Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Where the Heart Is: In Conversation with Anar Ali and Rebecca Fisseha


What is the price of silence? What happens when the constructs of language break down or are insufficient to communicate the realities of trauma, grief, or suffering? Discussion host Daniel Bezalel Richardsen led authors Anar Ali (The Night of Power) and Rebecca Fisseha (Daughters of Silence) in a thoughtful discussion on the experiences of personal trauma and loss. Captivating their audience, the authors each opened with a key reading from their novels and introduced listeners to the concepts of home, family, and struggles with abuse. Ali and Fisseha explored how each of their characters are an expression of their own memories and, as Fisseha stated, how writing creates an opportunity to co-exist with the past.


Central to the evening’s conversation was the idea that history continues to affect us, whether that history is our own, or that of our family or community. Writing is a way to convey the past’s importance and to achieve a sense of wholeness, as Ali beautifully stated. Language is a conduit for personal connection and the sharing of history from one generation to the next. However, as Ali and Fisseha explored throughout the evening, language can also be our greatest barrier to connection, especially when in is not fluent enough to portray true depth of feeling and personal experience. Throughout both of their books, there is much that is left unsaid, including topics and memories that the characters themselves are not able to express. Secrets, especially those surrounding grief or trauma, can be kept silent for generations, creating an underlying feeling within a family or a person’s life that something is incomplete or missing.


Language fails us further when there is a lack of understanding. Fisseha spoke of her own memories of an intergenerational divide, where two individuals who spoke the same language were still not able to communicate effectively with each another. A barrier arose, inhibiting true understanding and empathy. Silence developed when understanding was not received on either end of the conversation. When words are not fully understood by all parties, there is a risk of miscommunication. That risk is a threat to both personal relationships and the greater context of cultures and communities. These books tackle the joys and struggles associated with idea of “coming home” as the characters confront new and different people, places and cultures. The risk of miscommunication runs higher with greater disparity of place and background. Yet at the heart of it, these characters, and perhaps every one of us, is simply seeking to form real and true connections and community.


Richardsen led the authors in a conversation about this inability to communicate suffering, whether it is from fear, uncertainty, or pain. Ali and Fisseha spoke of their own struggles with speaking openly and honestly after difficult and traumatic experiences. In contemplating her own writing process, Ali mused that she wanted to draw on emotional truth and the honesty of real life. She closed the night by explaining that everyone writes from an identity, sharing their story as they experienced it, but that all stories are universal. Our literary landscape has space for a multitude of voices. Ultimately, what is most beautiful about our culture and our art as Canadians, is that we are able to share our own histories and experiences with one another to create a greater and stronger collection of voices.