Last week, the Between Words and Worlds: New Canadian Women’s Writing panel had a great conversation at the Harbourfront Centre as part of the IFOA Weekly. We wanted to continue the discussion here by allowing the authors to share their thoughts on “in-betweenness” starting by revisiting the moderator, Soraya Peerbaye’s, answer to the question: “What does in-betweenness mean to you as someone juggling identities, and whether or not you feel yourself 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.
You can read more over at Between Words and Worlds with Soraya Peerbaye.
I live in Quebec, a society where the term minority is banded about regularly not only in reference to new arrivals to the country, but as it relates to citizens of the two founding nations living in the province. Language laws are passed to protect Francophones for being a minority within Canada, while Anglophones complain of being treated like a minority within Quebec and having to act as such. As an Italian-Canadian, I am labelled a member of a cultural community and having studied in English, an allophone. Therefore, a minority within a minority. In preparation for this event, we mulled over the quote by Eduardo Galeano, “One writes against one’s solitude and against the solitude of others.” It would not be overstretching this concept to state that in Quebec we write against the institutionalizing of solitudes.
So yes, even after 60 years of living in Canada, speaking both English and French, having married a Canadian of Irish descent who was born in Val D’Or, Quebec, a primarily French-speaking town, I can’t escape the sense of in-betweenness that the juggling of these different identities fosters. I don’t claim to carry the same burden of “otherness” on a day to day basis, the way members of visible minorities do, but the distinctions made based on language and place of origin is strongly felt, especially as a writer reflecting on issues of identity.
However, I’d like to point out that within one’s group there are different degrees of in-betweenness, which I have tried to illustrate in my novel. The older Lucia who immigrates as an adult remains fixed in the past and the culture of the country of origin and never reaches out beyond her family and community. In the novel, the more negative and destructive forces imposed by the traditions of that culture help to keep her in a coma.
Her daughter Cathy who is born in Canada rejects the old values and traditions of her parents and rebels, but she lacks roots to ground her. The narrator, Cathy, who was old enough to remember her roots and young enough to embrace a new life is the one that feels the strain of having to juggle both sides of the spectrum of identity and feels the tug and pull of both cultures and the in-betweenness of that space. It is not always the easiest state to be in, especially as writers, because we also have to deal with how others perceive us. Very often in writing about our diasporic experiences, we risk being labelled and are judged not on the quality of the writing but on the themes and the personas behind the writing.
The most obvious metaphor for this state, and one that is consistent with the image of the crossing of the ocean in my novel, is that of being stuck on transit, on a floating object on a body of water in between two shores, in a state of flux, uncertainty and even fear. One can either feel lost in this void and never quite find a footing for oneself, or one can image oneself on a bridge straddling the two shores, having the freedom to navigate from one side to the other, and not seeing the position as a limiting one but as an enriching experience full of possibilities.
In-betweenness is, as I see it, an elemental condition. We could be living between jobs, between homes, between parents, between cities, between genders, between states of mind, and so on. It implies transition, tension, negotiation, growth, change. When we add migration to the equation, of course, living in a state of in-betweenness is heightened by languages, cultures, knowledge systems, and other seemingly vast scales of difference. But hasn’t movement and migration always been a fundamental part of human history?
In this regard, the diasporic condition enhances or makes visible in the extreme what is already a natural and normal part of our lives. Conversely, presenting oneself as somehow impervious to states of in-betweenness has generally been the domain of myth making enacted by the privileged few—be it in the form of white privilege or masculinist privilege or social privilege, etc. In this regard, reading diasporic experience simply as antithetical to, or against the grain of, those whose claims to home and nation are presented as stable and unchanging—well, this is something I strive to challenge in my fiction.
In my debut collection, Outside People and Other Stories, in-betweenness is, more often than not, depicted as a multi-fold but nonetheless shared condition that might be viewed through the lens of mutual recognition and empathy, rather than opposition and resistance.
The poet Eileen Myles said, “Yet this in-betweenness, this aloneness, hear it now, is holy.”
As an immigrant to Canada, and as a Jewish woman with many relatives who were refugees and lost home, family and language due to war and racism, this quote speaks to me. I have in-betweenness in my blood. Being neither inside nor outside enables one to see the world with great acuity and to reinvent oneself.
Robert Frost said in his poem, Directive, “If you are lost enough to find yourself.” In-betweenness offers possibility. Family can be chosen rather than born into. Home may not be a geographic place on a map, but a memory, a feeling, an interior space. In-betweenness is its own vast space of many varied and continually moving currents.
Living for more than thirty years in Toronto and working as a tutor and interpreter for Farsi speaking people, mostly from my own country, I have been a real person of in-betweenness. But still it’s hard for me to define what characteristic a person of in-betweenness has. Somebody between a citizen of the host country or a pure citizen of her or his own homeland country, hard to fit in, or we can say a person who loses his or her own identity and never can assimilate in the new society.
The culture and values in many cases are the same in the host country and homeland one, but the language is different and that is a big problem to learn when you immigrate in your middle age. Therefore, assimilating in the new society would be difficult as well. So the person stays in-betweenness. But for me, being a writer and published in English has given me a great chance to be part of the Canadian society but still even though I feel less in-between, but still I am in-between.