Foreign Object in the House of Canadian Literature

By Annahid Dashtgard

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Steam rises as water descends over jagged bits of ginger below. The mug is too hot to hold so I wrap my fingers around the handle and carry it over to our grey couch. As I lower myself into the cushiony softness, I feel a yawn clawing up my chest into my throat. My first book, a memoir, has just been released and I feel like I’ve finally finished a long trek up the mountain and while proud to have arrived I’m also exposed to all the elements and finding it hard to breathe at this altitude. Suddenly I hear cries of what I think must be a wild animal, only to quickly realize it’s my own voice, harsh and primal. I feel something trapped deep in my right upper leg and vagina, a bear’s fangs sunk deep into layers of skin. There is nowhere to escape the aftermath of boiling water.

Breaking the Ocean Book Cover
Breaking the Ocean: Race, Rebellion, and Reconciliation by Annahid Dashtgard. House of Anansi Press (2019).

"Are you sure you still want to travel tomorrow?" my partner asks, after time has passed. He’s done his best to support as I sit doubled over at the dining table, tears dripping into silence. I survey the enormity of the trembling raw skin now covering most of my upper thighs.

"No choice," I grind out. "More pills. And the other icepack."

The next day I am embarking on two months of almost continuous North American travel to twelve cities with sometimes two or more events per day for Breaking the Ocean, my memoir about overcoming the lifelong impacts of exile, immigration, racism, and trauma. It is a corporeal cartography. I have written about OCD and incontinence, bulimia, and depression. When I was writing I thought I was ready to revisit and speak about the past, but I never imagined journeying like this. Not wounded, a foreigner once again in the landscape of my own skin.

One of the first destinations is to our capital city, Ottawa, a place I once briefly lived in during my mid-twenties. I have been invited to speak at an event (unpaid) at the National Gallery of Canada on the topic of ‘living well’. I am supposed to feel honoured (which I am) while trying not to count the hours it took me to prepare and rehearse this talk in amidst the precious time spent juggling my clients and children and house before departure. I deliver a speech covering systemic racism and its manifestations in front of a packed auditorium of about four hundred anonymous faces. Using my own story as the jumping off point, I talk about micro-inequities, often referred to as death by a thousand cuts. I do a whole part on how important it is to get names right. I finish this section by saying, "these unintentional exclusions are as painful in a way as the more overt forms of discrimination, more so in some ways because they are both ubiquitous and invisible. The bleeding is internal, the emotional labour determining whether to interrupt or to swallow. Either way, there is risk involved."

Still, as the director comes on stage at the end to thank us presenters, she tries, stutters and proceeds to grossly mispronounce my name. To get to this moment is the pinnacle, the accumulation of many moments spent travelling up this mountain-- it’s my coming out as an author and it matters to me that I’m represented as authentically as possible. I have spent the last few years convincing white agents, publishers, and media that actually, no, stories by women of colour have not saturated the market and also by the way, political by your standards is normal for us. I’m conveniently seated in the front row and so I call up to correct her. She does the white woman thing of maintaining control at all costs, pausing awkwardly but unable to stop, apologize and simply correct herself. I hear my own voice fading away in the silence of the auditorium.

Afterwards, lost in the sea of white donors, I go over to visit the book table and realize the one request I had made of the organization—to have copies of my book on hand to sell—has been overlooked. They do, however, have a book about a white man and his favorite tree, making me momentarily regret that I did not turn out to be a birder or hike ten thousand miles on the Pacific West coast trail (white people in nature never fails). A staff person approaches me and abashedly whispers, "the director asked me to come and apologize to you." I look over and see this director nearby, an older woman with blond bobbed hair, drink in hand talking to an older male donor. As I stare, she throws her head back in flirtatious laughter. "Oh," I respond, wondering what prevents her from closing the three-metre gap between us to say these words to me herself. Suddenly, it’s all too much. My eyes fill with tears, and I pivot away, feeling the weight of too many indignities piled on top of my own vulnerability in this space. Back in the hotel room, I take an hour to carefully unwrap layers of gauze, clean the burn wound, reapply all the bandages (this takes an hour) and lie down to order in food. I’m unsure how I’m going to emotionally survive the rest of this journey, while also aware how privileged I am to be here at all.

Moving Forward, 11cm x 11cm x 11cm "cubes", porcelain/iron-oxide ceramic decal, 2015, photo credit: Dale Roddick.
Moving Forward, 11cm x 11cm x 11cm "cubes", porcelain/iron-oxide ceramic decal, 2015, photo credit: Dale Roddick. From Crafting Identity: Heidi McKenzie's "Family Matters" (Volume 7 Number 4).

A few days later I arrive in Vancouver for a prominent writer’s festival. After checking in to the hotel, I decide to venture into the author’s lounge to see if I can connect with some other writers. Despite being a speaker and educator, I dislike social events if I don’t have an assigned role. There are about twenty people in the room and going by the high volume I assume the mostly older white crowd know each other pretty well. I go over and introduce myself to the festival director, and I’m disappointed by her stiff reply. I wonder if it’s me, my identity or the work that I do on race and equity issues. She cuts our conversation short and takes me over to introduce me to the only other person of colour in the room. We look at each other awkwardly, both of us implicitly acknowledging the POC ghetto we’ve just been relegated to. I feel like a separate species and ponder if any white author has ever walked into a room and been introduced to the only other white author there? I go with "never" because I don’t think this has ever happened here.

After my last event at this festival two days later, I enter the same lounge for a cup of mint tea, en route to rest my leg in my room. An older white woman comes over to me. "I enjoyed your panel", she says, "You and the other presenter [another brown woman of a different racial/ cultural background] with your brown curly hair looked like you could be cousins. You were both so cute!" I have no words with which to respond. Perhaps, I think, I should lower my head so she can actually pat me. Back in the hotel room, as I change the bandages on my wound, I can see that the skin down to my knee is getting infected. I hunt down and visit a medical centre the next day.

"Take these antibiotics," the white doctor instructs as he hands over the script. "How do I look after the wound?" I ask. "I’m worried about it getting worse." He looks at me for a moment, a burp in the predictable pattern of these visits— his face queries why I am asking for more when he’s already given his advice? "Don’t worry about it," he snaps. I feel an echo of so many moments on this trip stretching back to childhood in the face of all these people in authority positions—doctors, festival directors, teachers, camp counselors and girl guide leaders—who were unable to hear or address the real question underneath: "will this get better?" This question scrabbles about in my chest cavity like the pressure of a small mice colony, demanding release. I say nothing but hear the echo of my own words boomeranging back to me, "the bleeding is internal, the emotional labour determining whether to interrupt or to swallow. Either way, there is risk involved."

The antibiotics help, but the wound stays red and inflamed. I fly back to Edmonton, my adopted city after fleeing Iran. This was the one place I was mentally crossing fingers would not be added to my itinerary. I said "yes" when the invitation arrived because it felt destined that in talking about my past, I would be invited to confront it. As I land in the airport, I cannot differentiate between nine-year-old me and forty-six-year-old me.

Postmarked (Installation View), each tetrahedron 14cm x 14m x 14cm , porcelain, iron-oxide ceramic decal, 2017, photo credit: Josie Slaughter
Postmarked (Installation View), each tetrahedron 14cm x 14m x 14cm , porcelain, iron-oxide ceramic decal, 2017, photo credit: Josie Slaughter. From Crafting Identity: Heidi McKenzie's "Family Matters" (Volume 7 Number 4).

Speaking here is a magnification of all the emotions. The bear jaws in my leg sink deeper while the mice in my chest scurry faster. I want to press the eject button from my own body. My first event is in a large downtown mall. I assume the interview is going to be broadcast from the CBC station, but instead I find out there is no recording and this will instead be a live conversation to be held in the two chairs set up at the entrance of the studio facing the open mall. I meet my interviewer, a young white woman who is clearly new in her role and wonder if she has even opened my book. A few minutes later as we are seated in front of our tiny audience with mall shoppers moving to and fro behind them, she lops the opening question towards me. "You write about the trauma of moving here to Canada"-- there is a burst of background noise as a group of people enter the mall doors -- "CAN YOU TELL US WHAT IT WAS LIKE FOR YOU AS A CHILD BEING SPAT ON AND GOING TO THE BATHROOM MULTIPLE TIMES EACH NIGHT?"

I pause to let the background cacophony die down so I can hear my own voice responding. This question in this environment is like being thrown into freezing ocean in the middle of a storm. As I bypass shock to try and get my bearings to start swimming in some direction towards shore, I try to internally decipher what layers of the past I wish to reveal. Do I launch into years of being told I smelled, of being called racial slurs or shunned so severely that even momentary eye contact could make my whole day? How do I unravel years of social rejection, chapters in the book, into words my body and this random group of strangers can hold? I realize this flailing around trying to grab onto the right words as a lifesaver to reach shores of safety and understanding, is how I’ve always felt in this place. I wonder, what kind of cosmic joke is being played on me?

That evening as part of another festival event I’m on stage between an older white female author and a new Indigenous writer. The white woman answers in spurts of minutes while myself and the other author try and squeeze in between and around her long-winded responses. At the signing table immediately afterwards, there is a line-up of people to buy books. I’m grateful—that’s the point of all this. The first person comes up and says, "It sounds like you had a hard childhood, but you must be glad it happened because you’re here." Another one comments, "Canada is a great place to move to, don’t you think?" And yet another, "You’re so pretty! I hope you know how beautiful you are". I realize that I have to make peace with white people’s discomfort with the content of my book. Either I’m the hero or victim, pain-free or in need of rescuing, both designed to make the witness feel better. This is the legacy of discrimination-- that you never get to choose who you are and the choices given are usually a dehumanizing dichotomy with no room for the nuances of personhood in between. These people aren’t aware that they hold positions of power, but they do because they dictate the culture, and whiteness, as a culture, is suffocating.

I go to the bathroom and check my email. My editor, Doug, has sent a message letting me know he’s recommended me to do a book review for a national publication. We are an unlikely union, he and I --the white urban hipster and the older racialized activist-- but I also know I wouldn’t be here without his belief in me. Amidst the struggle there is also this.

I try to focus on feeling grateful for these moments of support, but the overwhelming combination of being in so much of my past, with this present that doesn’t feel so very different, takes a toll. The next morning, I visit yet another medical centre, this time in downtown Edmonton. The doctor enters the room like a religious figure about to perform last rites and vigorously pulls away the bandages protecting the injured area. I look at my leg spread out like a skinned animal carcass awaiting dissection. He barks, "You need to come in every day to get this taken care of!" I feel like he is blaming me for the burn. The nurse proceeds to scrub all the remaining bits of dead skin from the wound. I suck in my breath. "Debridement", the nurse says, apropos of nothing. In response to my questioning look, she expands, "It means cleaning the wound of all foreign objects". I wonder if I am the foreign object here or what foreign objects I need to exorcise from within?

Postmarked (Detail), 14cm x 14cm x 14cm each tetrahedron, porcelain, iron-oxide decal, 2017, photo credit: Heidi McKenzie.
Postmarked (Detail), 14cm x 14cm x 14cm each tetrahedron, porcelain, iron-oxide decal, 2017, photo credit: Heidi McKenzie. From Crafting Identity: Heidi McKenzie's "Family Matters" (Volume 7 Number 4).

A week later after returning home to Toronto, in between travels, I get a last-minute call to attend a prestigious literary event at the Four Seasons hotel in the upscale Yorkville neighbourhood. I feel again the expectation of being honoured (and again, I am) but I’m also running on fumes and fire at this point after back to back events educating mostly white audiences about the reality of racism. There is one author to be placed per table of twelve event sponsors who each pay over a thousand dollars to attend. I get an image of petting animals at the zoo. I tell the event’s organizer that I’m hesitant about spending the night surrounded by rich white people who have no connection to my book. I don’t know if I have it in me to parlay concepts like race, immigration, and exile into light dinner conversation. I hear his voice in my ear assuring me that I will be well taken care of, and that in fact, I will be at the same table as the association president. The president is, they continue on confidently, delighted to have me there and looking forward to personally welcoming me.

I make an appointment to have my hair done, and find myself later that evening in a fancy cream and gold ballroom seated between a white woman who is head of HR for a large company and a young white gay man who is extremely funny. I realize at one point that this is some kind of awkward for most of us and we all have our ways of overcompensating. The meal passes while prizes are handed out on stage by white people to mostly other white people, although there are banners of diverse authors hovering behind the stage like ghosts. Margaret Atwood is mentioned so often that it’s clear that here in the country of Canadian literature she is the queen and I wonder what happens to those of us who genuflect incorrectly. The event is almost over when the association president’s name is announced by the person on stage. I think, "She must be sick this evening", but no, this elegant woman with long blond hair across the table from me stands and waves her arm to the crowded room of about three hundred plus people. I can’t help but stare at her as she sits back down but she doesn’t return my gaze. Why would she start now?

The magnitude of her oversight bangs through the defenses I have built up and suddenly I again feel my irrelevance. She, who heads this prestigious writer’s organization, whose support I was explicitly promised, has not even bothered to lean over to introduce herself, to introduce me, or to offer any other kind of welcome even though I am the sole author and the only BIPOC person seated at this table. This moment becomes a metaphor for the house Canadian writers I have come to visit for the first time with this first book. I, and the other BIPOC writers I can see scattered at tables around the room, are present but unseen. We are wooed for the colour we represent, but we don’t yet belong.

I overhear an announcement from the stage announcing the next association president newly coming into the position, and to my surprise it is an older white man who comes to the microphone. Is this really happening? Every single literary association in this country (Writers Union, Writer’s Trust, Giller Prize Board, and leadership of almost every writer’s festival and most publications) remain white people born and raised in Canada, and despite best of efforts it’s still the case that this is a culture where if you’re here you better know how to use the salad fork. There is no hand eating, floor seating, kids running amok in spaces like these… white culture is the perfectionism of skin and bone hidden behind polite masks and polished through emotionally neutral conversation. I must straight jacket so much of myself to be here and I am tired of playing the role of grateful author.

As the evening formalities wind down and the others at my table start drifting off (the president still has not made eye contact), I remain seated amid the white tablecloths and elaborate flower bouquets. I think about how writing my story in the form of this book and putting it out into the world is like removing layers of skin. No surprise that I burned myself. Was it worth it, I wonder? Is it worth it? I think about how racism− and scalding water− have permanently marked me, but finding these words has resurrected me and guided me forward. If immigrating to Canada was the original burn, shame became the foreign object. This book is my form of debridement, my battle cry for a future where everyone has access to belonging, where authors of every identity and background will share their stories with an equally diverse readership. I am part of this colour-full revolution and as I think this, I look up to see two well-known BIPOC authors dancing up on the stage, their shadows looming large on the wall behind them. They wave at me and I wave back. I remember that belonging is usually fought for, in some countries with weapons, in this country, with our words.

As I’m in the cab at the end of the night, I think back to my last medical visit in Toronto a few days earlier. As I lay on the white operating surface, the doctor peered over my leg with the care of a midwife mid-delivery, gingerly prodding the delicate skin. I hear her voice in my ear softly declaring, "It’s certainly healing." I remember letting out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding, to hear her add, "Slowly."

Annahid Dashtgard
Annahid Dashtgard is author of the recent and acclaimed memoir "Breaking the Ocean: Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation", and co-founder of the boutique consulting company Anima Leadership creating a world where all people matter and belong.
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