Writer in Residence

Teenagers with a Vision...

By Pamela Mordecai

I enjoyed meeting Emil Sher and reading with him at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People this morning. Folks visiting ranged in age from babies in buggies to ladies and gents with white hair. That’s a very special kind of group, one that we don’t see often enough – one that needs to be treasured. (I confess some special interest here, being white haired and all…)

I was reading EL NUMERO UNO, a play set on a small Caribbean island, about a teenage pig (named El Numero Uno, hence the title of the play). Uno is an apprentice chef who uses his culinary skills to save his community from two evil characters who have cast a spell on the town. Emil Sher was reading his stage treatment of Karen Levine’s true story, HANA’S SUITCASE (available from Second Story Press). Hana is a teenage girl who died in the prison camp at Auschwitz, and whose suitcase comes to a Holocaust education centre in Tokyo run by Fumiko Ishioka. Ishioka’s students feel a bond with Hana, and are anxious to know more about her. The play is the story of what they find out and how.

What could an imaginary Caribbean island have in common with the death camps of Auschwitz?

What could an imaginary pig, Uno, have in common with this real girl, Hana?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Hana is an orphan and so is Uno. They are both teenagers. Though one play is a fantasy and the other a true story, both are about the need for people to overcome prejudice and hate based on differences of race, ethnicity, and culture. At the end of each story, a new, enriched community emerges, because people have come together, across cultures and beliefs, to achieve a better understanding of one another.

I think of Toronto as a city in the process of becoming that kind of community. We hit bumps from time to time, but the sights and sounds and smells of TO as it blooms into another summer, inevitably reassure me that the journey is well worth it.

Two footnotes to Hana’s story, one happy, the other one, less so.

INSIDE HANA’S SUITCASE, a movie by Larry Weinstein, had its world premiere here in Toronto at the end of April. A documentary treatment of the story, the film introduces the real George Brady, Hana’s brother, who is eighty-one years old and lives in Toronto, and whom Fumiko Ishioka’s students eventually got to know. We also meet Fumiko and her students in the movie, as well as children from the Czech Republic, where George and Hana grew up.

It turns out that the suitcase that reached Fumiko and her students in Tokyo was a replica and not the original. Neo-Nazi thugs in Birmingham, England, destroyed the real one, on loan from the Auschwitz Museum. An act of vandalism that is deeply regrettable, it nonetheless serves as a reminder of how hard we need to work at fighting prejudice and racism.

El Numero Uno and the people of the town of Lopinot, especially the Rastafarian, Ras Onelove, would certainly agree with that.

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: Toronto.

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.

Pamela Mordecai has been many things: a teacher, a trainer of teachers, a TV host, a diplomatic wife, an anthologist, a writer of poems, stories and textbooks for children, and a writer of criticism, fiction, poetry and plays for those challenged by age. Born and raised in Jamaica, educated there and in the U.S.A., Pam has lived in Toronto for the past 15 years.