Monday, April 4, 2011


On March 29, 2011 a typically dull auditorium at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) was transformed to a platform of amazing literary talent, transporting us from the blueberry farms of Abbotsford to the wheat fields of the Punjab.

In its 6th year, hosted and presented by The Centre for Indo Canadian Studies and the Department of English at UFV, Ehsaas South Asian Readers and Writers Festival highlighted three published authors and three emerging writers; all six writers have roots entrenched in Indian soil.

I took my seat halfway up the theatre style seating with a quick glance at the other attendees – a nice representation of local ethnic groups among the crowd of about 55 men and women.

Our literary journey began just outside Bombay. The first reader of the evening, Anosh Irani, read from his third and most recent novel, Dahanu Road, where we meet Zairos, a young landowner’s son who falls in love with Kusum, a former servant’s daughter. With a provocative writing style and a talent for exposing the taboos of such a relationship, Irani held the audience captive; we nodded, “mmmm”d and giggled in response. During the question and answer period of the event, Irani recounted an exchange he once had with a listener at one of his readings who told Irani he was not comfortable with what Irani wrote. Irani skilfully and truthfully replied that he did not write in order to make anyone feel comfortable. Kudos to him for speaking the unspeakable and daring his audience to come to grips with different realities! Readers around the world are all the better for it!

Irani turned the stage over to Tariq Malik whose recently released book, Chanting Denied Shores, pins down a shameful event in BC history – have you heard of the Komagata Maru? If not, sadly, you are not alone. As I remarked to Malik at the end of the evening, my grade 12 socials studies teacher spent about ten minutes on this tragedy. Malik’s emotional reading from this book prompted me to pick up a copy on the spot in the hopes that I can brush up on this piece of BC history that took Malik 4 years to have someone publish. After all, most small publishing houses in BC are funded by the provincial government. Thankfully someone was brave enough to publish it.

And finally, we reached our Canadian destination with Gurjinder Basran’s book, Everything Was Goodbye, set in her home town of North Delta, BC. Basran dives right in to the heart of the issues facing the Punjabi community, particularly its younger female population. From arranged marriages to abuse to societal pressures, no topic is left untouched. Basran read the first few pages of her poetically written narrative – and I was glad for it. Her first sentence had all of my senses engaged with each word – read it and you’ll see why! Basran advises other female South Asian writers to keep their work safe and precious while gaining the support of a larger literary community. When you are ready to “come out as a writer” you will already have the confidence in your gift and the support of enough people to see you through. Well said!

As Trevor Carolan, professor of English at UFV, remarked “Every literary community needs its well-known writers, newly published writers and emerging writers.” It was a real pleasure to hear the raw talent of 3 local emerging writers: Kusum Soni, Mandeep Wirk and Ramandeep Jenny Ahuja.

I don’t think anyone in the audience could hold in their laughter when a very humourous Soni admitted with a twinkle in her eye that writing is like an orgasm for her – when the time comes, it has to be done! I certainly cannot argue with that as I have been known to creep downstairs to my computer at 3 am or retreat to my closet for a pre-dawn writing session. Soni’s poetry bursts with the beauty of Nature and her obvious devotion to the Sacred. The first poem she read was in Punjabi and so I understood about 2 words, but I hung on to each utterance, enjoying the rhythm and Soni’s undeniable joy.

The stage turned over to Ahuja – an up and coming writer to watch for! A fourth year English student at UFV, you’ll know her one day as the Punjabi Girl Growing up in Abbotsford, the title of her recently completed manuscript. That night she read her review of Gurjinder Basran’s aforementioned book focusing on the topic of family honour. It was insightful, blatant and oh so close to my heart. With just the right combination of references to Basran’s work, and observations of the South Asian community, Ahuja demonstrated skill, courage and the promise of great work in the future.

And who knew I’d meet a well-traveled non-fiction writer of Punjabi origin born in the same city as me – Mombasa, Kenya? Mandeep Wirk, a freelance writer and journalist, was born in this port town on the East Coast of Africa, moved to England, then Canada and then worked in Japan for five years. She read an article she had written for an art magazine with the underlying theme of the East-West relationship. Wirk also reminded us that this year’s South Asian Readers and Writers Festival was in honour of the centenary of the National Historic Site Gur Sikh Temple in Abbotsford.

And what a celebration it was! When the readings concluded, we feasted on Indian treats, mingled with the authors and had our books signed. There was a buzz of excitement in the air that I don’t think was entirely attributable to the sugary barfi! I’m definitely looking forward to the 7th South Asian Readers and Writers Festival!

If you’d like more information about this annual festival, or the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at UFV, leave a comment here. Also, I’d love to know which arts festival you most recently attended!