Tears of Mehndi by Raminder Sidhu

Raminder Sidhu’s ambitious debut novel Tears of Mehndi (Caitlin Press, 2012) seeks to capture the story of the Indian Sikh community in Vancouver’s Little India over the past thirty-five years. The story begins in 1976, with a shocking racial incident—a small Sikh-owned grocery store is vandalized, with chocolate milk splashed everywhere; the graffiti reads “Hindu brest [sic] milk for free.” Now, this is a very cleverly crafted anecdote, doubly conveying the depth of ignorance faced by the Sikh community. But if there is racism without, there is oppression within. Although the Sikh religion regards the sexes as equal,
traditional gender roles dominate in a largely patriarchal community known to prize izzat (honor/reputation) very deeply. As ever, it is women (and their bodies) who bear the brunt of such fervor–there’s an over-riding imperative to produce male children, strictures to keep girls chaste and unworldly, and inevitably, so-called “honor” killings. The issue is compounded by the hostility of the outside world; for instance, believing that Canadian education is only for
those willing to integrate entirely and erase their cultural differences, some Sikh parents withdraw their daughters from high school.

There’s some first novel-itis going on, with Sidhu attempting to say *everything* about this community in 237 pages, and the unwieldy cast of characters (eight different first-person narrators!) meant I gave up keeping track of whose daughter was clandestinely meeting whom about halfway through the story. But Sidhu has considerable authorial strengths, notably including her unflinching gaze and her deep insider knowledge of Indian Sikhs, as revealed in anecdotes thrumming with life and honesty.

When oppression is seemingly bound to tradition, in a minority community already under siege from the outside world, dissent can seem perilously close to betrayal. In such an environment, community is everything; the universe is divided into Apnay Lok (our people) and the goray (white) outsiders. And within the community, battle lines are drawn not just around gender, but skin color, religion, degree of Westernization, and even old regional loyalties (for instance, a character remarks that she doesn’t like another woman who is from the other side of the river in Punjab, where women are said to be very cunning). Sidhu seems to say that our definitions of community define us; we progress as humans when we adopt affiliations beyond the ones we were born with.

(This review appears in the current issue of Herizons magazine.)

Canada Day Book Giveaway!

UPDATE: This giveaway is now closed.

It’s Canada Day on July 1, and along with a host of other Canada-based  bloggers, I’m giving away a Canada-themed book to mark the day. Huzzah!

I’m giving away the acclaimed YA novel Karma (2011), by Calgary-based author Cathy Ostlere. Karma is a 2012 Canadian Library Honour book, a 2012 Booklist Editor’s Choice, a 2012 South Asia Book Award, Highly Commended Book, and is shortlisted for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award.

About the book: Fifteen-year-old Maya and her father Amar arrive from their home in Canada into a seething moment in India’s history.  On October 31, 1984, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two Sikh bodyguards, and the assassination leads to Sikh families being killed in retribution; Amar and Maya are Sikh. “Karma is the story of how a young woman, straddling two cultures and enduring personal loss, learns forgiveness, acceptance and love.”

Reviews: “With its sweeping, even soaring reach, this novel contains a range of earthly experiences and emotions as well: love and death, hatred and evil, joy and engulfing sorrow as perceived and experienced by its two beautifully drawn teen protagonists…” (from The Globe and Mail)

“In her YA debut, acclaimed adult author Ostlere offers a riveting, historically accurate coming-of age tale of gutsy survival, self-sacrifice, and love. Set during a six-week period, the novel in verse makes the most of its lyrical form with lines of dialogue that bounce back and forth in columns across the page and singularly beautiful metaphors and similes that convey potent detail and emotion.” (from Booklist)

If you’d like a spanking new copy of Karma–let me know in the comments! This giveaway runs from June 28 to July 1, and is open to US and Canadian residents. I’ll pick a winner on July 2 using Random Number Generator.

Do check out the other giveaways too! This Blog Hop is hosted by Aislynn of Stitch Read Cook, Chrystal of Snow Drop Dreams and Carmel of Rabid Reads. Please click on the linky to see the full list of participating blogs–I don’t know how to post the list here.

(All book-related information in this post is from the author’s website.)

Update: Thank you to all who entered this giveaway. The winner as picked by random.org was #15 — Shannon of Giraffe Days.


Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami

Tell it to the Trees begins with a richly suspenseful scene where thirteen-year-old Varsha Dharma discovers a frozen body outside her home in the town of Merrit’s Point, BC. Who is the dead woman? How did she arrive at her death? (And: what a solid opening hook.)

The Dharma family consists of the grandmother Akka, who came from India to Canada upon her marriage and the father Vikram, whose abuse drives his first wife to flee leaving behind their  young daughter Varsha. Vikram subsequently marries the docile Suman, and Varsha, who fears abandonment by this (new) mother as well, vows to keep the family together despite the fractures caused by the father’s violence.

Frustratingly, the impact of Badami’s valuable message about domestic abuse–the complicity of those who look away, the conspiracies of silence in abusive marriages and the resulting damage upon children, and violence in turn begetting violence—is diluted by her prose. One of the pleasures of reading an accomplished novel is the sense the author trusts us to meet her halfway, and compared to Badami’s prior work (three novels  including Tamarind Mem, which I liked very much, and The Hero’s Walk, which won the Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), this fourth novel often feels curiously heavy-handed and repetitive. For instance, Varsha remarks,  “Nothing makes him [her father] more heartbroken than to beat my naughtiness out of me…He is doing it for my own good, after all, he has no desire to see me turn into my mother.”  And a few pages later, “Poor Papa, it’s not his fault that he has to be hard with me sometimes. I know he’s worried I’ll turn out like my real mother.”

Furthermore, Tell it to the Trees breaks no new ground in analyzing the cultural scripts of South Asian immigrants, who often prioritize social status and family cohesion over personal happiness; instead, we are treated to elementary lessons on arranged marriages, dowry deaths and subjugated women, all in overwrought yet unsatisfying detail. Consider this paragraph where Suman describes her friend Lalli’s marriage.

“…Lalli was packed off with a dowry of five lakh rupees and two dozen gold bangles and a Godrej refrigerator and a motorbike for her husband, only to end up hanging from the rafters of her new home, the mehendi from her wedding still wet on her palms. Her in-laws wailed and beat their breasts and said that a mentally ill girl had been passed on to them without their knowledge, but the rumors that swept around the gullies were that her mother-in-law wanted more gold bangles and her father-in-law wanted an air conditioner and her new husband wanted a car instead of a scooter. When Lalli’s father refused to oblige, her in-laws strung her up like a criminal hung for murder. “

Upon reading this, I wrote “too easy” in the margin of my text.

Also contributing to my disenchantment was the dreaded explaining note (infesting so much immigrant writing) creeping in. “…to celebrate a  festival called Karva Chauth when prayers were sent up to the god Shiva…”  Surely we’ve passed the stage where readers must be told Karva Chauth is a festival? That Shiva is a god? (And doesn’t sending a prayer imply a god at the other end anyway?)

In all fairness, the scenes set in India (that so aggravated me ) comprise less than a fifth of the book, and Badami’s  descriptions are far more measured and sure-footed when the narrative takes place in Canada–she nails  the novel cruelty of a Canadian winter for the newly-arrived, for instance. And in the second half, when Badami stops educating the reader and gets on with storytelling, the book comes alive.  The characterization takes off,  the tension picks up, and the narrative acquires a satisfying momentum leading to a an emotionally charged, vibrant finish. When Varsha repudiates the impotency of childhood with a steely determination to prevail, it made me shiver.  Tell it to the Trees is  an adeptly plotted, beautifully structured work about an important issue, but in the final reckoning, I was unable to embrace it fully. Sigh.


Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami
Knopf Canada, 2011

A much shorter version of this review appears in Herizons magazine.

A reading with Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston and James Bartleman

I attended the World Literacy Canada reading at the Park Hyatt Toronto earlier this week to see these three authors.  There was a line-up, of the sort you’d expect to see at a samizdat store selling discounted iPads; literature isn’t dead, you doomsayers.

(L to R: Johnston, Bartleman, Mistry. Pic from worldlit.ca)

First on stage was James Bartleman, whom I’d never heard of prior to this event: the more fool I. Bartleman is a former career diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, Bangladesh, and Israel, so he must have been awfully good at his job. He was then Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2002-2007, and yes, I should have known this.

Bartleman talked about the background of his novel As Long as the Rivers Flow, about First Nations kids entering suicide pacts and killing themselves at age thirteen because their future lives seemed to be pointless. It was heart-breaking–I found myself tearing up, and I’m not a crier. The parents of these children were mostly survivors of residential schools, where they’d faced years of racial (and often, sexual) abuse.  Obviously, if you’d been plucked away from your parents at age six and then returned to them at sixteen, after undergoing ten years of barbaric treatment, you’d have little knowledge about how to provide a supportive atmosphere for your own children. And this isn’t comfortingly ancient history–according to Wikipedia, “the last residential school, White Calf Collegiate, was closed in 1996.” WTF. WTF.WTF.

I’m a little fearful of reading the novel–I think I’ll wait for the fall, by which time I’ll hopefully have gathered up my courage. Oh, and  Bartleman (who is a member of the Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation) has advocated for many years to build literacy in First Nations communities, and to date, he’s gathered over 2 million books for this initiative. Holy wow.

Next up was Wayne Johnston, who spoke about injecting fiction into historical nonfiction for narrative balance–and the consequences  of that decision when he began the publicity for his book, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (which deals with the history of Newfoundland). I don’t know much about the subject, so I’ll just say that Johnston is an excellent raconteur with a fine repository of accents, and leave it there.

My blog giveaway winner Mayank and I were both madly excited to hear Rohinton Mistry, whom we count among the best writers in the world. (I spent twenty minutes with a flat-iron in Mistry’s honor before setting out to the event. No, nobody noticed.) Mistry read from his short work The Scream, which was originally available back in 2006 in a limited edition of 150 copies, and sold exclusively by World Literacy Canada to raise funds for them.  The original edition was priced at $500, and the proceeds went to literacy efforts in South Asia; the book is now available for $15.68 on Amazon for us cheapies.

Mistry’s intense, dramatic reading had me glued to my chair, but sadly (for me, that is), his session was confined to his book–he didn’t talk about his writing process, and there was no Q&A after, so I have no news or insight to offer about his work. He did however mention he was working on a new book, so we can all breathe easy and cross off Christmas presents for an upcoming year. I’d planned to buy The Scream and get it signed, but the booksellers ran out of copies, so I had to content myself with his signature on my program. Which I’ll treasure forevah!

And finally, a big shout-out to World Literacy Canada, for all their work in bring people and literature together, both here in Toronto and all over the globe. There was so much positive energy in that room that night, the sort of energy produced when you are having a good time and doing something good. That combination doesn’t occur often in my life; I can’t wait for next year’s Kama!

Mother’s Day at the library

Okay. I hate that the complicated, intense emotions  surrounding motherhood have been co-opted by corporations on the principle that every occasion can be leveraged to flog stuff. Surely there’s a way to celebrate  Mother’s Day without diminishing it to a jackpot for Hallmark? Well, trust libraries to figure out an answer.  Actually, I believe libraries are the answer (to just about everything). So: when my local library marked Mother’s Day by inviting kids to plant a flower for their moms in their community garden, we joined in gladly.

The flower just above the trowel was planted by my son FOR ME.

Some eager young planters with their moms. I’m the one back in the right in the blue T-shirt and ill-fitting green pants, busily eating a muffin. Because librarians understand that you can’t survive motherhood without caffeine and sugar —>

Coffee and eats were provided by local businesses, as were the plants. The library staff came prepared with a bucket of soapy water for washing little muddy hands, paper towels to dry off and even Toy Story bandages for those yet to develop fine motor skills. And when we finished planting our flower, we went in for storytime, where my son learnt about visual disabilities and treating differently-abled people with respect.

This is why we need libraries–to reaffirm the importance of civility and restraint and generosity, to demonstrate to impressionable young minds that the good things in life aren’t the most expensive, and to understand the value of community. And for a new mother, libraries are  safe spaces, they are panic rooms, they are sanctuaries. When I moved to my current city, my son was a year old, and I didn’t know a single person; the first friends I made were at library storytimes with other neophyte moms. And my son turned five last week, and he made me a card and a jewelry box and a necklace in candy colors for Mother’s Day, and then we celebrated some more at the library. If I haven’t said it often enough to librarians in my past and present: Thank you. You are all awesome.

(All pictures courtesy Caitlin Fralick of the Westdale library.)

Bastards and Bullies: When Fenelon Falls by Dorothy Palmer

Dorothy Palmer taught high school drama for twenty-three years before publishing  her debut novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Press, 2010). Critics called Palmer “a talented writer with an original voice and a marvellous ear for the nuance (and fun) of language”, and the book earned much acclaim, including a long-list nomination for the Re-Lit award.

When Fenelon Falls is a tragic-comic story set in 1969 in Ontario’s cottage country, featuring a young girl, Jordan, who is adopted and disabled–a protagonist based on Palmer herself. I interviewed Palmer about her activism, her feminism, and her writing, and the resulting piece “Bastards and Bullies” is up at the new issue of Herizons magazine. Here’s an excerpt.

DP: Since I was a teenager, I longed to see someone like me in a book and never did. I wrote to hear a voice I’d never heard, either in Canadian literature or later in broader feminist fiction or academia: the modern doppelganger of Canada’s girl orphan icon, Anne of Green Gables. I wanted to write a novel about a red-haired adoptee who knows it’s more than hair making her angry, who does far more about it than break a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head. When Fenelon Falls is about things that fall–Jordan, a girl with a limp, Yogi, an entrapped bear, and all of the bystanders who should have stood up and done something about the falling they enabled and witnessed.


Alice Munroe said some years ago that she said she no longer liked the term “autobiographical fiction” because it had the cast of being a smaller, somehow less authentic, kind of writing done by women […] to my mind, Canadian women writers are still more often asked about and somehow tacitly dismissed as writing “just autobiography,” which carries the suggestion that autobiographical content is some kind of safe blueprint, or crutch. “Just” implies that fiction with less autobiographical content is somehow, A: the domain of real writers, namely men and B: real fiction, a more pure or literary art form. Obviously, many novels draw on autobiography, but nobody ever suggested that Faulkner or Dickens wrote “just autobiography.” While the settings are all real, When Fenelon Falls has far too much fiction in it to ever be considered “just” a memoir—its plot and commentary is larger than one life and certainly far larger than mine.

My novel is informed by years of working in my union and school board against other oppressions, against racism, bullying, sexual harassment and homophobia. My analysis and practice was always as two things: as an adult adoptee who almost passed as “normal” and as a disabled woman with a disability that almost let me pass in the walking world. Jordan makes many analogies between sexism, racism and what she calls “bastardism.” She sees bastardism as systemic, as built right into everything – language, children’s stories, television and books, and she knows her brother doesn’t see it because he’s a boy, because he’s privileged, “to the bloodline born.” He never has to think about how painful it is to hear what you are, a bastard, being used as a daily swear word […]

If you’d like to read more, please pick up a copy of Herizons (the piece isn’t online). And here’s an excerpt from my review of the novel, also in Herizons.

It’s the summer of 1969, and fourteen year old Jordan May March is figuring out her tenuous place in her family, in society, and in the world. Jordan is adopted and disabled, and is thus considered fair game for her family’s cruelty, especially from the cousins who gather each summer at the family cottage in Fenelon Falls. Jordan’s fierce intelligence, while enabling small acts of revenge, is also her downfall, for she senses the true animosity that lies beneath the teasing, and is unable to fool herself into thinking that it’ll get better. […]
When Fenelon Falls is saturated with rich detail about Ontario in the fifties and sixties, from the clothes to the music to casual bigotry that was simply how things were back then, and the narrative vividly illustrates what a complex, problematic, fractured, fertile era it was. If you know someone who insists that Canadian society was easier to navigate before the advent of, y’know, multiculturalism and all that new-fangled stuff, give him this book—and then watch him squirm.

It’s a funny, wrenching book, and I recommend do hope you’ll pick it up.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

If you’re looking for a new crime series, do check out Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books, beginning with Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009). I’ll hypothesize that if you’re Canadian, you’ve read the first three when they came out and were gifted the (nicely-timed November-released) fourth book this Christmas, but if you live in Asia, you may not have of Bradley.

Flavia de Luce is eleven years old, and she’s precocious like water is wet. Flavia is Mistress of the Periodic Table, with a special interest in poisons–enough that I’d back her over Vizzini and The Man in Black.  More surprising, perhaps, is her remarkable unsentimentality; in the first three pages,  we find her conducting an irreversible experiment involving acid and her sister’s pearls–which belonged to their dead mother.  And upon discovering a dying man in the cucumber patch, Flavia is frankly delighted, remarking, “This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.”

If you find preternaturally wise and knowledgeable children irritating rather than endearing, you’ll have to skip this book. The plot is oiled by overheard conversations and improbable coincidences, and Flavia too-conveniently possesses a Spidey-sense of hearing (“…the kind… Father once told me, that allows its owner to hear spider webs clanging like horseshoes against the walls.”) The identity of perpetrator was obvious even to this blogger of little brain, and the post-war British setting is wildly Anglophilic–all stepping stones over meandering rivers and endless mentions of tea; in sum, the book’s appeal hinges entirely upon the protagonist. Now, I have a weakness for precociousness and unsentimentality (when not exhibited by my own child) and so I enjoyed Flavia very much. I also have a weakness for vulnerable protagonists who outwit Authority, and of course, children are the most vulnerable amongst us; I find it utterly satisfying that a young girl should reason out a crime that’s baffled grown-ups.

The plot is wildly farcical, beginning with the discovery of a dead jack snipe with a stamp in its beak delivered as a warning to Colonel de Luce.  (Why not just send a letter marked “private”?) Shortly after, Flavia overhears a conversation between her father and a “caddish”, “oily” voice who calls him Jacko, and reminds him of the suicide of their schoolmaster Mr. Twining many years ago.  All too soon, the possessor of the unfortunate voice is dead, and Flavia’s father is arrested for murder.

Flavia heads to the library (it’s 1950, y’know?) to look up Mr. Twining’s death, and gasp! he turns out to be the librarian’s mother’s brother. And the librarian remembers that one of the boys involved was called … Jacko. So Flavia sets off on her trusty bicycle (named Gladys) to unravel Mr. Twining’s death, to clear her father’s name and find the real murderer, and oh, yes, help out King George along the way.

I liked this book, I did, but somewhere along, found myself wondering why I wasn’t charmed by it when it so obviously set out to charm. And I think my answer lies in my question. I felt that Bradley tries too hard–the characterization lacks finesse, hammering its points home. Here’s a fairly representative paragraph:

” ‘Good morning, Flavia,’ Pemberton said with a  grin. ‘Did you sleep well?’

Did I sleep well? What kind of question was that? Here I was on the terrace, sleep in my eyes, my hair a den of nesting rats and nose running like a trout stream Besides, wasn’t a question about the quality of one’s sleep reserved for those who had spent the night under the same roof? I wasn’t sure; I’d have to look it up in Beeton’s Complete Etiquette for Ladies. Feely had given me a copy for my last birthday, but it was still propping up the short leg of my bed.”

It’s fun, but a little bit of this goes a long way, and Bradley is relentless–everything Flavia says and thinks is laden with significance, and she sometimes verges on caricature, coming across at times as inhuman rather than merely freakish, lacking emotional resonance. I also think the author focuses a bit too much on establishing the setting–the police inspector reminds Flavia of “Douglas Bader, the Spitfire ace, whose photos I had seen in the back issues of The War Illustrated that lay in white drifts in the drawing room.” The doctor is “the spitting image of John Bull”. Flavia is most appealing  when Bradley’s not reminding us she’s clever or British; when she’s kidnapped, for instance, there’s a most enjoyable rumination on her situation.

“Being kidnapped is never quite the way you imagine it will be. In the first place, I had not bitten and scratched my abductor. Nor had I screamed: I had gone quietly along like a lamb to the September slaughter.

The only excuse I can think of is that all my powers were being diverted to feed my racing mind, and that nothing was left over to drive my muscles. When something like this actually happens to you, the kind of rubbish that comes leaping immediately into your head can be astonishing.”

Hopefully, now that he’s established setting and character so firmly in the first installment, Bradley has fine-tuned his prose for the subsequent books. I have the rest of the series on hold at the library, and I’m looking forward to dipping into them–at judicious intervals.

Also, a minor point. Flavia’s mother Harriet is 15 years old in 1930, and her first daughter Ophelia is born in 1933, and Flavia in 1939. But Harriet reads L.M.Montgomery’s Jane of Lantern Hill as a schoolgirl, which is impossible, as Jane was published in 1937. So the years don’t add up. Or am I  missing something terribly obvious?

In which I attend a reading by Margaret Atwood, and come away dazzled.

So, I saw the legendary and very formidable Margaret Atwood read last night. The weather was foul– wet and windy and, needless to say, cold–but 400 people turned up to hear her, and I believe not one was disappointed. My impressions? First off, I was struck (rather like a gong) by her off-the-charts intelligence–she is fearsomely smart and well-informed. Second, she’s enormously witty, pee-in-your-pants funny, and she does this deadpan sarcasm thing that had me chortling while fervently hoping never to be at the receiving end of that cool assessing gaze. Third, she’s a superb performer–she had the audience cemented to their chairs for every second of the event. Atwood is mistress of the telling pause, and really, I never understood the dramatic potential of the air-quote till last night.

(Pic from the Toronto Star)

After the reading, she took questions from the audience, and here are a few things she said.

1. Recalling the texts she read at high school, she mentioned Tess of the d’urbervilles with a shudder. Mill on the Floss earned its fair share of ire as well.

2. When she began writing in the 1960s, five  Canadian books were published every year. Publication was conditional upon approval from partner publishers in the US/UK, and books were sometimes rejected for being “too Canadian”.

3. Like many authors, she self-published her work before finding a “legit” publisher. She views the current trends in self-publishing positively–she was enthusiastic about Lulu, blogging, e-books, Amazon etc., which all of which she likened to the string connecting two tin cans (the writer and the reader).

4. She said the conditions that have engendered the Occupy Wall Street movement are akin to the situation leading to the French Revolution–an undue concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few elites who manipulate laws to protect them.  Also noteworthy: 72 % of the OWS protestors are, in fact, employed (they protest after work hours).

5. She talked about social media with a sort of fond incredulity that had the audience cracking up. Apparently, she  found the cover image for her latest book via a ‘Twitter’ ‘follower’, who ‘tweeted’ “We think Margaret Atwood will like these pictures. ” And she clicked on the attached ‘URL’ and found a photoshopped picture she liked. (All quotes correspond to her air-quotes during the talk.)

She added that “digital manipulation meant something else entirely back in 1955.”

In sum: if there’s an event within a 1000-mile radius that features Margaret Atwood, you should go. Move mountains if you must.


Updated to add that The Penelopiad by Atwood has been adapted into a show by Nightwood Theatre, Toronto.  Do check out their site for more details (including tickets and dates).

Giveaway: A ticket for the Kama Benefit Reading Series, to help literacy efforts in South Asia

Update: This giveaway is now closed. If I don’t hear back from the winner by Jan. 7, I’ll pick a new person.

Would you like to attend a reading in Toronto featuring three celebrated authors? And even if you’re not in the Toronto area, could you please take a minute to read this post to see how you can further literacy programs in South Asia?

World Literacy Canada is a Toronto-based NGO supporting women and children’s literacy through non-formal education programs in South Asia (their Indian operations are based in Varanasi).  Their initiatives include adult literacy programs, community libraries, skills training (such as tailoring), and much more. Please do click through to their site. And here’s a video.


In the 1990s World Literacy Canada’s fundraising efforts were concerned with “linking a love of literature to the cause of literacy”, and the Kama Reading Series was born.  The first Kama series featured writers such as Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood; 2012 marks the twentieth anniversary of this  event.

In association with World Literacy Canada, I’m giving away a ticket (worth $60) for a Kama Reading to be held at The Park Hyatt Toronto on January 25, 2012. The reading features Marina Nemat (Prisoner of Tehran), Ava Homa (Echoes from the Other Land), and James Loney (Captivity). 

“Marina Nemat was born in 1965 in Tehran, Iran. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, she was arrested at the age of sixteen and spent more than two years in Evin, a political prison in Tehran, where she was tortured and came very close to execution. She came to Canada in 1991 and has called it home ever since. Her memoir of her life in Iran,  Prisoner of Tehran, was published in Canada by Penguin Canada in April 2007, has been published in 28 other countries, and has been an international bestseller. MacLean’s Magazine has called it “…one of the finest (memoirs) ever written by a Canadian.” Prisoner of Tehran has been short listed for many literary awards, including the Young Minds Award in the UK and the Borders Original Voices Award in the US.”

“Ava Homa is the author of Echoes from the Other Land  which was nominated for the the world’s largest short story award: 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Echoes from the Other Land was also placed 6th in the top ten winners of the CBC Reader’s Choice Contest for Giller Prize. Ava is a Kurdish-Canadian writer-in-exile, with two Masters’ degrees one in English and Creative Writing, another in English Language and Literature. Echoes from the Other Land has a running theme of resistance by modern Iranian women under an oppressive regime.”

“James Loney  is a Canadian peace activist who has worked for several years with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq and Palestine. On November 26, 2005, he was kidnapped in Baghdad along with three others: Harmeet Singh Sooden (Canadian) and Norman Kember (British), both members of the delegation he was leading; and Tom Fox (American), a full-time member of CPT who had been working in Iraq since September 2004. The widely publicized hostage crisis (see 2005-2006 Christian Peacemaker hostage crisis) ended on March 23, 2006 when Loney, Kember and Sooden were rescued in a clandestine military operation led by British Special Forces.  Tom Fox was killed on March 9, two weeks before the release of other men. Captivity is the story of what Jim described upon his return to Toronto and reunion with his partner Dan Hunt as ‘a terrifying, profound, transformative and excruciatingly boring experience’.”

Here’s the full line-up for the series, which also features one of my favorite authors ever–Rohinton Mistry!  I may do giveaways for other readings too–please come back and check this blog if you are interested.

It’s a truly wonderful line-up of authors, isn’t it? And there are cocktails…



Please leave a comment letting me know you’d like to win a ticket, along with your email address.  That’s it!

But seeing as it’s a charitable cause, could you please spread the word about this event and this organization? For instance, you might:

1. Like World Literacy Canada on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/worldlit  (you’ll find Kama in the events section), and follow them on Twitter @worldlit.

2. Share news about the Kama Reading Series on social media venues (please use #WLCKama) or on your blog.

3. Blog about this giveaway, post it on social media venues of your choice, and let friends and family in the Toronto area know about the event.

4. And you could donate directly to World Literacy Canada here: https://www.dollarsatwork.org/Donation.aspx  90 cents of every dollar directly funds the programs, and all donations are tax-deductible.

Small print:

1.  This giveaway closes on Dec 31, 2011

2. One winner will be picked by random number generator. If you have left a comment but are not in the Toronto area, or do not wish to enter the draw for any other reason,  please mention this in your comment.

3. World Literacy will mail the winner’s ticket to a Canadian mailing address, or will hand it over at the venue, depending on the winner’s preference.

4. I have no professional or personal involvement with World Literacy, and am running this giveaway in order to promote a cause I support.  For all legalese, please contact World Literacy Canada.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for helping!



Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo

I’ve recently become more interested than usual in African and African-Canadian literature thanks to bloggers like Amy, Kinna, and Nana, and writers such as  Zetta Elliott, and so I was delighted when the Toronto-based Second Story Press sent me Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo for review. This picture book tells us about a seven-year-old African boy Maiko, who, upon losing his parents,  moves from his village to live with his aunt and uncle in a North American city. Everything is  terrifyingly unfamiliar–the green landscape, the cool weather, the school, festivals like Halloween–and a lonely Maiko misses his life back home with quiet desperation. His longing for his village crystallizes around his memories of a 2,000-year old baobab tree in whose shade he used to play.

Maiko finds a new companion in a little spruce exactly his own age that grows in his uncle’s front yard.  He shares his secrets with the tree, and in turn, listens to its song. But the tree has taken root too close to the house’s foundation, and must be removed.  Can the young tree find a new home, or it is destined to be chopped down?

There is a tragic dearth of Canadian picture books featuring PoC characters in meaningful roles, and I was truly happy to share this book with my son. And NOT just for educational purposes (which, as we all know, is adult-ese for boring). While the parallels between Maiko and the spruce are laid out explicitly for the book’s young audience, the narrative leaves plenty of scope for a child’s imagination, and the full-page illustrations by Qin Leng are drenched in color, vividly conveying the difference between Maiko’s village and his new home. This gentle, deeply-felt book provides a lovely teachable moment about belonging and alienation, not to mention diversity, for little ones.

If there’s one thing I found missing, it’s a mention of Maiko’s home country.  We know it’s in a part of Africa where baobabs grow and where ugali is eaten, and there are other subtle indicators, but they weren’t enough for me (and certainly not for the average Canadian child) to identify where Maiko is from.  I do understand that the author has deliberately left the specific locations un-named–an African village, a North American city–but it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity for getting kids to learn about Africa (not a country but a continent…) I looked up the book on Canadian Bookshelf and found that the publicity material mentions that Maiko’s from Tanzania; why not include that on the book’s jacket, I wonder?

And I also looked up Calgary-based Chery Foggo, whose fascinating body of work includes a theatrical adaptation of Things Fall Apart, research on Alberta’s Black Pioneers, and two YA novels, both of which I’ll be searching out after I post this review.

(Note: Canadian Bookshelf has the illustrator’s name wrong; it is indeed Qin Leng.)