Writer in Residence

Mom's Turn

By Irfan Ali


While Accretion, my recently published debut, is a collection of poetry, it’s also a narrative closely based on a really transformative moment in my life a few years back. Given that family and tradition is a major focus of the book, it follows that my mom and dad play major roles throughout.

I feel like most literature about immigrant families focuses too much on the trauma of displacement told, my own included, from the perspectives of the children. That seems unfair. Often it’s our parents’ sacrifices that have created the space for us to even imagine the possibility of writing careers in the first place. And often, seen through our eyes, our depictions of them can be unflattering.

I thought then I could slightly correct that imbalance by giving my mom a platform to share her thoughts on me instead. I’ll admit I’m still restricting the scope of what she can say through my very deliberate choice of questions. But, beyond that, these are my mom’s words almost verbatim, only edited for clarity at her request as she wasn’t super confident in her English. My occasional interjections are in bold.

Ma, you’ve mentioned in the past that you find my descriptions of us and our relationship in my writing somewhat biased. I want to give you the opportunity to speak your own truth. First off, tell the readers a little bit about yourself and your life.

I came to Toronto in June 1982, a naive, trusting, romantic young girl. Although I was well educated, I’d lived a very sheltered life up until that point, like most girls of that era. The first house I lived in here was small, shared with three men. I had no friends and no relatives nearby. I still remember the first chance I got to talk with another woman was at a birthday party a month and a half after I arrived. So you can imagine it was very lonely. The only solace I had at that time was books as I’ve always loved reading (gang gang). Sometimes I wonder whether this love of the written word is what saved me from falling into depression. Those fictional characters helped fill the gaps where friends and family should’ve been. On top of the loneliness, one of the men I lived with was an authoritarian figure who wanted to be heard and obeyed without any objections. The other two found it easier to relent to him, but I, being the outspoken person I am (that’s my mama <3), couldn’t accept this status quo. Unfortunately, given the unfair lot of women in this world, the end result wasn’t in my favour.

Okay, I want you to be brutally honest about the next four questions (or, at least, as honest as you think I can handle). First question: what was it like raising me? I know I wasn’t an easy kid to parent.

The struggles I had in my early years in Canada greatly shaped me and the way I raised my kids. They taught me not to take things for granted, the importance of standing on your own two feet, and finding solace in yourself and not in others. In raising all of you, my main focus was to make sure you were all capable of taking care of yourself: financially, emotionally, and otherwise. Most importantly, I wanted you four boys to learn empathy for others and to respect women. Having come from a patriarchal society, it was very important to me that you all considered women as your equals.

Irfan, as you know, you in particular were not an easy child. You were very bright academically and a talented artist. In fact, I still wish you’d take up drawing again (will do, mom). But you were so quick to anger. And I was always worried because you were a skinny, asthmatic kid who couldn’t take part in many physical activities. Busy with four kids, it wasn’t easy for me to pay full attention to any one of you. After you graduated from university, I let you go to Japan (let me?!?!) as I noticed you weren’t very happy here. I thought maybe living alone for a year or two might give you insight into what you wanted from life. A lot of the time we think that if we don’t leave a mark of our existence on this Earth, that means we’re a failure. But living itself is a sign of courage.

We’ve argued about this a couple of times, but I really feel like I’ve changed a lot since 2015 after the experiences that inspired my book. You’ve never explicitly agreed or disagreed with that. Do you think I’ve actually changed or am I deluding myself?

Yes, you’ve changed. You’ve definitely become wiser. It might be that you finally learned to accept and respect yourself for who you are. Sometimes we can be very harsh on ourselves which is an instant recipe for unhappiness.

I know that even if you answered “yes” to the last question, it was followed by a “but” and a list of things you think I should work on. What do you think are the biggest areas of growth I need to focus on in the future?

You can be very critical of others (ouch). For you, it’s always black or white. But people are made of many sides and you should always keep that in mind. You also become very anxious about things, even small ones sometimes (ouch again). You have to learn patience and have more faith in Allah. Sometimes it seems that circumstances are not in our favour but over time we come to know that things worked out the way they were supposed to.

I was pretty critical of dad in the book. I know that while you understand where I was coming from, you also think I’m sometimes unfair to him. What realities do you think I’m forgetting or neglecting in my opinions of him?

Your relationship with your dad is another ball game. It takes a lot of work to develop a meaningful relationship, and neither of you has invested the time and energy. I think both of you are equally to blame. (Point taken.)

Changing gears now, what was your experience with literature when you were younger? Did you want to be a writer? When can we expect your memoirs which would be a thousand times more interesting than any bulls*** I put out?

When I was growing up there weren’t many libraries around, so I read whatever I could find. At the age of 15, I read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and was captivated by it. My English wasn’t very good so I made a habit of memorizing 10 words each day. I read all the classics and was very inspired by Russian literature (really?!). I did always want to be a writer, but I feel like I lack the imagination. The problem with me is I’m far too realistic and I think you can’t be too grounded if you want to write well. (That’s why you should write a memoir!)

You know that a lot of folks, including my brothers and I, see you as a sort of zen buddha who’s mastered the ability to roll with life’s waves. A lot of people are super anxious given the current state of the world. Do you have any wisdom to share that might help them navigate this uncertain time?

I’ve noticed that we human beings are always complaining, always criticizing. This pandemic, at the very least, is reminding us just how precious this life we often take for granted is. No matter how tough it may seem, remember that you are breathing, that you have food on the table, a roof over your head, and your health. Be thankful for those things while you have them, because they could disappear at any moment. There was already so much unnecessary misery in the world before and if Covid-19 teaches us how to be grateful and kind in every aspect of our life, what a great opportunity it could be. (Ameen.)

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Irfan Ali is a poet, essayist, writer, and educator. His short poetry collection, Who I Think About When I Think About You was shortlisted for the 2015 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Accretion is his first full-length work. Irfan was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.