It started in the late spring with Central Alberta Refugee Efforts’ call for artists to put together a show. But even this beginning was only the surface, the visible tip of the iceberg. The story started long before that. Those familiar with CARE knew that it was Jan Underwood’s dream to put together some kind of production in which to tell the story of a handful of immigrants through visual art, dance, music, and poetry. She told me about it two years ago, while she was directing my multicultural play Baba’s Perogies for Alberta Culture Days 2014. Could you write something for it? she asked. I was sure I could so I planted the project at the back of my mind to see what it sprouted. I checked from time to time but the seed was stubborn and refused to open. For a long time, I wondered if it would ever grow into anything in my mind. It did. During the time when I was thinking about the application for my honours thesis early this year, Jan’s idea and my honours project found the right conditions to begin growing. The poetry that I wanted to write could be the poetry that Jan needed for her production. I thought about it repeatedly during the early spring. I understood why nothing had come to mind for such a long time; I had not nourished that seed-idea with any stories from immigrants so something could emerge. If anything was to be done, it was to collect the data, then let it turn into whatever the data asked for. This is the beginning of my first poetry book project. I wrote the proposal for a multicultural project telling the stories of Albertans who immigrated from different places. I sent the proposal to the Honours Program of the University of Calgary Department of English and I waited. My intention was to visit Jan once the approval arrived. I wished to tell her that I started to work on some multicultural poetry she was welcome to take a look at, to see if it matched what she had in mind. I also wanted to ask her about immigrants with interesting stories. I was still waiting for an answer when, in late spring, Jan sent out the call for artists to work on a multicultural show, telling the story of five immigrants. If I was ever going to work on Jan’s project, it had to be then. I sent in my name, offering to create some poems for the show. When, by the end of the summer, the Honours Department approved my proposal, the focus of my honours project was already starting to shift from the immigrant stories to the dark creatures in the folklore of different cultures and beliefs, the subject that I’m currently developing. Perhaps, someday I’ll go back to write my own vision of immigrant stories.
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CARE facilitated several sessions in which the five immigrants told us their stories again and again and answered our questions. I met all of them more than once. I listened to their stories. Two of the immigrants had stories that both, intrigued and appalled me: Monybany Dau, a man from the South Sudan, and Zeljka Udovicic, a woman from the former Yugoslavia. I asked as many questions as I could, gathering enough information to portray their true stories. But writing the stories affected me more than I thought. I cannot write a story unless I feel it alive within me. Every time I sat down to write, every time when the stories moved inside my head I relived the stories of my character, Monybany, the former child soldier who has seen war and death. The most gruesome experience I ever wrote about. Initially I thought that I could write poems for all stories. But the pain I experienced writing Monybany’s two poems made me change my mind. Zeljka’s poems remained unfinished. The rest were never even started. At about the same time, Carole Forhan, the friend who had started to work with me on Monybany’s story, withdrew from the team due to health issues. Others might have been inspired to carry on her work. I wasn’t. All I wanted was a quiet spot to chew at my pain in loneliness, the way I had learned in childhood and I had done ever since. After I delivered my poems, I rarely went to the rehearsals. Then a cold stopped me entirely from attending the meetings. I did have the chance to meet Monybany during the time I was still attending the rehearsals and he was enchanted by my poems. I have captured the essence of what had happened there with accuracy, he said. He doubted he could have put things better if he wrote them himself. It was a wonderful feeling to find out that I could give someone such pleasure, as he was showing. He introduced to me his two boys and sent me songs from his country. I encouraged him to have one of the songs in the story to add authenticity and beauty to the settings.
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October 1st—Alberta Culture Days 2016, Welikoklad Event Center – Red Deer, Alberta. The place was lit up and full of life. I could tell it was an art event (well, two events if I consider the ongoing student exhibition in the gallery) from the number of artists in attendance. Visual artists, performing artists, playwrights, and musicians. It always surprises me to see how many people I know. Or perhaps to see most of the people I know gathered in one location. I tried to go fast through the crowd, with a few hugs here and there, waving to a few friends but not getting into conversations. I was looking for Carole. The stage was pleasantly lit and the room was almost full. Carole was probably watching the door; she saw me before I saw her and she called me. She told Erna (the wonderful friend who had brought Carole to the show) that she wanted to stay next to me. They moved and I got a place next to Carole. We held hands, talked a little, and smiled a lot. I made sure to take a couple of photos for the blog but other than that, I allowed myself to enjoy the evening.
Two years ago, the same place had seen Baba’s Perogies, my play and the place had been just as packed with people. I have promised myself to finish the sequel and have a reading perhaps during the summer. Carole shed a few tears just before the show started. Even though she knew that she had lost the fight with the cancer, the stage-light was still strongly calling her. I should have been out there, she said, with them. But then she settled down, soothed by Erna and Lynn, another great friend who had joined us. Sitting just in front of us, Peter, Jan’s husband, made sure to see her smiling again. Jan visited too, and showed us the program of the evening: the show was dedicated to Carole.
The five stories were just as we knew them, yet embellished by the festive costumes, the dancers, the music, and the use of film. Each immigrant’s story was told in a different way. It was wonderful to hear my poems on stage. Read by a high school student, the first poem Forgive Me, Mother was moving especially because of the reader’s young age. I wrote it in a child’s voice and it needed a child to perform it. My second poem, Death Like a Blessing, read by Jason Steele, was introduced by Monybany who mentioned me as “a friend who wrote the poem for him”. I was moved to tears by his words. I accepted the honour of having been called “a friend” just because I wrote those poems and I added his name to the list of my friends. Carole winced and squeezed my hand when she heard my name, then she listened without moving. It was as if she forgot that I was supposed to write the poems. I wondered: did she? No. She didn’t. Thinking back, I realize that Carole was hearing my poems for the first time. We had talked about them, about their role and their place in the play but she did not hear them before that night, on stage.
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The final song gathered on stage people who had worked for the show with those who wished to join hands with the actors, dancers, singers, or with the stars of the evening, Jan, the directors of the five stories, and the stories’ protagonists themselves. There was a reception after the show, with fancy ethnic snacks and non-alcoholic beverages, and it seemed that nobody wanted to leave the place. I left earlier than I would have wanted, chased by assignments I had to do. It was starting to rain outside and I looked back once more to the invigorating chatting frenzy going on. The place, filled with warm laughter and already glowing in the soft indoor light, was additionally illuminated by the dozens of happy faces. With the regret to leave in the middle of the fun, I stepped out into the light rain, wondering how long until another part of my writing will have the chance to give a bit of pleasure to such a wonderful audience and how long it will take until I’ll meet most of these friends again.
Link to all parts of the show here.
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