A fine site

Archive for the tag “post-colonial”

Killing Mockingbirds

One can barely look at the papers, and face the upheaval around the world: that targets racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Comments here that we do not share a long history of systemic racism are of course untrue, for discrimination has been ingrained in our and practically all societies worldwide. Whether sexism, gender, language, ability and disability to the most obvious- colour.

Arriving in 1966 from India, world renown writer, Bharati Mukherjee commented, “My many years in Montreal… had a profound… permanent effect on me.” In 1977, she left Montreal for Toronto, because she was called a “Paki,” presumed to be a shoplifter and harassed by house detectives in a hotel “in front of an elevator-load of leering, elbow-nudging women.” She explained that she was shocked, outraged and “shaken to the core” when three high-school boys in a subway taunted, “Why don’t you go back to Africa?”

Yet today, one believed that barriers were receding , but as I have also written, even in this pandemic, we are not all in this together, re: Covid 19 in spite of the flowery kumbaya slogans. For statistics, no surprise, declare that it sure makes a whooping difference where you live, and what circumstances wherein you find yourself, and the colour of your skin. Years back and even now, I am not discounting the Jewish or experience of women, both groups to which I belong. In deed, our Chief Justice Bora Laskin was once prohibited from joining law firms because he was Jewish, and only permitted access to the privileged Rideau Club in Ottawa in the 60’s , the first Jew on the Supreme Court. So it has been substantiated in many situations, our country too has a long relationship preventing equality for multiple groups.

I was thinking in particular about my own discomfort in teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, now on Broadway, a favourite because of the perceptions of Scout and her liberal lawyer father Atticus Finch who teaches you can’t understand a person until you walk in their skin: “ You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” , he teaches Scout, gently.

Although I truly understand the concept of empathy, I always cringed teaching the novel because Tom Robinson is wrongfully accused and convicted, eventually shot as he attempts to flee. ( Shades of Amy Cooper in Central Park? ) My discomfort had to do with the story of a person who cannot escape the mark of prevalent racism and is pronounced guilty. Justice shown to be both blind and unfair.I used to ponder that stamp put upon my black students who read of the hopelessness of their travails, doomed, and our teaching this book that reinforced the fate of all black men and boys.

Even teaching sympathetically, cautiously, with awareness, I worried that the Sisyphean depiction of the black man who cannot climb up and out of America’s contempt for his race would be burned in the imagination of every black child who read the novel.

One year in my class, in a mainly white public school , there was one black adolescent in the sea of white faces, and I struggled how to present, while not singling him out, or making it a story about him: which it was, of course. What message was being sent to this young man, a sterling student, a fine young man? I continued to ruminate, how best to teach this, trying to focus on the goodness of Atticus, the honest curiosity of Scout, without labouring the overwhelming motif, that no matter what you do, you will land up in prison, likely die there, unjustly accused for being born black. Good or bad, your fate has been written. I grappled with the issue, attempting to find balance where there was none, a fictive world of realities, an important picture of America with lessons that needed learning, but I, a white onlooker, like Scout and Atticus, was merely a witness, watching, outside the horrors upon which we could comment, but not known viscerally in our bodies or our nightmares.

I agree that it is a very good novel, and written from the eyes of an innocent, a child, we could have some license, yet it pained me to have it on the high school curriculum. In my Post- colonial course at the same school, we chose books written by Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Bucci Emecheta, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, encouraging indigenous voices to speak for themselves, but also along side, an occasional insightful white too such as Margaret Laurence, but foremost in that class, the life experiences were told by colonized oppressed persons.

I thought, too, of some of the other staples in education. For example Lord of the Flies. Were we also teaching fat boys with asthma and spectacles would wind up murdered because of their characteristics? Of course not, but if you resembled Piggy, maybe you began to look over your shoulder too as you huffed up the stairs. In curricula , there’s a plethora of books that dispel that fate, which in deed is rare: child murder by one’s peers, but in To Kill A Mockingbird, Tom may be the only black protagonist encountered throughout a child’s years of schooling. Where were the triumphant images of success that declared you could surmount, you could lead your life and not worry about some lurking cop?

Even my course, the Post-colonial one, I believe, was reshaped by another teacher, introducing it with an essay by a British colonizer, lessening the actual voices of the oppressed. And do we as teachers, shy away from difficult talks and situations? Are our hands tied by political correctness, eschewing problematic, societal issues? I hope not, but the message in the book, for black men and boys gave me pause.

We want to teach to develop empathy in the white kids, even strange white kids like Piggy or the misfits who do not conform, are tattooed and pierced with purple hair, the Holden Caulfields of the world. How must they feel, fully cognizant that even today, there is no escape from a life without a future, spared perhaps a few kindly hushes of a few good people? It is more than disconcerting.

Yet I trust that because I have not been in the classroom for a long long time that the staples of learning have grown to include more and a wider range of voices and experiences.

Back in the 90’s, I wrote for an American magazine called Multicultural Review, before “diversity “ became the word to examine lack of opportunities, schema, stereotyping and what could be done to , if not overcome, at least address the inequalities.

But the wake of the murder of George Floyd brings back Rodney King and the long twisted road that has barely improved. Besides, even in the single attack of a 75 year old man, knocked down and backward by police in Buffalo , only days after police brutality that ended Floyd’s life; and the orders to bring out the troops firing tear gas and rubber bullets on friendly peaceful protesters upholding their rights, we must despair. Where is the humanity, the desire to be in this together, and rise above partisan behaviour? It makes a soul weep, both black and white. And likely even the angels are shrieking.

I acknowledge that black history is our history. All around the world from Berlin to DC, we’re repeating that truth. And if it could be taught, Tom Robinson would not be stopped and arrested. He would be sitting on Atticus’s porch, playing cards in the sweet air and freedom of being black in America and elsewhere. Contemplating a future without fear.

Mothers’ Day Rant

It makes me chortle to think that I sound like my mother more and more.

I never thought I’ld say that. But as time goes on, I wonder what she would have thought about the things I grumble about. Actually I kinda know – as she always hated Trump, but we have our own mini Trump as a premier in Ontario, a politico who has taken aim at the exact motherhood issues so close to a parent’s heart- safety, daycare and education of our children.

That one will be able to purchase booze at 9am and drive faster on the highways builds into the mentality of adolescent boys, drunk with the idea that they are embracing freedom. There is all ready so much rage on the roads, frustration, delays and pent up emotion, all feeding into these stupid reversals that I cannot fathom even the idea of pressing forward with these initiatives . Driving drunk is no joke and I think of the mother’s who organized MADD, based on he heartbreak of losing a child in a stupid stupid accident. And fairly recently an entire family,three children and a grandfather were destroyed by a soon to be groom returning from his bachelor party in Las Vegas. Can you even imagine such a tragedy for a mother ? Truly, for what purpose should liquor be made available to wash down your toast and marmalade?

And the assault on libraries also breaks a mother’s heart. For me, escape, relaxation development of imagination along with precious time spent bouncing along side my own once youthful mother to and fro to the library were joys I will never forget. I see in my mind’s eye those Saturday mornings curled on a Library couch, devouring a book while my sister and mother chatted and browsed- and on the way home, happiness of happiness- a detour for a thick creamy straw- stopping milkshake. Treasures I will not forget.

And now that libraries have been transformed into community aid, activity centres and outposts of computers, they serve a greater need, especially for children in rural areas. They are sanctuaries, escapes, and unlike malls where the object is to purchase something or just hang out, the library provides a quiet ( or not) space to think your thoughts, research , or discover an author you never knew existed. The kindness of librarians sharing their personal excitement like sticky raspberry jam rubbed off on me.

Elizabeth Renzetti in her Saturday Globe article It blows to be a kid in On­tario now, but they’re still our best hope for the future states,

“I’m not sure where to even begin detailing the provincial government’s betrayal of the province’s children[ and by extension, mothers] , so vast and senseless has the chaos been. Should we start with the families whose children live with autism…That was a big betrayal, but the small ones hurt, too, such as the government’s decision in December to cut funds for after-school programs and in­class tutoring. Let’s get them out on the street instead, where they’ll learn to make small change buying weed in parking lots. It’s the new math, so favoured by this government…”

It is brutal to cut these supportive services for kids, particularly those families at risk along with the employees drawn to their profession because of their passion for reading, learning, kids and the desire for creating better futures for those who need them most. Even in this fast, crazy technologically influenced world, my own grandsons with all their gizmos, adore the library and the opportunity to just meander about there. And after school daycare at their school is a festival of intelligent activities that stimulates minds by people who truly care.

All this has to do with educating the mind and the soul, finding sources upon which to grow. Without a strong public investment and interest , necessary support will fade and one of the last bastions of a thoughtful society will disappear. The Nazis, of course, burnt books. Libraries in Cairo, Alexandria, Baghdad, the University of Mosul destroyed by Isis were all put to ruin because of a dictator’s belief in their damaging potential to spark a person to think and offer fresh or alternative perspectives, dangerous to the ruling powers. Knowledge lost. Democracy abandoned , a forbidden concept.

People once more controlled- and maintained ignorant like messy teenage boys in their desire for drink and fast cars. But isn’t that what is wanted? Politics that cannot brook any opposition because the tyrant believes himself omnipotent, his or her way, the one way.

How shattering when mothers aspire for a better, kinder, more compassionate world wherein everyone’s pursuit is not solely for self- serving, selfish means. On the one hand, present day initiatives apparently celebrated for cooperative collaborative learning, team building; on the other, disbelief in climate change and zealots who refuse to vaccinate , thereby endangering their communities and returning us to epidemics of crippling diseases. In a world turned so public by Facebook and social media, lack of care for legal aid should be a priority , a rallying cry for those in society who must draw on those services.

In deed, it is a strange world that has stretched out in my 70 or so years, those post war, baby boomer years of working towards equal rights for women, minorities, introducing diversity throughout society from books to equal opportunities for all. I recall the early beginnings of my postcolonial classes before a multicultural focus was even on the horizon and parents of the gifted class worrying that teaching Achebe from Africa and Marquez from South America were poor substitutes for Shakespeare, damaging their offsprings’ success at university. I recall when people smoked freely in restaurants, the others wrinkling their noses at the smoke and the smell.I remember the wonder of computers as big as desks and telephone so awkward they could double as dumbells. I even remember the emergence of Chargex the forerunner of Visa and plastic credit cards.

Ah, to sound like one’s mother, fretting, complaining at change. And yet change that does not improve life does not serve a societal purpose. So often my mother would raise one eyebrow and smile her secretive smile. I guess she knew. And now, maybe I do too.

To condo or not: when a house is a home

Yesterday as I sat savouring a chocolate almond croissant in the window of Petit Thuet, I was spied by old friends. We gesticulated through the window pane until I finally invited them into the tiny space between the cash register and the window. We quickly caught up on kids, travel, old friends and then R. said,” We’ve moved into the Ports Condo.” My mouth dropped open as I loved their former house, spacious with a big yard in North Toronto.  

 I nodded that I knew The Ports and recalled my epicurean initiation with my aunt and uncle, both now dead, who introduced me to gastronomical treats at The Ports of Call when I was barely out of adolescence I recalled valet parking at a huge location at Summerhill -divided into four or five dining rooms, each suggesting a different cultural food offering venue. I seem to remember vermilion silk curtain, suggesting perhaps an invitation to Far East experience, but I’m not completely sure. It was a hopping night scene, most unusual for staid Toronto 50 or so years ago. I conjured even then that this might be a replica of New York or LA’s dining scene. I had no actual factual knowledge but gleaned it was a place where the rich, glamorous and elegantly dressed would dine, especially on Saturday nights.  

My Aunt Marion always felt she should extend my education, particularly in matters of art and taste. I would make my first travel trip outside of Canada and the US with them: touring Scandinavia, Finland, Amsterdam and London the summer I turned 18. We visited hospitals and mixed age homes, all with a view their socialist leanings. We wandered through ramshackle synagogues barely subsisting. My aunt would lapse into a kind of perfect Yiddish and exude a warmth reserved for me, but not my parents at home.We dined in fantastic restaurants and to this day I recall the scrambled eggs at Madame C- something in London which must have been so expensive to make my aunt gulp; and humungous strawberries eaten with a Voice of the Women advocate in Oslo. We wandered in Vigeland Park in Norway, pausing to seriously discuss the sculptures, and we noted how Rotterdam was modern and industrial as opposed to quaint Amsterdam.  

But the subject with the old friends was condos. They had a particularly long closing, their house snapped up almost immediately and now they were praising the ease with which they walked out and down town. I think you do live in your neighbourhood and certainly when I left the College of Teachers, located on Bloor, I almost begrudged dragging myself back to St. Mikes for my hearing aids or my shopping through Hazelton Lanes once within easy lunchtime walking distance. Now it seems I hardly trek downtown anymore, preferring not to pay for parking or become delayed or entangled in the rhythms of trafficStill vestiges remain- of relationships, rituals and certain services, so I do return. 

But running into this couple did trigger thoughts of location. At present we are committed to staying where we are until we cannot manage our two cluttered stories. It’s convenient when grandkids come to play, me introducing them to our space with treasure hunts that cause them to discover our dark unfinished basement, peruse my cluttered art room, or investigate beneath the table in the extra bedroom. There is room to hide and be alone and store all those unnecessary books, memorabilia I cannot bear to part with such as the X-rays of my daughter’s fractured arm when she was in Grade 8, my notes from Peter Melon’s art history class in second year university, the animated books created by my students in that Postcolonial class and my portfolios from international presentations when I worked at the College. I keep them because as Jean Paul Sartre taught: they are pieces of ourselves and we shared a relationship with them, intuiting that those now forlorn pieces helped us to know ourselves, to grow and evolve. To those who would downsize, I say bravo…but of course I know that eventually we will have no choice but to toss those dusty mementos and move on. But for now, they provide comfort, an expanded sense of our own trajectory and evolution. They are like the extra layers that keep us warm, arming our souls. Perhaps they are psychically necessary, or others might conjure, just crutches.  

For the time being, I cast my eyes at the bird feeder loaded with Muskokoa birdseed that has attracted cardinals, goldfinches,blue Jays and a woodpecker with a huge wingspan.Although the garden never replicated Virginia Woolf’s Sisinghurst all in white: that was my intent. If I squint a little I can even relive the tents and all female musical assemble that held my friends and colleagues one perfect spring night to celebrate my doctorate in 1996. I think of the surprise( and not )garden parties to mark birthdays and marriages and my elder girl’s wedding in our living room, intimate and cosy on a snowy day in January. Even my scowling mother at her 80th , angry at me for now a forgotten reason is part of the tapestry held within these walls. As an extension of one self, I think of the monochromatic colour scheme of our den and my own paintings based on our trips to China and Peru that add to a presence and make a house a home.  

ith our place in San Diego, it too is being layered with items of love, designing a space that speaks of us and to us when we excitedly burst in. But its size us small, a condo, and likely a forerunner of a place we may retire to – if or when we do depart this sanctuary where our children were raised and formed into extraordinary humans. Littered with toys, music, and the need of growing children, our kitchen table in our nook was/is the centre of discussion, and coming together as a family.  

I guess that is it and as John Polyani might agree- as I write this I discover what I did not know I knew- my attachment to my house resembles another family member, more than a space, it symbolizes who we were and are as a family. Its four walls more than restricting have embraced us, kept us and our secrets safe, connected us,entwining us with love and shared memories. When we leave we take all that with us, our house gently removing itself from us physically . 

But not yet and hopefully not for some time to come.


I’m not sure why certain books or sayings lodge in our brains. I often say I’ve got Teflon brain because not much seems to stick; having said that, there are things that I think I remember clearly and one in particular is lodged from a first or second year French class at U of T ( University of Toronto).

We were studying La Nausee by Jean-Paul Sartre, likely the translation back in the 70’s, that imprinted on me. I recall Sartre saying that we keep objects around that we have had relationships with- that our teddy bears and even our hairbrushes speak to us. The connection between the object and our consciousness of it reasserts our identities because it connotes who we were at a particular time and in a particular place. It extends the “I think, therefore I am” of Rene Descartes, as our selves are reasserted by the toys and paraphernalia with which we engaged once upon a time. I shouldn’t be surprised that many of the great philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and others were well versed in the magic of mathematics and science, going deep beyond numbers and ciphers to contemplate an “otherness “ that stood for something more.
Think of how the word “Rosebud” and the role it played in the film “ Citizen Kane”, supposedly based on William Randolf Hearst, the newspaper magnate. Interestingly the film was praised by Jean-Paul Sartre so he must have admired the connection between word to evoke a life story.

I recall a Friday night dinner at my parents when my son was a small boy. He paused peering over the edge of his chicken soup and queried, “Maybe I am just a thought in someone else’s mind. “My mother guffawed, “ Jordan, just eat your soup”.

But in terms of “rosebud,” and the precious trinkets we feel unable to pitch, I’m not referring to those who hoard like my Auntie Marion whose library was overflowing with books or magazines she was unable to discard. We had to navigate through piles of past newspapers even in her livingroom to reach a chair in her house. She recalled Dickens’ Mrs. Haversham to many of her nieces and nephews.

I am talking about those objects we keep around us that do remind us of events, people or specific times. As I sit here by my kitchen window at my computer mid- December I glance at the 10 or more cards on the granite island from my husband’s birthday (July 31) and even our last anniversary (July 2). I even spy one from past Valentine’s Day. Besides what I rationalize is an informal art arrangement, this impromptu exhibit provides colour, design and texture to a room that holds pots of orchids, my recent paintings, a corner full of my grandchildren’s pursuits such as Mad Libs, markers, puzzles and stacking bears…. Yes, I admit “clutter”.

However, my table is a place where my family gathers and where I paint and write. There used to be a birch tree outside that practically cradled the house, but recently it had to be cut down. An outsider arriving here might wonder at the carefully arranged chaos and only realize it is a kitchen because of the stove and frig.

I absolutely need these props. Birthdays, celebrations, bric-a-brac or photos that speak to my life filled with significant events that fill me with happiness and establish a barrier to the bad things that creep into my mind and torment me with worry. They are a shield, a panacea of love and establish balance.

I am an admitted worrier, although as my husband points out, worrying does no good and neither stops what might occur. Superstitiously I reflect that worrying is an amulet that will outwit bad events from unfolding. After all, Jews believe that if you give a sick person a new name, the Angel of Death will fly over him or her unrecognizable and hidden by a fresh moniker. However, I can think of many times, I did try to think good thoughts, but they failed to stave off the inevitable onslaught of trials and tribulations.

I think I am not alone in my penchant to surround myself in good vibes. Many of us cherish our photographs: usually group shots of families, vacations, trips that remind us, make us feel lighter, happier. And how many holocaust victims rudely forced from their warm beds and permitted few possessions did not grab for a photo? I once read a book about the inmates in concentration camps maybe Ravensbruck or Terezin who curried together scraps of paper, and cut into bits of leather recipes from their former lives that were resplendent with memories of warmth, love and family. Some dreamed of the aromas, felt the press of their children’s bodies or re-envisaged the smile of mother: all evoked by the words “ cream… butter…”.

I have been called a cynic but for most of my life I actually naively expected people to behave honorably, but for the most part, have been disappointed.

That is the miracle of Nelson Mandela. In spite of an excruciating hard life, separated from his family and home along with the daily punishments and bonebreaking work, he did not lose his optimism. In deed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1996 where murderers, arsonists, rapists were given amnesty when they admitted their crimes was a miracle of belief in the power of forgiveness.

Films such as Cry Freedom that give voice to Steve Biko’s tortures, Dry White Freedom, or The Power of One deplore apartheid. When I developed my Post-colonial classes at Northern, these movies taught the students more than I could. Most contained montages of images that dramatized moments that were fraught and composed in the pain of the people in South Africa,1976. Imagine my delight when visiting the Hector Pietersen Museum in Soweto, South Africa and discovering the images in the films were the real stuff, actual saved documentation used in the production of the movies. A film is, of course, a distribution of images that can endure and together form a work of art. Fortunately someone decided these pictures were worth saving to record the past.

So I am back to my perpetual theme of art, a clutter of things that holds meaning for me-or for you. That clutter that reaffirms what we find important, what we treasure and hold close, what we maintain that encourages us to continue on, persevere.

It is however, the Nelson Mandelas who are so much more than the scraps that surround us in our daily ventures. The Nelson Mandelas who stop time, who do not allow us to linger in the past and drone on about the good, bad or particularly ugly old days. And yet, it is all paradox for without the past, the memories, the photos, the mementos that evoke a former me or you, we could not forge on, and we could not hope to change what has gone before, resurrect what has been good, human and worth preserving.

Post Navigation