For years now, I have been a keen follower of IFOA (International Festival of Authors). I can recall Jamaica Kincaid describe the green felt hat her father wore as a good English subject in colonized Jamaica and I clearly remember Andre Brink from A Chain of Voices describe Afrikaans and English as the back and front tapestry of the same story .
When I taught at Northern Secondary in the 90’s, I had created a post-colonial course for the gifted. Looking for ways to connect my middle and upper class North Toronto students to worlds beyond their experiences, I had sought for them a variety of intriguing and thought-provoking activities so that the subject would not be of “ the other” but resonate with their own lives. I had begun the course work by asking how each student was similar or different from their own ancestors as I anticipated most had come from outside of Canada, and there were – at that time- no First Nations people in my class. So my thinking in drawing them in was to start with their lives before they were asked to reach outwards.
Was it Emerson who queried, “ Know Thyself?” I eased them into the literature by providing Margaret Laurence as their guide, a white sympathetic writer-lady who lived and embraced Africa. I dragged people with real knowledge and experience of Africa into class, once a student teacher, another time someone I had randomly encountered in a coffee shop. I was always on the lookout for diverse perspectives that would engage. These unscripted talks might have lead in dangerous directions, but fortunately for me, my students were passionately introduced to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro; collapsing in an obscure village into the kindness of the arms of African chiefs; dealing with malaria; teaching grateful students in Ghana; travelling solo as a woman through the country; eating new foods… I also used film to extend their understanding. How my heart soared when Meryl Streep caught Robert Redford’s hand as they soared above the African Plain in Out of Africa. And Kevin Kline leading his ethical charge against apartheid Cry Freedom. Wow! Finally watching The Gods Must Be Crazy and seeing how it captured my students’ attention made me realize the importance of laughter and the non-serious in teaching. The kids were hooked.
So sharing that there were speakers at Harbourfront (IFOA) was no huge leap.
I will never forget hearing J.M. Coetzee and running into some of my students who had also come to the lecture. I was delighted and surprised that they had taken their learning outside the classroom, not via an assignment or my pleading. When I was approached by Rohinton Mistry to speak in his place at TDSB one year, he related that a handful of my students had approached him during one of his appearances at Harbourfront and he had been impressed by their questions.
My close friend Anne is an inspiration to me and to her students and she still gives lectures privately so when she shared that there was a new and interesting writer on the scene, I quickly got and devoured her recommendation, The People of Tomorrow Are Not Afraid and I made sure to arrange for tickets for Shani Boianjiu this year at Harbourfront.
I should explain that David Bezmozgis was the interviewer and Bezmozgis is close to my heart. Not only is he author of Natasha and Other Stories (2004) about growing up in the Jane-Finch area, but his latest book Free World (2011)taught me a lot: one of the purposes of a novel.
Besides that, he used to be a film maker. When my son was at law school, Bezmozgis decided to do a documentary film on the up-for-grab situation that young lawyers might endure in order to eventually land a job. David advertised for law students to be in his film, The Genuine Article. As part of the film would concern the home lives of the three ingénues, David came to our home to scout it out. What endeared him to me was that he came with a cherry strudel. Maybe his Russian parents taught him that it is polite to bring food when entering a new home, maybe it was just a tactic to win over the mother of the law student; or maybe he was ingeniously scouting location. Whatever. There was something sweet, welcoming and winning about the act and I remember his first visit here and subsequently, a respectful film crew and resultant intelligent and thoughtful documentary.
In any case, Bezmozgis would ask the questions to Boianjiu Unfortunately, it was what I would call a non-interview with Boianjiu sitting at right angles to Bezmozgis. Twirling her hair – as my young students used to do-, looking bored and did not really responding to his questions. Bezmozgis on the other hand was no better.
With no smile and a furrowed brow that suggested he was deep into his own reflections, he offered obscure questions that went on for several minutes. When he finally asked her what the aim of her writing was and she responded: to relieve suffering , he rephrased surprised , and then added, “ You mean to tell the truth?’ She paused and as if considering that was a good enough answer, concurred “ Yes”.
An irreverent and rude question from the audience -I hate audience participation- at the end of the so-called interview succinctly summarized the relationship between interviewed and interviewee: Is your aggressive attitude representative of your country ( Israel) or just your own personality?
Boianjiu’s answer, well, comments were perhaps more insightful than the questions she hadn’t answered. She stated that both David and she were speaking English but were not speaking the same language. I thought that was true. She, tired from so many interview tours, maybe annoyed by his questions that rambled on, had grown up in Hebrew ( although the book was written in English). She speaks and thinks in computerize in clips and symbols. Her world as a teenage girl in the Israeli army, no doubt full of jargon and slang, quick and appropriate responses to military commands could not be more different than David’s.
Besides, he had not engaged her or gone more deeply into her story of who she was. Even as part of the audience, I felt her deep emotion and heard her voice tremble slightly at the mention of her own mother who had passed away –and likely an inspiration for her last chapter in the book.
But, he had let that moment pass and missed an opportunity to discuss something meaningful to her.
Interestingly, I did listen to an interview on NPR and although only 6 minutes long, it provided insight into her characters, her themes ( of borders) and portrayed her as responsive and sensitive to not only the questions- but the interviewer.
What does this all have to do with my writing a Boomer Blog you may ask.
First, I was piqued and bugged by the interview both by Boianjiu’s insouciance and David’s muddy, self-absorbed manner. But something that Boianjiu said, made me laugh ironically.
He asked what was the reaction to her book in Israel. She said no much although where she lives there have been some magazine articles published about her and she occasionally gets calls from people she knows who say, “Oh Shani, I heard you wrote a book”, change of subject and not much interest. She said I’m tired of talking /explaining to 60 year old women ( who don’t get it).”
As a more than 60 year old woman who is a reader, I get it. I get her.
I get the stories of young girls who flip their hair while reading and say “ like” about a million times.
I get my students who attend lectures on books ( like the IFOA) because it introduces new world to them and extends their delight in exploring new vistas.
And yes, once I too was a saucy 26 year old and I never believed I’ld be 60 either.
My stereotype of the writer who expresses herself as beautifully and thoughtfully as Boianjiu was blown apart by her comment. It embarrassed me. And it should have embarrassed her too.