The Mariam Pirbhai Interview

Mariam Pirbhai is the author of the short story collection Outside People and Other Stories (2017, Inanna Publications). In my review, I stated that “Outside People is an exceptional group of short narratives that are appealing, insightful and a treat to read.” Since this was Ms Pirbhai’s first published work of creative fiction, I wanted to interview her to get her thoughts on publishing as well as getting more insight into the creative processes she used to create the characters and stories of Outside People.

“I am, for one, an avid reader of the British Victorian novel.”


Miramichi Reader: Tell us about your background, education, employment, etc.

Mariam Pirbhai: I was born in Pakistan. My family lived in other parts of the world, including the Philippines, before immigrating to Canada. I am an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies, at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, where I specialize in postcolonial studies and literatures about diasporas and migration.

MR: How many languages are you fluent in?

MP: I am fluent in one language (English) because that is the language I live in, work in and dream in, but I also have varying degrees of oral and written competency in French, Spanish and, my mother tongue, Urdu.

MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.

MP: Different authors have influenced me for different reasons. I am, for one, an avid reader of the British Victorian novel. The Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins … they were writing at a time when Britain was at its zenith as an imperial power and also in the throes of enormous political and social change. The novels of Thomas Hardy really stand out for me, though. From Tess of the D’Urbervilles to the Return of the Native, Hardy captured the plight of the underdog, daring his reader to see in the labourer, the farmer, the housemaid, the underclass—the “folk”—a story worth telling, and even a heroism and humanity that was otherwise reserved for the privileged few.

I am also greatly influenced by writers who have pushed the envelope in terms of cultural boundaries and language. Language and identity always intersect, and this intersection becomes particularly pronounced for anyone born into one language but raised in another. Salman Rushdie, for instance, captured the blending of Hindi/Urdu and English in ways that reflected the mutually transformative encounter between Britain and the Indian subcontinent during the colonial period. More than this, Rushdie’s language is so inventive that it transforms our expectations about what an “English-language” novel should be, such that now we take the idea of a global literature in English, influenced by any number of languages or cultures, for granted.

Rushdie’s early novels like Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh were also deeply influential because they brought something of my South Asian background to the novel genre in ways that seemed as authentic and historically rich as they were inventive, playful, iconoclastic and new.

MR: Let’s talk about Outside People & Other Stories. It’s a collection of short stories, but are they all new, unpublished works? If so, over what period of time did you write them?

MP: Outside People and Other Stories is my first short story collection, released in October 2017 by Inanna Publications. There are nine stories in the collection, each of which focuses on the perspective of those I would characterize as some of the most “invisible” segments of our so-called “visible minority” population. Those whose stories rarely get told: people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds navigating the Canadian or trans-national workforce as temporary migrant workers, bankers, chambermaids, civil servants, teachers, and the like. The stories consider their experiences at the nexus of personal challenges, such as senior care, infertility, cancer diagnosis, unemployment (to name a few examples), and the larger forces that shape our contemporary world (Islamophobia, natural disasters, migrant labour, citizenship debates, etc.). The collection also includes a unique feature in Canadian literature: a glossary of the languages spoken by this multiethnic cast of characters, including Spanish, French, Urdu/Hindi, and even Caribbean creoles.

I wrote these stories over a period of about two years. A few were published in literary journals and anthologies, including the title story, “Outside People,” which is the most unique among the stories in the collection because it is told from a child’s perspective.

MR: Outside People is very multi-national in scope. Is this reflective of your background/of your immigrant experiences/friends, etc?

MP: Yes, much like my characters who come from various parts of the world—the Caribbean, the Philippines, Latin America, Pakistan, India—my connections have always been multi-ethnic and multinational. You might say that migration is rooted in my family history, since my parents were born in India prior to Partition, which marked the end of British rule, and then were raised in a newly created Pakistan.  So this idea of movement, migration, displacement–not taking one’s land or home for granted–is part of my DNA.

“The stories are also my homage to Canada’s diversity at other levels, as the collection moves across the country.”

Then I should also say that I am married to a Latin American from Guatemala whose family immigrated to Québec in the 1970s. (My husband and I met in Québec.) So in this sense I have had two very unique ways of discovering Canada: one through English Canada and my own South Asian background. And the other through French Canada and my husband’s family’s Latin American background. Being part of a multi-faith or multi-ethnic family also challenges one to approach such things as minority-hood or the immigrant experience from a much wider lens, forcing one to break out of the straightjacket of any one culture or community.

In this sense, I do not see the multi-cultural or multi-ethnic range of characters in this collection as falling “outside the norm” of Canada itself. They are described as “outside people” in the sense that they may be perceived as such—outsidership is a condition that is often imposed on others rather than a condition we wish upon ourselves. If anything, these “outside people” are an integral part of the national fabric.

The stories are also my homage to Canada’s diversity at other levels, as the collection moves across the country. For instance, in a story titled “Crossing Over,” a woman in Halifax gets stuck in her car during an Atlantic winter snowstorm. The story titled “Chicken Catchers” describes the rural farming industry of south-western Ontario which I have come to appreciate as someone living in the Waterloo region—that is, in the heart of this expansive agricultural belt. In a story titled “Bread and Roti,” the Greater Toronto Area is described from the perspective of a factory worker. And the story titled “Air Raids” walks the reader through some of Montreal’s major neighbourhoods, from the (francophone) Latin Quarter to the downtown entertainment district of the Quartier des Spectacles. In other words, the Canada I describe is one that is as familiar as it is varied—it is only “different” insofar as it is being witnessed through different sets of eyes.

MR: In my review of Outside People, I commented that one of my favourite stories was “Sunshine Guarantee”. Did this story come from an actual experience? It seems insightful as to the actual working conditions of a chambermaid!

MP: I am so pleased you enjoyed “Sunshine Guarantee,” which takes place at a tourist resort in Cancun, Mexico, and is narrated from the perspective of a middle-aged chambermaid.

The story came out of the experience that we, as travelling Canadians, largely share: that is, our habitual pilgrimages to the South to escape our notoriously long winters! My husband and I have been to some of these “all-inclusive” destinations, which strike me as a rather problematic way of visiting a country because, of course, one doesn’t quite visit a country through this type of tourism. Rather, one visits a hotel and a beach in a fully gated and guarded resort that is quite divorced from the country and its people! I never travelled this way until I got to Canada. However, I totally get it: the desire, even the need, for people who live in the North to travel South just to bask in the sun and store up some of that golden energy for the remaining winter months!

In writing about this model of resort-tourism, however, I also wanted to better understand this phenomenon from the local perspective. What must it be like to have people come to your country for this kind of tourism? What must it be like to work in these resorts? What is their view of us, the tourist?

And Lucita, the chambermaid-protagonist in the story, is also my way of making visible the kind of “invisible staff” in such places—those who are there to do their work without getting in the way of our (the tourist’s) pleasure and enjoyment. Our world is populated by an invisible labour force of this kind. Lucita’s character is thus an extension of the kind of “invisible” subject I am interested in throughout this collection—be it as part of an invisible workforce or as part of a minority.  And sometimes the two coalesce: the “invisible” workforce who are also part of a “visible minority” appear in stories such as “Corazon’s Children,” “Chicken Catchers” or “Thirty-Five Seconds.” In this way, Lucita is a mirror to those chambermaids and other kinds of workers in our own midst, here in Canada.

If Lucita’s working conditions as a chambermaid seem authentic I would only say that capturing some level of authenticity in things outside my realm of experience is the challenge I like to set myself, as a writer.

MR: It must have been exciting to have Outside People published by Inanna Publications. Did you send your manuscript to many publishers? How do you deal with rejection (assuming you have had your stories rejected at some point)? Did you ever consider self-publishing?

MP: I was very fortunate insofar as I did not have to face the kind of rejection in getting this manuscript published that is quite typical of this process. Having said this, I have spent quite a number of years honing my craft. When I sent it out, then, I felt I was putting my best foot forward. Along the way, I sent out my stories to literary journals and I faced my fair share of rejection. While this is just part of the reality of publishing, I would venture that it is particularly hard to get published as a “minority” writer in Canada, however.

“Publishing is a difficult industry for all parties involved, no matter which path one takes.”

I have never considered self-publishing but this might very well be another legitimate avenue for writers. Some writers have self-published and then they have been picked up by major publishers. Let’s just say publishing is a difficult industry for all parties involved, no matter which path one takes. However, I tend to feel more encouraged than dissuaded these days, given the increasing growth of a more diverse range of on-line and other platforms for sharing one’s work. Perhaps that should be everyone’s starting point, then: finding some kind of community to share your work in, be it a creative writing course, a workshop, or even just a group of readers who are as passionate about the written word as you are.

MR:  Do you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?

MP: As a professor of English, I have to revisit books as a matter of course, and I enjoy revisiting everything I teach! Great books never get old and even not-so-great books offer something different on each read. In fact, every time we re-read a book we do so from the perspective of a new version of ourselves, which potentially makes the reading experience equally fresh and engaging.

Literary works that I revisit tend to reflect my interest in literatures from all corners of the earth: the poetry of Caribbean Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott; Latin American writers including Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel whose novel Like Water for Chocolate combines two of my favourite things: cooking and story-telling (!) through the magical realist mode; South African writers like J.M Coetzee whose allegorical novel Waiting for the Barbarians has as much relevance to today’s so-called “global on war on terror” as it does to the time in which it was produced, during the Apartheid era. The list is long. I could go on!

MR: If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who might that be?

MP: Actually, I have often wanted to write about my mother who embodies the encounter between East and West in interesting ways. Her mother (my maternal grandmother) was the daughter of a Welsh civil servant stationed at a colonial outpost under the British Raj (in India) who defied her times by marrying into a Muslim family, challenging racial and political divides in one fell swoop! One might say that my mother is the product of that original defiance, and even though she grew up in Pakistan she ended up raising her own children in the West. When I reflect on issues of migration and displacement in my creative writing, I can’t help but be inspired by the kind of courage, resilience and guts with which both these women faced their difficult journeys. Sometimes the most fascinating people are the ones who are closest to home.

MR: What are you working on now?

MP: I am working on my first novel. It is set in Toronto and Montreal, following the lives of several families of various backgrounds, all of them connected in some way to the recent spate of attacks against local mosques or Muslim communities. It is my attempt to make sense of the militant and violent forms of racial and social conflict besieging all of us today.

MR: Finally, what do you like to do when you are not working or writing?

MP: A few years ago I started to paint—to teach myself to paint, that is. Landscapes mainly. Seeing Canada, especially, from this perspective has changed my relationship to the land and my sense of belonging. I just look at everything a little differently now. For instance, I see so much colour in the winter landscapes where before I only saw a rather monochromatic palette of white, brown and grey. I pay attention to it more, I guess, not just as a backdrop to characters and stories but as a character in its own right, which deserves our full respect, gratitude and awe. It is hard to find the time to write much less to paint so my self-education is rather slow! But my gift to myself when I finish any major writing project (academic or creative) is to put aside some time to paint.

For more information on Mariam Pirbhai, here is her page at The Writer’s Union of Canada: https://www.writersunion.ca/member/mariam-pirbhai

Photo credit: John Ternan

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