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Archive for the month “November, 2013”

Ramblings about teaching post-colonial literature, IFOA and being 60

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.

Hello. This is my first blog

A Boomer’s Blog

For the first time in almost five years since I left my job in education, I am excited about not finding BUT creating for my self another job.

It’s been a funny ( not haha) week as someone I know from exercise class was downsized. She’s a boomer too and as she struggles to find a new job, I can recall how I felt / feel about not working.

At first, I was hopeful and sent out resumes. I followed up leads, used my former contacts, friends and colleagues from faculties, and really kept up sending out resumes , knocking away at those proverbial computer doors.

For the most part, I didn’t know what to do with the hours in the day. I had always multitasked: even doing a doctorate while working full time when I was a teacher and bringing up three wonderful kids. I worked in the evenings, took courses in the summer and when I could find a crack in my real world schedule as a teacher years ago. When I moved to the College of Teachers, I was a valued employee whose work, books, presentations, great ideas and contributions to the profession along with published journal articles and two books demonstrated my commitment to task.

Leaving OCT was hard. So I knew what my exercise friend was experiencing. Some people are better able to build a new life, find new friends, even locate the new better and more perfect job. My friend can barely get out of bed. My advice was to walk. Get out of the house and walk. Make sure you have appointments and places to be. She wants to pull the covers over her head. Barely two months and she knows what the writing on the wall is telling her.

Part of the problem is that she is also a boomer. That translates into “old, been there, done that” and even though she wears fabulous Manolo Blahnik shoes, strides with a bounce in her step, goes to rock concerts and is conversant with blackberries and all things that belong to the 21st century, she, like I are, no longer young.

And unlike cultures that value mature  citizens, our world sees us as the dinosaurs of the day. At least in the minds of the hirers. Just think of who works at Google. Maybe  some CEOs are  stretching towards 40, but few are straggling 60. ( yikes.  Even as I  write “60”, I kinda freak…)

Which brings me back to me.

Over those four or five years, I have had occasional jobs. I helped develop the standards at another College and do their Implementation strategies. I’ve written several travel articles and was even sent to Nevada for 10 days with real  journalists. I swear my writing is as good as whatever you will read in The Star or the Globe. I’ve even ( repeatedly) sent perfectly worded requests for interviews to local community newspapers. I can write about child rearing, cultural exhibits, restaurants, things in the news  or the umpteen places I’ve been as well as anyone. I’m literate. I can be funny. I know the jargon.

But, when last week I read a story in The Star about Pom Pom Camp in Botswana ,my heart seized: because I had submitted one so similar and yet  mine must have landed in the shredder. ( I’ll let you decide in  an later offering, what you think about my travel narratives such as buying silk in Thailand ,etc.)

I’ve had a few lunches where I have been chatted up for possible jobs. Almost in every case, I’ve been so helpful, so willing to get something going that I wound up working for free. One woman didn’t know how to download , cut and paste a project and refused to pay me. Others have asked to have me critique their powerpoints or their business plans, and in hopes this is a test run or maybe just a demonstration of my abilities, I’ve done it. I’ve just been glad to be asked and treated as a person with knowledge and skills  to be shared. Yah, I know, that’s my problem. My own loss of confidence and desire to prove I can still dazzle. But let me tell you, not working makes a person vulnerable to self – doubt.

My daughter, a very wise woman says if you’ll work for free, why would anyone pay you. The old why buy the cow, if you can get the milk for free. So she suggested I self publish and write for myself.

Hey, didn’t   Julie Powell turn her cooking of Julia Child’s recipes into a self satisfying endeavor?

So here I go. This is my first article and so far, you know  a bit about me. Maybe I’m still pandering as I hope someone will read  my words, have a laugh or smile,  and have  some insight into the mind of one boomer.

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