Djamila Ibrahim Explores the Struggles of Canadians from the Horn of Africa at Upcoming Ottawa Writers Festival EventWritten by Staff Writer
Djamila Ibrahim will be discussing her debut collection of short stories, "Things Are Good Now", in conversation with CBC Ottawa's Adrian Harewood on Thursday, November 15th. Purchase tickets online here.
The event is organized by the Ottawa International Writers Festival in partnership with the Canadian Council of Muslim Women as part of their Books and Biryani series, a biryani dinner is included in the ticket price.
Djamila Ibrahim was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and moved to Canada in 1990. Her stories have been shortlisted for the University of Toronto’s Penguin Random House Canada Student Award for Fiction and Briarpatch Magazine’s creative writing contest. She was formerly a senior advisor for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. She lives in Toronto.
Djamila has family on both sides of the Eritrean and Ethiopian border. From them, she says, “I have inherited the sense of life’s precariousness.”
Djamila states about her writing “I wanted to tell stories that were not told in Canadian literature. I was inspired by Black female writers.”
The Globe and Mail review points out: “Things Are Good Now makes clear that asylum isn’t the same as resolution. As Canada expects only increased numbers of asylum seekers in 2018, this is essential fiction for right now."
Her short stories explore the struggles of Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali refugees and their children to find home and belonging as they cope with the trauma of their past and the uncertainty of their present.
In an interview with 49th Shelf, Djamila explains, "The insularity of Canadian life is a big shock to most newcomers but I think more so for those who, like Benny, Alem’s brother in the title story, and Adam in “Little Copper Bullets,” strive to put their traumatic history behind them and start anew. Their efforts to fit in the wider Canadian society are sometimes met with misinformation, rejection, and racism. Others like Alem, Benny’s sister, are stuck in their past and oftentimes can’t tolerate others’ attempts to move on. With time, tension and conflict between lovers, friends, and family members grow while the scars of war or other trauma stay suppressed. This usually leads to isolation and mental health issues.
As a writer, it’s my job to inhabit a character’s world, and to try to walk in their shoes. To get a good grasp of the issues I was tackling in these stories, I read a lot: nonfiction books, academic journals, news articles, interview pieces and blog entries. I watched documentaries. I also reached out to people in the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities for their input. As difficult and heartbreaking as some of these stories of loss are, it’s important to note that behind the pain and despair, there is always hope, however dim, and a will to survive and prevail. Family, community and faith often play a crucial role in providing a space for healing. And people can be victims in one scenario, and an oppressor in another, a hero to some and a villain to others. These complications bring depth and nuance to the stories, and make the difficult passages easier to write."
The following are examples of some of the stories found in Djamila's short story collection, "Things Are Good Now":
In the title story, siblings return to Ethiopia after a decade living in Toronto. “Things are good now,” Ethiopians tell them – 17 years of brutalities under the Derg regime finally ended. But their voices are wary.
In the story “Not a Small Thing,” intellectual activist Selam chooses to don the hijab and is then assaulted because of it. Her best friend, who had tried to talk her out of wearing it, must process a complex array of emotions.
The story “You Made Me Do This,” is about the mother of a teenage boy mourns the murder of her son in Ottawa. She also has to come to terms with the fact that her own actions and false sense of security in Canada might have led to her son’s death.
The story “Spilled Water” is about a young Ethiopian girl who is adopted into a white Canadian family and has a hard time relating to her new family, who knows nothing of the trauma she has gone through.
The story "Little Copper Bullets” follows the intense Aisha, a former Eritrean soldier who for years led troops on the battlefield, an AK-47 slung over her shoulder. After the war, demobilized and seeing new jobs go to the men, she moves to Canada but can only find work cleaning public toilets and doing hospital laundry. To complicate matters, her boyfriend, Adam, is from Ethiopia, Eritrea’s longtime enemy.
The story "Heading Somewhere" follows Sara and Omar, leave their country and each other in search for a better life abroad. Omar marries his way to Canada and Sara finds domestic work in the Middle East. The choices they make through the years and the secrets they accumulate threaten their relationship. But when Sara finds herself caught in the Syrian war, her first thoughts are about Omar. Omar sets out to do whatever it takes to find her. It’s the love story of a man and a woman thrust into the tides of global migration but also of the people they meet along the way.