Established and emerging immigrant writers who should be on your must-read list
“Migrant writers are part of two literary traditions: the tradition of the place of their birth and those derived from their new homeland.”
That quote from Rabindranath Maharaj pretty much sums up what it means to be an immigrant writer in Canada. And there are many established and growing numbers of emerging immigrant authors who are writing stories informed by this duality. These stories, often about displacement, rootlessness, struggle and the universality of the immigrant experience, have become an important and compelling new genre of Canadian literature.
Here are some of today’s must-read works of fiction by these diverse writers.
Must-reads on the awards circuit
Lebanese-born Rawi Hage is not new to acclaim and praise. His debut novel, De Niro’s Game, won the Impac Dublin Literary Award; his second, Cockroach, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize as well as the Governor General’s Award. His fourth and most recent, Beirut Hellfire Society, also made it to 2018 Giller Prize long list.
Hage’s stories are borne out his experiences in wartorn Beirut, a city he was forced to leave to be exiled to Cyprus, after which he made his way to Montreal via New York. His latest novel also talks about death and the ritual surrounding it.
Another author on the Giller long list is Vietnamese-born (and RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant) Kim Thúy for her new novel, Vi. Thúy’s writing inspiration stems from her early days as a refugee to Canada. In her books, she relates her struggles of growing up in her adopted country while dealing with the ghosts of her past. When asked by the Toronto Star in 2012, when her debut novel, Ru, had just been published, if she had always aspired to be a writer, the Montrealer simply said, “I just took on whatever came to me … a typical immigrant. I just felt lucky to have a job, or the skills and tools to be able to cope with whatever came my way. I’ve been so busy learning what I needed to get by in my life.”
And among this year’s Giller shortlist this year is Singaporean-born Thea Lim and her debut novel An Ocean of Minutes. In this compelling read based in the U.S., the Toronto-based writer challenges the reader to confront contemporary issues such as social class, immigration, citizenship, corporate power, poverty, love and loss.
All three authors certainly deserve the accolades for their contribution to the Canadian literary scene.
Rising-star writers to read
Israeli-born Ayelet Tsabari’s debut story collection, The Best Place on Earth, won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Published internationally to great acclaim, Tsabari is currently in Israel working on her new book, The Art of Leaving, a memoir about growing up Mizrahi (referring to Jews of Arab lands) in Israel and about growing up with grief and how the two shaped her identity and influenced the choices she made in life.
Tsabari, who teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education and was Toronto Public Library’s Spring 2018 writer in residence, says she struggled to get her words on paper during her initial days in Canada. “I started writing in English, my second language, after eight years of living in Canada. Before that, writing in my second language seemed inconceivable, and since I wasn’t using my Hebrew very often in Canada, I ended up just not writing at all,” she says.
“The experience of migrating to Canada greatly informed my writing, and I think the experience of writing in a second language runs parallel to the experience of immigration. I write from one place about another place, in one language about another language, and this duality, sense of displacement and in-betweenness inform and inspire my work in terms of themes and style.
Essayist and novelist Manjushree Thapa also deals with this duality, and feels the need to visit her native Nepal when she wants to write. Before immigrating to Canada, Thapa was already a published author, having penned two novels while studying in the United States as a Fulbright scholar. She was known in international literary circles for her literary reportage, Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, published merely weeks before the royal coup in Nepal in 2005.
“My transition was smoother, but it was also difficult in the sense that Canada has so many writers … there is already a community here. So, in that respect, it’s daunting to find your way here. The concept of CanLit was unfamiliar to me and I spent the first four to fives years just reading and catching up,” she says.
Thapa’s just-released book, All of Us in Our Own Lives, straddles her new and old worlds, Canada and Nepal. But she flips the immigrant experience, and her protagonist Ava, a Bay Street lawyer in Toronto, is struggling to build a bond with her country of birth, Nepal, rather than her adopted country.
Emerging voices to watch
There are many new immigrant writers writing and getting published in this space, from Pratap Reddy to former Canadian Immigrant columnist Mayank Bhatt, who published his first novel, Belief, last year.
Read more: The story of new author Pratap Reddy
An emerging writer to definitely watch is Aparna Kaji Shah. Born in Kenya and raised in India before immigrating to Canada, Shah’s collection of short stories, The Scent of Mogra and other Stories, was a long time in the making. She wrote her first story in 2004 and the last one this year. The stories are about women fighting challenging situations in male-dominated societies by tapping into their inner strength.
Shah, having gone back and forth between India and Canada, admits to being in a strange space when it comes to her writing. “I feel like the distance from both countries helps a great deal — one sees India in a sharper focus having lived in Canada. The contrast between both societies is something that I have always thought of. I’m affected at what happens in India, what I see and hear in the daily news reports coming from there, but yet there is a distance because I’m Canadian, too,” she says.
Shah finds that Canadian readers are interested in the new immigrant voice and how newcomers are settling into their new environment. Now Shah is onto her next adventures — a novel set in 18th-century India and another book exploring the impact of displacement and rootlessness. “It’s an exhausting but deeply satisfying process,” she says.
When talking to another emerging immigrant writer Anubha Mehta about her novel, Peacock in the Snow, the passion in her voice is palpable. She describes it as a “genre-bending thriller about the power of love, sacrifice and the tireless capacity of people to hope, strive and succeed despite impossible circumstances.”
The Indian-born author has had quite a decorated public service career in Canada, having worked as the diversity officer at the regional government of Peel. People she met and the stories they told her during this stint informed her voice as a writer. Mehta herself immigrated 18 years ago and experienced what most immigrants who’ve left a good life in their native country to come to Canada do — change, isolation, but also excitement about the adventure ahead.
Perhaps part of that feeling led to the story of Maya, the protagonist of Mehta’s novel, who comes into her own by conquering her innermost fears and false expectations set on her by society around her. “I got the feeling when I first started exploring the idea of writing that if you are an immigrant, you are expected to write only about loss and being the victim. I wanted my voice to be so much more than that,” she says.
Getting her book out was a major challenge though, but Mehta’s book finally found a home when she approached a feminist publishing house in Toronto. Already working on a sequel to Peacock in the Snow, Mehta finds time to update her own blog with resources for new writers.
“My own journey has provided me with the insight that as writers we need to find our own voices and tell our own stories in whatever way suits us best,” she signs off.