The Great Indian Curry Hack

I have a new piece up at Tenderly, a gorgeous new vegan/vegetarian magazine from Medium. The Great Indian Curry Hack is my story of being a grad student in the US long long ago and figuring out a way to cook Indian food using ingredients available in my small New England town. This piece also carries my first ever published recipe—and my first ever attempt at food photography! Here’s an excerpt.

The Great Indian Curry Hack

You can read the rest of the piece here. It’s behind a paywall, but you can access it here for this month: And if you’re a Medium member, do leave a comment/clap over there!

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.)

Trajectories of belonging

“My father used to complain that he “couldn’t get anything started” in Canada. The United States, by contrast, stuck in his memory as the land of opportunity where a hard-working black man of humble origin could aspire to almost anything…” Zetta Elliott on her choice to live in America, rather than in Canada (where she was born).

“I am an immigrant. I was born in Canada, which means that I grew up “resisting Americanization;” in school I was taught to embrace the “tossed salad” metaphor rather than the “melting pot”—Canada was presented as a multicultural “mosaic,” a nation where all kinds of differences were not only celebrated but protected. Canadians often define themselves in opposition to Americans; they pride themselves on being quiet, polite, and progressive—the antithesis of their loud, boorish, bigoted neighbors. I learned at an early age to look down my nose at the United States; it’s something of a national pastime and a legacy of Canada’s colonial past. Of course, it didn’t help that my father used to slip across the border whenever life in “the Great White North” became unbearable. He would eventually return, bearing wondrous gifts (like a black Barbie doll) and for months we’d have to listen to him rhapsodizing about the US. As an adolescent, I disdained the United States yet still elected to study American History in high school, perhaps as a way of connecting with my father. I could not deny that the US had a certain allure—all the pop stars and television shows I admired were American—but I also understood that a fascination with “that country” could and would disrupt my life.

Although he came to Canada from the Caribbean as a teenager, my father spoke without an accent and felt perfectly at ease around whites. I never wondered why. Indeed, I grew up thinking of my father as a “generic” black man with no fixed ethnicity, and I was myself a young adult before I understood how the United States had shaped his identity—and mine. When my father arrived in Toronto at age 15, his stepmother indicated that he was not welcome in her home. Desperate to keep the peace, my grandfather tried to enlist my father in the army, but when that scheme failed, my great-aunt instead enrolled my father in a Christian high school—in Allentown, PA. Her conservative church handled everything; my father was sent to the United States where he finished high school and then entered Eastern Pilgrim Bible College. He was one of only two black male students on campus and in the spirit of Christian fellowship, was strictly forbidden from dating the white co-eds.

My father returned to Canada after graduation and married my mother—the white daughter of a United Church minister. Despite being groomed for the ministry, my father chose to teach rather than preach. He ran for public office—and lost. He tried to add a Black Heritage component to the Toronto public school curriculum—and failed. He had an affair with a black woman he once knew back in Allentown—and my mother divorced him. My father grew out his Afro and became something of a black militant. But there wasn’t much tolerance for militancy in Toronto in 1980. Within a few years, my father settled down, started a new family, and learned to accept the status quo. Or so I thought.

The year before I graduated from high school, my father disappeared. We all knew he’d gone to the United States again and we all assumed he’d eventually return. We were wrong. I started college in Quebec and received a letter from my father telling me he was now remarried and living in Brooklyn, NY. Not yet certified to teach there, he drove a gypsy cab along the bus route and would occasionally send me three or four crumpled dollar bills. When I graduated from college, my father invited me to spend the summer with him in Brooklyn and before long I moved all my belongings across the border. His stated goal was to have all four of his children living in the United States. But my father died of cancer in 2004, and I am the only one of my siblings who chose to pursue my own “American Dream.”

I begin with this summary of my father’s life because I see evidence in his narrative of the many forces that operate upon the immigrant generally and upon the black immigrant to (North) America specifically—forces which shaped my own life story and my young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight. My father used to complain that he “couldn’t get anything started” in Canada. The United States, by contrast, stuck in his memory as the land of opportunity where a hard-working black man of humble origin could aspire to almost anything, despite the pressure he once felt in the 1960s to lose his Caribbean accent, keep to his side of the color line, and not join the Civil Rights Movement. Though my father cautioned me against a life as a writer (and wished I had chosen a practical profession like law rather than academia), it is as a storyteller and scholar that I have learned to detect, embrace—and mount my own resistance against—the processes of Americanization.”

This is an excerpt from Zetta’s paper “The Bottom of the Pot: Blackness and Be/longing in A Wish After Midnight. Read the rest of the post on Zetta’s blog here.

TOK5: Writing the New Toronto

(A slightly revised version of this review appears in the current print issue of This magazine).

Diaspora Dialogues, a Toronto organization dedicated to fostering diversity in literature, recently published the fifth book in their Writing the New Toronto series. TOK 5 consists of eighteen stories and poems by established writers such as M.G.Vassanji and Nalo Hopkinson, as well as first-timers. The pieces seek to capture the world of the immigrant, the double take at the banal that signals his newcomer status—and Toronto’s reaction to the same. The characters in this collection are never mouthpieces for their communities–their larger selves are reflected both in their will to make the new land home and in inconveniently seductive memories of their homeland.

Some of the pieces are less successful–Shyam Selvadurai’s novella excerpt doesn’t really work as a stand-alone piece, while Mayank Bhatt’s story of a South Asian Muslim youth’s involvement with terrorism, although well-written, has a predictable feel. But overall, TOK 5 offers a satisfying range of voices and narratives. In Anthony de Sa’s “Words, Dancing on My Skin”, a young girl from Little Portugal strikes up an unusual friendship with Miss Sweden 1951 who, despite having won the Miss Universe title, lives in a ratty apartment by a dumpster. And there’s Chang Liu’s realization, while reading a menu of coyly named vegetarian dishes in a posh Thai restaurant in Danforth, that he’d “give away his visa-studded passport /to see a drunk labourer/ from one of Thailand’s have–not provinces/” roar out an order with true hunger.  I was also glad to see Emma Donoghue in this collection; too often, immigrants are narrowly defined as visible minorities, while the truth of course is that they come in all shades and guises. The new Toronto, like the new immigrant, resists classification.


TOK: Writing the New Toronto
by various
Zephyr Press

You can buy the book online here.

The Canadian Dream Deferred: Stealing Nasreen by Farzana Doctor

stealing100Every immigrant to the western world knows, or knows of, a cabdriver who was a brain surgeon or fiscal economist in his homeland. The narrative of the underemployed migrant goes something like this: lured by promise of fluid upward mobility and unfettered capitalism, professionals move west, only to find that their prior work experience doesn’t count. The educational qualifications earned in their homelands via sweat and blood (and sometimes an organ donation) aren’t recognized. Their alien accents and unfamiliar cultural codes further solidify entry barriers into the workforce.

Toronto-based writer and therapist Farzana Doctor takes a long hard look at this depressing phenomenon in her debut novel Stealing Nasreen. And yet, I was chuckling as I read, for Doctor’s clear-headed, witty narrative is never overpowered by the weight of the issues tackled. The novel’s other running theme-the (non-)acceptance of LGBT  South Asians by this community-is again a profound topic treated in a knowing, humorous manner.

Shaffiq Paperwala and his wife Salma have moved from Mumbai to Canada in search of the proverbial better life–Shaffiq, an accountant, felt his (Muslim) religion clouded his career prospects in India. Salma, a school teacher, was more sanguine, but was eventually persuaded to emigrate. The only employment Shaffiq finds in Toronto, however, is a janitor’s post in a hospital. Salma meanwhile works at a dry-cleaning outlet, and teaches Gujarati on the side.

In moving countries, Shaffiq has moved down the social ladder; as a janitor and a new immigrant of color, he is invisible to most eyes. Attempts to assert his former class or position are met with indifference or suspicion. In one scene,  Shaffiq, while taking out the recycling, finds a budget sheet with an accounting error. When he points out the error, the administrator informs him that the documents are confidential.

“…I’m not sure that cleaning staff should be scrutinizing them.”

“You see I am not really a janitor. Well I am here, but back in Bombay I did this kind of thing in my job-”

“Oh, well, I suppose I should thank you for noticing my mistake. But please, for future reference, you really shouldn’t be-” She frowns, not able to hide her irritation.

“You see I am an accountant,” Shaffiq adds, wanting her to understand. “That’s what I really am. I guess my eyes were just drawn to what used to be so familiar to me.”

“I see,” she says, with a frozen smile that tells Shaffiq that she doesn’t…”

Canada looked far better from far away; now, Shaffiq longs to crowd into “a city bus with a hundred Indian men” again. But just as he’s questioning his move to Canada, he encounters Toronto-born Nasreen Bastawala, a therapist in the same hospital. As a contemporary of Shaffiq’s ethnicity and a successful Canadian professional, Nasreen appears to be the Canadian migrant’s dream gone right. Shaffiq develops a fascination with Nasreen, and starts purloining small objects–a dropped earring, a discarded travel itinerary-from her workplace.

Nasreen is initially too preoccupied with her troubles to notice Shaffiq. She’s just lost her mother to cancer, her father seems increasingly needy, and her girlfriend (now her ex) cheated on her. But when Nasreen enrolls for Gujarati classes with Salma, her intersection with the couple takes on a unforeseen dimension. Salma is attracted to Nasreen, and the discovery that Nasreen is lesbian opens up a world of sexual possibility inconceivable in conservative India. All kinds of complications-all touching, all believable, mostly hilarious-ensue when Salma impulsively acts upon her feelings.

Doctor’s book is driven by the issues of the day, and such books, by their very nature are perishable. But Stealing Nasreen is first a novel, and only then a social manifesto. The book is energized by its characters, and Doctor has a real gift for crawling into her protagonists’ heads and recording their emotions. I was nodding in recognition as I read, finding echoes of myself and people I know in almost every character– Nasreen’s dietary habits, for instance, uncannily matched my own weakness for Jalapeno kettle chips followed by Nutella followed by more chips… The book thus engages the reader in a very personal way even as it indicts some of Canada’s (and immigrant communities’) failings. The story’s denouement, while featuring a too-long exposition by a secondary character, is as farcical and delirious as a Noel Coward play. And as in these plays, comedy is the leavening force for exploring serious issues such as marital discord, the repression of homosexuality in “polite” society, and class conflict.

Stealing Nasreen is published by Inanna Publications, a small Canadian non-profit feminist press. (Inanna, by the way, is the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare.) Stealing Nasreen reminded me anew why I love small presses so much. These folks are willing, even eager, to address the issues nice people don’t talk about.


This review appears in the current issue of Montreal Serai magazine. Do check it out–the theme is “Why Literature Still Matters”, and contributors include Jaspreet Singh and Rawi Hage.