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Oct. 31, 2017

Wilfrid Laurier University Associate Professor Mariam Pirbhai writes a different kind of Canadian literature. In it, you won’t meet red-haired orphan girls, imperialists or lumberjacks. You’ll meet migrant farm labourers, domestic workers and a multiethnic cast of first- and second-generation Canadians working in Canada’s cities and towns.

Pirbhai, a member of Laurier’s Department of English and Film Studies, is launching her début collection of short fiction, Outside People and Other Stories, on Nov. 2 at Veritas Café on Laurier's Waterloo campus, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Two Laurier undergraduate students, Jenna Hazzard and Kyleen McGragh, will also read at the event. Both students have taken or are taking creative writing courses and have recently been published or awarded for their writing.

Pirbhai describes her collection, published by Toronto-based Inanna Publications, as focusing on “different diasporic or émigré communities in Canada who are rarely given any kind of platform.”

Since Pirbhai is interested not only in the immigrant experience in North America but also transnational labour and globalization, a few of the stories also focus on people whose lives are affected by movement between their countries and Canada. For instance, one story focuses on a family left behind when a loved one emigrates to Canada and another on a chambermaid at a resort frequented by Canadians.

Pirbhai says her writing aims to partly fill a void she has noticed when looking for diverse Canadian literature to assign in classes she teaches, such as “Multiculturalism and Literature” or “South Asian Canadian Literature,” which focus on representations of migration, diaspora, citizenship and settlement.

“I’m often let down by what’s available to me as a teacher, so I thought perhaps it’s time to write the stories that I’m not finding out there,” says Pirbhai. “There are pockets of immigrant communities that impact everything we are at a national and cultural level and yet their stories and their contributions are glossed over."

In addition to writing fiction, Pirbhai researches postcolonial and diasporic literatures and is president of the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, Canada’s largest and oldest literary association devoted to global anglophone literatures borne out of the experience and histories of British imperialism.

Pirbhai is intimately familiar with the dislocation, strangeness and adaptation process that comes with immigration. Born in Pakistan, she moved to England with her family at the age of five. She then spent her early teens in the Philippines before arriving in Canada at the age of 17.

“We tend to think of immigration as being from point A to point B but more often than not, it can involve multiple detours,” says Pirbhai. “It’s one of the most natural aspects of human experience to move and be displaced, voluntarily or otherwise. I’m endlessly fascinated by it academically, personally and creatively.”

Pirbhai says she has consciously taken the risk of writing characters with backgrounds different from hers to represent a broader spectrum of voices than is commonly available.

“I think it is the challenge of a writer to inhabit other perspectives, to step out of one’s comfort zones,” she says. “Much of the English-language or diasporic literature produced by writers of South Asian background has tended to focus on an elite class and quite a privileged perspective. I wanted to get beyond that kind of elitism and show a more diverse range of experiences, both in terms of this diaspora and in terms of the immigrant experience itself.

“Taking on this broad spectrum of characters is also a critical comment on my part regarding the expectation in the publishing industry that writers of colour or those who are part of a diasporic community will somehow be informants or spokespeople for that community. That’s problematic because no one person can speak for a community. Also, such expectations impose serious limits on visible minority writers. None of us should be put in an ethnocultural straitjacket.”

At the same time, Pirbhai acknowledges that the appropriation of voice is a problem, particularly when it comes to Indigenous peoples, whose voices and stories have too often been appropriated. In this collection, she has has not taken on the voices of any Indigenous characters, though characters do explore questions of indigeneity and colonization. For instance, in “Sunshine Guarantee,” a young Mexican rails against the tourist resort industry as a new kind of colonization of Meso-American peoples.

In the future, Pirbhai would like to use fiction to explore relationships between Indigenous and diasporic communities in Canada, which she feels is another kind of absence in Canadian literature. That idea, however, is not the focus of her first novel, which she is now writing. Like her collection, the novel takes multiple perspectives as four very different families grapple with the aftermath of an attack on a mosque in the Greater Toronto Area.

“As someone of Pakistani origin, I can’t help but be shaken by the rise of Islamophobia here and across the globe,” says Pirbhai. “It’s something I explore in my current collection in stories which include Muslim-Canadian perspectives, but I wanted to take it on more directly in an attempt, perhaps, to make sense of the militant and violent forms of racial and social conflict besieging all of us today.”

For those who can’t make the book launch, Outside People is available at the Laurier bookstore and local independent bookstores. It is on order at the Laurier Library and is also available through Inanna Publications or online retailers.

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