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Editors' Picks: Week of August 12–18

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An eclectic list of incredible fiction and life stories.
Translated from the Gibberish

Translated from the Gibberish

Seven Stories and One Half Truth
edition:Paperback

Here are seven superb, subtle, surprising stories that show, through a prism of unforgettable characters, what it means to live between two worlds: India and Canada.

Anosh Irani, the masterful, bestselling author of The Parcel and The Song of Kahunsha, knows of what he writes: Twenty years ago, to the mystification of family and friends, Irani left India for Vancouver, Canada, a city and a country completely foreign to him. His plan was both grand and impractical: he would reinvent himself as a w …

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Excerpt

L A N G U A G E

Immigrants speak in fragments. This is their language of choice—or rather, this is the language that has been chosen for them. Incoherence. The inability to understand, to be understood. Ask immigrants where they are from, ask the question, “So what is home for you?” and you will see the agony on their faces. Of course, as a writer, I get asked that question all the time, and it is a valid one, and I answer it without missing a beat: I have two homes, and I have neither. That is what I say in interviews. But catch me off guard, catch me at a train station in Bombay, or when I am staring into someone else’s home from a bridge, and you will see the lines appear on my face.

As my neighbour did this morning. I was emptying my trash into the garbageman’s cane basket, and she asked me, “Do you like it there?” —meaning my other home, Vancouver —and I said, “Sure, sure,” and she said, “It must be so clean,” and I said, “Yes, yes,” and just as I was about to re-enter my apartment, she asked, “So, are you happy there?” and the truth is a resounding no, but then I’m not happy here either, because there is no here, here was, it no longer is, and it’s questions like these that keep pharmaceutical companies in business. Am I happy anywhere? Was I ever happy? Is there such a thing as happy? I don’t think so, and if there is, I don’t want it. I want to combust in such a powerful way that the effects are felt deep in the oceans; I want craniates to read my work and get my meaning, and that’s about it. It won’t make me happy, but it will give my combustion the distance it deserves.

While I’m feeling all this, my neighbour tells me that she went over to Dr. Hansotia’s place and rang the doorbell but he didn’t answer. What if he’s dead? What if he’s had a stroke and is just lying there on the kitchen floor? But then, upon further investigation, she discovered that he has been opening the door for the garbageman, and has also hired a new maid to help cook, clean, and get groceries. So he has every intention to live. My neighbour seems a bit disappointed by this. Just as I’m disappointed by my constant need to make sense of a decision I made twenty years ago —to leave. I can feel my body turning dark; I can feel an eclipse occurring within me, the light being blocked.

Over the next few days, I keep one eye on Dr. Hansotia’s window as I do my regular Bombay things—I visit friends’ homes, try to partake of the natural rhythms of their daily lives: their morning jogs, afternoon naps, shopping trips (oh, how the malls have grown; they are the Great Barrier Reefs of our age), domestic arguments, laughter that I hear and remember from long ago, lovers who have aged and seem “happy,” money flowing in and out of wallets and cards, and me, reaching into my wallet to pay for dinners only to be scoffed at, but in the most affectionate way, because I am an artist, an adorable pye-dog. So many natural, daily rhythms that seem completely unnatural to me, such as sharing space with another human being; waking up next to one; having a miniature version of oneself and then holding it, scolding it, cuddling it, cleaning it. Once in a while, someone hands me their baby, hoping it will change me, hoping that some of its babyness will redeem my soul, make me less grouchy, or whatever it is they think I need. This obsession with happiness —to me it’s just a new-car smell that one day disappears without warning. I try to partake of daily life, but I find natural rhythms only when I am writing. But I cannot write all the time. So I think.

It’s 2 a.m. A peaceful time to be awake in Bombay. I still call the city Bombay when I speak, but I’ve started using Mumba when I write. Mumbai is creeping into my work. Those seven islands are speaking up, telling me it’s time to acknowledge the name change. If it’s only a name change, I tell those islands (when you’re up four days in a row, you can communicate with islands), why is it so difficult for me to say it? Is it because when I say Mumbai I don’t know where to go? Or is it because Mumbai has no use for me, doesn’t need me the way I need it? On my previous trip, a year ago, I went to Chowpatty beach at night and dipped my feet in the sea. And just as I started to feel the warmth of the water, the water tightened its grip around my ankles and I realized that water, that eternal truth-teller, was back at work. You did not leave Bombay, the water said. It spat you out. Remember this, each time you hold that new passport of yours. When I returned to Vancouver, I dipped my feet in the waters of English Bay, thinking I would spite the Arabian Sea. But the Pacific had a message for me as well. Not so much in words, but in its cold, steely silence.

In Bombay, once I’m done holding other people’s babies and shopping, once I’m done catching up with friends or watching a Hindi movie in Phoenix Mills, I do something strange —strange to others but not to me. I take late-night taxi rides alone. Even though people offer to drop me home after our nights out, I prefer cabs. There’s a bridge in the city, the JJ Bridge, which connects Byculla, the place where I live, to Colaba in South Bombay. At night, when there’s no traffic, it’s just a ten-minute ride between those areas, and I use that bridge to stare into homes, into people’s apartments, to catch a glimpse of the smallness of their movements, to see complete strangers perform mundane acts such as reaching for a newspaper, or to watch an old woman fanning herself. The bridge allows me to be so close to their windows that I can literally smell their lives. This is an essential part of my Bombay visit. As my taxi climbs up that bridge, I feel a kind of exhilaration —perhaps that’s too grand a word: a release, you might say. I become an eagle who swoops in and out of lives, of narratives, without the slightest regard for plot or character development. I collect snapshots, take photographs in the mind with eye blinks, in order to find the thing behind the thing, which I hope will enlarge my world; and when I do find that moment, I don’t know what to do with it. The second I begin to feel complete, to fill up with something, a sense of loss pervades me. Then I stop looking into apartments, I look below the bridge, at Mohammed Ali Road, at its mosques and minarets, its greenness, its lights sending out signals into the sky, and it feels like an ancient place, a place that contains the breath of centuries, warm and stale. I fill my nights with domes in the sky, and minarets, with roundness and erectness, and this says a lot about how I feel about Earth itself —that I am stuck in its roundness, when all I long for is upward movement, a minaret that will take me so high . . . And my thoughts stop as soon as I descend the bridge and pass by my old school —or, specifically, the petrol pump behind my school. When childhood memories take over, it’s time for me to leave.

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Ready to Come About

Ready to Come About

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

Three hundred nautical miles from shore, I‘m cold and sick and afraid. I pray for reprieve. I long for solid ground. And I can‘t help but ask myself, What the hell was I thinking?

When Sue Williams set sail for the North Atlantic, it wasn’t a mid-life crisis. She had no affinity for the sea. And she didn’t have an adventure-seeking bone in her body.

In the wake of a perfect storm of personal events, it suddenly became clear: her sons were adults now; they needed freedom to figure things …

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Chapter One

Winter 1981, in our second-floor apartment of an old brick house in downtown Ottawa, I sat at the drop-leaf table David had set with a faded chintz tablecloth, a pair of candlesticks, and the sparkling cutlery we had been given as wedding presents, while he prepared dinner. There were blizzard-like conditions beyond the frosty panes of glass, but the kitchen’s baby-blue radiator kept us warm.

“What’s cookin’?” I asked, watching him turn stove dials up and down, lift and lower pot lids, and open and close the oven door like a one-man band.

“My own recipe.” He stirred a dollop of butter into a steaming pot. “Pork Shake ’n Bake, except on chicken,” he divulged with pride.

Gotta love ’im. I giggled to myself.

After serving up two plates of his concoction with Minute Rice, mixed vegetables, and sprigs of parsley placed just so, he sat down, uncorked a bottle of Mateus, and poured us each a glass.

“Happy anniversary, my dear,” he said.

“Happy anniversary,” I said, smiling.

We had been married seven weeks. He thought that was cause enough for celebration. My heart swelled as our glasses clinked.

We ate at a leisurely pace, but chatted with passion about our new life together.

Ottawa, with its green spaces and vibrant arts scene, had a lot to offer. Perhaps we’d even make it home. Kids? Absolutely. When? Soon, was my thinking.

“Well then …” David said with a glint, and we laughed.

And workwise, we were off to an auspicious start. He had been promoted to permanent status as an entry-level accounting clerk in a high-tech firm. The pay was good, his colleagues were collegial, and he could bike to work — perfect for the time being.

I had just completed a week of orientation as staff occupational therapist in the rehabilitation wing of a nearby hospital. The department was a beehive of optimism: an amputee being trained to feed himself using prosthetic arms in one area, a quadriplegic learning to drive a power wheelchair in another. “The OT mission is function with dignity. The vision is possibility,” I explained to David.

“You’ll be so great at it,” he said, his soft blue eyes moist.

I scooped up a forkful of veggies and considered that he was absolutely right.

“It feels like what I was meant to do. And to grow old and ugly with you,” I joked. “Seriously, everything’s just so perfect right now.” My eyes welled as I took a bite.

That’s when he said, “The only thing I regret about being married is I won’t ever sail an ocean.”

I stopped chewing — and, momentarily, breathing — and studied his face.

He was serious.

“Didn’t even know you sail,” I said as evenly as possible.

“Oh yeah. I did. My Aunt Caroline gave me a small sailboat my grandfather had built. I used to sail it on Lake Yosemite, an irrigation lake about seven miles from our house. My mom would drop me off there on her way to work. I”d sail back and forth all day long and imagine I was crossing an ocean, even though it was only a mile wide. Silly.”

Why was I just hearing about this for the first time now?

Why did he presume I’d be unsupportive?

And just how regretful was he and would he be with the passage of time? Would he become one of those bitter old men who look back on their lives with despair? Worse, would he blame me?

“More chicken?” he asked.

“God! I can hear it already; you introducing me as ‘my wife, Sue, the dream wrecker’ to our tablemates in the nursing home!”

“Whoaaaa! What the —”

“Don”t you whoa me!” I said, determined to nip any notion I might be overreacting in the bud.

David backtracked as best he could: it was a poor choice of words; he even surprised himself with the comment; he couldn’t be happier. “It was a childhood fantasy, nothing more,” he insisted.

But as he told the story, his face lit up in such a way I wasn’t entirely convinced he had left this fantasy behind. So, determined to seem open to the preposterous idea, I remarked with as much conviction as I could muster, “You know, anything’s possible.”

And we finished our meal listening to the radiator gurgle and ping.

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Youth of God, The

Youth of God, The

edition:Paperback
tagged : literary

Finalist for the Pius Adesanmi Memorial Award for Excellence in African Writing, 2019

The Youth of God tells the story of Nuur, a sensitive and academically gifted seventeen-year-old boy growing up in Toronto's Somali neighbourhood, as he negotiates perilously between the calling of his faith and his intellectual ambitions. Trying to influence him are a radical Muslim imam and a book-loving, dedicated teacher who shares his background. In its telling, this novel reveals the alienated lives of Som …

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Tiny Lights for Travellers

Tiny Lights for Travellers

edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

Why couldn’t I occupy the world as those model-looking women did, with their flowing hair, pulling their tiny bright suitcases as if to say, I just arrived from elsewhere, and I already belong here, and this sidewalk belongs to me?

When her marriage suddenly ends, and a diary documenting her beloved Opa’s escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands in the summer of 1942 is discovered, Naomi Lewis decides to retrace his journey to freedom. Travelling alone from Amsterdam to Lyon, she discovers famil …

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The Sadness of Geography

The Sadness of Geography

My Life as a Tamil Exile
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook

The harrowing journey of a teenage refugee who never gave up on his dream of seeing his family again.

Born to a wealthy family in northern Sri Lanka, Logathasan Tharmathurai and his family lost everything during the long and brutal Sri Lankan Civil War.

In January 1985, at the age of eighteen, he left his home in a desperate bid to build a new life for himself and his family abroad after a deeply traumatic encounter with a group of Sinhalese soldiers. As his terrifying and often astonishing journe …

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Excerpt

CHAPTE R 1

Sangkaththaanai, Jaffna District, Northern Province, Sri Lanka
1983

“Elumpu! Elumpu!”

I woke up suddenly, in the dark, startled. Am I dreaming?

My father was standing over me, his face bent low to mine. He straightened up, then kicked me, hard. “Elumpu!” Wake up.

“I am awake,” I answered sleepily, although I wasn’t sure why. No lights were on. I could hear smothered whispers as my brothers and sisters moved around hastily in the house.

I begged my father to tell me what was happening. “Aamykarar vaarangal!” my father whispered. The army is coming. “Oodippoi oliyada!” Run away and hide.

Groggy with sleep, I rose clumsily but quickly from my bed on the floor.

It was still pitch dark inside the house. I peeked through the window. It was silent. The moon was gone; soon it would be dawn.

“Now!” my father hissed, yanking me along.

When the weather was hot, my brothers and I preferred to sleep on blankets strewn across the concrete floors in the front hall of our house, where it was much cooler. My father, however, had his own room and insisted on sleeping on a cushioned bed under the ceiling fan. My mother, my aunt, and my sisters slept on wooden beds topped with comforters.

I looked for Kanna, my younger brother, but could see only blankets scattered on the floor. Perhaps he was hiding or had run away already.

“Where should I go?” I blurted out, confused. I rubbed my eyes, attempting to bring my father’s dark silhouette into focus, but he was just a blur. I could hear more panicked rustling and harsh, muffled whispering from my mother and sisters.

“Be quiet!” my father said. “Go! Run!”

I blundered forward in the dark but slipped on a blanket and tumbled hard to the floor. It seemed easier and faster to crawl. I crawled as quickly as I could to the kitchen, where I found the key to the back door and flung it open. I ran outside, then froze. I turned back momentarily, looking for my two brothers and sisters, hoping they’d followed. I did not like the idea of being on my own.

“Lathy!” I called back into the house, hoping my older brother would appear. “Kanna?”

Where are my brothers? Should I wait?

I squatted in the darkness of our backyard for just a moment, one that seemed like an eternity, wondering what to do.

Where can I run?

I could hear the soft rustling of the wind passing between the leaves on the coconut tree, a soothing hush that belied the terror of the moment. My body felt like ice and my heart was pounding so hard it felt as if it would burst through my chest.

In the distance, a rooster was crowing. With the coming of the sun, the soldiers would appear and I would be caught. I had heard stories of what the soldiers did to Tamil boys. I was just a teenager and I could easily become their prey. They would murder me — or worse.

I could hear another sound: trucks on the main road outside our small village.

“Lathy! Kanna!” I called out again. Nothing.

I couldn’t wait for my brothers; I needed to go.

I stumbled through our backyard garden and crept along the high cement wall at the edge of our property. It was at least seven feet high. Even if I could climb it, the razor-sharp broken bottles anchored to the top — meant to keep intruders out — dissuaded me from even trying.

My mind was racing. Could I risk going through the front gate? There was no place to hide on the road, and I could not outrun the trucks. The soldiers would see me, assume I was a rebel.

I had no choice.

I propped an old piece of discarded lumber against the wall to hoist myself to the top. I had one hand on top of the wall when the piece of wood snapped. I crashed to the ground.

“Ennada saniyan!” I swore.

I jumped to my feet and circled the yard in a panic. There was nothing else to help me scale the wall.

I willed my heart to stop thumping long enough for me to listen. I could hear the trucks coming closer: the deep-throated sound of shifting gears, the revving of the engines, the shrieking of brakes.

By this time, the stingy early morning light was bringing the flat contours of our backyard into relief. I felt unbearably exposed.

I’m trapped!

I had no choice but to use the front gate. If there was a soldier on the road, however, there would be nowhere for me to hide. My knees trembled; suddenly I felt a warm dribble on my leg. I felt my sarong with my hand, ashamed to discover that I’d wet myself. How Lathy would make fun of me if he knew! In my shame, thinking of how he would tease me was almost as bad as my fear of the soldiers.

All I wanted to do was disappear, but somehow I convinced myself to creep around the side of the house. Our front gate was made of iron bars. In fact, it was the only iron gate in the neighbourhood. Most of the families in our neighbourhood were too poor to afford iron gates, which is probably why my father had insisted on having one. In our village, fences were usually woven from coconut leaves and affixed at intervals to the trees that lined the street. My father was a proud, prosperous, and well-respected businessman; exhibiting and maintaining his status was very important to him. He insisted the gate be locked every night against intruders. After all, the driveway was wide enough for two cars — even though we never had two cars. Most families in the village didn’t have even one car. The majority had bicycles or scooters, or simply walked.

In any case, the gate was no obstacle. I was barefoot, which made climbing it easier.

At the top, I looked up and down the road but did not see any soldiers or military trucks. I jumped.

The road in front of our house, like all the roads in our village, was unpaved. Luckily my feet were tough from walking barefoot; otherwise, landing on the sharp stones would have been painful. Even so, I winced and hopped before starting to run.

I stayed low, sticking as close to the side of the road as I could to remain inconspicuous. After just a few steps, I skidded to a halt. A military truck had stopped at the top of the road. Soldiers dressed in green and brown camouflage and carrying submachine guns were jumping from the back of the truck and fanning out in groups of three or four along the road. At each house, a group of soldiers would duck into the laneway.

Except for the faint crunching of boots on the gravel, the soldiers were eerily quiet, like ghosts. Suddenly the silence was broken by shouting, first in one house and then another, and another, like slowly toppling dominoes. Orders were being barked. Rough male voices, then women’s screams and wails.

Get off the road!

I ran into my neighbour’s yard. Unlike our large, modern house, many homes in the village were crude and very small — many of them no more than improvised shacks or huts. Most had a tiny porch at the front and one big sleeping room for the family. The kitchen was cramped and had firepits made of clay for cooking. Toilets were located at the back, separate from the house. Some houses had a well, but none, except ours, had running water. Anyone who could manage it had a modest garden to grow vegetables and some little cages in which to raise chickens.

The shouts from the soldiers grew louder as they got closer. From the houses I could hear the shrill, terrified cries of women and girls. I zigzagged from one backyard to another until I reached a railway crossing. From behind some bushes I could see military trucks driving along the main road, known as the Kandy–Jaffna Highway. Soldiers were moving from house to house, searching. My only hope was to reach the rice paddies beyond the highway. Our house was only a short distance from the highway; the fields, however, were about four miles away, and I had no way of knowing if I could make it that far without being seen.

What if soldiers had been stationed at the fields to watch for boys and men making a run for it?

I waited by the highway, hiding behind the bushes until a short convoy of military trucks had passed. Then, crouching low, I ran as fast as I could across the tar-paved road toward the Sangkaththaanai Kanthasamy Kovil, a Hindu temple in our village. Years later, I can still recall the soft sound of my bare feet slapping the tar road as I ran.

I passed the temple and kept running, away from home, toward the paddies. The fields at the edge of the paddies were lined with mature trees with enough foliage to help obscure my movements.

I was panting, breathless, and slowed down to catch my breath. What a beautiful morning, I caught myself thinking, as if in a dream. I would never forget the image of the fiery edge of sunrise in the distance and the blue sky arcing above the green rice fields.

Just as suddenly as before, more trucks appeared nearby and my sense of security instantly disappeared. I hurried down a narrow path that split the rice paddy into two sections and was soon surrounded by rice stalks — bright green at that time of year — that reached to my shoulders. It was midseason, and the ground was still wet and muddy from a heavy rainfall the night before. It was early, but the sun would soon be a torch in the sky. I was alone. I had no idea what was happening to my family. There was nothing I could do but hide. And wait.

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