Looking Back, Moving Forward

By Ian L. Samuels

by Julie C. Robinson
Mawenzi House
2018/$24.95/144 pp.

Looking Back, Moving Forward is an anthology focused on the voices of Canadian immigrant writers. Edmonton-based editor Julie C. Robinson, the former program coordinator of the Writer’s Guild of Alberta, has gathered the work of more than a dozen writers from a wide variety of backgrounds, combining emerging voices with the works of those who are highly accomplished in their countries of origin but little known in Canada. The result is a diverse and satisfying selection of fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction. In several cases the work ascends to the extraordinary, with some pieces worth the price of admission on their own.

All contributors to this collection are, in a way, living lives in Canada that have been “translated” from other countries and continents and languages. Many of them offer detailed author notes about the journeys they and their work have undertaken, reflecting on the way both have adjusted to new realities. Some talk directly about translating the work itself and the challenges of writing in a second language. In more than one case we get variations on a work, or part of it, in two languages; as with Susana Chalut: “the door opens and closes/ letting in memories, aromas,/ and old readings/ I become the sorter/ […] la Puerta se abre y cierra/ dejando entrar memorias, aromas/ y viejas lecturas/ me vuelvo el clasificador…

Perhaps the standout piece in this book is Aksam Alyousef’s single-act play Hagar, the tale of a woman trying to leave war-torn Syria with her infant son. The title character’s cramped and terrified window on a world gone mad discloses a harrowing journey beset by the charlatanism so often foisted upon refugees, who face a gauntlet of opportunists in the wider world:

NAZEER: You know I miss you, Hagar….

HAGAR: Nazeer, you are my husband’s best friend. You are married and have children. I do too.

NAZEER: Your husband left you and married another woman.

HAGAR: It is not about him. It is about me.

She feels uncomfortable and wants to hang up.

HAGAR: Nazeer, when you send me the money, please message me to say when I can pick it up.

Nazeer feels bitter because she didn’t respond to his flirting.

NAZEER: Hang on, I just remembered. I can’t send you the money tomorrow. I have an important meeting in Sharjah…

Arresting work is also featured in the poetry section. Luciana Erregue-Satchi’s “Twelve Poems” is vividly evocative of both Argentina and Alberta, giving the reader a tour of memories seen with pellucid clarity through a visual artist’s eye. Chalut’s “The Song of the Lark—Sixteen Poems” assembles haunting, often dream-like imagery with precision, while Nermeen Youssef’s “Extinct,” a poetic missive addressed to a mother, uses disjunctive syntax and unexpected but powerful juxtapositions of concept, sound and imagery with consummate skill. In all three cases, the samples in the anthology will leave readers wanting to seek out more of the work, as with Erregue-Satchi’s “A Ghazal”:

“Alongside the crisscrossing patterns of our discontent

Dye me in the blue hue of your regrets…”

Other combinations of spare, beautifully structured writing and exquisite control can be found in fiction by Alma Mancilla and Anamol Mani, or in intense memoirs such as Mila Philipzig’s “Running in Munich” or Kate Rittner-Werkman’s “Liebe Mutti, I Don’t Mind Being German.” Further contributions are more straightforward in approach, but all offer insights and important vantage points on the upheaval of human dislocation, from war zones to subtler traumas. Overall, Looking Back, Moving Forward packs a great deal of value into its brief page count.

—Ian Samuels is a Calgary writer.

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