Between Words and Worlds with Soraya Peerbaye

Woman sits upon a mountain and gazes at the landscape

Next week, the Toronto International Festival of Authors will present Between Words and Worlds: New Canadian Women’s Writing. To give readers a preview of what the event hopes to explore with regards to the stories we tell, we reached out to the event’s moderator, Soraya Peerbaye.

The panel discussion will feature Inanna Publications authors Ami Sands Brodoff, Connie Guzzo-McParland, Mariam Pirbhai and Mehri Yalfani, and is billed as a unique opportunity to explore foreground characters and experiences that are still rarely attended to in mainstream publishing in Canada. We asked Peerbaye what specific themes she hopes to cover on stage:

“The title of this panel was inspired by quotations that have influenced these four writers. Ami Sands Brodoff, author of the novel In Many Waters, quoted Eileen Myles: “Yet this in-betweenness, this aloneness, hear it now, is holy.” This echoed for me, in the epigraph of Mariam Pirbhai’s collection Outside People and Other Stories, a quotation by Eduardo Galeano: “One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others.”

In the works of all these writers, including Connie Guzzo-McParland’s The Women of Saturn and Mehri Yalfani’s The Street of Butterflies, there is a sense of this in-between, which can embrace the infinite or the infinitesimal, solidarity or profound solitude.

Yalfani considers the lives of Iranian women in North America, and Guzzo-McParland, that of women of Italian descent; Pirbhai, the experiences of immigrants, refugees, temporary workers of diverse cultures, and Sands Brodoff, the intersections between Jewish diasporic culture and contemporary refugee crises. In reading, I am reminded of subtle but significant difference from the way diasporic writing has often been seen “other”; where an unnamed culture holds the centre, and other cultures are tethered to it, always straining towards the edge, never entirely their own.

Even “betweenness” can become entangled in that way of seeing: think of the way so many diasporic experiences in literature, film or even daily news, become either/or dynamics: East/West, old/new world, socio-political repression versus the promise of liberal democracy…

I think these four writers reassert in-betweenness, not a dichotomy, but as its own vast space of many, varied, continually moving and changing currents; where the story isn’t a trajectory from another place to Canada, that ends with arrival, but that is renewed and enlivened through unfolding negotiations.

So, in conversation, I hope to invite the writers to describe what that space means to them: the in-between of languages and landscapes; how they speak to their experiences and the experiences of others; how they move towards empathy, and through it, to embodiment.”

As a moderator, you’re not often given the space to share your viewpoint on the topic being discussed. We asked Peerbaye what “in-betweeness” mean to her as someone juggling identities, and whether or not she feels herself engaged in a diasporic conversation.

I don’t believe that my experience of in-betweenness is about juggling identities, about strategies or positions of identity. For me it’s relational; relations not only between places, cultures, and experiences, but also between what is known and unknown; relations with time, who we were, how we are catalyzed, how we awaken to new senses of ourselves.

If anything, I think the critique of CanLit,that is now at the fore, emerges from a sense that white/settler literature is sometimes isolated; asleep to the way its material is animated by tensions of history, of contemporary movements; asleep to the overtones in the voices of its characters. Yes, I feel myself engaged in a diasporic conversation, deeply – but that is a conversation I’ve sought to be a part of, and to be changed by. It isn’t inherent to identity.

Join us Wednesday, April 11 at 7:30pm for Between Words and Worlds: New Canadian Women’s Writing where it’ll look at in-betweenness, the diaspora and stories told in the authors’s works.


soraya-peerbaye_moderator_-photo-credit_-joan-guentherSoraya Peerbaye’s first collection of poetry, Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names, was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. Her poems have appeared in Red Silk: An Anthology of South Asian Women Poets, the chapbook anthology Translating Horses, and Canadian literary journals. Her book, Tell: Poems for a Girlhood, won the 2016 Trillium Book Award for Poetry and was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph.