By Sheniz Janmohamed
IFOA and I have a long history. When I was a bright-eyed student in the University of Guelph’s MFA in Creative Writing programme, students had the fortune of attending master classes, readings and round tables at IFOA. I remembered thinking, “This is where the professionals come to play.” I shook hands with Wole Soyinka (and swore to never wash mine again), interviewed Mohsin Hamid and sat in a master class with Mark Strand. It was an enriching and inspiring experience for all of us, and the words of mentors and literary idols come to mind when I’m faced with a writing roadblock.
Back then, I was in love with the idea of writing (I still am) and the perks that come with it—meeting the greats, dining with publishers and writing for a living. Almost eight years later, I have come up against the hard truth of being a writer. The uncomfortable truth that being a writer is rarely glamourous, often tedious and mostly fulfilling.
And so, returning to IFOA as a Delegate, I had difficult questions to ask. Questions about survival, appropriation and labelling. I wasn’t sure if I’d get the answers I was looking for. Part of me already knew that asking those questions would require action, not words.
I found myself in an IFOA van with the gloriously funny Lee Maracle, en route to the Woodland Cultural Centre for IFOA Branford. As we left Toronto, she pointed out where the wild rice fields used to grow, the meaning of Toronto (“Gathering Place”) and reminded us that water remembers. It was a fascinating conversation—a conversation that did not separate the political from the personal, the communal from the individual. She listed off the vegetables she grows in her garden with the same passion she listed off her favourite poets: “Dionne Brand is Canada’s greatest poet—elegant, direct, simple. Every poem is a feast.”
The length of the journey and the casualness of our conversation allowed us to jump from storytelling to our traveling experiences in a matter of minutes. I learned that Maracle travelled to India for a conference and theatrical collaboration. We spoke of the politics of class and the caste system as well as our disdain and love for Indian-style bucket baths.Maracle reminisced about the days when she set up her living room with mats and blankets for her children and children’s friends—and they’d spend the weekend reading an entire book aloud.
We laughed, paused to reflect and returned to the discussion with thoughtful questions. It was fulfilling because I was speaking to Lee Maracle, not the literary idea of Lee Maracle. We talked about writing that is deemed “too ethnic,” the fine balance between tradition and evolution, and the challenges of writers who do not speak in their mother tongue. Maracle spoke of storytelling as an interwoven web that is linear and simultaneously spirals in/out. Characters’ names have positions, not just meanings.
Maracle reminded me that writing is a dialogue with your community, not just yourself. And that’s what IFOA is really about—bringing together writers who have never met, who haven’t seen each other in a long time, who have nothing to say to each other, who have too much to say. It raises questions that require contemplation, action, change. It provides answers that are sometimes unexpected, often understood and at times, complicated.
It doesn’t end when the curtain closes. It has just begun.
Let’s continue the dialogue.
Sheniz Janmohamed is an author, artist educator, spoken word artist and the Artistic Director of Sufi Poets Series. She has been published in a variety of journals, including West Coast Line, Catamaran Literary Reader and SUFI Journal. She has published two collections of poetry: Bleeding Light and Firesmoke. Janmohamed is also an IFOA Delegate.