Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Visit to Calgary Part Two

A note on my last post. It was written before I saw Nik Korpon’s review of Pink Icing, which is why I was pleased that Nik said what he did about my narrative disappearing act.

It’s my second day in Calgary. Tuesday, March 3rd.

From Aruna Srivastiva’s office, to which Robert Majzels has so kindly brought me through ice and snow and melt, I can glimpse a strange, bare landscape. It’s not just the emptiness of winter. It maybe looks as if someone has skinned the earth, as they would skin an animal, and what I’m looking at is what’s underneath. The mountains ringing the city on the low horizon are like folds of skin, pulled back from the exposed torso and piled up at the sides of the excoriated body of the beast.

I’d heard about Aruna before I met her – we had friends in common. We talked a bit before going off to her class and she told me some more about the course being done by the students with whom I’d be visiting. She’d already said via e-mail that English 492 is a course on postcolonial and globalization studies in which students look at literature in the context of cultural and political issues. They worked in groups, and so did not often meet as one large group, and they were mostly well motivated, and got on with what they had to do. I was interested, especially in the fact that they were assessed in non-traditional ways (one being that they blogged) rather than by means of tests and papers. I told Aruna that it seemed like it would be a lot of work to mark, more harassing than correcting papers, and she admitted it was.

But it would obviously be challenging for the students and would offer insights into their progress, a grasp of how well they were acquiring skills and knowledge and navigating concepts. Also, she would quickly have a handle on any problems they might encounter.

Aruna had been concerned about the student turnout and lured them with the promise of food after the class, which I subsequently told her was a lunatic thing to do, because I think every man-Jack was there! I enjoyed the session. Via an Internet hook-up, Tracy, an admin assistant, if I remember right, who would normally have been present except that she was ill, could participate. We all waved to her on camera and she waved back at us. The students were alert and interested and clearly very bright.

I was a bit angry with myself, though, for getting distracted. I found myself talking about getting published, what constituted a bestseller in Canadian and American terms, etc., etc. I wish that I’d just stayed with reading stories and poems.

Aruna treated us to dinner in the grad lounge, good food and vivid cocktails. There was lively chatter, somewhat constrained by the fact that we were at a long, thin table. Across the table from me was an Asian woman who diverted us with a tale of being thrown out of a bar by a bouncer. She never went to bars, she said, and this one time had all been a crazy mix-up. Beside me a white Canadian woman spoke of spending summers picking mushrooms that grew wild. She loved it. She told me which mushrooms – it might have been morels, which grow wild in British Columbia, but I can’t remember now.

It wasn’t a very mixed group, racially, and the evening ended with an interesting conversation – by that time everyone had left and there were only the five of us – between three white young men, one of Finnish heritage, one Danish and one of Bosnian background. They discussed racial purity, which I got the impression they all thought they had. Aruna is East Indian. I am a child of so many admixtures that they are lost in the mists of generations of miscegenation.

I would see Aruna again before the end of the week, to share a cup of tea and a slice of Jamaican plum pudding at the house of my friend and hostess, Cecille DePass, a Prof in Education and another innovative teacher. Cecille was why I was in Calgary to begin with. She had approached the Department of English in 2007 about having me do a reading at U. of C., to wind up my mini tour of Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton, and that had led to the current invitation. Louise Saldhana came with Aruna. During tea, Louise and I hatched a project concerning children’s literature.

It was a privilege to be with these women, as it had been to meet Mutriba Din, Senior Financial Analyst at the University. Mutriba had us to dinner before my reading at Pages the day before. Cecille DePass, Aruna Srivastiva, Mutriba Din, Hiromi Goto, Louise Saldhana, Larissa Lai, Nadine Chambers, Noga Gayle, Yvonne Brown, Jean Springer, Julie Hendrickson – women, most of whom I met on these two trips to the west. Dionne Brand, on a visit to Vancouver in fall 2008, described a “world beneath the world,” meaning the world that would have existed if all the dire things that have snagged it, had not. In a recent blog post, Larissa Lai referred to Dionne’s affirmation of the existence of this under-world, and observed, “There are women… actively making that other world...”

These are some of those women.


FSJL said...

Pam: "Miscegenation" is a word first coined by racist opponents of Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. They sought to imply in a pamphlet that Lincoln was encouraging forced racial amalgamation. (See: http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/Hoaxipedia/Miscegenation_Hoax/)

What the raas is racial purity? All human beings are the descendants of the same original human stock that originated in Africa about 150,000 years ago, and so we are all related to each other, even if we look different. Furthermore, thanks to war, migration, and all that other fun stuff, there's been a whole lot of shaking going on. I think I've mentioned my father's Jewish heritage before (the one he was mightily ashamed of), and that, I believe, is not something unusual in Jamaica.

Race is a social and political construct, not an irreducible fact of biology. This is something that occasionally horrifies my students when they venture outside the United States (as when they go to Britain, and call black Londoners "African-Americans", and are then shocked to discover that this is taken as an insult; or, in the case of a bright young woman who stormed into my office after a semester in the Dominican Republic and demanded to know why they didn't think they were black).

clarabella said...

FSJL: Well, yes, thanks, I know, and further, that all human beings are descended from a single placenta... One, and only one. (Which would give fundamentalists a lot of ammunition, or maybe not, because their heads would have to stretch into impossibly large notions of time and history?) These young men knew that too – one spoke of two origins of the human species, the major African one and a very minor other one – for they were very bright and articulate and, I must add, thoroughly pleasant persons, but still, if I understood them properly, they thought they were 'unmixed'.

FSJL said...

How they can be unmixed when so many armies have ramped across Europe, not to mention all the other stuff that's gone on through history and pre-history, I'd love to know.

The Beeb did a programme a few years ago on the genetic heritage of Britain, and as part of it did some DNA tests on a more-or-less random assortment of Brits. One farmer in Yorkshire turned out to have recent African ancestry. Came as a surprise to him.

clarabella said...

Hi FSJL: The mixed blood farmer reminds me of the recent/current plight of black women professionals in Britain who have to deal with 'white' women, in trauma because, consequent on having a child diagnosed with sickle cell, they have discovered that they have – OMG! – black blood!

FSJL said...

Black blood? Last time I looked blood was red, and blood types had nothing to do with "race". My blood type, for example, is distressingly common in Ireland.

So I'll be afther wishin' ye a good evenin' now.

clarabella said...

FSJL: I'm about to try to write about Henry Louis Gates's arrest and incarceration, and the outrage at Obama's comments that 'fueled the fire' of discussion about race, racism, and racial profiling in America – none of which exists, as we all know. But back to the previous matter: I have to confess the greatest admiration for these women counselors in the UK. Imagine my coming to you to be comforted, distressed beyond imagining because I'd just discovered we have an ancestor in common? Which is essentially what these 'white' women are doing, of course. Happily, more and more young people here in TO seem not to care much... It's a small consolation – double entendre intended. Peace. And plenty.