It is appropriate that Saturday’s event was named Tamil Literary Voices, in the plural, because in a cross-section of some of the language’s more prominent Torontonians, it was indeed a remarkable spectrum of voices—both in terms of political perspective and artistic media alike.
A joint project between Miriam Scribner of the Toronto Public Library, Dr. Chelva Kanaganayakam, a Tamil professor at the University of Toronto, and the Toronto Review of Books, the event was the first of its kind. But despite its newness, more than 30 people sat rapt over the course of the three-hour panel session at the Malvern library, in a neighbourhood described as “in many ways the heart” of Toronto’s massive Tamil community, the largest anywhere outside of Sri Lanka.
The difficult politics of Tamil history were a significant undercurrent to the event’s affairs. Over the last 50 years, the Tamils—the minority race in Sri Lanka—have suffered killings, oppression, natural disaster, bad press from a linked terrorist group, and what some have termed a genocide of their people, all leading in part to the large diaspora in the Greater Toronto Area.
R. Cheran, described as one of the most vital writers in the Tamil language today, could hardly hide his political leanings at the event. He read his lyrical but spare poems with bombast, his roiling critiques and angry mourning frothing with references to blood, coffins, and remembrance. “I cannot be a part of any system,” he said. “It’s about freedom of speech. Imagination is a freedom. You can censor the words or prose, but you cannot censor imagination… Maybe it is my strength or maybe it is my weakness, but I still do not believe I can be a part of a political group without losing my freedom of expression.”
Unlike Cheran, whose writings take a distinctly activist flavour, 75-year-old Appadurai Muttulingam, a prolific short-story writer, waxed softly and more wistfully on the meaning of writing as a whole.
The event had a broad range, and much was represented; in a pair of powerful simultaneous performances, theatremakers Dushy Gnanapragasam and Sinthiya Sivasithamparam used singing, dancing and acting to explore the concept of having no home.
A short film clip was played depicting a woman who lost her family in the tsunami that killed 35,000 Sri Lankans in 2004. Zulfika Ismail analyzed the woman’s place in writing, with a not-so-subtle dig at her male counterparts, saying her 10-minute speaking slot reflected the woman’s still-repressed place within her already-repressed culture.
And all this in a stunning swoop of just three hours.
“It’s important to feel the pulse of Tamil writing in Toronto,” said Dr. Kanaganayakam, who hosted the affair. “One of the problems with multiculturalism as it is practiced today is that we don’t usually think across languages or speak across communities. I am hoping this kind of event will promote this situation, where you have Cantonese voices, or Urdu voices, where ‘speaking across’ becomes an important part of the literary culture of the city.”
Listen to Cheran reading from his poem, “Two Mornings and a Late Night” in the original Tamil.
Adrian is a Toronto-based freelance journalist, and an editor for the Globe and Mail. Follow him on Twitter at @AdrianKLee.
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