Intolerable:A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

“Intolerable is part memoir of an Arab family caught for six decades in the turmoil of Middle Eastern politics, part personal coming-out narrative and part cultural analysis. This is a story of the modern Middle East, in all its irreconcilable differences, seen through a unique lens.” (Book Jacket)

Kamal Al-Solaylee left Aden when he was three years old. His father Mohamed had been one of Aden’s “most powerful and influential businessmen.” Kamal writes that he wishes he’d “known that father and that Aden.” There are photographs of the family in the book and the author says that he prefers the history represented in those photographs  to any other “more complicated and less rosy story” about Aden.

In the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS the author explains that Intolerable had its Intolerable“first outing…as a two-thousand-word article in The Globe and Mail’s Focus section in 2010 and was titled “From Bikinis to Burkas”. He worked on the article with the section’s editor Carol Toller and “the forty-eight hours we worked together were the most intense and rewarding in my life as a journalist. In a career of over fifteen hundred bylines, the final story was by far my most read and discussed. As it went viral, I felt part of a worldwide conversation about Islam, the middle East and social change. ”

The dedication to the book is:

To Toronto,
for giving me what I’ve been looking for:

a home

He introduces the book this way:

“I am the son of an illiterate shepherdess who was married off at fourteen and had eleven children by the time she was thirty-three.
My mother, Safia, was born and raised in Hadhramaut, a part of my home country of Yemen that is better known today as the birthplace of the bin Laden clan.When she and my father, Mohamed, were married in the fall of 1945, in the port city of Aden, than a British protectorate, he was fresh off serving a stint in the Allied army and she had just reached  puberty mere months before. A year earlier, she once confided to me, she had listened to the radio for the first time in her life and her older sister, Mariam, had talked of something called the cinema.”

Safia’s father-in-law (Mohamed’s father) “was a runaway from justice, having killed a man near the northern Yemeni town of Taiz as part of a long-standing tribal vendetta.” He had been on the run and ended up in Aden. There were no birth certificates at the time but it was believed that he was sixteen or seventeen. “He adopted the name Soylaylee – also spelled in English as Sulaili- from a small tribe that offered him shelter on the land near the border that divided what was then North and South Yemen.”

Solaylee kept in touch with his mother (he last saw her in 2006) and recalls many memories including one of her walking him home from school in 1977. “She often did that, because she worried about her youngest child crossing streets by himself. I was about to turn thirteen, a year younger than she was when she got married, and, like many children in Cairo, was discovering Western pop music.” After his year-end exams she bought him a copy of Olivia Newton John’s album Come On Over: a gift he still keeps “as a memento of time, lives and a family long gone.”

He writes that he was struck by “her ability to bridge the gaps between her lives as a young girl, a middle-aged mother and now an elderly woman.”

Solaylee’s trips back to Yemen were stressful, physically and emotionally. The gaps between himself and his family became more pronounced. His trips caused serious depression and “a lot of willpower to recover from.” He locked the pictures from one of his later trips in a filing cabinet in his Toronto apartment. “Not even my dearest friends have seen them and I rarely look at them. They represent a descent into a world that, to me, in intolerable.”

A difficult read in a number of ways but also rewarding for the information, comprehension and awareness that it provides. A Canada Reads choice in 2015.

 

 

They Called Me Number One by Bev Sellars

The subtitle of this memoir published by Talon Books is “Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School”. The forward is by Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla (Chief Bill Wilson) and the very informative afterward is written by Wendy Wickwire.

Here’s the first paragraph of the Foreword by Bill Wilson:

“In this book, Chief Bev Sellars shines light on one of the darkest periods of They Called Me Number OneCanadian history. To me, the residential schools were horrific violations of humanity comparable to the Holocaust and based on the similarly ridiculous assumption that one race and its society are superior to all others. This wrong-headed thinking is the foundation upon which Department of Indian Affairs policy in Canada is based, and nowhere has this stupidity been expressed more blatantly than in the cesspool of mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the residential schools.”

In her Preface to the book, Bev Sellars writes: “I started writing this book in the early 1990s when our communities first began to explore and deal with the aftermath of the Indian residential schools, in our case, St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, British Columbia. I quickly changed my mind when a close relative angrily said to me, “I heard you are writing a book. Boy, you better not be writing about me!” This reaction caused me to reconsider making my – our – story public, but I continued putting my thoughts and memories on paper.”

Inspite of discouraging opposition and criticism, Sellars concluded that she had to write the book and share it with others. I am tempted to quote her entire preface here but you can read it for yourself if you have an interest. I would encourage you to read it and think honestly about how it should make us feel as Canadians.  This book can expand our knowledge of our country and teach us to understand why aboriginal Canadians are angry and hopefully contribute to a new respect for the challenges and abuse they experienced in the residential schools.

The author sums up her experience and that of many other Aboriginal people quite clearly: “I read somewhere that everyone is born with the potential for success and it is only through life’s experiences that we develop or destroy that potential. For many Aboriginal people, our most vulnerable and impressionable years, our childhood years, were spent at residential schools. Our mental, emotional, and spiritual growth was extremely stunted because of the way we were treated there.”

Shortly after they arrived at residential school, each child was given a number that would be their identity for the rest of their school years. The priests and nuns never used the childrens’ names. “Ninety or more years after she left the St. Joseph’s Mission school, my [Bev’s]grandmother still remembered her number – 27 – and – 28 – the number assigned to her sister Annie. My [Bev’s] mom remembers her number was 71. Thankfully, our numbers were not tattooed on our skin.”

This book is much more than a memoir of the residential school experience. It is a fascinating family history with six generations shown on a family tree, a valuable map of First Nations Attending St. Joseph’s Mission(Cariboo) Residential School and also a map showing the location of Coqualeetza Indian Tuberculosis Hospital where the author spent some time. In addition there is  a detailed and  inspiring account of the author’s career and educational experience after the years at the residential school including her account of running for and holding the office of chief at the age of 31. She served in this capacity for six years during which time the tribal council began to examine the issues surrounding the residential schools and also took part in a major justice inquiry investigating the relationship between the Caribou-Chilcotin people and the government of British Columbia. She gave the opening remarks at the first National Conference on Residential Schools in Vancouver in June 1991. She earned a law degree from the University of British Columbia and she worked for the B.C. Treaty Commission in Vancouver.

If you know only bits and pieces about the residential school issue this would be a good place to start if you’d like to be better informed. Bev Sellars is someone you will enjoy getting to know.

 

 

Ammonites & Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively

As Lively writes in the Preface, “This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.”

“And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise – ambushed, or so it can seem. The view from eighty, for me. One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here. That, and the backwards glance – the identifying freight of a lifetime.”

Only the author’s words do justice to this book because it is a very personal commentary and reflection upon a long life, much of which has already been documented in her work. It is also much more in that it teaches about memory, it offers comfort and it provides help for those concerned about their possessions or “the accretions of a lifetime”. In Reading and Writing, it provides much food for thought about one’s own reading and encouragement regarding the value of that experience.

More from the Preface:

“Towards the end of my own stint I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me butAmmonites & Leaping Fish interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life. I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way that memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.”

“These, then, are the prompts for this book: age, memory, time, and this curious physical evidence I find all around me as to what I have been up to – how reading has fed into writing, how ways of thinking have been nailed.”

“And my own context – the context of anyone my age. The accompanying roar of the historical process. I want to remember what those events felt like at the time, those by which I felt most fingered – the Suez crisis, the Cold War, the seismic change in altitudes of the late twentieth century – and see how they are judged today, with the wisdom of historical hindsight.”

On old age itself: “We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation.  We feel much the same, but clearly are not. We have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with this is the new challenge.” …There is this interesting accretion – the varieties of ourselves – and the puzzling thing in old age is to find yourself out there as the culmination of all these, knowing that they are you, but that you are also now this someone else.”

And this: “Consider those figures, (in 1961, there were 592 people over 100 years old in this country (England I assume) and by 2060 there will be 455,000) and gasp. Old people were of interest in the past simply because there weren’t that many of them – the sage is a pejorative term suggesting that old age necessarily implies wisdom. That view may have changed radically towards the end of the twenty-first century, I’d guess, when the western world is awash with centenarians. Goodness knows what that will do for attitudes towards the elderly; I’m glad I shan’t be around to find out. I am concerned with here and now, when I can take stock and bear witness.”

On Reading: “Reading in old age is doing for me what it has always done – it frees me from the closet of my own mind. Reading fiction, I see through the prism of another person’s understanding; reading everything else, I am travelling – I am travelling in the way that I still can: new sights, new experiences. I am reminded sometimes of the intensity of childhood reading, that absolute absorption when the very ability to read was a heady new gain, the gateway to a different place, to a parallel universe you hadn’t known was there. The one entirely benign mind-altering drug. …So I have my drug, perfectly legal and I don’t need a prescription.”

There is a fascinating section on memory which defines procedural memory, semantic memory and episodic or autobiographical memory. She describes the latter as “random, non-sequential, capricious, and without it we are undone.” I found this section particularly helpful.

The most interesting section for me was that entitled Reading and Writing in which the author states: “What we read makes us what we are – quite as much as what we have experienced and where we have been and who we have known. To read is to experience.”

The last section of the book is called Six Things and it addresses the matter of “the accretions of a lifetime”. It too, is very helpful as well as comforting. Those readers out there who might be trying to reduce those “accretions of a lifetime” will find this a useful reflection that might be put towards one’s own personal decisions. Lively writes here of being an “agnostic who relishes the equipment of Christianity: its mythologies, its buildings, its ceremonies, its music, the whole edifice without which ours would be a diminished world. I would like to attend a service. I am a church-visiting addict, with cathedrals the ultimate indulgence.” There is also a wonderful piece about her Gayer-Anderson cat which is well worth reading by itself.

She sums up the book and her accretion of things in this way:

“To have the leaping fish sherd on my mantelpiece – and all those other sherds in the cake-tin – expands my concept of time. There is a further dimension to memory; it is not just a private asset, but something vast, collective, resonant. And all because fragments of detritus survive, and I can consider them.”

A rare treat and a comfort to read and read again.

 

My Journey by Olivia Chow Plus Political Footnotes

 

My JourneyMy Journey: A Memoir, was, for me, the most inspiring non-fiction work that I have read in many months. It is not that I demand inspiration from my reading but, when it comes as part of the package, it is a rare gift. This book provided that many times over. It is way beyond “political”: it addresses grief, philosophy, relational wisdom, immigration issues, community, effective government, poverty etc. etc. etc.

For Canadians, as stated in the Prologue, it poses the question: “how can we come together to form a government that reflects our values? How can we persuade government to invest in children and public transit and to help generate good jobs so that no one is left behind?”

Because the book is a memoir, it includes Olivia Chow’s meeting, marriage and political partnership with Jack Layton and it includes his death and the devastating effect it had upon this woman whose life was so entwined with that of her soul mate. It is a thoughtful and reflective memoir in this regard and provides much hope and help for anyone open to hearing its message.

The Prologue closes with the following: “My first language is Cantonese, and in Chinese languages there is no past or future tense, just a sort of infinite tense. Jack (Layton) is now part of that infinite tense. But I live in the present tense, and the stories in this book are my stories. Stories from the journey that has brought me here today. My journey, so far.”

In the first chapter one learns about Olivia’s childhood: her first home was in” Hong Kong, on Blue Pool Road in the community of Happy Valley” which name she likens to something magical out of a children’s book. Her father was a highly respected school superintendent and her mother was an elementary school teacher. They lived comfortably and had a live-in housekeeper. Olivia’s mother’s history is particularly interesting and would fill a book itself. Families are always much more complicated than they appear on the surface.Olivia says she was “naughty, spoiled, rebellious and lazy…a terrible student. I actually managed to fail Grade 3.” It was then that she was sent to Convent School in the community she then lived in but her troubles continued there and she became “the hellion of the school.” Upheavals and bombings in Hong Kong in 1967 resulted in an exodus from Hong Kong and the Chow family came to Canada at that time.

They arrived in 1970 when Olivia was 13. They chose to come to Canada and Toronto because of the large numbers of Chinese located there. They lived first in the Annex on the third floor of a converted Victorian home. Not too long after the family moved to St. James Town south of Rosedale where nineteen high-rise apartment buildings had been constructed on 32 acres. Both of Olivia’s parents “suffered a perilous decline in both income and status.” Her mother became a seamstress and then a maid and a laundry worker in a hotel near city hall. Her mother’s experience taught Olivia the importance of a good pension in later years. Her father never did find fulfilling work, doing stints of delivery and taxi driving and manual labour.

Olivia is forthright about the details of her schooling and her family life which was sometimes painful. She explains her acceptance of her experiences this way: “It took me that long (until she was in her late thirties early forties) to forgive him (her father). It took me that long to discover what state of grace is – it’s achieving the peace and freedom of living in the moment, and not allowing past wrongs to colour the present.”

When she was sixteen, she went north as a junior forest ranger. She journeyed eleven hours by bus to Wawa at the end of Lake Superior and then inland to a wilderness camp. She says this experience was a turning point in her life and it saddened her that the forest ranger program started in 1944 was closed down in 2013. She attended other camps in later summers and these experiences provided an enduring connection “with the divine” and gave her “a sense of Canada – of being a Canadian.” There is more about her high school experiences and much about her reading background which I particularly enjoyed and more about her university experiences as well. Then her sculpting Honours BA from the University of Guelph.

This is an inspirational memoir which reads more like a shared conversation with a friend one hasn’t seen in a long time and who is filling you in on what has happened to her and for her. And I haven’t even touched on her political life. If you have an interest in survivors who have accomplished impressive things and done it very quietly and co-operatively, you will find this well worth your time.

I have been watching some of the current “debates” between the mayoral candidates in the city of Toronto this fall(2014). You may know that Olivia Chow is one of those candidates. Her resume is most impressive! Having read it and listened to what several of the other candidates have had to say, I would have no trouble deciding which candidate would be best for that city and for Torontonians. I do hope some of them have looked into this excellent resource.

If you live in the Toronto area and/or have access to the Toronto Star newspaper, you might want to check the Wednesday, October 8th edition for the article on page A17 by author andTransforming Power feminist activist, Judy Rebick. The article is titled “John Tory not an option for feminist voters”. I would wish it might have been put on the front page. The article closes as follows: “Olivia Chow has a platform and a track record on fighting inequality. She keeps her word and knows how to work with people and to make decisions.

Why would we settle for less? Don’t vote cynically (reference to voting for Tory because he is not Doug Ford), vote passionately.” Judy Rebick is the author of Imagining Democracy and Transforming Power and other titles.

Shopping for VotesAnother book which I have just become aware of is Shopping for Votes by Susan Delacourt who points out that after “twenty years  covering federal politics in Canada” she had “run out of ways to tell readers how political life resembled the world outside the Ottawa “bubble”.” She had begun to “recognize the creep of shopping language into the political marketplace” and wanted to “see what price we were paying for mixing consumerism with democracy.”

Do you understand what is motivating you as a voter? Are you able to separate the consumer life style from your responsibilities as a citizen? Are you a Tim Hortons voter? Delacourt lists some “sobering statistics” that support the claim that “over the past fifty years or so, Canadians have checked out of the political process.”

 

And last, but not least, speaking of Canadian women who are speaking out and who deserve your time and attention as readers and as citizens, I have just begun to delve into Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. This book will inform you about what you need to know to be a responsible citizen at a very challenging time in our history and in the history of the world/planet. Highly recommended but not for sissies!This Changes Everything

 

The Queen of Peace Room by Magie Dominic

“In the immense court of my memory…I come to meet myself.”    Augustine of Hippo

“Things come apart easily when they have been held together with lies.”  Dorothy Allison

“A change in the state of the psyche produces a change in the structure of the body.” Aristotle

“Nature is like parting a curtain; you go inside it.”   Agnes Martin

From the introduction:  “Just as a country can be the site of a battle, so too can the body be the scene of a crime.”

Closing scenes of a live performance at the Metropolitan Opera on a Saturday afternoon: The blood I am walking through is splattered over a black wooden floor…I watch as my feet move through rivulets of blood and grab clothing with both hands…not a second to waste…I leave the sounds of thousands of people applauding on the other side of the giant, gold curtain, and hang my dresser bag from a high rack in the wardrobe room…and return home to think. To the quiet.
Anything can trigger memories, a voice, a story, a smell, the sight of dripping blood….I leave the apartment and its electrical outlets and travel to an isolated retreat house at the suggestion of a friend. I’m told along the way that there’s something unique about the place, something positive, but not explainable.”

This is a very personal story by Newfoundland writer and artist Magie Dominic who has had essays and poetry published in anthologies and journals in several countries. She has exhibited artwork in Toronto and New York. Her book asks a question that is becoming more and more common today as individuals seek to heal from legacies of the past: “What is memory, and where is it stored in the body?”

Dominic’s arrival at the retreat is juxtaposed with her childhood memories of church at Saint Henry’s and attendance at the school associated with that church and the nuns who taught there but also inhabited the church on Sundays. Dominic’s father was Lebanese and Catholic; her mother was Scottish. She says it was her father’s “unshakeable belief, his rosary appearing for an hour every week, that led me on my search for churches in every city I ever lived in, ever spent more than a weekend in for the rest of my life.” She recalls her childhood in Newfoundland, rabbit carcasses in the kitchen on newsprint and thinks: ” pieces of those rabbits are inside me to this day. Wanting to escape. Wanting a chance to move away from a trap on a cold Newfoundland floor.”

The retreat house she has come to “is thought to hold special powers of energy. No one knows how to describe it, or what in fact it is. People think it might have something to do with ley lines, invisible lines of power, connecting holy areas around the world. That it may be aligned with a sacred place somewhere, but no one knows anything for certain.”

“My room is called The Queen of Peace Room. It’s written on a narrow wooden plaque on theQueen of the Peace Room wall above the dresser. Below it a small mirror, just big enough so I can see myself from the neck up. The rest of me, apparently, doesn’t exist here.”

“I light a candle in The Queen of Peace Room and make my usual altar on the bureau top – a thin blue scarf, pictures of angels, Gandhi, and Saint Dymphna, patron saint to keep one from going completely mad; a cardboard picture of Jiminy Cricket (a believer in faith and hope), and a Heikimer crystal.”

“I listen to the sounds of a bird, wind shifting leaves, the zing of crickets, and silence. Blue light spills across the bureau. This is the original magic.
Magic can’t be destroyed. That’s why it’s called magic. The soft tick of the travel clock blends with the sounds of the night.
I look through The Queen of Peace window until I fall asleep.”

This book is a journey and no words of mine can add to those of the author. So I will add a few more of those and close with them. You will know if this is something that speaks to you.

“The woman I am becoming at this complex of buildings has the complexities of at least four different voices thinking simultaneously. One of them, maybe all of them, wants to smile again. To walk to no place in particular and be home at no time especially. Wants to learn to speak without crying. A new voice is emerging. Inside me. And it’s moving with a speed torn from the wings of angels who’ve been standing around doing nothing. The body heals more rapidly than the mind. But with the right environment, they can heal together. A group of nuns in the woods have noticed me, and are responding.
All of the women  had heard stories of abuse and violence. Nothing is unmentionable with them. They are like wings for one another and now they have included me. They speak about people they know, people who are trapped, and those who’ve moved away from terror.”

“Where have I been? Who have I been for half a century?”

“I feel like a snake removing its skin. Layer by layer by layer. Like an awkward package at a lost and found, waiting to be claimed. Wanting to be calm. The electronic bulletin board in my head wants to be turned off. No more images flashing. …
Thoughts and memories are lodged inside my cells. Some have been living there for almost half a century. I have to split myself in half…and allow all the poison to drain. In order to remove the pain, I have to first remove the memory. ”

“Trees are constantly bending towards the light. We can learn a lot from trees.”