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September 19, 2017
To celebrate the winners of our inaugural writing contest in the lead up to the festival on September 24, we’ll be publishing the top three winning stories here on our website. And to really get to know the authors, we’re pairing each story with a short written interview with each of the authors.
Also, be sure to see the special showcase of the contest with all three authors reading portions of their winning stories.
Read on for the Second place winner, Amanda Ghazale Aziz, and her story, “Miim.”
What does diversity in writing mean to you?
Diversity shouldn’t be a pretty word for show, but an action that decolonizes spaces structured by whiteness, and creates new ones for Black, Indigenous, and other writers of colour — especially folks who aren’t straight and/or cisgender. In terms of writing, it should be about having opportunities and creating art that doesn’t have pander to those with more power.
Along with yearning for more opportunities for myself and others, I want options: I want to go to bookstores and see shelves rich with non-white names; I want to go to readings, launches, and workshops and see the same. And I don’t want to see one person or two representing all the people who come from their community and diaspora, because that’s not diversity. That’s just filling a quota at its bare, unbalanced minimum.
What does your writing space like?
I always have a notebook on me wherever I go, so my writing space is dependent on the mood of that day. If I’m at my room, a citrus-scented candle would probably be burning as I work away. If I’m with peers, that space would be full of learning, jokes, and clicky sounds from hastily typing at keyboards. Oh, and there’d be a lot of food.
Who are your favourite writers and how have they influenced you?
I adore Roxane Gay, Randa Jarrar, Junot Díaz, Madeleine Thien, and Miriam Toews. The list goes on, really, but those are the writers that I can think of at the top of my head whose stories have provided me ample amounts of hope, possibility, and reprieve. I’ve come across their works (Difficult Women, A Map of Home, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Simple Recipes, and A Complicated Kindness to name a few) at different stages in my life, but all were when I’ve needed them most. Every time I read something from one of these writers, I feel a little less alone and compelled to extend that feeling by writing more.
Describe the process of writing your winning story.
My mother would always sing Fairuz’s Yalla T’nam Rima to me, along with other Arabic lullabies, when I was a kid, and never the English ones like Rock-a-bye-baby (which I cannot remember the lyrics to for the life of me but only remember how the content is pretty morbid?!). I’ve had the image of a mother singing Yalla T’nam to her now adult daughter that kept circulating my mind last year: the mother and daughter were cities apart, and they were on the phone with each other. There was a night’s worth of a story before that phone call that I had wanted to explore. It all bloomed from there.
“Miim” was one of several pieces that I produced months ago at a full-year creative writing workshop at the University of Toronto’s English department taught by Robert McGill. The whole workshop was brimming with talent. I’m indebted to that environment because everyone there had encouraged me to write the stories that I had wanted to write. It’s daunting to foster your craft, to get your work out there as a young writer of colour — especially when access to writers who are like you runs sparse. Supportive communities truly make an impact on you while you’re on that pursuit.
What are you trying to achieve with your writing, if anything at all?
Other than writing for joy, I write because I seldom see myself reflected in the books I read or the shows and films that I watch. As a daughter of Palestinian and Iraqi Muslim refugees, the greatest link I have to my diaspora, to my own people and history, is through storytelling (“Miim” is very much about searching for that). That link compels me to create stories about people like me — especially at a time when all I see or read about Muslims are when they are a suspect or victim.
I don’t try to write as a means of claiming representation for everyone who is Arab and/or Muslim because no one can do that. I hope that my writing will be something for someone out there who’s looking to be finally seen and understood — and much like how my favourite writers were for me: an option out of many. As of right now, I write articles and essays that often touch on diaspora through pop culture and politics. I’m also currently writing a collection and a manuscript, both fiction. But, you know, Masha’Allah.
Every Saturday morning began with a lesson taught by the Jordanian. The kitchen table was always set up by the time I got out of bed. Miim, and my sister, Haniya, would come upstairs to drag my drowsy thirteen-year-old body to the main floor. Breakfast was uniform: za’atar-speckled boiled eggs, over-steeped mint tea, and a few scraps of paper scribbled with words derivative of 28 letters from my parents’ language (and supposedly mine, too). English was not to be spoken until two in the afternoon but I’d manage to squeeze in a few pleas, saying, what’s that, what does that mean, I can’t do this, and I’m tired, until the Jordanian would eventually give up and say khalas we’re done here. Grab her coat, collect the measly pay from Miim, and come back the next week to start it over again.
Arabic was my first language, briefly. Once the English came, it fled. It only reappeared in the lullabies Miim sang to me at night, but I had outgrown them. After years in and out of Arabic lessons, Miim thought the Jordanian could be the one to convince me that it was worth speaking the way of our people. And she could have been.
Miim spent her Friday evenings working in the kitchen during our neighbourhood mosque’s weekly meet and greet for newcomers. There was a feast provided by the women of our community; Miim was tasked with preparing the main dishes. While soaking grape leaves and plumping them with rice for dolma, a lady adorned in a blue hijab and standing half of Miim’s height would swoop in to take the rolls and drown them in a pot of simmering water. This was the Jordanian. She was new. Back home, she told Miim, she used to be a teacher of literature. Now here, she writes a bunch of cover letters and sends them to a bunch of places every day, she prays five times, and she tutors Arabic to kids, including my sister and me.
Haniya, being the older of us two, still had some Arabic in her. She could understand it but not speak it. In the two-year age gap between us, a lot of the rules had changed in terms of how we were to be brought up.
I felt a kick to my shin and saw Haniya darting her eyes at me. The table was covered with plates of leftover food and torn up paper. Someone’s pen had rolled off the table and landed on my foot. I glanced at the Jordanian; she was busy folding more pieces of scrap paper in half, ripping them clean by the line. I grabbed the pen by my foot, lodging it between my toes, and the Jordanian addressed me in Arabic. I couldn’t answer until she spoke in English.
“Here.” She pointed at the square piece of scrap. “Write alif here.”
“Is it the one that looks like this?” I asked her, sticking my index finger upwards.
“Barkeh yimkin. Try it. I’ll tell you if it’s right.” She winked and popped a Chiclet in her mouth, watching me as I drew a vertical line, and then what seemed like a miniature “2” above it.
“Is this alif?”
“Laa,” she said. “Ah-leph. You have to speak with your face.”
“No.” She stabbed her finger at the paper. “Switch it to the other side.”
I crossed out the faulted alif, and drew another line, this time topping it with a small inverted “2”. She nodded her head. OK, Good.
We carried on until two o’clock and then watched the Jordanian gather the cloth around her hair, wrapping it all back into a hijab. Dad was about to arrive from Arva, where he would fix cars on Saturdays. I jumped on the couch and turned on the TV, flipping through channels while the Jordanian talked to Miim about a doctor visit that she’d had the other day. I could only eavesdrop on the English words casually thrown in the mix.
“Something something yeast infection.”
“Something something cotton underwear.”
Conversations like those didn’t exist for me as a newly-minted teenager. I could barely admit to my friends that I had my period. Talking about whatever was going on with my body would be heading toward mythical territory.
Before Haniya could go to her room, the Jordanian called for her.
“Haniya, uh, can I ask you about your school.”
“Ahmed wants to do pre-med in university. What does he need for grade eleven?”
“Oh, probably advanced math and biology and chemistry courses.”
“And no physics?”
“Nope. I mean, he could try.”
The Jordanian grabbed her purse, and Miim showed her the way out the door. Then she peeked through the blinds to make sure that the woman’s car had left the driveway. It was all clear now.
“He’s not going to be a doctor.”
“Haniya!” Miim let go of the blinds and glared at my sister.
“What? The school will tell him to go fix cars or something.”
Miim shook her head and went upstairs to finish her homework. She was taking night classes at our local college on early childhood education and had an exam tomorrow. When dad entered the house, Haniya and I were watching some reality show, and all the scraps on the kitchen table had been thrown away.
* * *
The bouncer carefully flipped my ID from one hand to another, not wanting his skin to touch my name for too long. He was a stocky man with blonde hair thinning at the temples and a knack for staring contests. Whenever his eyes would scan my chest, I’d move my top a bit higher and swing my head low.
“This card won’t work,” The bouncer told me. I had to give him another. With a flashlight, he compared the two.
“Do you go by a nickname or…?”
“How do you pronounce your name?”
“It’s Zahra, as in Zah-rah. Should I go inside to get checked?”
“You can’t. It’s a fake.”
“But your age isn’t,” he said to me while pocketing the fake ID card. “You’re too young, kid.” He handed back the other card, the one with my real age. I was tipsy from drinking before heading out of my apartment that I’d forgotten my other card wasn’t counterfeit. This was supposed to be my first night out, eighteen and living away from home.
“Aren’t you people not supposed to drink anyway?”
“Yeah, I know.”
He shrugged and took in the person after me, and the person after that, and so on. All of my friends were inside the club. Most of them were of age by now and had convinced me to get a fake since I was born in November. We often drank inside, but it was summer and everyone wanted to go out.
I mass-texted to no reply. I called them all to the point of voicemail. So I decided to take the bus home and got off two stops early to light up the joint tucked in my bra — and check my phone ten times before then.
The vodka from hours ago kept crawling up the back of my throat like a tide brushing against the edges of a beach, but more acidic. There was a hot dog stand not far from the bus stop. I bought a can of ginger ale from the couple working the stand and gulped it. For a second, the tide slowed down.
Around me, I saw groups of people. Happy people, loud people, bursting out of bars and dance floors, linking their arms and stumbling onto the sidewalk. I watched as their hair bounced off of their shoulders, hands adjusting the straps of their dresses. There was laughter, mostly for the kind of jokes that only got funny after many shots of hard liquor. I slumped on the wooden bench as I watched the night perform itself. Everyone looked like they were in uniform. I felt like I had walked into the wrong scene. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and scrolled through past messages, nothing new.
A girl bolted behind the bench I was sitting at and started to dry heave. Her friends held onto her hair. It was time to go.
I inherited my discomfort of crowds from Miim. When she had taken up English Second Language classes as a way to complete her application for citizenship, she already had Haniya. Dad had worked long hours at the lab, his actual job, and Miim was left on her own in a new country. In class, she searched for classmates who spoke like she did. Nobody said much to one another except for the repetition of phrases, “May I go to the bathroom?” and “How are you doing today?” and “So nice!” But sometimes people spoke, and Miim would listen closely for the words that could enter her ears without needing an invitation. At the back of the room, she heard a woman around her age talk in the Levantine. Her name was Zainab and they immediately became friends.
After the last class, Miim felt faint from the spring air and had asked Zainab to take her to the doctor. Many cups of water, a urine test, and a blood test later, and she had found out that she was pregnant. This time, it was with me. I would be the child who was going to be brought up with Miim’s now stronger English.
The tide had returned to my throat so I bought another ginger ale. The couple working at the hot dog stand spoke Arabic. I couldn’t understand exactly what they were talking about but I knew how they were talking about it. Just by the way their mouths moved in currents against the skin of their faces. How the cadences were familiar; how heavy each vowel had clutched onto their tongues as if it were being retrieved like a body stuck in a well. The man who had sold me the ginger ale could tell that I didn’t look like most of the outside crowd. He inquired where I was from, and I told him: here. He inquired where my parents were from, and I told him where.
“You speak Arabiyyah?” he asked me.
“No,” I replied, shaking my head.
“That’s too bad. How do you speak to your people?”
* * *
In my bathroom, I studied all of the blemishes that had grown on my face. Pimples scattered my forehead like a constellation formed by late night stress and heavy drinking (which was suppose to help make small talk at parties something fathomable). Then I traced my fingers along the veins that had made branches underneath my eyes, blooming in bags. Wonderful, I thought to myself, just wonderful. No better way to be lonely than to appear liquored-out.
I wiped off the makeup by starting with the lips. Before I had erased the rest, I re-enacted the scene with the man at the hot dog stand. Shoulders straightened, I began the performance:
a. “You speak Arabiyyah?” he would ask me.
“Aiwa,” I’d reply.
That’s a lie. I wouldn’t know how to proceed after that.
b. “You speak Arabiyyah?” he would ask me.
“Shwaya,” I’d reply.
No, that’s a lie. Speaking a little is still too much.
I kept my eyes on the mirror. I looked at my smile. My smile was always tense — even when I was alone. In hopes of letting the Arabic out like loosening a knotted muscle, I pressed my fingers on my lips to loosen them up. I tried to say those words but they came out stale. I tried to speak again and vomited instead.
* * *
I woke up by the toilet and grabbed my phone to check if anyone had replied to my texts from before. My hours were left uninterrupted. I went online and typed in a status: WOKE UP IN MY OWN PUKE! LOL. Before hitting send, I deleted the words. I put down the phone to wash my face, and then pulled up a number to dial.
I hung up.
I always wondered how Miim gave birth to me knowing full well that I would call her “mom,” and not “omm.” A displacement of the vowel in her name; a birth in a different place than her own. There was no negotiation in terms of what to call her, but I do recall that when I was five and she taught me our alphabet for the first time, I flung my index finger on the thirteenth letter, and told her that was her. When it came to spelling that thirteenth letter, “mim,” she allowed me to write it the way I would pronounce it: Miim.
I dialed the number again.
“Ya Mama. Why are you up so early? Did you pray?”
“Uh, yeah. But I can’t go to sleep.”
“Go to your bed and close your eyes. Or make chamomile?”
“Yeah, I’ll do that.”
I made chamomile and waited for it to cool a bit while hearing Miim talk about her week. Her back has been sore from constantly retrieving an Arab girl who would often hide underneath the bushes by the school’s front yard after the end of recess. The bells were too loud, she would confide in Miim. Her family came to Canada a little over a year ago and the school assigned her to Miim since she was the only staff member who understood her. The girl reminded Miim of herself.
I dunked the tea infuser in and out as Miim went on about her back, her childhood that was spent moving from one place to another, from Palestine to Lebanon. And then back to the girl and how she picked the dead leaves from the child’s curls, one by one, the moment she was out of the bushes. I let her go on as I watched the dehydrated flowers soak the cup of water with their colour. Then I asked her about Zainab. She admitted to me that they don’t really talk anymore.
“Why? I thought you were friends.”
“Only because we both spoke Arabic.”
I lay down on my bed and allowed my eyes drift to the ceiling. I tried to imagine connecting with someone just because we understood the same words.
“Miim, what was that song you used to sing me to sleep?”
“How did it go?”
“I don’t know. The one with the hammam in it.”
“Ah, Yalla T’nam. The Fairuz one.”
She recited a few lines to me until I told her that yes, that’s it, that’s the song. As she carried on with the singing, my eyes left the ceiling and shifted to the window, wanting to see if anything was happening in this hour. And as her voice began to trail off with the last note, I caught the first early riser going out for a run.
Amanda Ghazale Aziz is a Palestinian-Iraqi writer based in Toronto. Her writing has been published in Maclean’s, Chatelaine, FLARE, GUTS Feminist Magazine, and more. She’ll be graduating with an honours bachelor of arts degree at the University of Toronto in 2018. Apparently, she spends too much time picking out the seeds in her oranges. Say hi to her on twitter at @a_ghazale