of Eric and Joy Kogawa — like the one above of Evelyn Lau with Joy, Todd Wong, and me — is a Kogawa House tradition.  No, Joy doesn’t wear the same red dress all the time. It is, in fact, a life size cut-out of Joy at the time of British Columbia’s 125th Anniversary when 125 significant British Columbians were immortaliozed in a special exhibit at the Royal Victoria Museum. All visiting writers are photographed with Joy.

By the way – don’t make the mistake of taking The Horse with you to read at the cabin in the woods. This is one  book you need to read with your mouse. All the pictures and maps you need are  on the book’s website, and it’s a fabulous added dimension.

Postscript: The Horse that Leapes Through Clouds has won the City of Ottawa book award for non-fiction.

Writing for Social Change — Evelyn Lau

A tradition at Kogawa House is the reading series Writing for Social Change. This year I have invited six writers to join me in what once was the Kogawa family living room, to read and talk about their writing. I have not restricted myself to non-fiction, as I find writers working with documentary — actual characters and real events — in all sorts of genres.

I began with poet Evelyn Lau whom I first heard about in the late 1980s. I was on a train returning to Toronto from Ottawa after an appearance with other artists at a public session on cultural policy, sitting beside the representative of the Canadian Authors’ Association. Not yet brain-dead after a long day of talk, we chatted about our writing projects and the books we were reading. He waxed on with great enthusiasm about a very young writer who’d written a book about her life after walking out on her parents at the age of fourteen to live on the streets. He was going to ensure her book was published. The man was Fred Kerner to whom Evelyn dedicated her book, and Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid was the bestseller that launched her career.

She followed that with You Are Not Who You Claim which won the Milton Acorn Peoples’ Poetry Award given to courageous writers who, like Milton, challenge mainstream complacence. Two years later, in 1992, Oedipal Dreams was nominated for a Governor General’s Award making Evelyn the youngest nominée in the award’s history.  And since then she has continued to push limits, court controversy, and to write stunning poetry.

I have always liked listening to artists in conversation with other artists; ever since I heard (and met!) James Baldwin in conversation with a small audience at a local bookstore when I was living in Italy in the sixties.  So the readings I host are conversations, too.  Evelyn read mostly from her 2010 collection Living Under Plastic, a title referring to Vancouver’s infamous leaky condos. These poems are about urban life, about death (her father, an aunt, several friends), about shopping malls, leaking buildings, and probably the trippiest poem you’ll ever read about mosquitoes. Seriously.

In Lau’s poetry, the nasty side of humanity is presented without fanfare or saving grace, yet with measured compassion. Even in her poem “The Pickton Trial” where she speaks of “the body’s memory of prostitution”, and depicts the universal experience of women living with terror in the shadow of indifference, she quotes the murderer saying “…once, I had a chance, for me, believe it or not…”

In between “sets” of readings, we chatted back and forth, and others leapt in with questions and comments. We discussed the sense of time in the writing of poetry versus prose, the business of writing about others, and what happens when you cross a boundary and make mistakes. Evelyn had a few tough questions for me on that one.  So it was a great afternoon!

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011, Vancouver Mayor, Gregor Robertson will welcome Evelyn as the City’s Third Poet Laureate.


In Net wikuhpon ehit — Once there lived a woman, The Painting, Poetry and Politics of Shirley Bear, Curator, Terry Graff. Fredericton: Beaverbrook Art Gallery, 2009.

"To know Shirley Bear is to experience her language, the Wabanaki language spoken by the First Peoples living in the valley of Wulustook (the Saint John River) and the community known as Negootkook (Tobique First Nation) where Bear was born and raised."

In 2009 the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton honoured visual artist and writer Shirley Bear with a retrospective exhibition called Net wikuhpon ehit — Once there lived a woman, The Painting, Poetry and Politics of Shirley Bear. It was curated by Terry Graff who asked me to write this essay. I met Shirley when the PEN International Congress was held at Harbourfront in Toronto in 1989 and I was chair of the Writers in Prison of PEN Canada.  As we had access to the York Quay Gallery at Harbourfont along with other rooms, the WIP Committee invited Shirley to open Changers: A Spiritual Renaissance there. Changers was a touring exhibition of contemporary Indigenous women’s art organized by the National Indian Arts and Crafts Corporation and curated by Shurley. The artists were Rebecca Baird, Shirley Bear, Rebecca Belmore, Ruth Cuthand, Freda Diesing, Faye HeavyShield, Glenna Matoush, Shelley Niro, Alanis Obomsawin, Jane Ash Poitras, Joane Cardinal-Schubert.

Download a PDF version (897Kb) of “N’tow’wik’hegat (She who knows how to make images).”


In Response, Responsibility, and Renewal — Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey. Eds., Gregory Young-Ing, et al. Ottawa, Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2009.

"Along with the narrative about the founding of Canada by both the French and the English came the notion—preached by the likes of Emily Carr and Marius Barbeau, as well as D.C. Scott—of Aboriginal culture constituting Canada’s ancient past, the prehistory upon which the modern nation could be built and with which an authentic Canadian culture could be fashioned.... The story of Canada I was raised on, thus, denied the connection between assimilation and appropriation, between the past and the present."

For several years I worked on the issue of Traditional Knowledge with Greg Younging who was a founding co-chair of the Creator’s Right’s Alliance in 2002 along with Michel Beauchemin and me (representing respectively Indigenous Peoples, Quebec and Canada). Greg was an editor of the second volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s anthology called Response, Responsibility, and Renewal — Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey, and following a conversation we had in Toronto about the non-involvement of Canadians who are not directly implicated in the residential school tragedy (ie. the State, the churches, the victims, and the individual perpetrators of abuse who happened to get caught) he suggested I write something. The third volume looks at “Cultivating Canada — Reconciliation through the lens of Cultural Diversity" and also makes the point that reconciliation is everyone’s business.

Download a PDF version of the essay "Both Sides Now: Designing White Men and the Other Side of History."

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