This interview took place on April 25, 1992 in Vancouver during the Notional Book Festival events hosted by the Rungh Cultural Society Poets Ramobai Espinet, Sherazad Jamal, and Yasmin Ladha were interviewed by Rungh Editor, Zool Suleman.
Zool: I should start by explaining that the idea behind this type of interview arose from the "Home as Mythical Space" panel at Desh Pradesh which dealt with the whole idea of what constitutes our sense of identity... it was very interesting to see that for different people on the panel there was different senses of it. Some saw themselves as being in exile, that home was 'over there: wherever they had come from. To others it was wherever they put their hat out; they could create home wherever they were. So I thought what we might try to explore that issue in terms of your poetry. Does it speak to the issue of home? Or do you think about creating a sense of home in your work?
Yasmin: Ithink I started with many people who were immigrants here, with the anguish of being homeless. The search for me has shifted to women, and to finding a home for women, in terms especially of romance, to be passionately involved in things, and that comes with the concept of 'woman identity.' I look at it in terms of romance, it involves searching myself in terms of romance. So it's shifted from home to romance. But I also think in terms of Rushdie's sense that he spoke about imaginary homelands... I live in an imaginary homeland constantly...
You see, I was born in 1958 at which time, by '61 the independence movement [in Tanzania] had started. And when I was growing up... I knew that my place .. . was both shifting and sifting. So it was very hard, I couldn't trust the place and then I came here. This is a place where I had to have roots and these roots were down in that land. I have grown up, virtually living without homes and that's a positive space for me. So perhaps I don't suffer the anguish that many other people do because it's been overtaken by woman search and woman finding, and romance.
Sherazad: For me I recognized for quite a while that home is not attached to land .. . I feel as though my body is a site of contest between many different notions of what home is ...that are trying to negotiate with each other. And that's why I'm very attached to this idea of being ... culturally schizophrenic, at this point in time, because I haven't found a way of merging my 'personalities'. And then as an extension of that, I haven't found a way to create my own sense of imagining a homeland as yet. It's still kind of a hodgepodge of different things... The only place in which I feel a sense of being at home is around my family .. . and around my family of people who are experiencing what I'm experiencing, and thinking about things in similar veins to myself. This is the site ofa weird no-man's-land in an intellectual and an emotional space where we live, and where we carve out whatever this sense of home is.
Ramabai: Well, I have no home. That's very much my feeling. I feel as if I have to almost aggressively claim whoever I am .. .wherever I find myself. It's possible to make that home a very private place and I think that's why, originally, I found that the only place I wanted to be was somewhere as an artist, because that's where I can create my home. Growing up in the Caribbean .. .we had to perform a series of negotiations in order to survive. And that negotiated reality caused us to lose a lot of self. Some aspects of self we held onto tenaciously, negative aspects also. Other aspects we just lost, we just let go. And letting go of that, I think, we lost a lot of our identity and the sources that made us whole.
So I feel a sense of having to create wholeness from various pieces, and that's why I agree with you (Sherazad) about these pieces providing a sense of home. This is home... you know, us being here, talking, this is home. When I read in a context with five other South Asian women last night, that was home. So home is not Canada. But then, you know, in the way global politics are playing up right now, Canada is the Caribbean, and North America is the Caribbean, and I honestly don't see a difference. Sitting here is a good place for me to be right now, to interlock with various other communities, and to also get, strangely enough, more information about what's happening in the Caribbean, than if I lived there, where information sources are deterred to an enormous degree, where wealth multiplies and becomes more information-poor.And so home is, I don't know, I'm homeless.
Zool: What I hear is that home is this kind of intellectual space, or emotional zone, and then you all have your different sites ...What are the constituent elements of home? Certainly you can give away the need as a minimum, to say, "This is home", and "This is not home"?
Yasmin: Well it depends on how one looks at home.When I came to this world I didn't have a home because things were changing in Tanzania, right? My home is within my body, I think as Sherazad pointed out. I like that almost irresponsibility of just travelling through everywhere and taking pieces that fit and leaving pieces that don't fit. It is in that way that it's not very complicated at all. And I speak entirely for myself in that. But I like to have Canadian roots, to have the maple, but that is not home to me. I have a home everywhere, and I think it comes mostly with spaces. For example, Ramabai talked about this space as home. I think sitting here in this space, a cappuccino with a friend and excitingly discussing something, that's home. And I'm perfectly content with that. Perfectly content, and it is an intention that I practice all the time.
Zool: I think that there's an inherent contradiction. With rootedness, and being a stakeholder, you can claim a space in the dominant stream with, I think, perhaps more legitimacy than you can by self-marginalization by saying, "Well, I'm not rooted because of whatever reasons, I want the ability to be irresponsible, the ability to have this ephemeral identity, this ephemeral notion of home''. Don't those two cut at cross-currents? Does it not matter?
Ramabai: No, we pay taxes, we have a stake, we just claim it!
Sherazad: I think that as a group of people, doing the kind of work that we do, one has to realize that while we live on this land, the place in which we really live exists up here [in the mind]. It's sort of like a border country. What I sense now is that we're actually negotiating our citizenship in that border country, before we can even figure out how that relates to the land [Canada]. And I think that this becomes really important in a cross-cultural sense, because there are many other peoples just like us, who live in a border country. And eventually, the people who hold the land are going to have to come to terms with the fact that over fifty per cent of the population of this country lives in border countries. And then that will in turn have serious implications for what happens to this country in terms of its sense of itself.
Zool: So your responsibility comes in playing a role in defining that median space? Is that how you're being responsible as citizens?
Sherazad: I feel that I'm being responsible to me and all the other citizens of the border country. As yet I have no affinity or connection, save the fact that I live in Vancouver and I pay taxes and I use the medical system. I don't feel any kind of connection or responsibility to the powers that hold this land.
Zool: Then why does it surprise you that they don't hold any responsibility to you? There's an anger about that, too. While... you are negotiating these spaces, life is constantly going on, constitutions are being written, all sorts of laws are being amended, all sorts of things are going on. I want to press this point because I think it's kind of an interesting issue. If you don't feel a sense of responsibility to the politics, the state, whatever, then why do expect the state to be responsible to you?
Ramabai: Can I say something? I feel a great sense of responsibility to the state.
Zool: You do?
Ramabai: I do. But I don't define the state as Canada only. I think that the agenda of Canada, the political agenda of Canada, is inextricably linked to the political agenda of the United States. Which concerns me...as a citizen of the globe...And the dominant cultures of the west are getting together.And all of these things concern me, so that having a stake in Canada per se, is having a stake in the globe. I have a stake there, and I do feel responsible, and I address it in my art... I just feel that these issues we can't sit down and take lightly. When something happens at Oka, I respond to it, and I feel responsible for it. The constitution is very much a part of what I feel we should discuss. It's not that I personally sit back and say, " Let this go on and I can just earn a living here;' and so on. But at bottom, I think if we just sit back and say, "We pay our taxes and we earn a living and we have a stake;' we are exactly like any other white working class person who has that stake and is unquestioning. We have a right until death.
Friction for me creates fiction... And as a writer, I'm totally dedicated. I cannot possibly have a dual citizenship living in this world. I belong to my own cities...
Zool: But it's not that stake that's being questioned, it's the effective use of that stake. I don't think that anyone would say that as a citizen of Canada and as a taxpayer, you don't have a stake. However, any other... person who has the white-picket-fence sense doesn't have that notional, transitory sense of home. So they are rooted.
Ramabai: No but I'm thinking of space in a different way. If we do not bellow for cultural spaces and for the largesse that creates, that enables, the creation of these cultural spaces, then we don't get it. That is the kind of thing that I would try to fight for because we have a right. That's why I say we pay our taxes, and these cultural grants and so on, who do they go to? We have a stake in that, and I think that we have to claim that... Political responsibility occurs on every level. I would fight, for instance, for a person of colour to be in government, I would work for that. I wouldn't particularly want it for myself, but I would work for that, and I would do whatever I can to support it. That's how I work. I don't want direct political responsibility, but that's not the only way.
Yasmin: My person is not made [to take on political responsibility] and I don't want to get into that. When we were talking about that in writing, and I'd like to say that I think I am political in that what I do is I "waffle with cunning".
Zool: Does [waffling with cunning] become the first right in your constitution in the imaginary homeland? (laughter)
Yasmin: It would, right?
Zool: It would have to.
Yasmin: Yes, yes indeed. Yes, to waffle with cunning ... is very exciting to me. Everything does not come to a closure. That sort of constriction would not frighten me, frightens me very much. Waffling with cunning, I'm exempted from doing that. Now, you could tell me, how are you going to actively live in this world, how are you going to build the constitution, etc. Then I guess I'm not the person for it. My strength, my romance, lies with "to waffle with cunning:'
Ramabai: That's wonderful.
Zool: The thing is that... when I see a constitutional debate, I see it very much in terms of not carving in stone, but as a carving process, which doesn't allow for much waffling ...The waffling sort of occurs, for me, in the political process after an inscription has occurred, an inscribing has occurred, and the judicial interpretation. I guess what I'm feeling is that there's a moment right now, within this country, where it's a time to inscribe, not to waffle, it's a time to stand, not to waver...There's an imperative now, and I kind of feel that it's going to pass this particular group by. Now it doesn't have to be one or the other, I agree ... but I just kind of wonder if you are gladly letting this occur? Is it awareness that is occurring, or is it something else?
Sherazad: I think that there's a fundamental issue of gaze, here. The... political process works... from a western gaze, which is also a male gaze. And it is not a process that is organic in nature. It is not a process that [respects] the continuum of time. Which I think actually harkens back to what you (Yasmin) were talking about, being able to weave a story, to weave a situation, a conversation in such a way that... it act u a 11 y becomes a catalyst for something else, and not an end in itself. And I think that way of approaching things, it's just not a part ofthe process that the country, the politicians are going through. You know, they want an answer and they want it now...
I feel that we, as South Asian women, are receptacles for [continuity] within our own cultural contexts...We have to be very aware of what has passed, of what is now, and where things are going, so that we can do our part in the weaving in the lifetime that we have...And I think that there's one other element that has to do with being a part of 'diaspora: that... we're very good negotiators ... Our strength is that ability to negotiate, and that consciousness about negotiating between all of these different parts that live and breathe within us ...This is my hope for a political future, that we in some way will be a receptacle of knowledge and experience that will be called upon at a later time. Right now, I don't think that the mainstream is ready.
Yasmin: Let it simmer, it's nicer, the shrimp curry is nicer.
Yasmin: I think that gaze thing I'm understanding but I also understand the panic about the time is not now... Because the mainstream is giving me space right now...I follow his or her temple? I don't want to do that because still I am dancing for the anthropologist, right? ... I'm letting time go... l think things have to sit, have to be thought out... I don't think there's a great differentiation between art and real life, they come together. I live in both of them. Art is taking time, living is taking time.. . accept it as a process...
Zool: I guess I take Sherazad's point well too, I think she's absolutely right. Given my training as a lawyer and my gaze, I sense an urgency about what's going on out there...I feel a certain sense of being on the sidelines even as a male, coming from what one would think of as the perfect profession for politics. Even I am feeling... very disempowered. There's an anger I feel about that. Because I pay taxes.
Ramabai: You know, the thing is, I saw this report recently in the Toronto Star that spoke about the constitution being decided by eleven white men in suits, behind closed doors. And I think it's largely true. I mean you talk about us, South Asian women, where are the voices? Look at the difficulty that First Nations people have had to interject their voice. And in the end, just giving them permission to say two or three things, has taken so long. I mean, for me, it is very important to be political and to be aware all the time. But politics is also forgiving things and appreciating the art of the possible.
Yasmin: Art of the possible, indeed.
Zool: Getting back to the taxes and the vote, and sort of a sense of citizenship, it seems that you have all, in your own ways, decided that that doesn't involve direct engagement with processes that are defining in a very male, or in a very kind of goal-oriented, linear way, what constitutes this country. So do you opt out, and it doesn't matter?
Ramabai: I don't think so. I resent that! I have not opted out! ...You do the things you know. Deciding on your competency is a very important part of living. You have to, otherwise what you do is you just dissipate your energy into everything ... I have learned from generations of doing that, that you can't do everything well... One of the things that you must do, is to create spaces for other people to flower in. I think that's very important. And for me, that's not less than doing anything else.
Yasmin: Friction, for me, creates fiction .. . And as a writer, I'm totally dedicated. I cannot possibly have a dual citizenship living in this world. I belong to my own cities, the country, and again, the real friction creates fiction. That sort of space, or whatever, is a positive space for me. A positive border, a positive margin.
Ramabai: I have to agree with that. Even if I were more situated in a place, being as contrary as I am, I would find some way to have that friction. I think that's true.
Zool: So in a way it's a boon, to all of you, that there is so much fracturing, or so much displacement, or whatever you want to call it. (laughter)
Ramabai: I want to ask you something, really, seriously. As people of colour across Canada, now... what can we do to interject our voices into the constitutional debate? Do you see that there's a way?
Zool: I say, "Why not?"... Why don't we say that we want to assert a "displaced agenda" into the constitution of this country? This sense of location and rigid rights that "I have this right", "you have that responsibility", is a very western, rigid and compartmentalized way of looking at your relationship to your community and to your state. Why not inject some kind of uncertainty into that?... We have an agenda, why aren't we asserting it?
Ramabai: Well, why not? You are in the best position to assert it.
Zool: I resent that, because then if artists are going to... say that art is political, then we're all equally in the same position to answer that question. So I'm not going to take that on. I toss it back out and say, "How do we do it?" It certainly can't be on the basis of sheer numbers, at this point. And part of it is that... we don't feel the sense of confidence yet, to democratically assert the numbers that we already have within the population. We can't even get the vote out, frankly.
Sherazad: I'm finding this very uncomfortable, because basically you're saying that .. .it is 'our problem' that... our agenda is not being heard. Your very question, in the way it's framed and the way it's worded, denies the whole systematic operation that's going on here, to marginalize and to repress. It is a bloody miracle that the aboriginal peoples are even at the table. And then for you to say, "Well, what about the rest of us people of colour, why aren't we down there?"... The time will be there. This thing has to go its course. And I agree totally with Ramabai... right now it's the First Nations' agenda. It's their place. When they're ready to ask us to come, we will come. What we have to do is prepare. That is, to continue the process of our own awareness, our own education, and our own work, which to me involves making other people aware of these issues. So that when the time comes, we'll be able to mobilize more than just the people who are in this room.
Zool: So what happens to privacy in all this? I know that with Yasmin, that's very important. You see that as very sacred in some ways, because it's kind of the fountain from which your magic happens. Are you all very stingy with your privacy?... How do you define the private within this realm of negotiation?
Yasmin: Sacredness is not stingy, or I couldn't afford to be stingy with it... l share it very generously with people with whom I share an imaginary homeland. I work in that space, so I have a few steady members and that's it. I don't mean to sound militant, it's not that at all. Because in our lives we basically can take so much anyway for a day. So what I am doing is exactly that, only I have defined it so severely that the outsider is a bit afraid. It's a steady process, for example. I'm not casual about my privacy in any way. But I don't want to sound uppity. It's not that, it's just that I cannot function otherwise... I live very simply. Nothing is complicated.
Sherazad: I think it's really important to me... to have space to make things in, to create in, and it's not simply being stingy with my time. It's being stingy with my energy. It's being very much aware of where it is that I want to place that energy, and where it can have a maximum effect ... I don't have time to educate every Tom, Dick, and Harry on race issues. I'd rather spend that time working on my stuff. Even just in terms of physical privacy, .. . I guess I'm just at a point where I really enjoy my time at the keyboard, working on a story, or working on a piece. Amazingly, for the first time in my life, I feel at home when I'm doing that. I feel those pieces, those voices within me are having an opportunity to be heard. And they come out sometimes as a cacophony, and sometimes in really limp, stringy strains, unsure, wavering, but they have a place to come out to, which they have never had, in the whole twenty years we've been in this country. And that to me is just so empowering, so empowering.
Yasmin: As she (Sherazad) said, she doesn't want to educate everyone, and again it's sort of a very mainstream thing-that working for the anthropologist, whom I call. ..the Damwallah (maker of dams). This white stream is so organized, you know... And so what you do with anthropologists is you work toward the anthropologist... So it's again a different kind of colonization, right? And that's why I have problems with that because I ...feel that for me, the colonization finished a long time ago, and so I don't want to give that person [the anthropologist] space anymore. That person has to relearn ...and there are so many hurdles to get over.
Ramabai: Well I listened to both of you with great interest, about privacy and so on. I think it's a kind of avaricious attitude to people, if you come from small cultures and small places where everything is pressed together, which is the place I come from. Big families, small spaces. There's a way in which you are easily consumed. I find that it is one of the greatest hindrances to development and creation and creativity and so on, for me. It's something I've noticed as well, with the emerging group of lndo-Caribbean women writers that I see. There's a sense of being imperilled... One woman gives to her family, she gives to her community, she doesn't give to herself. That attitude is very much there. And I think that's in conflict with everything we have been brought up to do. The need for privacy and solitude and so on, to create. Coming from a big family in a small place, I have always felt that. Therefore, I have got my privacy with equal avarice. And so I feel the encroachment of society, family, duty, responsibility, and all of this, of a single act of creation, I feel it as an enormous threat... Well, the way our society is organized here, it's more possible to isolate yourself within, to lock your door, turn on the answering machine.
Zool: Well, ...this interview, ...makes apparent... that there's this incredible power and strength and solidarity that I feel speaking to you as a group... That strength... seems to be to the 'dominant' world view a tiny, marginalized sort of voice, but is in fact a very powerful voice.
Ramabai: For me, the direction... that we have been articulating for ourselves, it's very different. I don't feel, in the work that I am doing personally, that I am being left out... Even if all we are doing in a way is raising consciousness and awareness...
Yasmin: Well... my waffling with cunning would allow me the space... to see it from this point of view... Divergent points of view make waffling with cunning. So I am still on the side of letting the pots simmer... Whatever I do in my outside life is utilized in my art, and it comes out there. And so for me, art is not something that you put in the living room.
Sherazad: I think I would agree with Ramabai in that every act you make out there, in whatever work it is that you are doing, if you can ... inject that kind of consciousness into it, and so affect just a handful of people around you, to me, that is doing ... political work. If you bother to do that, you're engaged. And to do that is, in itself, is an act of responsibility. Really speaking, we don't owe anybody anything. We have a long litany of oppression. So much has been removed and taken away from us, stripped from us, and so really we don't owe anybody anything. In my mind, there is really no separation between art and politics and all these other things.
Thanks to the Canada Council, Notional Book Festival and Province of BC, Cultural Services Branch for making this interview possible.