Toronto the Peaceful attracts writers, and then puts them to work hauling boxes

“There’s a question of how much a writer can be replaced from one country to another and survive. It’s like a flower. You sometimes have flowers which can’t survive in another country,” says Goran Simic.

Simic was one of the former Yugoslavia’s most prominent poets before fleeing to Canada in 1996 after the siege of Sarajevo (he joked about our recent blackout; his neighbourhood had no power for three years during the siege). His question is evocative, but it’s also of some urgency for a growing number of writers from around the world, forced out of their home countries, who now live in Toronto. The impression of Toronto as a politically neutral, peaceful, multicultural and cosmopolitan city, along with the prominent international work of PEN Canada, has made it a magnet for the world’s persecuted writers. Reza Baraheni, an exiled Iranian poet, describes Toronto’s growing popularity as a destination. “Canada offers a place which is peaceful, that doesn’t have the difficulties of some other places…. The US seems a very dangerous place. Then, of course, sometimes the policies, the political stand that the States takes is something not too many people would think of themselves as standing beside. Canada gives them the space in which they feel comfortable with a clear conscience.”

On arriving, their immediate physical survival is assured, and yet the loss they experience is profound. Exiles face the loss of their homes, families and friends, like all refugees. But unlike doctors and engineers who may lose their certification upon arriving here, writers lose the very stuff of their profession; using language to interpret culture is the essence of what writers do. A writer facing an unfamiliar language in an entirely foreign culture is similar to a dancer who has lost her legs.

Simic will be one of the readers at Refuge & Reimagination at the Lula Lounge that is part of an attempt to get back some of what’s been lost. The evening of readings will bring together Canadian and exiled writers, and benefit various Toronto-based human rights organizations.

The event is part of PEN Canada’s Readers & Writers program, a Trillium Foundation-funded provincial project intended to ease the transition for exiled writers in Canada and introduce them to the Canadian literary community. Massey College at the University of Toronto has set up a successful scholar-at-risk program which provides a residency for exiled writers, academics and journalists. Currently Massey’s is the only such program in Toronto, though PEN is working with other schools to set up similar programs.

When we think of the writer in exile, we often call to mind a romantic, heroic figure: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn taking damaging whacks at Soviet totalitarianism or James Joyce creating works of genius during his self-imposed exiles in Trieste and Paris. Central to this concept is the impression of the writer, battered though unbowed by oppression, given safe haven and continuing to struggle from a foreign home.

The reality for many exiles arriving in Toronto, especially those from the Middle East and Africa whose native cultures are so fundamentally dissimilar to the dominant cultures here, is quite different. With virtually no international audience that speaks their language outside their home territories, they find no outlet for exilic work.

One of the readers at the Aug. 21 reading is Tesfaye Kumsa, a journalist who ran the most prominent dissident newspaper in Ethiopia. After highlighting human rights abuses by the government there, Kumsa and two others from the paper were imprisoned for treason and threatened with execution. After being released, the three of them settled in Toronto.

Kumsa’s description of life here contrasts with the heroism of his resumé.

“Everyone tells me that to be a journalist you have to be born here, grown here, you have to learn Canadian history, Canadian politics. And I also know I have a language problem, I’m not comfortable with English…. It’s really a deep loss to me. I lost more than one thing, because I fled my country. One, I lost the things I love in my country. Two, I lost my newspaper. And after coming here I felt a third loss because I cannot exercise my profession here, not in the near future. Doors are closed against me … it is going to be the biggest loss to me,” Kumsa says, adding that he hasn’t yet given up.

Kumsa has been working with PEN’s writers-in-exile program, meeting with other writers to share experiences and advice while trying to get a scholarship to go back to university to learn about Canadian culture. In the meantime, he’s been volunteering as an office assistant with the Big Brothers, which, he says, might provide him with skills for an alternative career.

It’s a sad compromise for a man who stood up to an oppressive government in his former job and, as he says, “was saving lives.” Sad, but not unique.

After serving as writer-in-residence at Massey College for a year on arriving in Toronto, Simic spent two years slinging boxes for Holt Renfrew. After a brief stint in the restaurant business (“It was not close to poetry, so I gave it up”), he’s been living on savings while he writes for a while, finally publishing his first book in Canada, Immigrant Blues (Brick Books).

Baraheni, whom Harper’s called “Iran’s finest living poet,”describes the problems language presents. “Writing poetry in another language is not only an entirely different enterprise, but also, if you write in two languages … you write quite a different poetry.”

Baraheni knows the plight of the exile from hard experience. The author of more than 50 books of poetry, fiction and literary criticism, he fled Iran after being twice imprisoned for his writing, and after surviving an attempt on his life. He has yet to find a Canadian publisher for his work. He is a fellow in the Massey College Scholar-at-Risk program and teaches a course in comparative literature at U of T. He also knows the situation of exiled writers from his human rights work, having served for two years as president of PEN Canada, the first exiled writer ever to do so (previous presidents include Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley and John Ralson Saul).

Baraheni says the loss experienced by the writer in exile is fundamentally a loss of identity. “One thing that happens, particularly to a writer who was well known in his own country: as soon as he arrives in a new country he is completely anonymous. He doesn’t have an identity. And there’s a kind of incredulity on the part of the new people and the new environment to think of him as the kind of person that he was…. So after maybe 30 or 40 years of writing you become completely anonymous, and it is extremely difficult to make a reputation in exile.”

But he says the work of programs such as Massey College’s and PEN’s are a step toward allowing such writers to have a voice, a step that he thinks will benefit both exiles and their adopted country. “This I think could enrich, not only Canadians, but also the person who comes here. He will be encouraged to write about the Canadian experience. Fortunately, with [the type of programs] pending now, we may be able to somehow get there.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on August 21, 2003.