The Chat with Djamila Ibrahim



Djamila Ibrahim has put together a moving and timely debut collection fiction called Things Are Good Now, out this month with House of Anansi Press. This week, she’s our guest on The Chat.

The Toronto Star says “Ibrahim writes with intensity and empathy, drawing believably complex characters who are understandably torn between bleak alternatives. Things Are Good Now feels fresh and raw and real.”

Djamila Ibrahim was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and moved to Canada in 1990. Her stories have been shortlisted for the University of Toronto’s Penguin Random House Canada Student Award for Fiction and Briarpatch Magazine’s creative writing contest. She was formerly a senior advisor for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. She lives in Toronto.



Trevor Corkum: Things Are Good Now is your first book. Tell us more about its journey to publication.

Djamila Ibrahim: My journey to publication was an unusual one. It started with a creative writing class I took at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies. The instructor, Zoe Whittall, sent the stories I workshopped with her to Janice Zawerbny, who was her editor at the time at House of Anansi Press. Janice contacted me with a publication offer based on the four stories she read and on condition that I produce a full manuscript by a certain date. Two years later my final manuscript was sent off to the printer.

TC: The stories feature narrators who are caught emotionally between their former lives—often in Ethiopia or Eritrea—and their new lives in Canada. In what ways have war and displacement shaped your writing?

DI: I didn’t set out to write about war and displacement, it just turned out that way. I’d often hear anecdotes about someone’s childhood friend who’d died of thirst and exhaustion while crossing borders, a distant cousin who’d drowned at sea, a neighbour who’d lost his or her whole family to war. I’d overhear older folks discuss the tough choices they had to make on their journey to safety, or who and what they had to leave behind. Immigrants often have to also contend with language barriers, racism, and isolation they experience in their new home. When I sat down to write what I hoped would be compelling stories these anecdotes (some of which I learned about over ten years ago) came flooding my consciousness. That’s when I started to think about how these experiences shape and inform first- and even second-generation Canadians’ perception of home and belonging. Only after I submitted the final draft of my manuscript, and started to think about the synopsis and story order, did I really see the thread running through the book.

I’d often hear anecdotes about someone’s childhood friend who’d died of thirst and exhaustion while crossing borders, a distant cousin who’d drowned at sea, a neighbour who’d lost his or her whole family to war.

TC: There’s an urgency to the stories, and a frustration that important narratives—of war, violence, racism, refugee issues—are not being addressed more directly in Canada. In the title story, for example, Alem, addressing her brother, says “Not a big deal? You want to pretend everything is fine. You are somehow absolved of responsibility while others are rotting in prison or dead, is that it?” Can you talk more about the frustration many of your characters feel towards the insularity of Canadian life?

DI: The insularity of Canadian life is a big shock to most newcomers but I think more so for those who, like Benny, Alem’s brother in the title story, and Adam in “Little Copper Bullets,” strive to put their traumatic history behind them and start anew. Their efforts to fit in the wider Canadian society are sometimes met with misinformation, rejection, and racism. Others like Alem, Benny’s sister, are stuck in their past and oftentimes can’t tolerate others’ attempts to move on. With time, tension and conflict between lovers, friends, and family members grow while the scars of war or other trauma stay suppressed. This usually leads to isolation and mental health issues.

TC: Other stories deal with the pain of losing a loved one—a parent, a child, a lover. Loss permeates many of the stories, and you deftly explore how trauma impacts the ability of many characters to form or maintain close relationships. How difficult was it to write through the layers of trauma facing the characters in your work?

DI: As a writer, it’s my job to inhabit a character’s world, and to try to walk in their shoes. To get a good grasp of the issues I was tackling in these stories, I read a lot: nonfiction books, academic journals, news articles, interview pieces and blog entries. I watched documentaries. I also reached out to people in the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities for their input. As difficult and heartbreaking as some of these stories of loss are, it’s important to note that behind the pain and despair, there is always hope, however dim, and a will to survive and prevail. Family, community and faith often play a crucial role in providing a space for healing. And people can be victims in one scenario, and an oppressor in another, a hero to some and a villain to others. These complications bring depth and nuance to the stories, and make the difficult passages easier to write.

As difficult and heartbreaking as some of these stories of loss are, it’s important to note that behind the pain and despair, there is always hope, however dim, and a will to survive and prevail.

TC: What’s next for you, Djamila? What can we look forward to reading next?

DI: I’m working on a novel based on the last story in this collection titled "Heading Somewhere." I also I have a few poems I’m trying to grow into a collection.


Excerpt from Things Are Good Now

When I heard about what happened to you, Mark and I were at Elaine’s place. We had just ordered from Pizza Hut on Yonge Street, and Elaine was trying to explain to Mark why men shouldn’t use the word bitch, ever, regardless of who they were referring to or why, the same way nigger should always be off limits for non-black people. And predictably, Mark was arguing it was not the same thing. Your mom called me. After I hung up with her, I blurted out, “Selam was attacked.” I was just repeating your mom’s words. I hadn’t yet grasped their full meaning.

“What? Attacked how?” Elaine asked, grabbing me by the arm.

“They pulled her by her hijab. She fell . . .”

“Is she okay?” Elaine said. “Who are they?” Mark asked.

“I don’t know. Some guys,” I said.

Elaine and I reached for our cellphones. We called you, texted you, tried to reach you on Twitter to no avail.

“Did someone intervene at least?” Mark asked.

I shook my head. I couldn’t feel my body against the wooden chair. I stared at my phone.

“Did she go to the police?” Elaine asked.

I thought about our last time together. Our fight. I felt as though I had something to do with the attack, as if I’d sent those guys to hurt you.

“Yeah,” I said, my voice cracking a little.

The doorbell rang and Mark got up to answer it. D’Angelo’s “The Charade” played lightly on Elaine’s laptop. I thought of how you, Elaine, and I were taken by Black Messiah two years earlier. We were too young to appreciate D’Angelo’s artistry when his earlier albums were released, but Black Messiah was of our time. It spoke to us.

“Is there something we can do?” Mark said. I shrugged.

We all stared at the unopened box of pizza Mark had placed on the table. The smell made me feel a little nauseated.

“To think this kind of shit can happen here,” Mark said.

We were all silent for a while. “What’s crazy is that what’s happening to Muslim women here these days is what happened in Iran in the eighties, in places like Algeria in the nineties and, more recently, in Egypt but in reverse,” Elaine said.

“Why do people care so much about what others wear?” Mark said.

“The same misogyny that makes you, a Black man, think you’re entitled to use words that are demeaning to women,” Elaine said.

I wished I was alone. I didn’t want your ordeal to be on display as if you were an anonymous victim of a hate crime we were discussing in one of our political science or criminology classes. I knew how much this kind of exposure would hurt you.

“Elaine, you can’t be serious?” Mark said.

“It stems from the same urge to control women,” Elaine said. “In Algeria, women’s uncovered legs or hair were suddenly seen as a symbol of Western oppression —”

“Did the women ask the men to go back to wearing their traditional clothes too? I mean, if you’re rejecting Western influence,” Mark said, his lips stretching into a sarcastic smile.

“Yeah right,” Elaine said. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Turns out, the attacks were sparked by some politician or cleric blaming working women for high unemployment rates.” She tucked strands of her straight weave behind her ear. “So basically, they wanted to frighten the women into staying home. Same way men here use words such as bitch, slut, or cunt to debase or intimidate outspoken women into silence.”

I wished they would both keep quiet. I wanted to leave but my feet wouldn’t move. I sat there staring at my phone. I thought about you, about all the years we’d been best friends, all the ways you’d shaped my life, and how I’d failed you when you needed me most.

An excerpt from Things Are Good Now. Copyright © 2018 Djamila Ibrahim. Permission granted by House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher.

March 5, 2018
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