Interview by Emma Cleary
Welcome to the first installment of Between Us, a conversation series by, for, and between immigrant/first-gen Canadian writers. We’re featuring writers who move back and forth across the hyphen, straddling old country and new, negotiating ideas of home-place, belonging, and identity. Writers who create within and beyond the categories of “Canadian literature” and “Canadian immigrant literature.”
First up, Jasmina Odor and Sarah Kabamba. Odor’s short story collection, You Can’t Stay Here, was released in October by Thistledown Press and her story “Postcard from the Adriatic” was published in PRISM 53.1. Kabamba was the winner of Room magazine’s Emerging Writer Award in 2017 and her story “They Come Crying” was longlisted for the 2017 Journey Prize.
Before our conversation, these amazing women and writers were strangers to each other and to us. But in a conversation facilitated by Emma Cleary, they found so much of themselves and their experience mirrored in each other’s work. Kabamba moved from Congo as an infant, and now lives in Ottawa, while Odor immigrated to Canada from Croatia at thirteen. They spoke about the difficulties of bringing complex histories to the page for a Canadian audience and all the ways we often fail to communicate our vast interior lives with each other. They spoke of relocating from one space to another and the multitude of tiny losses that make up this experience: languages we can understand but not speak; recipes we need to phone home for; friends and families whose lives go on without us, thousands of miles away.
How did you come to Canada, in your life and in your writing?
Odor: In life, if we’re talking concretely how I ended up here, I moved here with my parents when I was thirteen, from Croatia, in 1993, so that’s been a while now. I came at that particular age, I think that point of entry always has some consequence—when you enter a culture and how you navigate it as a result.
Coming to Canada in my writing has been kind of a long process. When I started writing, what I had difficulty with was setting stories, and deciding where to put them and whose point of view to write from, who the characters should be. I didn’t feel comfortable setting stories in Canada or writing protagonists who were Canadian—using the term Canadian obviously with all the complexity it has. I felt like I missed the texture that you get of a place when you grow up in it, the kind of texture of childhood and all the ways in which that gets embedded—mundane things like what people eat for breakfast, where they went to school, what kinds of notebooks they used, and how their parents talked. I felt acutely I didn’t have that, so my experience was that kind of inbetweenness, not knowing what place I have a claim to, which I imagine is common. Coming to Canada as a place I’m comfortable writing in was a fairly long process for me.
Kabamba: I definitely can speak to that, just listening to what Jasmina was saying about inbetweenness, that’s really also how I feel. I came here when I was a year old, my parents came from Congo, and I was always raised within a Congolese culture—the way my parents spoke to me, and food and dress—that was still a big part of my life in Canada. But I feel like when I was younger I didn’t pay attention to it, it was just there. It was only when I went to university and I started taking writing workshops, because my minor was in English. And there was this writing class I took for fiction, and there was a girl in there from Sri Lanka. She wrote this beautiful story about her grandmother and her culture, and it stuck with me for days after and then I’m like, “Why haven’t I ever engaged in conversation with my culture in any of my writing?” That class was the first time I wrote a story that involved my culture or my language or my food. Sometimes I think we take culture through the family for granted.
Odor: I had a similar sense of not relating particularly to myself as an immigrant—coming into consciousness of this whole fact of your identity later. In your story “They Come Crying,” one of the things that struck me was how the young protagonist is finding her way. That unease about what she does know how to cook and what she doesn’t know how to cook, and how much Swahili she understands or speaks. And the way that’s interestingly tied in with her relationship to her mother. I thought that really gets at something about how this plays out in family dynamics, how the very sense of self in the world is embedded in these difficulties.
Kabamba: That story was based on my mom, when her sister died. I’d never seen my mom so sad, and I think that protagonist explores my own emotions of how I sometimes didn’t feel completely connected to the culture and not knowing the language. So that’s kind of what came across, just my own insecurities in regards to where I fit in as well.
Odor: Much of what has gone into my collection of stories have been just exactly those uncertainties, unease about both places, that kind of inbetweenness.
Both of you have roots in countries that have experienced devastating wars in the 90s. As writers, how do you navigate these complex diasporic histories on the page?
Odor: The war in Croatia took place in the early 1990s when Yugoslavia was breaking apart and I was a child during it. And it was that conflict that partly precipitated us leaving, so in my kind of child psychology those two things were very connected. That conflict and then emigrating, those two things are like the big split in my life. I’ve found it preoccupies my imagination and so that’s why I end up writing about it. How to write about it has been a somewhat complex question, in the way that writing for a Canadian audience, in English, about a conflict somewhere else, there’s just something uneasy about that. I’ve largely followed what I’m interested in and tried to suspend some other doubts, like “Who am I to write about this?” or “Who will care about this?”
Kabamba: I’m going to stay with something Jasmina said about how to write about that. I came here when I was very young, so most of the things that I know are things that I hear from my parents or things in the news. They’re still very connected to that culture and they’ll tell me what’s going on in our home country, and I have a lot of family there. So from that point, that’s something that I struggled with because I have a sense of disconnect, a sense that I’m here, so I don’t feel directly connected to what’s going on there. Conflict is not something I’ve tried to explicitly address in my work because I really struggle with this question of how to do it, and like Jasmina said, do people that you’re writing for here, do they even care? I know specifically in the case of Congo and countries in Africa, with a lot of people there’s a monolithic view of it, and that’s something I like to address because there is great culture, there are great things that happen there besides just the conflict.
I’m interested in the tension of arriving at or living in a place where there’s that kind of absence of shared knowledge in the wider community. Do you feel compelled to explain these issues as part of who you are, as part of your work as a writer?
Kabamba: I would say yes. For me, shared knowledge is oral history. As a child, my parents always told me stories about their childhood, about things that happened but I didn’t pay attention to it. But then at a certain point I was like, wow, you have all these things that happened to you, you’ve been through so much and you have so many stories. I started actively listening and hearing about the things they went through when they grew up. My parents came here when they were twenty-five. They were very young. They had three kids in a country that they just didn’t know. So for me that’s a big part of who I am. I wouldn’t be who I am if that hadn’t happened. Sharing that knowledge, passing down the stories that I hear from them and how I relate to them, is what I try to cover in my writing. The emotions I have concerning where I come from, where I am now, my family and my culture.
Odor: It seems necessary, doesn’t it? That we at some point start realizing that this is really who we are, what makes us, and we need to make sense of it. And what you say, Emma, about that kind of disconnect between the history you know or have been part of and your current community. I suppose that’s something to negotiate, something that’s common in Canada—obviously so many people come from elsewhere. Probably we just can’t worry too much about audience in that way, we just have to do what we need to. Like you say, Sarah, there’s so much richness in your family history and it’s who you are, and really that’s just the place you write out of, and then I suppose the rest takes care of itself. We just do what we can do with the stuff we’ve got—what you do with the difficult stuff of the past.
Kabamba: Like Jasmina says, the past is there, even if you don’t think about it, it just comes out in your work sometimes, because it’s become ingrained in your identity.
Sarah, in your poetry there are lots of references to the body—to teeth, to tongue, to bones. The experience of immigration is expressed in much of your work as a physical experience.
Kabamba: Immigration is a physical experience, not just because you are leaving your place of origin and coming somewhere else, but having to learn a completely new language, having to navigate a completely new culture. I think it is very physical, and it has an effect on your body. My mother told me that when she first came here she felt lost, she felt tired. It did have an effect on her physically. I think that’s what I’m trying to express, because it may just be something that you are feeling—you feel sad, you feel homesick—but for me, it’s physical, I can feel it on me, I think.
Odor: Oh, I totally believe that. What I found really striking in your poems, Sarah, was how often home is pain and how often that pain is about the body. You have these images of bones not fitting in skin and it’s almost like an unease in one’s own body, not fitting in one’s own body, as if exile is in the body—I’m using exile loosely—but you know the way that drama of belonging plays out in the body. And also the images of heaviness. I could really relate to that, this kind of existence in two cultures. You have a lot of references to food in your work too, and I was thinking about how immigration always ends up being about these almost banal things. I remember us arriving here and how frustrating it was for my mom to not find the right groceries in the supermarket. Things like, “Oh, the dough won’t rise because I don’t have this margarine.” And I think it’s at that level that immigration affects you.
Kabamba: Yeah, I definitely agree, I know my mom sometimes is like, “Oh, this isn’t like back home, it’s not the same,” so it’s in the little things where you find you’re missing home, everyday things you may not think about.
Odor: Yeah, exactly, and then of course when you’re a writer that always becomes a metaphor, right? The thing that’s just a little bit off, she’s made this dish but it’s not quite right.
Jasmina, one of the things I loved about your stories is how your characters often fail to communicate with one another. Your dialogue is full of misunderstandings. How do you explore connection and disconnection in your work?
Odor: I guess that’s often the central thing, disconnection. It’s about the difficulty of belonging when you’ve had to change cultures and in some way I wonder if it’s related to existential difficulty too. Increasingly I feel like this difficulty with home is a broader difficulty about being at home in the world, and in some way the immigrant story just kind of zeroes in on that. I’m thinking about connection and disconnection, the way people communicate. Every time you approach each other as human beings, each of us is carrying this amazingly full interiority, but all we have are words. And words are constrained, partly by knowledge of language but also circumstance, emotion, context. And so I’m always struck with how much more there is than shows up in conversation. Maybe that’s the reason why in stories I end up dramatizing that stuff, the way we sort of fail to get there with each other, even though we could. And then I think sometimes the consequences of that are potentially tragic in that we can lose people or lose things because we fail in this way to communicate all that interiority.
Kabamba: I’m thinking of your story “Everyone Has Come,” when the two girls are waiting and they see that mother crying and they don’t say anything to her. There’s a missed connection but even if she had said something, would it have made a difference? Even at the end, when she’s calling her parents and they ask how she is and she says “Okay,” it’s better that way, her not saying more. To me that’s fascinating, that idea that there are so many things we leave unsaid.
Sarah, you incorporate Swahili into your writing. How does language inform your exploration of ideas of belonging?
Kabamba: For me language is something that’s troubling, because I actually can’t speak Swahili. When we came here I was a year old, so my parents wanted me to learn English and French so that I would do well here. But they still spoke Swahili to each other and they still do that now. I can understand everything, but I cannot speak it. So this was something that I was struggling with, this feeling that I couldn’t speak my own mother tongue. And that made me sad. Even this past summer, I went back to Congo for the first time, and a lot of my Dad’s sisters, they don’t speak English, they don’t speak French, and they only speak Swahili. And so they could speak to me and I couldn’t respond. I had this feeling of being disconnected and like, “Why can’t I speak my own language?” and that’s something that I’m still struggling with now. I want to learn; I think it would just make me feel better and feel more connected if I was actually able to directly engage in speaking it.
Odor: That’s really interesting and profound, I can relate to that too. I think of the way in which migration is cross-generational, right? And there’s a lot of that in your writing, you have this real sense of the women who came before you, and how you’re part of this line, part of this river of people, and I am struck by the way migration kind of highlights that, and how much language is a part of that.
Kabamba: The thing about immigration is what you give up or the things that you lose, even without trying to. Because when you come here, obviously your parents want you to speak the language because they want you to do well, and for them that means sacrificing your knowledge of their own language. Maybe that’s something we have to do. How do we decide what’s important? How do we decide what we keep in order to be successful? It’s just something I’ve always been fascinated by.
Odor: Oh, God, yeah, I think you just nailed that. That’s kind of a central thing isn’t it? The thing you lose to gain something else, and it’s almost inevitable, something’s going to be lost for something else to be gained. But how we decide on that and how we live inside that is so interesting.
Jasmina, your stories, even those that are set in Croatia, are written almost entirely in English. I’m curious about that choice.
Odor: This is a difficult question for me. I feel sometimes like there isn’t enough room to insert another language in the text. And maybe there’s another psychological reason that I’m not in touch with yet. I really feel the importance of language as a whole world. I’m interested in the way language is a world and is a kind of home, because in its nuances it makes all kinds of emotional things possible and so I feel, maybe similarly to Sarah, I feel a real pressure about both languages, Croatian and English. I feel upset if I ever make an error in either one. I feel a real pressure to maintain them equally. It’s hard but I think maybe that’s another kind of thing that happens in order to stay in both of these worlds, you’ve got to get into the language. You have to keep it alive.
You both show family relationships as being redefined by a severance from homeland. How does uprooting and resettlement inform the family relationships in your writing?
Odor: It was a while later when I really began to think about the big picture of what is lost and of the work you need to do to maintain relationships. The way you negotiate your place. There’s this kind of cultural split, there’s the distance. I don’t want to sound pessimistic but there’s something about migrating, you realize: the place goes on without you. And often the people in that place may not need you as much as you need them. In my fiction I’m trying to understand that, how do you maintain connections, which are difficult to maintain anyway, when you add distance?
Kabamba: Family has always been something that’s very important to me. I really like what Jasmina said about how the place goes on without you, and how you need them more than they need you. That’s fascinating to me. Only my immediate family is here in Canada and the first time I went back to Congo it was so different to be surrounded by family all the time. Wherever I went there was family, there were friends. And then when I came back, I had such a strange feeling. It took me a week just to feel like I was back home here. But I realized back there they’re fine. They’re probably just going on with their lives and I’m here. I was missing it so badly. It was just a strange feeling.
Odor: I remember that I would spend whole summers in Croatia. My family was really invested in maintaining those connections so we were always spending summers there, and I remember coming back from those summers to Canada, and having the most awful sort of sadness and feeling alienated.
Kabamba: I was talking to a friend the other day, and I had told him that I was feeling homesick, and he was like, “Why? Canada is your home now.” This idea that once you leave a place, it stops being your home. But I still see them as both being my home, and just navigating that is something that keeps coming up in my life.
Emma Cleary is from Liverpool and lives and writes in Vancouver. Her short fiction appears in Lighthouse Literary Journal, Shooter Literary Magazine, and Salt Publishing’s Best British Short Stories. She holds a PhD in Literature from Staffordshire University. Between Us is a collaborative project by Jasmine Sealy and Emma Cleary.