Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Ever Present Past

For the last evening of Ottawa Writers Festival week, host Peter Schneider introduced a unique group of Canadian-born authors who have spend most of their lives outside of Canada. The influence of other cultures colours the writing style of each of the writers. Schneider described them as, “a well-balanced and complimentary suite of authors.”   

Stephen Henighan has published a number of novels about other cultures. In his latest, The Path of the Jaguar, he tells the story of Amparo, a Guatemalan woman living in the late 1990s to early 2000s in the wake of 36 years of civil war. Ann Y.K. Choi’s Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety, is her first novel, and is heavily influenced by her experiences growing up as a Korean girl in Canada, working in her parents’ variety store. Author and playwright Anosh Irani’s fourth novel, The Parcel , takes the reader into the life of a prostitute in India who has worked in the red light district. 

Schneider noted that each of the novels contains strong female characters, and asked them what experiences drew them to write these characters. Irani said he grew up 150 metres from the red-light district in Bombay (now Mumbai), which made him think about how different the lives of the women there were from the women in his family.

Choi talked about growing up in a very traditional Korean family and the ways that that impacted her view of herself, and women in general, as a child. “One of the messages I didn’t realize I had internalized was that one of the ways women gained credibility was to have initials at the end of their name,” she said. She also talked about how her dream since high school was always to marry a rich white man. As a Korean girl growing up in Canada, she was heavily influenced by Western culture and felt embarrassed about speaking her own language and retaining her Korean cultural identity.

Henighan talked about his experiences in Guatemala in general, and how they influenced his desire to write about a woman. He had been planning on writing a traditional novel about a decaying bourgeoisie marriage, but it ended up not working and he wrote The Path of the Jaguar instead.

I found Henighan and Irani’s portrayal of gender interesting. Henighan writes from a female point of view of view, portraying a Guatemalan woman who is going through pregnancy and birth, and facing family tension as her husband has become mistrustful and her sister makes worrying choices. Irani writes from the perspective of Madhu, a person who identifies as a person of a third gender, neither male nor female. Irani depicts the lives of people like Madhu who feel as though they are not at home in their own body. He gets fearlessly close those whom circumstances bring to places like the one 150 metres from his childhood home. Like in Choi's novel, gender is a significant aspect of both of their books, and both male authors are able to create compelling female characters based on their observations and experiences.

Each of the authors is also a teacher. Henighan and Irani agreed that teaching and writing are separate crafts. Ann Y.K. Choi said that her students inspire her. She told an entertaining story about how she was trying to motivate a student to come to class by asking him what he wanted to do. The student threw the question back at her and she said she wanted to write a novel. Realizing that she wasn’t doing what she wanted, she signed up for creative writing classes and brought him the receipt. The student then came to class.

Given their different cultural backgrounds, Schneider asked the authors whether they have ever tried writing in other languages. For Irani, he said sometimes dialogue comes to him in Hindi and he translates it into English. Henighan said he has published in Spanish and French, though the French requires careful editing by a French editor. Choi stated that one of her biggest regrets was losing Korean. One of the biggest ways to lose your cultural identity is to forget the language, she said. One of her long-term goals is to regain Korean well enough to write in it.

For all three authors, their novels draw the reader into the distinct cultural perspective of each of the characters and the challenges they face in relation to culture, gender and society.