Let me tell you a story, a clumsy little story.
Not once upon a time, but this very day, or precisely yesterday, or surely tomorrow, a newcomer joins the old-timers of our city who were once newcomers too. Well, that’s just the way things happen – not that the oppressive powers of a poor country imposed it or the thoughtful policymakers of a prosperous country planned it. Strangely enough, the newcomer of our story is a novelist who is not lucky enough to write in the pachyderm language of the world or even in this country’s second official language. Yet, more than other immigrants, he lives in a world of imagination and dreams of what might be possible in the land that gave the world Anne of Green Gables. I suppose you don’t want to ask me, “Why?” Or do you?
People always say that immigrants go through a hellish ordeal in order to gain future benefits, either for themselves or for the next generation. That’s just the way things are – not that there is a pre-planned pattern for it. It’s simply the price of living in the Promised Land. Strangely enough, our immigrant writer in the honeymoon stage would be more than happy to pay any price to live in a Wonderland where he could write his novel, A Middle Eastern Double Bind, without worrying about censorship and other restrictions.
Despite the fact that our writer comes from a land haunted by magic realism, he is realistic enough to expect that it takes time to get established in a new place – no matter whether it’s hell or heaven. After all, the fact that Canada has room for all comers doesn’t mean that immigrants get treated to a red carpet. Furthermore, our writer’s ears are sharp enough to hear the first lesson: “An immigrant is an animal without Canadian experience.” So he has to forget everything other than “Canadian life experience,” which means, first and foremost, finding a foothold in a city constantly stretching to accommodate more and more immigrants. Moreover, our writer’s memory is fresh enough to recall that even in his native land, the answer to the question “What do you do?” should be anything rather than “I’m a writer.” Because if he answered that, the next question would be, “Wonderful, but what’s your job?” Our immigrant novelist decides to temporarily sacrifice the Double Bind he longs to write in order to get bread, if not butter. Strangely enough, hunger and lack of a roof over the head have a way of defeating the pen. That’s just the way things happen – not that anything’s wrong with any particular social system that doesn’t treat writers well.
Soon it turns out that what at first looks like a mere hiatus is going to become a life sentence. Our protagonist works hard, jumps from one survival job to another, improves his English as a Second Language, takes a never-ending series of evening courses, and grabs any kind of Canadian experience in the hope of getting a better-paying job and finding the luxury of enough free time to read books instead of newspapers or flyers and, most of all, to finish his poor Double Bind. Strangely enough, our hero, still optimistic, tries to write the novel in his mind while running to work or to school or while labouring at an assembly line or in front of a bakery oven. Time passes and brings about a change of status and a few extra bucks, at least to the extent that our new citizen can indulge himself in a cup of coffee in a Starbucks, read news about literary events and, if it doesn’t conflict with his work schedule, even attend an arts event — if it’s free. Yet, these aren’t the only changes. Rapidly his physical energy and health are being undermined. The more our former novelist experiences the Canadian lifestyle, the harder it is to call himself a writer and to remember that he had wanted to write A Middle Eastern Double Bind. Well, that’s just the way things are – not that the new country or even the old one has any hand in that.
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(Story continued below)
If the first lesson for the immigrant is that he lacks “Canadian experience,” the second one is that he must develop the hide of a rhinoceros. Strangely enough, the immigrant writer of our story is determined to get back on track and reclaim his literary identity. He then encounters the roadblock question, “Do you have any books published in English?” Blaming himself that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be trampled by the elephant of English, our immigrant writer summons enough energy to translate some of his works into it. From the start, our suspect writer knows that this, at best, cannot be anything other than a long shot. What becomes frustrating is that the time he squeezes in for translation means that time is stolen from finishing his Double Bind. But that’s just the way things happen – not that the policymakers of Canadian arts and culture disregard the golden “Multiculturalism Act.”
Well, if you expect a neat ending to this clumsy little story, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Strangely enough, the story of an immigrant writer whose first language is not one of the major European ones is at best nothing but A Canadian Double Bind. This immigrant, who was once a writer, takes refuge in Canada to escape from an authoritarian regime that didn’t let her be a writer by making his homeland a cage. He chooses Canada as a new home because of its fame, not only as a democratic peacekeeping country but also as a land of multiculturalism. Alas! It turns out that lack of censorship doesn’t necessarily guarantee writing and living as a writer. It also turns out that the chosen land cannot be anything more than a purgatory, if not a hell, for a writer who doesn’t write in English or French. Besides the challenges of immigrant life, which can be overcome in a way or another, this writer likely encounters a high risk of losing his professional identity. To overcome the latter, the possible scenarios are: (a) He ignores the English market and keeps writing in his mother tongue, being content with getting published abroad by small publishers with no distribution system and a tiny, random readership. He thus remains a stranger on the CanLit scene. (b) He quits writing in his first language and starts writing in English. In this case, he sacrifices his mother tongue to English and proves that multiculturalism is nothing but a myth. And, even if the writer succeeds in producing a work of quality in English, he is unlikely to compete well in the market with English- speaking, Canadian-born writers. (c) He strives to keep a balance between his dual identities and languages and chooses translation as a medium. In this case, because of the lack of institutional support, the writer has to bear his own cross and function as a translator.
Anyway, one may say, “That’s just the way things are.” — not that anybody is wrong, other than the person who wants to live and die as a writer.
Fereshteh Molavi was born in Tehran in 1953. She lived and worked there until 1998, when she immigrated to Canada. She worked and taught at Yale University, University of Toronto, York University, and Seneca College. A fellow at Massey College and a writer-in-residence at George Brown College, Molavi has published many works of fiction and non-fiction in Persian in Iran and Europe. She has been the recipient of awards for novels and translation. Her first book in English, Stories from Tehran, was released in 2018; and her most recent novel, Thirty Shadow Birds, was published by Inanna Publications in 2019. She lives in Toronto. You can find her on Twitter or on her website.