Dr. Asel Omar and Anosh Irani find common ground on the topic of displacement

The two writers shared their work and discussed the night’s topic during the World Literature program’s Fall lecture

The talk took place on October 9, 2019. Image courtesy of SFU's World Literature department.

By: Isabella Wang, SFU Student

On October 9, 2019, a congregation of students and staff gathered for a long-anticipated talk featuring Dr. Asel Omar and Anosh Irani. 

Dr. Asel Omar is a Russian and Kazakh writer. Writing in Russian, she has published internationally, with four books of poetry and short fiction titled Credo, Early Colds, Blue Wolf, and Tengri Talisman. A professor of philosophy in Russia, her thesis was on Ancient Turkic Mythology.

Anosh Irani is the writer-in-residence and a visiting professor with the SFU World Literature program. He has written award-winning plays and a screenplay, and is the author of four critically acclaimed novels. The Parcel was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award among others. His play Bombay Black won five Dora Mavor Moore Awards, including the award for Outstanding New Play. His latest collection of short fiction is Translated from the Gibberish.

Opening remarks were made warmly by Dr. Melek Ortabasi, director of the SFU World Literature program, who acted as emcee for the evening.

The topic for the night’s talk was displacement. Dr. Ortabasi began by inviting each writer to speak to their different interpretations of the theme. For Dr. Omar, displacement occurs in the masses of misinformation being bombarded through the news and social media outlets. Writers have the ability to “deconstruct” language and identify whereabouts the misinformation lies. As she articulated, “if somebody tries to displace your heart to the wrong place by using the wrong clichés and labels, it is a dangerous situation.” 

For Irani too, writing is a force and form of disruption. Where life is presented as a kind of chaos, like stimuli combusting thought after thought like brushfire, writers see the world and, in turn, create what he refers to as a “calibrated chaos.” The words that get past the chaos have the ability to move the reader, becoming something that they take in. Writing thus channels displacement and “turbulence” from the inside.

Despite their different approaches, both writers converged on the idea of “home” as a central grounding point for the shifting and crossing over of languages, borders, and landscapes that they have encountered throughout their personal and professional lives. As Irani expressed it, “the meaning of displacement changes because the meaning of home changes.” Indeed, both writers have each experienced a form of physical displacement, through the loss of a language and through the difficulties of having to navigate a multiplicity of cultures and spaces upon arriving to a new country. At the same time, their performances opened up the possibility of a hybrid space, where individuals are allowed to be “more than one thing” — or, as Dr. Ortbasi put it, “hyphenated” — in their ability to speak, think, and write in multiple languages that do not always cohere.

Dr. Omar proceeded with readings of her poems in Russian, while the English translations were projected simultaneously on a screen. Having collaborated on this project with local poets Aislinn Hunter, Fiona Tinwei Lam, and Marina Sonkina, the poems in translation were yet another sign of Dr. Omar’s immersed hybridity — having arrived in Vancouver recently, she has now begun the process of venturing out and situating herself in close dialogue within a community of poets, writers, and/or scholars taking up the literary scene. 

Nevertheless, with movement comes bouts of occasional loneliness, and strange unfamiliarity. Having left India for Vancouver 20 years ago, Irani said that reading Dr. Omar’s poem “Rain” and her descriptions of the “mist dissolving” was like having his own experiences heard. He went on to explain that the decision to leave was a difficult choice, and that he often could not help but wonder what his life in India would be like if he had never left.

Turning next to his short fiction collection, Translated from the Gibberish, Irani read the opening story about his former yoga teacher, who memorably pronounced the word “exile” whenever he meant “exhale” due to his accent. These words, however, would go on to shape Irani’s stay in Canada. Whereas mentions of “exile” would evoke a sense of displacement, reminding him of his new climate and of having to endlessly adjust to fit — or not fit — in with this environment, the word “exhale” allowed him to persevere over longs periods of writing.

As Irani explains, writing itself is a marathon, as much as yoga is a form of endurance — both require tenacity and concentration from the body. Yet, finding a spark in the last lines of Dr. Omar’s poems, where she writes that “nothing is in vain / Everything is forgiven. Not forgiven. Loved,” Irani echoes that indeed, nothing has been in vain. Coming to a new country has helped him grow as a writer, by allowing him to see differently, through the perspectives of stories sought in what is unfamiliar, in the everyday. 

The night left a profound influence on many of the students in attendance. Following the event, second year biology student Ksydalg Avem Henry reflected by saying:

“I enjoyed having two very different perspectives from two writers coming from different places, but [who have] experience[d] a similar sense of displacement. I was born in Canada. I speak French, but I don’t speak Jamaican. When I go back [to visit family], I am able to understand what they are saying, but […] I don’t know how to communicate [back] in the same way. You feel alone when you are displaced, and it is comforting to know that there are people who are experiencing the same thing as you.”

Indeed, there is comfort and solidarity to be formed over the sharing of languages, stories, and translations, and in knowing that despite displacement, we are all connected at some level by the mutual flow of movement.