Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Djamila Ibrahim and Adrian Harewood at Books and Biryani

Books and Biryani’s Dislocation: Finding Ourselves Again event was an intimate exchange of culture, connection and community. Organized by the Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Council of Muslin Women, the event welcomed attendees in from the freezing cold weather to a warm meal of biryani (a melange of eastern spices, rice and meat) and an atmosphere of lively conversation.


Over the course of two hours, CBC host Adrian Harewood invited attendees into a humorous and heartfelt discussion with author Djamila Ibrahim on her recently released short story collection, Things are Good Now. Their discussion focused on the role of diversity in literature, as well as the power of stories in creating connections and fostering community.


Opening the conversation, Harewood first set out to explore Ibrahim’s motivation and intention as a writer. Having been interested in reading and writing from an early age, Ibrahim relayed the challenge of consistently trying to identifying herself within the books she read. For Ibrahim, writing provides a platform to give profile to diverse voices and create stories that reflect the experiences of people from different ethnic communities and backgrounds. Ibrahim’s stories create places where readers can see themselves, relate to the experiences of the characters, or facilitate a sense of connection an understanding. The importance of being recognized, and of having access to stories and having one’s own stories known, was a timely aspect of Harewood and Ibrahim’s conversation.


Ibrahim and Harewood also explored the concept of connection. Ibrahim spoke about the transcendental nature of stories in engaging and connecting people from different backgrounds, experiences and cultures. Literature can serve as tool for transmitting understanding, she asserted. Indeed, as Ibrahim, explained, the title Things are Good Now is a reflection of the complicated feelings associated with her arrival in Canada. For Ibrahim, there was an immediate sense of relief upon emigration. Her feeling of relief was later tempered by the challenge of creating new ties, and as well as a recognition of the permanent separation from her Ethiopian origins.


The evening also explored Ibrahim’s writing process. Her ideas for writing stem from her own curiosity, as well as the stories and experiences of those around her, Ibrahim told Harewood. Ibrahim enriches the content of her narratives through extensive research, then often interweaves her research with her own experience. Leading the audience behind the curtain of Ibrahim’s creative process, she helped her listeners understand how she shapes her characters, as well as the feelings and goals which drive their actions.


Ibrahim’s short story collection also serves as a legacy for her friends and family. Through her stories, she immortalizes their stories and experiences. For example, in response to a question from a family friend, Ibrahim highlighted how his evocative description of winter was interwoven into the body of the title story of Things are Good Now. Her description captured the chill of the Canadian winter, but also the chill of Canadians. One particularly evocative line from the story reads: “I wanted to tell her how, in the deep of the long and dark Canadian winter when the suspicious looks of landlords or the disdain in strangers’ eyes clogged my soul, I longed for the warmth of our home.” 


Books and Biryani is an annual salon, and this year’s edition allowed for a candid and immersive discussion on how the cultural themes of Ibrahim’s writing can transcend and impact Canadian society. The conversation between Harewood and Ibrahim also illuminated how writing can be tool for empowering people who are unseen in the current literary landscape, as well as engaging and connecting us all.


Canada is not impervious to the cultural and ethnic tensions that are emerging globally. However, this discussion and its engaged audience made me feel optimistic that a diverse group of individuals from across the Ottawa community can come together and connect over literature. It was evident that Ottawans can pursue constructive discussions on how we as society can continue to grow. This was my first “Books and Biryani” event, but I would recommend it for festivalgoers who are interested in having intimate and engaging discussions that promote self-reflection and consideration of the world.