Diaspora at Home

  • Mary Jo Leddy
    Our Friendly Local Terrorist. Between the Lines (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Loren Edizel
    Adrift. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Ava Homa
    Echoes from the Other Land. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Nazneen Sheikh
    Moon Over Marrakech: A Memoir of Loving Too Deeply in a Foreign Land. Cormorant Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dina Al-Kassim

These three books address the salience of the refugee for contemporary Canadian discourses of national belonging at a time when the right of asylum is being sorely tested. Policies of the current Conservative government are steadily eroding Canada’s human rights mission and the world’s image of the country as a place of asylum. Ava Homa’s Echoes from the Other Land imagines the homeland from the vantage of the adopted home, while Loren Edizel and Mary Jo Leddy dispel conventional views of immigrant exile and government benevolence respectively.

Since the publication of At the Border Called Hope: Where Refugees Are Neighbours (Harper Collins, 1997), Leddy has drawn public attention to the indignities that the Canadian immigration system visits upon political refugees both at and within its borders. Consciousness of the challenges faced by those seeking political asylum has been promoted in the arts and signally in recent years by the success of Monsieur Lazhar (Philippe Falardeau, dir. 2011), which adapts Évelyne de la Chenelière’s stage play Bashir Lazhar (Théâtrales, 2002) for an international audience. Missing from these popular forms is an account of how the Canadian Security Intelligence Service manipulates the immigration process to procure informants from within refugee communities. Leddy’s moving portrait of Suleyman Goven, an Alevi Kurd who fled torture and unending pressure to inform on fellow Kurds in Turkey, fills this gap to show that the right to non-refoulement often becomes an opportunity for the intelligence service to delay immigration and security clearance, in Goven’s case for fourteen years, while seeking to turn asylum seekers into domestic spies.

Founder of the Romero House, Toronto’s refugee residence and community support centre, Leddy is a theologian and social activist who teaches courses in religious studies and political discernment as a Senior Fellow of Massey College, University of Toronto. As an index of the effectiveness of Leddy’s social engagement, I note that in 2011, the IRB granted asylum to only thirty-one percent of applicants while the Romero House boasts of a ninety percent success rate for its asylum seekers. This background in religious study applied to real world problems will help some readers understand the rhetorical choices of Our Friendly Local Terrorist, which at times exhorts its reader to moral action or ventriloquizes Goven’s pain in urgent, staccato phrases or repetitions reminiscent of prayer. At moments like these, the author’s voice merges with another more universal voice, as the prose abandons realist narration and reaches out to catalyze a national ethic. These are strange and welcome departures from the expected tones of political activism; they call upon a Canadian public to militate for change. Leddy makes another unusual choice when she devotes large sections of the text to selected paraphrase of Goven’s personal diaries, begun as remedy for bouts of depression and which catalogue not only his responses to every bureaucratic turn of the screw, but also his romantic attachments and deeply personal thoughts. Some readers will question the value of passing on bawdy tales of bodily functions, when the bare facts of Goven’s forced military service in Turkey or torture at the hands of Turkish police would suffice to rouse a reader’s sympathy. In the service of rendering the terrorist into ordinary life, Leddy’s interest in these matters does offer an effective counter to the official story, but this reader, at least, found elements of the hortatory style when combined with tidbits that seem to border on the invasive to be a bit unsettling.

The appendices include a reprint of Sharryn Aiken’s ‘Manufacturing ‘Terrorists’: Refugees, National Security, and Canadian Law (2001, 2002) and a redacted version of the Security Intelligence Review Committee report that decided Goven did not pose a security threat. Aiken’s contribution evaluates the anti-terrorism provisions of the Canadian Immigration Act and concludes that systematic racism is only reinforced through current policy. By tracing the development of terror and terrorism in international usage against the background of countervailing global efforts to establish and promote human rights, as in the 1966 International Covenants of Human Rights, Aiken shows that in the postwar period of decolonization, tensions between the right of self-determination and the power of states to criminalize political dissent have a bearing on Canadian immigration policy, which penalizes an ever-widening field of community engagement and activism for refugees. These documents complement Leddy’s narrative and make the whole eminently teachable in a variety of settings. For the general reader, they contextualize a singular story as a global problem.

Ava Homa’s literary debut includes seven short stories wound around the theme of Iran’s state repression of desire, particularly for women. Topics range from failed marriage, divorce, and disability to queer sexuality, and are handled with a flair for melodrama and psychological intensity. Two stories offer views of Kurdish life in Iran with tales of political repression that echo Goven’s real experience, while others portray life in Tehran with its furtive underground parties and intense regulation of morality by police and neighbours. The most delicate and affecting of these is the final entry, Just Like Googoosh; a loving couple moves house to escape prying eyes while the wife endures the effects of chemotherapy. As her hair falls out, the Kurdish couple shares a memory of Googoosh, iconic female pop idol and emblem of national pride. In the 1980s, the regime outlawed female singers and entertainers, yet Googoosh continued to perform and signalled her defiance of extremist prescriptions on women’s public appearance by refusing to cover her hair—instead, she shaved herself bald. Less successful are the author’s attempts to deal with controversial issues such as queer sexuality or female circumcision; Homa’s sensationalist treatment of these issues suggests that she addresses a diasporic or western audience at a great distance from the cultural locales depicted. This missed opportunity to educate within and beyond the Canadian Iranian community is a pity.

In contrast, Lauren Edizel’s Adrift is a study in minimalist reserve. It tells the story of a nightshift, hospital nurse named John, who, hailing from a distant, possibly Mediterranean locale, sought political asylum decades ago. John whiles away his breaks writing fictions inspired by the faint details of his patients’ lives; slowly, these and other tales take over as John’s reveries expand into a fantastical network of paths binding strangers and memories in unlikely combinations. Skirting melodrama as form, the sparseness of the narration infuses the novel with a palpable sense of prosaic exile. Lives spanning oceans and that are lived divided between here and there share in the melancholic anomie such that the immigrant experience is no longer granted pride of place in our imaginary hierarchy of suffering in exile. Misery and regret are just as likely to strike the natal citizen as the asylum seeker or business traveller. Making exile quotidian is one achievement of this spare and, at times, cold and disengaged novel. Edizel works hard to thwart the received idea that immigration leads inexorably to a diminished life or that exile is a state only immigrants experience; the novel’s strength lies in its ability to distance this ready-made perception in favour of an exploration of variations on constrained lives eked out in conditions of economic precarity—the Carré St. Louis’s artists and cafes supply much of the colour and interest of the novel—or equally, of global privilege and wealth. Shifting this major trope of multicultural and diasporic literature seems to demand a reliance upon stock figures and stereotypic conversations to convey its message that the life of the cliché carries within it other forms of distance and displacement than can be emblematized or captured in the immigrant’s situation. A desire for immigrant stories can easily ossify into a demand for diaspora to remain displacement. Driving home this message, Edizel has John confront this desire and its slippage from curiosity to imposition by saying, Point is, did you need to know all this, to understand me better? I don’t think so. Do you think I don’t fit in because I was born elsewhere, or do you expect that I shouldn’t fit in despite the fact that I do?

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