You usually hear from our children, who speak your language without accent, who speak the language of their ancestors with a foreign accent if at all, who are removed from the conditions that forced us to leave our homeland.
I am an immigrant who landed here ten years ago. I was the one who filled out the immigration forms and have no one but myself to blame for it. I know why I left. And it wasn’t exactly because my homeland was a utopia. It was because this place was less of a dystopia than my country.
I am the founder of Shab-e She’r, Toronto’s most diverse and brave poetry series.
During the pandemic, we stopped running our events. One reason was the issue of the gaze. I wanted people from diverse backgrounds to meet each other as “people.” I had resisted livestreaming the event, as I did not want us to be entertainers for those who hide behind their screens. I am not sure performing online helps others to acknowledge our humanity.
The more important reason why we stopped, however, was that the literary scene has been unkind, ego-driven, unforgiving, and dominated by loud voices whose motives are not clear. A lot of circles and groups are cliquish. They operate as camps not communities. Working in such an environment takes its toll. When the pandemic started, we had to cancel our upcoming event, and I realized I needed a break from all this tension.
During the pandemic, the Shab-e She’r team have continued our poetry workshops and book clubs. The poetry workshops are promising. A couple of poems by different group members have already been published. In our book clubs, we focus on two subjects: diversity and freedom of expression.
I founded Shab-e She’r on the value of diversity. For me the way to achieve this goal is through freedom of speech. Diversity, or the way it is practised now in the literary scene, falls short of including non-Western perspectives. Spoiled Westerners don’t know what they let go of when they relinquish freedom of expression. They ignore struggles for human rights and dignity, struggles against tyranny and oppression that exist outside Western borders. Their notion of diversity operates in isolation from the realities of most of the population of the world.
Non-Western activists, journalists, and writers recognize the futility of activism in the absence of freedom of expression. We relocate to the West to continue the struggle for democracy in our homelands by speaking out freely in exile.
The fact that some extremist groups have hijacked “free speech” should not make us surrender this right to them. I find it ironic and disturbing that sometimes writers try to silence other writers or de-platform them. A writer who attempts to silence another writer doesn’t believe in the power of words or in the power of their own words. Or maybe, like Plato, who banned poets from his Republic, they have an exaggerated view of the power of others’ words.
The answer to a poem is another poem. The answer to a book is another book. The answer to speech is more speech. I come from a land whose leader issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I do not want to issue such fatwas against any other word-monger.
The end doesn’t justify the means. The means you employ—and not only the end you aim at—are what distinguishes you from your opponents or adversaries. If you employ strategies used by dictators, you end up building dystopias.
All around the world, dictators are the number one enemies of freedom of speech. One of the first steps they take when they seize power is to crack down on journalists, writers, activists, and whistle-blowers. They censor the press and pressure publishing houses into conformity with their directives. They filter the Internet. They jail writers, speakers, and bloggers and ban their words and images. And, they do all this in the name of national security and resistance against foreign influence and colonialism. If diversity is your goal, but censoring opponents is your preferred strategy, how different are you from dictators?
Here in North America, the progressives fight for more inclusive immigration and refugee policies and the conservatives are against such measures. Some of my former students who were political activists ended up in Europe and North America. In Iran, they were progressive: excited about women’s rights, queer rights, and Civil Rights movements they heard about in my classes.
When they landed in Canada, the US, and Europe, they joined the conservative parties. You ask why? It could have been for a number of reasons. It could be because the progressives here do not want to upset the so-called diverse population by criticising their countries of origin, traditions, religions, etc. Or, they may think the enemy of their enemy is their friend. That is, the Islamic Republic regime is the regime our Canadian and other Western progressives don’t want to publicly criticize because it stands up to the West. As a result, the Iranian activists here find themselves betrayed by their progressive counterparts. To them, the progressives in the West won’t speak up against bloodthirsty dictators. In the end, the progressives fight to bring immigrants and refugees here, but fail to support them in their struggle against tyranny and oppression.
The same silent censorship is at work in the writing communities here: If I write a poem that celebrates my “identity” or criticizes Canada, it is accepted for publication in Canadian magazines. If I write a poem protesting against the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, it is accepted by more than one publication based in the United States.
However, if I write a poem against the massacre of protestors in Iran in November 2019 that led to 1,500 deaths, thousands of injuries, and many more thousands of arrests in less than two weeks, the same magazines that published my Khashoggi poem refuse to take it. (That poem was eventually published in a human rights magazine in Australia.)
The moral of the story? The magazine editors are no better than the activists here who will not criticize the West’s enemies and feel free to publish the condemnation of the West’s friends. Most magazine editors and publishers are afraid to support human rights on a global scale. The discourse of human rights does not seem to fit in their notion of diversity. They may have another reason for their silence: they may be afraid of the backlash, afraid of being attacked by Islamist terrorists. The silences in the literature of the West expose the fear and complicity of publishers, editors, and writers, who, like the Prince Prospero in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” close the gates of their castle against the truth in the futile hopes of being spared from the pestilence raging outside.
Diversity should facilitate global justice, or it will be reduced to meaningless decoration.
Some time ago a Muslim woman told me that she had witnessed a poetry performance that upset her. The performance was by a non-Muslim poet. It condemned the burqa, an all-enveloping cover imposed on women in Afghanistan and a few other Muslim countries in the name of culture and religion. I told her: “You and I do not write about it, and we don’t want anyone else to write about it.” What is more important—our discomfort or the truth?
The biggest damage done by racism is that it has shut down critical enquiry and self-critique among minorities. In an attempt to salvage our identity, we paint a blameless picture of our identity, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, and community. We commit untruth and hide the indefensible in our history. Racism makes us afraid of self-critique for fear that it may be used against us. It makes us afraid to acknowledge our past and present. Thus, we will not transcend our self-imposed limits. This is a huge blow to the intellectual and ethical integrity of diverse thinkers and creatives.
In our notion of diversity, does truth have a place, or do we make our decisions to spare from discomfort those who do not want to come to terms with the legacy of injustice in their own communities?
Diversity is deeper than skin. It acknowledges the history of our community, tribe, nation, religion, gender, etc. It exposes the genocides, political massacres, hangings, rapes, forced confessions, and disappearances that our community has been undergoing AND perpetrating. The truth is that we have been both victims and victimizers.
I hope our notion of diversity is not reduced to this: that we accept differences of colour on a superficial level but refuse to expose tyranny and human rights abuses around the world.
Diversity is global. It is not confined to national borders. If you just want to fix the mess in Canada or the West, you will let the rest of the world go to ruin. Make sure your diversity policies do not empower dictators in other places. Make sure your diversity policies do not empower the big shots in the ethnic communities here.
Diversity is a political commitment, not a social pacifier.
It is critical of the self as well as of the other.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Bänoo Zan is a poet, librettist, translator, teacher, editor and poetry curator, with more than 200 published poems and poetry-related pieces as well as three books. Song of Phoenix: Life and Works of Sylvia Plath, was reprinted in Iran in 2010. Songs of Exile, her first poetry collection, was released in 2016 in Canada by Guernica Editions. It was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award by the League of Canadian Poets in 2017. Letters to My Father, her second poetry book, was published in 2017 by Piquant Press in Canada. She is the founder of Shab-e She’r (Poetry Night), Toronto’s most diverse poetry reading and open mic series (inception: 2012). It is a brave space that bridges the gap between communities of poets from different ethnicities, nationalities, religions (or lack thereof), ages, genders, sexual orientations, disabilities, poetic styles, voices and visions.
Social media links
Links to Published work: