Anniversary gift

Today is my wedding anniversary. I married my Kurdish husband on Valentine’s Day which would be too corny for my taste except that in Turkey the day is not celebrated, and I had lost track of the date.

Benim Bey died many years ago, but he always brings me a gift on this day. I am clairvoyant and those gifts are often energetic- bouquets of roses usually, sometimes a song on the radio. He always visits. I smell him first- cigarettes and body odour. Then I feel him giving me hug from behind, a kiss on my neck. More often now as the years go by, I am able to see him- usually pacing, sometimes dancing with his arms out from his sides, fingers snapping, wrists turning. Such joy pours out of him that it is easy for me to share. I can only laugh. Sometimes I dance with him, and it is as real to me as if he were physically in front of me.

This year my gift arrived a day early. My nephew and I found each other yesterday. “Halil” in my book is an adult now. What a thrill to connect with him! He was just a boy, but he remembers me. I had lost touch with the family, and I always regretted not maintaining contact during my travelling years.

From The Word Not Spoken- this short excerpt is from the end of the book when Leigh visits the family years later. Although names have been changed, the experience is true:

Later, in the front room drinking tea, Leigh understood that although she’d been quickly accepted by this family, she represented more now. She was someone Ahmet had loved, and so she became cherished. She knew how they felt because she felt the same way. Shana’s high cheekbones were Ahmet’s; Berna’s curly smile was Ahmet’s. Anne’s love, Azize’s toughness… Ahmet was in all of them.

Halil was ten and had thinned out. His way of laughing hard while clapping his hands was Ahmet’s; the way he squatted next to his cousin and the evil eye he gave her later–it was all Ahmet. Sometimes Leigh couldn’t keep her eyes off Halil, and she wished (that she had borne Ahmet’s child).

She couldn’t have felt more welcome or more loved. Turkey had always felt like home. She was satisfied down to her bones that it was still so. She had considered Turkey might have been impossible without Ahmet, but now she knew her relationship with the country was a separate enduring thing. She missed him intensely though. She yearned for his face, his voice, his “everything”…laugh, fingernails, carelessness, optimism. She knew he wasn’t coming; she knew she wasn’t waiting for him as she so often had. There was no anxiety, no phone that would ring or not ring, no Ahmet who would bounce through the door laughing at her worry, because the worst had happened, and he was under the ground.

Choose love

Choose love

Refugee 613

I was teaching “housing” to a literacy class one morning, and I passed around a pile of photos. The photos were of places I have lived: a tiny Japanese apartment with tatami mat floors, a windowless room in Kathmandu, a cave in Turkey, the Canadian bungalow I grew up in. I had photos of residences I have visited: a villa in Istanbul, Windsor Palace, an orphanage in Bhaktapur, a yacht in the Mediterranean, a hut in Kerala… a floor-less tent in Kurdistan.

Kurdish refugee tent, March 1996, Kurdistan

Kurdish refugee tent, March 1996, Kurdistan, photo: Laurie Fraser

A shout rose, “Laurie, my house! My house same!”

Other students joined in- “Yes, same my house! Refugee camp!”

A number of the students were refugees from Bhutan who fled to Nepal 2 decades ago. I was shocked at the recognition- this tent, this shocking poverty- was getting grins of recognition.

Photos credit

I suppose refugees’ homes are similar whether they are great groups of tents (more than 35,000 lived in the Nepali refugee camps at their peak) or 54 people in 3 tents on a great plain (the Kurdish refugees that I met in 1996). Some camps are big enough to attract aid; some are isolated and without aid. But home is home and even in refugee camps I hear of pets, sickness, births, friends, jobs, domestic abuse, alcoholism and weddings.

Bhutanese refugees banner.jpg

Lately I’ve been hearing a good many refugee stories- at fundraisers for Syrians, on the radio and in the newspapers. I heard a Vietnamese refugee speak of her experience as a “Boat Person” in 1978: piracy on the open sea, arrival at Malaysia who turned them away (“We’re full”) and the heroic captain who took his over-filled boat of 300 desperate, sick and twice-robbed passengers back to the Malaysian coast in the middle of night and destroyed the floor of the boat so that it would sink forcing them all to swim ashore where the Malaysians had no choice but to accept them as refugees. And then finding a way out of there and on to Canada, learning English, settling and integrating.

A refugee from Iran told of sitting on her couch ducking as the bombs whistled overhead, yearning to go to school and then the bombing of her school. Just 10 years old and haunted by the school superintendent who had lived there with his family- all were killed as she sat her couch. Now she is a successful professional in Canada- a physician, a mother who sometimes doesn’t want to sleep and see that family in her nightmares.

A young man from Congo who was captured and forced to be a soldier at age 11. He escaped and ran through the jungle for three days. He is a student now at an Ottawa university. He apologized: “My story is short because my age is short.”

And this week a CBC Radio interviewer will come to my school to interview refugees and broadcast their stories. Well, there’s no shortage of stories at my school of 166 students, a third of them refugees. We have a Syrian family already: the mother and father in English class, a preschooler in the childcare. I met the woman in September. “From Syria?” I asked. “Yes”, she understood. “Welcome,” I said, “I am happy you got here.”

The stories are similar. They are of loss and fear and desperation. There is terrible grief for the people left behind. The refugees are similar too, in that they are all wounded. (We have a student who lost her eye when her neighbour’s house was bombed in Baghdad- she considers herself lucky. We have students with bullets in their bodies, students who limp….) They are wounded emotionally and mentally- sometimes they cry and tell the teachers they are like their mother, their sister who died, only because we give them kindness and attention. They can’t focus when they first arrive at school, often still in shock at the changes in their lives.

What do they say about Canada? “I love Canada because Canada is safe.” “Canada is peace. I miss my country but no peace in my country.”

I will never forget a woman who came to school one morning absolutely ecstatic: “My husband go jail! Police come! My husband hitting, hitting. Neighbour telephone 911. Neighbour! I don’t know neighbour- she call police! She help me! My country no one help me. Everyone know refugee camp- my husband hitting, hitting, me crying, crying. No one help me. Canada help everything. I love Canada. I love Canada people.”

I was teaching opposites one day: hot- cold, tall-short, rich-poor. I asked my student, “Are you rich or poor?”. This refugee with a spouse and 2 children receives about $2,000/month from social assistance. Her rent is $1,200. It doesn’t include utilities.

“I am rich,” she answered, smiling.

“Really?” I asked. “Little money, little shopping, small apartment- one bedroom.”

“Yes, rich. Thank you Canada.”

To help the Syrian refugees coming to Ottawa please contact Refugee 613.

review: Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald

Australian Sarah MacDonald records her two-year adventure in India in the oddest ways. At times, especially at the end of the book, she is personal and shares her reasons for wanting spirituality in her life, but it’s a long wait for that. It seems more of a lark for most of the book- she visits religious festivals, temples, schools and synagogues in the most superficial way possible. Is it possible to sincerely examine 10 religions in two years? MacDonald demonstrates- it is not.

I was offended by someone spending a week in Srinagar, talking to a few Muslims and then announcing “Islam taught me about submission.” Is she joking? Islam is far far more than that and she personally submitted to nothing in Kashmir unless one wants to count houseboat rides. So that’s the kind of thing that got under my skin- a quick look at a religion, a glib summary and on to the next. MacDonald just doesn’t seem sincere in her quest- perhaps it’s the tone that verges on arrogant:

“I’ve always thought it hilarious that Indian people chose the most boring, domesticated, compliant and stupid animal on earth to adore.” (She means Hindus, not Indians, and she is refering to the cow.)

MacDonald doesn’t get into the depths of any of these “religious” experiences. She announces she is an atheist and then seems to poke fun at some practices, yet she sporadically participates: dunks herself in the Ganges and gets sick; spends ten days in silence.; has an interesting conversation with a rabbi.

That aside, I love India and it was wonderful to armchair travel to places both previously visited and not. The descriptions of Pondicherry,  Dharamsala, Vipassana, and Allahabad’s festival, Sai Baba’s ashram, and Amritsar’s Golden Temple, are full of fascinating detail. I was especially interested in the descriptions of the Parsi and Jewish communities.

The descriptions of living with Indian servant in New Delhi were fun: the iron that was stolen, the need to accommodate two cultures in one house, the dance lessons.

The writing at times tries too hard and distracts one from the story: “Perhaps Christianity has got something to give the world apart from Easter eggs, the Osmonds and guilt. For the first time, I see the faith, divinity and goodness in the faith of my forefathers.” That sentence structure (a comma’ed list of descriptors) is her favourite, sometimes used 4 or 5 times in a row!

I think MacDonald failed to consider beforehand just how personal she would get in this account and so that aspect is annoyingly uneven. She worries about her boyfriend sometimes (he is a reporter covering regional tragedies including a trip to Afghanistan just days after 9/11), but because she covers their wedding in a paragraph and never shares much about this relationship, the reader doesn’t care about this faceless character.

I often put the book down. In the time it took me to read it, I read two others which I heartily recommend: The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah and The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. MacDonald could learn something from these humble thoughtful authors.

Look, if you’re going to write something personal, you have to get personal- doing it self-consciously half-way is not satisfying to readers. Bare your soul or write a documentary.

Book Club Love

Book clubs are enormously popular in Canada- many can be found online, but most seem to be “just the neighbours” or “we used to work together.” They range from 6 friends drinking wine and talking very little about the suggested book (partly because not everyone read it) to committed readers interested in deep discussion. Most clubs allow members to take turns recommending books, and from what I see, the majority of book clubs are women-only.

One club that I visited read The Importance of Being Earnest the month after reading The Word Not Spoken. They read the play aloud- each member chose a character, and they read with much merriment. In fact, they dressed in period costume, and the meeting lasted well into the night.

Random House of Canada has an annual contest for book clubs. In 2013, “Book Friends ’72” in Ottawa won after 40 years of regular meetings re: 360 books!

I was only a child when I studied the “Book Club Selections” pages of magazines. Do you remember the stamps that could be torn out and pasted on the order card? I imagined a stamp about my book, and all the people who would pick that stamp.

Writers talk about the “the book club circuit”. Finding the clubs are the first challenge and then getting them to read your book is the next. From there, word of mouth travels. It is really grass roots for a book to become known through book clubs. Fifty Shades of Grey owes its success entirely to book clubs- let’s face it, it is poorly written, the last 2 books embarrassingly so, but as a book club selection, it was perfect fodder for interesting conversation. (Of course, there was nothing grass roots about Oprah’s Book Club- being recommended by her equaled overnight success.)

I’ve been to five book clubs now as a guest author. It’s an all-around win to attend such an evening: the immediacy of the discussion, the personal details, the readers’ feedback.

Mainly, book clubs want to know:

-How much is true?

-What happened to Jess in real life?

-How long did it take to write; the writing process/publishing process.

-Am I currently in touch with the family: How are they now? Did Shana marry Memo?

-How do Kurdish and Turkish readers respond to the book?

Mainly, I want to know:

-Did you notice the themes: the animals and water and colours?

-Was the number of deaths too hard on you? How did you feel about the ending?

-How sympathetic did you feel toward Ahmet? The Kurdish situation at the time?

-Did you notice the clues that Ahmet has taken over the story?

-Did you see the “beadwork” in the first and last scenes? The repeated images and words in different contexts?

Some book clubs are into wine and salty hors d’oeuvres; some serve tea in china and homemade cherry tarts. In my experience, they’ve been pleasant groups of women aged 30+ who are travelled, educated and vitally interested in the world around them. I always leave feeling incredibly validated- the “word” is spreading; my promise has been kept.

To release the book, to stop writing and polishing it, was very sad for me. After all, it had been in my pocket for 18 years, and I had spent many holidays, weekends and nights with this friend. It was the place I most loved to go. When I gave up the writing, I feared I’d lost this place, this escape. It has been a relief to learn that I haven’t lost it. In fact, I have only shared it. When I go to that place now, I find others there who love it too and who want to talk about it. To spend an evening talking to people who know who Abla is, who can talk about Ahmet’s mental state and Leigh’s choices, is enormously comforting to me.

In appreciation, I give free e-books to book club members. I bring photos, more personal than the pics on this website. I talk about the healing and personal aspects of my writing journey. But mostly, for me, it is the joy of sharing this story that makes visiting a book club an absolute high.

photo credit

Toronto Times Two

Very excited to be off to Toronto for the 3rd Words and Kurds event in a year (Vancouver last May & Ottawa in November.)

The following day, Sunday March 1 at 6 pm, I’ll be part of the celebration at Underground Restaurant, York University.

Tara Saberpor posted in facebook:

The Kurdish Students’ Association will be hosting a social event to celebrate the liberation of Kobane. We believe it’s important to promote our culture and bring awareness to struggles of Kurds faced in all parts of Kurdistan. The Rojava revolution is the symbol of resistance and hope for the future of all Kurds. It is the voice to oppression and repression Kurds have been facing for many years!!

Let us all come together to celebrate and acknowledge the struggles of Kurds in Rojava! Let us all stand in solidarity with all brave man and woman fighting for freedom and dignity of Kurds!

Guest Speakers:
Laurie Fraser
Ava Homa

Dance Performances:
Dilan Dance Company

Musical Performances:
Ali Haydar
Kenan
Adnan Godarzi

Tickets $10 (includes dinner)
Please contact us for tickets as soon as possible.
kurdishstudents.yorku@gmail.com

Don’t forget to wear your Kurdish clothes!

photo credit

Girls who Skip- How to make a crowd funding campaign video for Indigogo or Kickstarter

Girls Who Skip- How to make a crowd funding campaign video

Video practice fun- click to see blooper

A friend who writes scripts for Warner Bros told me right off the bat: A campaign video should be short, engaging, informative, short, a clear call to action…did I mention short? “Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t preach. Make it entertaining.” People like to send a smile to their friends.

One page of script-style writing = one minute of footage. (Script style is centred, double-spaced, speaker’s name gets a full line, and stage directions are included.)

I wrote what I wanted to say and it came out to 4 minutes. I cut it and pared it down to less to than 2. I like writing that way (I’m a poet at heart.) The leaner writing becomes, the more powerful it gets.

Khaled Hosseini (The Kiterunner) said in an interview that he starts writing with an image in his head. He builds the characters and story out of that image-he started an entire novel that way. I started with a thought- that we can’t know the future- and it led to the image of picking apart a daisy.

I hired a young videographer, piled together a bunch of appropriate images, bought a big box of popsicles and invited my friend’s children over. I didn’t overlearn the script. I figured if my guests had fun, my stomach might forget the anxiety swirling within, and I might have fun too.

And I did! The fun translated onto the footage: mission accomplished. (My video)

Pick apart a daisy;

wish upon a star.

Love me, leave me;

tell me who you are!

Read my tealeaves;

search my palm.

Tell me, tell me,

tell me do!

Gaze into a crystal,

pour over tarot cards.

Doctor, lawyer, tribal chief,

bring me joy or bring me grief.

Pick apart a daisy;

wish upon a star.

Love me, leave me;

tell me who you are!

-Laurie Fraser

"For love is as perennial as the grass."

“For love is as perennial as the grass.”

Happy Solstice!

Winter Solstice

Mud Lake at dusk, Dec. 21

Mud Lake at dusk, Dec. 21

We cannot know light without knowing darkness. We cannot know abundance without knowing lack. Contraction teaches expansion, fear teaches love. Opposites. Our reality is a study of duality. Our loneliness is a yearning for unity.

“Your hand opens and closes, and opens and closes.                                                      If it were always a fist or always stretched open
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence
is in every small contraction and expansion,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as bird wings.”                                                           – Rumi 

This season of lack is not to be despised or feared or negated.  This is a time to appreciate the cycles of our lives, this moment in this season.

I see Christmas hoopla as a vain attempt to stamp out the days of darkness and scarcity: the blinking lights, the noise, the excess and over-indulgence. Many people speak of a feeling of emptiness that accompanies the frenzy, and a fatigue that pervades. That was my experience too.

It has taken some years and some effort for me to welcome this time of darkness. It was a challenge to love the darkness as much as the light, not to fight it but to accept its turn. There is something simple about dearth, something sacred about the stillness. It is, after all, a time of rest: hibernation and fasting.

I celebrate Winter Solstice by giving up electricity for the day, burning candles and using the woodstove for heat and cooking. I will smudge the house with white sage. I will walk in the wintery woods and feed the chickadees and nuthatches and squirrels. I will stand at the edge of the river at dusk and thank God for the beauty of Mother Earth and my time here. I will be serving local winter foods- trout, potato latkes, borscht and bread, hard cheese and pickles. In summer, I bottle one jar of fresh peaches especially for the longest night- a light taste that reassures me: summer solstice is on its way now, and the days will steadily lengthen.

I wish you deep rest and quiet peace these dark days of winter.

Mud Lake at dusk, Dec. 21

Mud Lake at dusk, Dec. 21

Stay

Britannia Beach, Ottawa, Canada

Ottawa River, Canada

This morning I saw a school bus on the move, the first geese honking overhead, a few leaves on the grass.

This evening I watched the sunset on the beach, shivering in shorts and t, the heat pulling away like a tide.

SUMMER! I beseech you: Linger! Linger with me. I cannot bear to lose you just yet.

delicate summer

delicate summer

Reading in Vancouver for Kurdish House.

There are days in my life that I’d be willing to live over and over without changing a moment- May 18 was one of those. I woke up in Shwan and Yvonne’s place in Coquitlam to a fantastic breakfast, was chauffeured to Douglas College with a detour on the way to see the beautiful Maillardville and then I ran into my old friend Jeff on his way to the event. “The Event” as it’s been called for 2 months, was planned by Kurdish House, mainly Shwan Chawshin, with ferocity. He invited MPs, put out flyers, advertised on Kurdtv, emailed, facebooked, telephoned…Shwan filled that auditorium.

Vancouver reading May 2014

Vancouver reading May 2014

What a thrill for me to read to a Kurdish audience! I felt my life had come full circle. After all these years, I was embraced again by a Kurdish community. Eighteen years ago I promised a group of Kurdish refugees that I would tell their story to the world and here I was reading from it to a group of Kurds, many of whom were refugees.

I’ve been haunted by the refugees I met in North Kurdistan in March 1996. I’ve wondered, tearfully, many times what happened to them, if any survived…I remember especially the barefoot boy who fell in the cold mud and his poor mother who didn’t have water to wash him or heat to warm him.

 

chatting at the end

chatting at the end

I read that part of the book to the Vancouver community. When I finished, a number of people came to talk.

“I lived in one of those tents for 4 years.”

“My father was killed, my brothers died in jail…I am the only one left.”

“I was Peshmerga, 8 years.”

chatting at the end “I was tortured every day for 45 days.”

They are miserable words, but to me, to see so many people who had survived, who had made it to Canada…well for me, it was an affirmation of life. I hadn’t been able to imagine how ANYone could IMAG0676 survive the desolate situation I witnessed.

I also read about the wedding- a foreigner finding her way through 3 days of rituals and celebrations- and the audience laughed out loud at her efforts and observations.

A few people told me they had both laughed and cried in the 30-minute reading. What a joy for a writer to see the impact her words have made! And I was reminded again of the emotional openness and honesty of this community- men who can come up to me with tears in their eyes and say what they are thinking or remembering. I have said it before: The Kurds are stunningly courageous people in so many ways.

I remember sometimes resenting that my evenings, weekends, holidays were spent in isolation, indoors, working on a manuscript. I didn’t know if it would ever be read by anyone but me. I wondered sometimes if I was wasting years of my life. Other times, there was nothing more important than keeping my promise, nothing more beautiful than the polished words that I touched and touched and touched again. I did dare to dream it would be appreciated…and this past weekend that dream came true.

Ava's reading

Ava’s reading

Ava Homa read from her fascinating collection of short stories Echoes from the Other Land, Avan Ali read poetry in Kurdish and the host Nassir gave a stirring speech. We ended the afternoon with singing by Nadia- a Kurdish singer. After the strain of travelling and the tension of speaking, that music was a release. Nadia’s voice roused the joy in us all and as we clapped along I watched for who would dance first.  It was a group of men at the back. They formed a chain and snapped the handkerchief. I attached myself to the chain and danced with pure exaltation.

With all of my heart- thank you Shwan and Yvonne, Ava and Shaima, Aras and Sewar, Taban (who gave me flowers before I even read and who had never met me before), Jeff and all of the beautiful people who shared their Sunday with me.

Thank you to Kurdish House for the plane ticket and the roof over my head!

Shwan, Laurie, Yvonne

Shwan, Laurie, Yvonne