2021 DANUTA GLEED LITERARY AWARD — SHORTLISTED
Caught between cultures, immigrant families from a Bengali neighbourhood in Toronto strive to navigate their home, relationships, and happiness.
Set in both Canada and Bangladesh, the eight stories in Home of the Floating Lily follow the lives of everyday people as they navigate the complexities of migration, displacement, love, friendship, and familial conflict. A young woman moves to Toronto after getting married but soon discovers her husband is not who she believes him to be. A mother reconciles her heartbreak when her sons defy her expectations and choose their own paths in life. A lonely international student returns to Bangladesh and forms an unexpected bond with her domestic helper. A working-class woman, caught between her love for Bangladesh and her determination to raise her daughter in Canada, makes a life-altering decision after a dark secret from the past is revealed.
In each of the stories, characters embark on difficult journeys in search of love, dignity, and a sense of belonging.
About the author
Silmy Abdullah is an author and lawyer. She was born in Bangladesh, spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia, and immigrated to Canada when she started high school. Home of the Floating Lily is her debut collection. She lives in Toronto.
- Short-listed, Danuta Gleed Literary Award
Excerpt: Home of the Floating Lily (by (author) Silmy Abdullah)
A GOOD FAMILY
She was a divorcee. After her husband left her for an old flame, Rubina became a hot topic of discussion for people in the building. She was beautiful, pulling off leggings and kameezes as elegantly as she sported her jamdani saris, making her look, at the age of fifty, like a thirty-year-old. Some speculated it was her overly friendly nature that destroyed her marriage. Perhaps she was a little too generous with men, they said. Others wondered why she couldn’t tie her husband down with her good looks.
Shumi would overhear these comments by her neighbours while she washed her clothes in the common laundry room on the first floor, before she got her own personal washing machine. Sometimes, they’d stop as soon as she walked in. Other times, they would continue, not realizing she could hear them. They used all kinds of adjectives for Rubina’s family — they said that it was a broken home, a disturbed family, that she should have worked harder on her marriage for the sake of her daughter.
Shumi had told Asif only once, in passing, that some women from the building washed less and gossiped more in the laundry room. So, with the landlord’s permission, he’d immediately bought a portable washing machine for her and had it delivered all the way up to their eighth-floor apartment early one morning. She was relieved, of course, to be able to do her laundry in privacy, away from the congregational discussions of Bengalis about other Bengalis. But it was Asif who’d seemed thrilled as he cut open the box and flipped through the manual. “There you go! Now you don’t have to worry about being around those petty people.” It was the first time her husband had expressed his distaste for their neighbours. On most occasions, he spoke too little for her to be certain of what he disliked and what it was that excited him.
So, this morning, when he phoned from the office and said he’d like to have biryani for dinner, Shumi wasted no time. Within half an hour, rice was washed, spices were ground up, meat was marinated, and by noon her stovetop was hot and crowded with various pots and pans — bubbling chicken curry, rice boiling in cinnamon water, and onions browning and burning in a pool of oil.
Outside, sunrays were tearing through the clouds after a morning downpour. Finally, blue was bleeding back into the sky, exposing the Toronto skyline from beneath a film of darkness. Shumi ran to the washroom, pulled out her laundry, and carried the pile to the balcony. A chilly autumn wind blew toward her. One by one, she hung the jeans and T-shirts, saris and salwars on the laundry wire, struggling to secure them with clips as they flapped rebelliously. She was in no mood to battle. The kitchen needed her attention, and in no time she would have to come back out to check if the clothes had dried — her routine excuse to watch Asif ’s white Honda pull into the parking lot. Again and again, she thought about his phone call, feeling the butterflies each time. “Can you make biryani tonight?” he’d asked. “I want to celebrate. I have a surprise for you.” Surprises from her husband were also rare.
She stepped back inside, keeping the balcony door open. Turning off the flame, she assembled the rice and chicken, finishing with a sprinkle of fried onions and a prayer. “Please, Allah, let it be perfect.” The biryani was ready to go into the oven for the final bake. Cooking still made her nervous, a skill she was never asked to acquire when she was an unmarried woman in Dhaka. How foreign those times seemed now, when life was all about studies and badminton games and shopping sprees with girlfriends. Not that Asif ever complained. She could feed him the blandest food and he’d eat it without any fuss. She was lucky that way. But a request brought more pressure.
Only Rubina could help her now. It was her recipe, after all. Rubina ran a home catering business from her apartment on the sixth floor, supplying food for birthdays and dinner parties for Bengalis all over Toronto. This woman had a recipe for everything, a quick fix for every occasion.
Shumi reached for her phone and dialed.
“How’s it going?” Rubina said.
“It’s ready to go in,” she replied. “But I feel like something’s missing.”
“Want me to come up?”
“Sure, that’d be great. If you’re not too busy.”
* * *
“Oh, it smells great!” Rubina announced as she paraded into Shumi’s kitchen.
Shumi handed her a teaspoon. Rubina dug into the mixture, picked up a few grains, and began to chew. “Everything’s perfect. Salt, spice, everything.”
“Something isn’t right,” Shumi said. “What if Asif doesn’t like it?”
“Just wait till it comes out of the oven. It will be just fine!”
That was all she needed to hear.
The way Rubina said, “It will be just fine!” — animated, bright-eyed, smiling — instantly put her at ease. Shumi remembered the day they first met, a few days after she’d arrived in Canada as Asif ’s sponsored, immigrant wife. They were in the elevator, pressed against the wall behind a crowd of sweaty men and women. That exact same smile. Warm and welcoming. Like a gush of cool air through an open window. What would she do if Rubina hadn’t started the conversation that day, if she hadn’t asked her name and how long she’d been in Toronto and what her apartment number was? Who would she talk to, or visit for a cup of tea on lonely afternoons, if Rubina hadn’t shared her phone number? To find a parent figure in a foreign country, one had to be fortunate.
Rubina pushed the pot of biryani into the oven.
“Okay, darling. Must go now,” she said, hurrying toward the door. “Lots of work to do.”
“Aunty, why don’t you join us for dinner?” Shumi asked.
“Oh, my! No way. Two big orders today. You know how it is. Aaliyah’s not here to help me.”
Shumi looked at her as her smile faded. Rubina never accepted invitations. About two years ago, when her daughter, Aaliyah, took up a new job as a mechanical engineer and moved to Calgary, Rubina’s workload doubled. Aaliyah was a fantastic cook, too, Shumi’d heard, and helped her mother with her business while she was in Toronto. With Aaliyah gone, Rubina worked around the clock on weekdays and weekends alike. Nowadays, she was preoccupied with finding a husband for Aaliyah.
“Have you found someone for Aaliyah yet?” Shumi asked.
“Nope, no luck. There are barely any proposals.”
Shumi took her hand and placed it between her palms, pressing it tightly.
“I’m sure you will find someone soon, Aunty,” she said. “You mustn’t worry so much.”
“I cannot help it, Shumi. It’s how we mothers are. We worry for our children’s future as soon as they start breathing inside our wombs.” She paused and let out a sigh. “Especially me. I have a lot to worry about. You know how it is. Our family’s not the most popular.”
“But it’s not your fault,” Shumi said.
“It doesn’t matter, believe me.”
Shumi felt sorry for her. With so much grief, so many responsibilities to carry, of course she’d be least bothered about invitations. Asif had said the same thing, when she told him about all the lunch and dinner offers Rubina had declined. “Let it be, Shumi. One needs to be happy to enjoy such things.” Though Rubina always welcomed Shumi into her own home, it was Shumi who would leave after a short time, seeing how busy she was. Whenever she visited, after a quick cup of tea, Rubina would begin attending to the large aluminum pots that always occupied her kitchen and living room floor, checking the taste of the many curries she made in bulk, transferring them one by one into trays and containers of all sizes.
Standing by the main door, Rubina scanned Shumi’s living room as she put on her slippers.
“Oh, you have put on the cushion covers from Aarong!” she said, looking at Shumi’s couch.
She’d teased her once, Shumi remembered, for bringing cushion covers and coasters and bedsheets all the way from the popular handicraft store in Dhaka. She didn’t think it would go well with the Ikea furniture Asif had bought.
“It looks beautiful, actually. What did Asif say?”
“He didn’t really say anything,” Shumi answered.
“You’re very talented, Shumi. You really know how to bring harmony to a place. Asif is a lucky man.”
She’d never thought of it that way. Back in Dhaka, they all spoke about her good fortune. How many girls were lucky enough to find a handsome, well-educated, and decent suitor from Canada? After Rubina left, Shumi pondered her words as she sank into the couch and observed all her little touches in the living room — embroidered rugs framed on the wall, miniature rickshaws and boats from Aarong on the bookshelf. They actually looked nice. She picked up her telephone receiver, dialed her own home phone number, and let it ring until Asif ’s voice message popped up. Crisp. Clear. Each word reaching her ear as though it wasn’t a recording, as if he was sitting right next to her, stating he was unavailable, promising he would get back in touch as soon as possible. She listened to it over and over again. His Canadian accent, the way his r’s and t’s and l’s rolled off his tongue, made her heart flutter. Normally it embarrassed her, reminding her of her own flawed English. Not that her English was poor. In Dhaka, she had friends who went to English-medium schools, and she watched American TV shows and read English books here and there. But her grammar could use improvement, her vocabulary needed a boost, and her accent — it was nowhere near Asif ’s. At the end of the day, she had a bachelor’s degree in history. She’d studied in Bangla-medium all her life. He was an IT graduate of Ryerson University, a Canadian man. But none of it seemed so bad at that moment. It felt just fine.
The stories are wonderfully written, and the characters are drawn with sensitive realism. It’s a beautiful read.
A real cultural immersion into Bangladeshi-Canadian lives. I really, really enjoyed it.
CBC All in Day
Abdullah does a deep emotional dive with characters and readers witness the trauma they wrestle with in rebuilding their lives. The stories are an emphatic reminder about the unfinished business of ‘home’ and all its tensions with identities.
In beautifully descriptive prose, Home of the Floating Lily is an evocative debut that explores family, culture, tradition, and love in places that simultaneously promise opportunity and struggle.
An impressive accomplishment ... Silmy Abdullah has gifted readers with a discerning look at the complexities of her culture.
Winnipeg Free Press
Home of the Floating Lily is an exquisite examination of connection. Gently revealed familial bonds and implicit ties to home are thoroughly tested — and occasionally broken — in ways that both surprise and charm. Capturing the heart of the Crescent Oak Village Bangladeshi community, Silmy Abdullah’s lustrous prose spans bougainvillea and biryani, while skillfully embodying the intricacies of marital expectation, and parental obligation. Readers will deeply feel each of these stories, and each of these characters.
Danuta Gleed Literary Award jury citation
Home of the Floating Lily is an intimate examination of love and loss, duty and freedom, of family and friendship. Follow the silken thread running through Silmy Abdullah's illuminating stories. She will remind you of what it truly means to be a daughter, a sister, a son, a brother, a parent, or a friend. Her characters will speak to you of what it is to be young and to be old, of endings and beginnings. Each story is an exploration of our universal longing to be at home in this world and at home in our hearts. I am a better person for having read this wonderful book.
Christy Ann Conlin, author of Watermark and The Speed of Mercy
Abdullah writes with poignancy and subtlety about her characters' self-discovery as they seek a sense of home amid turbulence and change. This is worth a look.
Moving through lives, time, locations, and love, Silmy Abdullah crafts and holds the kind of narrative that welcomes you in and then changes your understanding forever. Home of the Floating Lily is as cutting as it is gentle, as familiar as it is new, and beautiful all the way through. It's the kind of book that gets passed from one reader to the next and held dear at the same time. A remarkable debut from an incredible writer who holds intricate threads of voice and circumstance and weaves gorgeous story with each and every one.
Cherie Dimaline, award-winning author of The Marrow Thieves and Empire of Wild
Home of the Floating Lily by Silmy Abdullah offers an intimate, empathetic and important portrait of the lives of Bangladeshi immigrants in Toronto.
Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes and The Illegal
Abdullah uses displacement and migration to reveal experiences that are at once unique to Bangladeshi Canadians but also part of a shared human experience.
The Miramichi Reader