by Priya Ramanujam in Toronto
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni says the immigration experience helped make her the award-winning and best-selling Indian-American writer she is today.
Her immigration story — which she calls "strong" and "powerful" — along with those of other immigrant women, are central themes in much of her work.
“I had grown up in a very traditional family, been very protected,” she says of her upbringing in Kolkata, India. “Then I was in America… to go to school,” recalls Divakaruni, sitting behind a table piled high with copies of her latest novel, Before We Meet the Goddess, inside Toronto’s Ryerson Theatre.
“I was living away from my family, I was working odd jobs… and I was really missing my culture. That made me see my culture in a way that I had never seen it when I was living immersed in it.”
The Houston, TX based author is in Toronto for Arranged Marriage, a theatre adaptation of her short story “Clothes,” published in her first book, also titled Arranged Marriage.
“It’s not so much about arranged marriage,” says Peggy Shannon, professor and chair of the Ryerson School of Performance, when introducing the play to the audience. “It is the immigrant story, the immigrant experience.”
The immigrant dream
Divakaruni says one theme the stage production of “Clothes” captured well is the idea of the “immigrant dream” — the hopes and expectations that are attached to moving to places like Canada and the United States — and what happens when they go awry.
“Both of these countries are wonderful in many ways. They offer many opportunities, but they can’t be perfect. No place can be perfect,” she says. “Sometimes that dream is going to fail and then what do they do? They have to pick up the pieces and go on with their lives.”
Such is the case for Sumita, the main character of Arranged Marriage, who moves to Mississauga, ON (the original short story is based in California) after her arranged marriage to Somesh. Months after arriving, tragedy strikes and she has to find the strength to go on with her life despite a dream deferred.
Even though people immigrating from South Asia to Canada or America today have a much easier time than Divakaruni did more than three decades ago, thanks to advancements like the Internet and well-established community connections, the author says challenges remain.
This is something she says she sets out to reflect in the characters and plots she creates.
“Missing your home country, missing your family, feeling like you’ve left a whole support system behind – you still feel those things.”
Touching on taboo topics
Through her writing, Divakaruni says she aims to do two things: break down barriers and prejudices between different cultural communities in North America, and ensure that her own South Asian-American community sees its reality reflected in serious literature.
This is why she does not shy away from topics considered taboo by some, such as alcoholism, infidelity, and abortion.
Her approach has not always been popular among readers, both in North America and in India. But as of late, more people are accepting that Divakaruni pushes boundaries.
One taboo topic she writes about at length is domestic abuse — an area in which she has been volunteering to help victims since university. Problems like this can be aggravated in immigrant communities because victims are away from their larger familial and friend supports, she explains.
“It’s very important for us to create a realistic and complex notion of our community,” she says. “Otherwise, we are giving in to stereotypes, either positive or negative ones.”
When this happens, Divakaruni continues, people will feel like they are the only ones experiencing such things and something must be wrong with them.
“I have this great quote that I love: ‘Good literature should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed,’” she shares. “If we are complacent, [thinking] we have no problems, that’s a problem right there because we are not being realistic.”
In Before We Meet the Goddess, the chapters alternate between the lives of grandmother Sabitri who lived all her life in India, mother Bela who immigrated to the U.S. from India, and daughter Tara who was born in the U.S.
The novel details their complicated, and often strained, relationships with each other and the many challenges they face in their journey to figuring out what success is.
Similar to her earlier works, Divakaruni aims to empower women with this novel.
“All of these three women who are the main characters… they certainly have their challenges, but I think by the end of the book they’ve achieved something,” she says.
“I’m hoping that my books are empowering to women of all backgrounds as they’re going through their own challenges, hopes, and trying to reach for goals . . . [and] help the readers to examine their life and what it means to be [successful].”
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By Dr. Nanah Sheriff Fofanah-Sesay, Guest Writer, USA.
Isn't it time women emancipate from the pillars of subservient, bickering, unnecessary competition, hatefulness, illiteracy and emerge as the confident, capable, intelligent, and productive members of society that they are?
The purpose of this article is to outline what it means for women to be empowered, why it is necessary for women to be empowered, challenges facing women, and strides that are being made by women in order to (...)
The Patriotic Vangaurd
by Tazeen Inam in Mississauga
Pakistani women enjoy more autonomy in the home and greater overall life satisfaction in Canada compared to what they experienced back home, a new study suggests.
According to "Perceptions of Autonomy and Life Satisfaction in Pakistani Married Immigrant Women in Toronto, Canada" this greater sense of satisfaction is directly associated with these women’s sense of autonomy.
Authors Michaela Hynie, associate professor at York University, and Tahira Jibeen, assistant professor at COMSATS Institute of Technology in Lahore, explain that this freedom has many facets. For many, this includes the economic opportunities that Western societies offer women — opportunities women who come from patriarchal cultures might not have had before.
Fauzia, a resident of Mississauga who immigrated to Canada from Pakistan 14 years ago with her husband and three children, has been driving a school bus since September, 2015. She agrees with the results of the report.
“Things have changed in Pakistan, but I don’t think that still any woman would drive a school bus [as] conveniently and willfully as here,” she says.
Pursuing passions in Canada
Fauzia shares that she found her passion for driving at a very young age, before she got married. For her, driving a public transport vehicle is a decision she could only have made here in Canada.
“If I was in Pakistan, I wouldn’t think of doing something like this,” she adds. “It requires lots of guts and being too daring to break through the cultural norms.”
Hynie and Jibeen’s report highlights the importance that in-laws play in maintaining traditional family roles in Pakistani culture. It states “the goal of the study was to explore the relationship between family structures and autonomy among married immigrant Pakistani women.”
It also investigated “the role that these variables play in their evaluation of their life satisfaction prior to migration, in Pakistan, and post-migration in Canada."
The report found that when women lived with their in-laws, even in Canada, their autonomy was more restricted than when they lived only with their husband and children.
While Fauzia has been able to pursue this opportunity now that she's away from her in-laws, she says her own family back home still makes fun of her occupation.
“Even in Pakistan, if I tell family and friends, they look down on such a job and laugh at it. However, I tell them proudly that I am Canadian and we are proud to do whatever we feel like,” she says.
Job opportunities and education levels
Naheed, who came to Canada from the Middle East six years ago and also drives a bus, has had an experience similar to Fauzia’s. However, she says that when her in-laws resist her occupation, she is often able to convince them that this is a good opportunity.
“Education and logic plays vital part. Now its up to you [to] either convince others or get convinced, so I usually convince others with logic,” she says.
Over the last decade, the emphasis on educational and occupational qualifications when selecting immigrants has meant that the lead applicant’s spouse (often the female) has to fulfill a certain educational criteria as well as pass a language proficiency test to be accepted.
In part as a result of this focus, immigrant women are more likely to have completed university than women born in Canada.
Even though her current job might not be considered white collar, Naheed says, “I don’t believe in class of work. It’s better to work hard and earn than to beg.”
The role of Islam
While speaking about the role of religion, both drivers, who are Muslim and wear headscarves, believe that Islam does not restrict the ability of women to work.
“Islam doesn’t restrict women to work, but what it asks is to limit yourself within Shariah,” says Fauzia.
“Even when I used to drive a simple car in Pakistan a long time ago, it was considered odd and people used to take it as a bad thing. So it’s our cultural problem, not religious,” she states.
Support from husbands
While they’ve faced opposition from family, both Naheed and Fauzia say their husbands have supported their desire to pursue their passions and find jobs.
Because the women are employed, they can assist in financially supporting the family. Still, balancing their time is very important since they must take care of the children.
“[My] husband and kids are supportive as their only concern is my availability. My husband always asked me to look for a job that [didn’t mean you] ignore your kids and household responsibilities, as our kids are our priority,” says Fauzia.
Hynie and Jibeen’s report concludes that women may be happier in more egalitarian marriages, regardless of where they reside.
However, it cautions against imposing Western values and ideologies on immigrant communities.
It suggests instead that supporting women to negotiate their own forms of autonomy in their interpersonal lives might increase women’s life satisfaction more than importing Western structures.
Naheed is happy that in her current job she still has ample opportunity to relax and spend time with her 12-year-old daughter. She also relishes the authority it gives her.
“I feel like a king, when traffic stops all around my bus when I put up the signals,” she concludes.
This is the second part in a three-part series on changing family dynamics and what it means for women immigrants in Canada. The first part, "In Canada, South Asian Women Find Social Freedom", discusses how women are socially empowered once they reach Canada. If you are an immigrant who has experienced significant social change in your life after arriving in Canada, please contact email@example.com.
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit