The April 27th gathering of Surrey Muse was yet another rich offering of poetic and social sensibility, and was rife with exploration of unique formats of literary expression. The evening was hosted by Manolis, who provided a suitably creative opening with the mention of the muses from Greek mythology that were emblematic of the arts, and with an especially pertinent reference to Calliope, the muse of poetry.
Daniela Elza began the evening’s featured presentations as the featured poet, taking the place of Bonnie Nish who was unfortunately unwell. Ms. Elza hosts the Twisted Poets Literary Salon, and is the Vancouver/Lower Mainland representative for the Federation of BC Writers. She read from her first independent collection of poetry titled ‘The Weight of Dew’, which was published in March of this year. The collection features a literal and metaphorical exploration of the landscape in Vancouver and in British Columbia, and the creative wonder and self-discovery that travelling through that area involves.
The work was imbued with delicately woven elegance, and Ms. Elza’s reading was expressive and performative. Poems such as ‘Pilgrims of Light’ depicted her experience of travelling through the Rockies, whereby the richness of the poem’s language contrasted the, as the poet put it, tendency to collapse into monosyllabic expression when faced with majestic landscape. ‘Negotiating With the Dead’ and ‘The Weight of Dew’ highlighted what is magical and mysterious in the everyday experience of life and death, and of the world in which ‘the living are the ones who are upside down’.
Ms. Elza also shared a poem called ‘Crumbling Into Harmony’ that she wrote in response to a challenge issued by a friend who claimed to dislike poetry, and who said that they might feel differently about reading it if it were about ordinary things such as yogurt. Ms. Elza was up for the challenge, and created a poem that incorporated yogurt into a poetic exploration of travel. She also shared with the audience that her friend not only enjoyed the poem once it was finished, but ended up attending a number of the poet’s readings as a result. In addition, some of Ms. Elza’s work explores the very role of poetry. In ‘About a Puddle’, she wonders whether poetry is a pathology, a dare, or a puddle that is seductive, or maybe misleading enough that we could drown in it, perhaps when we least expect it.
The questions that Ms. Elza received after her reading focused on her background, and on how she got involved with writing. She told the audience that she had an extensive academic career during which she realized that her passion and interest in language and poetry were more than a hobby, and indeed grew into a life calling. She then transitioned from academic life into that of a writer by writing a thesis about poetic experience. In addition, she indicated that the poetic exploration of travel figures prominently in ‘The Weight of Dew’ because of her life experience which exposed her to a variety of cultures early on since she was born in Bulgaria, raised in Nigeria, and has also travelled extensively.
Following Ms. Elza’s presentation, Gomathy Puri took the stage as the evening’s featured writer. Ms. Puri is an Indian Canadian writer of fiction and non-fiction. She has a background in civil service where her position involved diplomatic and business writing. Upon her retirement, she realized that she wanted to extend her writing experience into its more creative formats. Her first novel titled ‘Islands Unto Ourselves’ will be published this June, and Ms. Puri read several excerpts from that work.
The novel is set in 1970’s and 1980’s in Winnipeg, and explores the lives of Indian immigrants, and the complexities of negotiation between Indian and mainstream Canadian cultures, with the latter being decidedly less used to diversity than it is today. Ms. Puri chose that particular era because she feels that the perception of many social and gender issues in that period was vastly different from what it is today, and she wanted to remind us of how our values and beliefs have evolved since then. The novel explores issues of race and culture, of changing gender and social dynamics in the lives of the Indian ‘visible minority’ – a term which Puri astutely labels as an unfortunate epithet.
The main protagonist of the novel is Kamala who emigrates to Winnipeg with her husband and children, and is faced with the task of raising them in a new environment where she ‘wanted to make sure that the children were equally comfortable in cultures of inheritance, as well as adoption’. The novel, among other things, chronicles the shift that takes place in Kamala’s marriage where life in the new country with different values displaces her husband’s stature as the undisputed head of the family — something that he does not approve of. In addition to patriarchy, the novel explores domestic abuse through the character of Rekha, Kamala’s friend who came into the country through an arranged marriage, and finds herself in an abusive domestic setting.
Ms. Puri’s narrative style is almost journalistic in its exposition, and rich with intelligent social commentary. Moreover, it has a discernible note of compassion for human failing. The author mentioned in the discussion following her reading that it was really important to her to not only convey conflict and injustice, but to present it in a context in which redemption is always possible even in situations which are easily dismissed by society as beyond repair.
One of the questions from the audience following Ms. Puri’s presentation focused on the possibility of autobiographical influence in the novel. Ms. Puri said that although she certainly used elements from her life and the people she has known, that the novel is not autobiographical in the literal sense of the word. One of the audience members wanted to know about Ms. Puri’s creative process in writing the novel. She mentioned that although she did some of the traditional plot charting, that she already had distinct characters in mind before she began to write – and that once she started, they seemed to take on a life of their own, and they developed quickly. When asked if she prefers writing fiction or non-fiction, Ms. Puri said that non-fiction writing comes more easily to her, but that she felt that fiction was the more appropriate form for expressing her desire to write about the difficulty of finding a new identity, and about the violence and the possibility of its reform.
Following Ms. Puri’s reading, Sana Janjua took the stage with a unique performance narrative piece that is based on some of the characters from Ms.Puri’s novel. Ms. Janjua took several characters from ‘Islands Unto Ourselves’, and wrote a series of what can tentatively be described as their dramatic inner monologues. One piece was titled ‘Walls’, and seemed to present an allegorical exploration of identity where walls of a room which are bland and empty, yet have the potential to be painted, symbolize the struggle between status quo and change.
Monologues titled ‘Demon’ and ‘Husband’ were loosely based on the abused character Rekha from Ms. Puri’s novel. While ‘Demon’ personifies violence and explores it in a creative way, ‘Husband’ provides an insight into the stream of consciousness of someone committing a violent act against their partner. Overall, Ms. Janjua’s work was not only dramatic in its delivery and unique in its voice, but also was reflective of an interesting symbiotic relationship to Ms. Puri’s work where Ms. Janjua gave characters from ‘Islands Unto Ourselves’ an expanded literary identity.
Open Mic presentations were the last offering of the evening.
Open Mic began with Sonja Grgar who read four selections of her newer poetry. The poems ranged from those that used natural imagery to explore notions of mortality and the transient nature of life and creativity, to a lighter reflection on the casual contact made on the dance floor.
Valerie B.-Taylor followed with a prose piece titled ‘Comfort Blanket’, a lyrical and emotional reflection on her mother’s memory, as well as on solitude and mortality. This strong piece had a touching, seemingly autobiographical tone.
Jo Martinez read a prose piece titled ‘Do You Have a Dream?’ which implored the listener to persevere in the often intimidating task of realizing what they most want in life, and then setting themselves up on course to attain those dreams and goals.
Helga Parekh presented a short performance in which she assumed the role of a (inner) child; the phrase ‘Look, I’m Good’ transformed by the variations in Helga’s tone and expression it begins as a jubilant and self-confident phrase that becomes reluctant and self-doubting to then become a statement of defeat and humiliation.
Mariam Zohra Durrani performed her poems ‘Boots’ and ‘Sour Crude Interaction’, reminding us all of how differently we perceive poetry when it’s read as opposed to when it’s performed, with the poet making a more immediate and intimate contact with the audience.
Finally, Manolis read two of his poems combining poetic and historical sensibilities in their expression and content.
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