“What is your background?”
“Where are you from?”
“What are your origins?”
How incredibly common these questions are in our daily human interactions!
On the opening night of the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival, three authors of markedly different origins came together in an intimate space within Christ Church Cathedral to discuss place, identity, and belonging in their own works of fiction. Paul Lynch, Abdourahman Waberi, and Carol Daniels each read a passage from one of their novels in turn. Each author’s appearance and presence was as distinct as the style and voice of their writing. Yet, as the evening progressed, the traces of a common impetus emerged between the three artists and their works.
First to read was Paul Lynch, from his much acclaimed novel The Black Snow. In a steady and captivating rhythm, he delivered potent, eloquent, and cleanly crafted prose. In the story of Irish emigrant Barnabas Kane, Lynch has woven what he hopes will be a myth for the current generation; a myth through which readers may come to sympathize with a common crisis of our time: the need to leave one’s mother county. Lynch also explores the unique experience of returning to your place of origin only to find you no longer belong, to be regarded as a “local stranger” by those who once knew you.
Abdourahman Waberi’s In the United States of Africa is a radically different novel, but Waberi too is seeking to affect the reader’s perspective. Waberi, though raised in Djibouti, was a denizen of France for much of his life. As years passed, Waberi grew tired of people failing to see past the image of an African immigrant (even – he claims –when he started saying he was from Normandy). He fondly describes his novel as a work of philosophy which evolved, at least in part, in reaction to these attitudes. Spritely and satirical, his philosophical fiction reverses the fortunes of Africa and the Western World to create “a whole new geography; a whole new world view” (as our host Neil Wilson so wonderfully put it). Waberi intentionally uses the language of story-telling to invite readers into this new world view; he believes people respond to stories better than they do preaching.
Just as Lynch and Waberi provide unique lenses for readers, Carol Daniels is no exception with her novel Bearskin Diary. Daniels hopes her novel will afford readers a glimpse at common experiences in the lives of many indigenous peoples. Daniels, of Cree and Chipewyan descent, intimately understands how our sense of belonging can be dramatically affected by society’s perceptions of our origins (origins that extend beyond where we are born to whom we are descended from). With edge and honesty Bearskin Diary tells the story of Sandy, “the only First Nations child in a town of white people1”.
There is a common motivation in these artists’ works I am sure you have noted. Lynch, I think, best expressed the reason for it. Writers, he believes, often live with a sense of not belonging, of feeling that their perspectives and opinions do not quite match those of their families, their communities, or their cultures. Yet, when you sit down to write, you inevitably find that your family, your culture, your local context, are all undeniably part of you. Embracing this, each author draws inspiration from his or her own origins and belonging, welcoming readers to immerse themselves in a differing perspective, to understand someone else’s origins, to further explore experiences of belonging and identity.
Origins are very often touchstones for our reading of another person’s identity. Everyone has a beginning, and beginnings are not all the same, so our individual origins become a basis for comparison. From our differences as well as our similarities we seek to discern the foundational palettes, the base colours of each other’s character. Individually, in the daily babble and flow of our interior lives, the questions What are my origins? and Where do I belong? may surface separately, but we will find that the answer to one rather reliably has bearing on the other.
1 From Harbour publishing’s book description of Bearskin Diary.