We All Come From Somewhere: On Canadian Immigrant Women's Stories
This month our focus is on books about global experiences, and the new anthology, Wherever I Find Myself: Stories by Canadian Immigrant Women, fits the bill perfectly. Editor Miriam Matejova has put together a diverse collection of stories that form a mosaic of emotions and worldviews that underline the immigrant condition for women. In this excerpt, from the book's introduction, she tells the story of her own coming to Canada, and explains where the impulse to create the anthology came from.
As I sit down to write an introduction to this anthology, immigrants from selected countries are being denied entry into the United States. Anti-immigrant attitudes are on the rise in Europe. In the Western world, the far right is clashing with the far left, with immigrants often caught in the middle. Hateful rhetoric and acts of vandalism are aimed at people who are perceived as outsiders, as not belonging, as threatening.
I am an immigrant. I came from Slovakia as an eighteen-year old, wishing to study at a Canadian university. Back then I was an outsider. I did not belong. But far from threatening, I was lonely, clueless and utterly terrified.
At first I lived with my estranged father, a man whom I knew mostly from flashes of childhood memories and stories my grandmother used to tell with reprehension she didn’t care to hide. Living with him turned me into a young woman with downcast eyes, a trembling voice and recurrent nail marks in the palms of my hands. Seven months later I found myself standing on his doorstep, waiting for a taxi to take me to a women’s shelter. As I saw the car approaching, I lifted my chin and promised myself: My back would never again be pinned against the wall, with my feet dangling in the air and my throat being squeezed in intervals harmonized with the rhythm of angry curses. From then on I would add volume to my voice. I would leave no nail marks in the palms of my hands.
Without the kindness and help that I received from strangers—from Canadians I met in the coming years—I never would have been able to keep those promises. My English was broken and my knowledge of Canadian customs minimal. I owned two bags of clothes, three pairs of shoes, a chipped Walkman, a handful of cassette tapes and three books: a Slovak–English dictionary, the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness, and a book of collected ghost stories. I had twenty dollars in cash and a few thousand in a student loan that ran out before my first year at the university was over. I was lonely, willfully hopeful of my future and constantly afraid that my old country had forgotten me while my new one refused to fully accept me. Yet my first years in Canada were filled with experiences I have never regretted: (some) failed relationships and lasting friendships, the first time I drank beer and the time I tried learning how to snowboard by myself, those two months when I lived on about thirty dollars per month worth of groceries, and the seeds of my love affair with coffee and Tim Hortons’ Boston creams.
Over the years snippets of experiences have accumulated in my desk drawers, written on scraps of paper, yellow folder dividers, neon Post-it Notes and airplane napkins. Although I have always wanted to write about my beginnings in Canada, I have not yet put these pieces together. I haven’t been able to find a common theme or one particular experience to focus on. There have been too many. This anthology accomplishes what I have not yet been able to. While they don’t speak for all, together the authors of these stories reveal what it means to be a Canadian immigrant woman. They move around restlessly, unable to find a place to convincingly call home.
They learn a new language, give up parts of their identities (and acquire new ones) and adjust their expectations. Some search for their origins. Others try to understand their parents, first-generation immigrants. They learn how to explain who they are and where they came from as well as how to tell strangers when to stop asking. They often encounter misunderstanding, hostility, racism or ignorance. They cling to aspects of their old homes while attempting to blend into a new society, only to remain somewhere in between. Their stories are about determination, faith, sacrifice, gratitude, perpetual restlessness, and loss in many forms.
While I was reviewing the authors’ submissions, I was surprised to find that they rarely described their negative immigration experiences through outbursts of raw emotions. They didn’t seem to be sad or angry enough. Their voices were more acquiescent than defiant. I couldn’t help but wonder: Were they afraid to let go? Did the immigrant label silence them? Did they see stigma and ill-treatment as inevitable side effects of immigrating? Or does the gratitude of being able to call Canada home trump everything else?
One of my motivations behind this book was my own lingering frustration and desire to tell someone (or everyone) that we all have come from somewhere. That immigrants are some of the most hardworking and driven individuals I have ever met. That they don’t leave their home countries to take anything away from anyone. That they put time and effort into helping their new communities. That they sacrifice a great deal for a chance for a better future. Canada is a land of immigrants, and apart from the Indigenous people, everyone has an immigrant story somewhere in their history. My hope is that sharing these stories will help immigrants in Canada and around the world increase their sense of belonging and perhaps numb the persistent loneliness. I also invite those who do not identify with the immigrant label to engage in a critical reflection on what it means to be a Canadian immigrant woman. May the courage of these women inspire you to pursue your own opportunities—whether in Canada or elsewhere.
Miriam Matejova is a writer and researcher, currently pursuing a PhD in Political Science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Originally from Bratislava, Slovakia, Miriam has moved to Canada as a young adult in pursuit of higher education. Although Canada has been her home for over a decade now, Slovakia has stayed in her heart as well as in her creative writing. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Her Circle, The Inconsequential, and several travel magazines. Her story "Proti Komu" ("Against Whom") has been published in a Slovak anthology of award-winning fiction. She is also one of the contributors to Caitlin Press' This Place a Stranger: Canadian Women Travelling Alone.
About the Book:
An anthology of Canadian immigrant women and their experiences of being caught between the world of their past and the world of their future. Edited by Miriam Matejova, WHEREVER I FIND MYSELF is a diverse collection of stories about the joys and struggles of immigrant women living in Canada. Often bringing with them the shadow of war and the guilt of leaving, the women in this new anthology expose their emotional pain but also their gratitude for being able to call Canada home. Their stories paint touching and charming portraits of cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, bureaucratic hurdles, attempts to navigate unfamiliar landscapes, and a desire to be accepted despite differences in accent, skin colour, or taste in food. Together they form a mosaic of emotions and worldviews that underline the immigrant condition for women.
A yellow dress with ruffles, a kind Grade 1 teacher with a surname that's difficult to spell, cockroaches in the bathroom, the contempt of strangers, and Whitney Houston on the radio-a Filipino woman recalls her experience as a six-year-old immigrant in a ghetto in Mississauga in the 80s. Browsing through a Polish fashion magazine at a European deli, a woman sees herself in an alternative universe of what her life might have been had she never immigrated to Canada. A same-sex couple moves from Minnesota to Ontario to find refuge for their love, but first they must drive a seventeen-foot truck through a blizzard and make it through the frustrating net of Canadian bureaucracy. In search of her origins, a Jewish woman travels to her birthplace in Passau, Germany. There, among rows of European picturesque houses and foreign tombstones of a Jewish cemetery, she finds no memories, only the shadow of Hitler and the ghosts of her parents.
Through these stories of courage, aloneness, and hope, new and established writers reach out to both immigrants and those whose families long ago ceased to identify with the immigrant label. Through their struggles and, at times, endearingly critical looks at Canada, they remind us that many of our perceived divisions are nothing but artificial creations of mind and that all of us are past, current, or potential immigrants.