Karen Connelly is an award winning poet and the author of seven books of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. Her most recent novel is The Lizard Cage . Born in Calgary, Alberta, she has spent most of her life living abroad in Thailand, Spain, France, and Greece. The work she has done with Burmese writers, artists, and political activists has influenced her own writing, which often focuses on political oppression and dissent.
Fereshteh Molavi is the author of The House of Cloud and the Wind, The Sunny Fairy, The Orange and the Lime, and The Iranian Garden. She is also a respected scholar and translator. Born in Tehran, she moved to Toronto in 1998 and is a member of PEN Canada. She is currently working with Yale University to develop a Persian collection for the Sterling Memorial Library.
This exchange is an excerpt from the chapbook Listen to the Reeds, published by PEN Canada in the spring of 2005 as part of a series of dialogues called Readers & Writers.
►indicates jumps within the original text
Listen to the Reed
While I was reading the PEN proposal about exchanging ideas with an established Canadian writer, I had two opposing thoughts. One was "This is totally new!" At first glace, whatever is new looks appealing: it reflects the rich ambiguity of untravelled paths and undiscovered lands. As a mental adventuress, I am more than happy to set out once again, this time accompanied by a writer named Karen Connelly.
Then I heard another inner voice muttering, "But this doesn't accord with your style!" Up to this moment I've never written anything because of an order or recommendation or even a suggestion. So far I've put pen to paper only whenever I've felt an urge to express myself. This has been my commitment throughout my writing life. Yet publishing whatever I think is something that gives me pause. I know we're living in a reputable democratic country where there is very little formal censorship, but hidden barriers impede me from openly expressing my impressions about many things. Here is a very trivial example: I wanted to start my letter this way:
The first letter you wrote to me made me so happy. Why? Well, I was exhausted by the boring job I have to do in order to survive physically. To tell the truth, while staring at the screen to find a record, I usually feel miserable because instead of wandering in my imaginary wilderness I have to keep all my attention on details about codes and signs and so on . . .
But just guess what would happen if my employer happened to read these words and found out her employee was not interested in her job at all? Don't you think I'd better keep my mouth shut?
Nevertheless, I do want to correspond with you! I'm sure you're overwhelmed by this long introduction, but I had to make it clear that I am writing now to an unknown friend rather than for an unknown audience. It is a blessing for me to exchange ideas with you. During the last five years I haven't had a conversation with a literary figure outside my native language community. From the moment of my arrival as an immigrant in Canada, the most valuable part of my identity flew up to take refuge on the dark side of the moon. It's been invisible not only to others, but also to myself.
My illusion before I came to Canada was that I would be able to make a living by working as a professional at a library, as I did in Iran, my native land. In my free time, I would write without any fear of social and political restrictions. The reality has been very different: though I don't have worries and despair caused by political and cultural limitations, I also don't have any time, for all my energies are tied up in the struggle for economic survival.
Since my arrival in Toronto, the proud bookworm has metamorphosed into an ineffectual breadwinner. I work every day, plus four evenings a week. The irony is that, in the immigration process, I got considerable points as a librarian because my profession was on the list of wanted professions. But five years of constant efforts have not led me to a librarian position in any of the numerous libraries of the Greater Toronto Area. Proud of my experience in information studies, I had no difficulty in searching and accessing information. I referred to different centres offering job hunting workshops, attended training programs and computer classes, learned "how to sell" myself. I did volunteering; I met counsellors. I applied different methods, from online to cold call, and so on. God knows how frantically I tried to find a way out of this vicious circle!
Gradually I recognized the barriers. There are common obstacles caused by people's attitudes and routine procedures: ignoring foreign names while canning resumes, underrating foreign credentials, being actively biased against "new immigrants". I'll point out issue reflecting systemic discrimination: my master's degree, obtained from an internationally recognized university, and also one of my advantages in the process of applying for immigration, was useless here. Practically, Canadian employers (in the library science field) recognize only ALA (American Library Association) accredited qualifications.
In a word, my case is just a simple example of so many cases of professionals and skilled workers condemned to dismiss their abilities and capabilities just because they were born in the "bad" part of the world.
What an introduction! Your honesty is refreshing: I'm honoured to have an "unknown friend" writing to me and just telling it as it is. My situation is very different than yours, but I know something of what you mean. I'm a willing immigrant: right now, in Athens, I am constantly reminded of the extent of my privilege as a Westerner. There are many Pakistanis, Nigerians, Filipinos, Kosovans, Bosnians, and Albanians in this big, crazy city, and the struggle they experience is written on their faces, hedgingly spoken about in conversation at bus tops and at the edges of the street cafés, where they go to sell trinkets and pirated CDs and where I go to drink coffee. Greece is a country where crimes against the Other are easy to commit; racism is often overlooked and even tacitly encouraged. It's changing here, but very slowly, and the xenophobia is intense and overt, especially against the impoverished migrant workers.
My own struggles pale in relation to theirs, and to yours, but they still keep my mind awake at night, and my spirit divided. En bref, I continue to be torn about here to live my life-here, because my partner lives here-or in Canada. I've spent much of my adult life abroad, in Europe and Asia. A little stone hut on a Greek island has been my most enduring home. I don't intend to compare myself to you-and certainly not to a Nigerian or Albanian living with 12 other men in a flat in Athens. In many ways, I consider Greece my home. When it comes to finances, I'm not rich, but I'm not that poor either. I'm also fully acclimatized here, speak Greek fluently, read the language not badly.
But I am still Outside, especially as a foreign woman in a very patriarchal culture. The state of Otherness has always fascinated me and continues to do so. Learning about the experience of The Other has probably been the most important part of my education as a human being. Much of this came from living among poor people in France and Spain. In Spain, I lived in the Basque country-a nation of historical and cultural otherness-and in France I spent almost a year in the Arab ghetto of Avignon, which is also where many Gypsies live. I was in my early 20s at that time.
In a curious way, my education in Otherness has helped me to understand my own country better. We can say all we want about the joys of multiculturalism-and there are real joys-but being a foreigner means living on a faultline, inside a fracture. More and more people in the world live inside that fractured reality.
When I was younger I didn't miss my own country when abroad, but now I do. I miss being so far from my family. When it comes to literary culture, I long for more connection to Canada and to other writers. Though I speak Greek, I know my voice does not count the same way a Greek man's does. In conversations with Greek men about politics or social issues, my voice is not heard-I am tuned out. The world "feminist" in Greek-feministria-is like a terrible insult. (Not very different than in Canada, I suppose.) For so much of my life, literary community didn't matter, but I now long to have like-minded people around me. I want people to listen to me when I speak. ►
Let me say that I was moved by what you wrote about Greece and your experience as an outsider. I read this part of your letter many times and enjoyed it very much. I've never been to Greece, but I understand that sense of "Greekness" with its side effects. In the ancient world, Greek civilization was one of the proudest among others-including Persian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian. This pride brings forth a sense of history that may result in a misleading "self-aggrandizement". Besides, while some of them-like the Mesopotamian-disappeared and Egyptian civilization underwent a regressive metamorphosis, and Persian civilisation faded out to the extent of a phantom, Greek civilization survived by breathing its spirit into the body of Western culture and history.
The discourse on the Western approach toward the universe and the Easter, and the differences between them, appeals to me very much. Each has its advantages and disadvantages: the Western attitude tends to keep a distance form the subject matter in order to examine it in the most precise way, and the Eastern one is inclined to see the observer or examiner as part of a unique whole. Eventually, life is nothing but a series of connections and disconnections, attachments and detachments, desires and "non-desires". Would it be possible to avoid the tragic sense of the duality that is the essence of existence? No way! That reality is what we have to face. In the meantime, let me confess: No matter what my Western logical part dictates to me, my Eastern emotional part still misses the Middle Eastern landscape very much.
►I think that having a sense of historicity is usually contaminated by xenophobia, which-in some cases-may also be a defensive reaction to potential foreign danger, rather than mere maliciousness. In Iran, average people bear xenophobia as a part of the collective unconsciousness. They are also very conscious of, and were hut by, Great Britain's colonialist ambitions, not to mention the increasingly domineering USA. So although Iranians don't forge their historical hospitality and their general receptivity to "superior foreignness", they tend to stick tot heir clichés when encountering British or American foreigners.
When Afghanistan was haunted by the Taliban, mainly poor and helpless Afghanis rushed to take refuge in Iran. There were many cases of discrimination toward Afghan refugees; part of this was rooted in a historical memory of neighbours who invaded.
What you've written in this regard supports my idea about considering mutual com-and-go as a way of examining the world's problems, so many of which are caused by misunderstanding and miscommunication.
►Looking over your letter, I believe that your poetic identity is the source of your deep concern about The Other. I'm not a poet, but I do know that writers and poets have a talent for identifying with others-writers mostly with other people and poets with any Other, including, and maybe mostly with, nature. I'm among those writers who believe that literature doesn't com from vacuum; on the contrary, it is generated from life. And in order to have life, you have to live to your full capacity; that is, the writer cannot create life by sitting in an ivory tower-unless she or he can bring real life to it.
No, I haven't spent much time in ivory towers, especially in the last few years.
►Whenever I leave rural Greece, that is my greatest sense of loss.
By departing, I willingly cut myself off from the land where my body and should belong, where I have learned to listen best. There is no other landscape on the planet where I belong the way I belong there. I make sense there, which translates directly into how I sue my senses. The olive tree, the sheep, the narrow dusty track past Panago's house, the wild creatures that inhabit the fields where I live, the seasons of a day and of a year, the thick white band of the Milky Way shifting over the house as the night deepens, the garden I've made there, the children I've seen grow up, the old people I've known who've passed on in the village up the hill.
Even being in Athens seems like a betrayal of the self that longs only for that landscape and its many faces. When I first "go home" to the island after a long absence, I greet it by crying. I cry that I've been away for so long. I cry that I ever left. And I curse the other part of me-the more intellectual, Western part-that needs more than what my isolated little island village can give.
To wit, if I feel that way about an adopted home, I can only imagine what you might feel about your birth country, Iran. Identity is intrinsically bound up with landscape and culture.
►If you look in the mirror and say "identity" what do you think of?
►Your question about identity is a very challenging one: I live suspended between two worlds. First and foremost, for me, the answer is language. To make it clear, my own identity now is the language. ►In an essay called "English Has Raped Me!" I tried to explain what I feel about my ideal language-which is my definition of myself as a writer-and what English as a second language has imposed on me.
►It's not easy to look in the mirror in search of identity when you are stripped of all your labels and covers. But it is a satisfying experience worth the trouble because you can see your naked self, vulnerable but also original. I look at the face staring at me and find it sometimes variable and sometimes constant. Apparently, it looks like what others see when they look at me.