Punjabi Literature Conferences
In the past couple of months, two national conferences on Punjabi literature have been announced in Canada, one to be held in Toronto in the Summer of 2009 and the other in Ottawa on the 16th tomorrow. I received information for both but could not get much out since the organizers had sent circulars in Gurumukhi alone.
First, it reminds me of my own inability to read Gurumukhi script, and prompts me to finish learning it in haste to overcome this ‘diversity barrier‘ of being a Punjabi. Second, and at the same time, it gives me the realization that this is not all that needs to happen to develop Punjabi language and literature in Canada.
Literary conferences are a great way of bringing people together to share new work, discuss issues faced by literary communities, and to reach consensus where needed. I am positive that the two conferences scheduled in Toronto and Ottawa plan to, and will, do that.
However, just as i have to keep impressing upon some White Canadians that the term ‘Canadian’ does not stand only for a ‘White Canadian’ person; so, i need to keep suggesting to some Punjabi event organizers to not use the term ‘Punjabi Literature’ to mean ‘Punjabi Gurumukhi Literature’ or ‘Punjabi Literature in Gurumukhi script’; and, to not use the word ‘Punjabis’ only for ‘Sikh Punjabis’ or for ‘Punjabis of Sikh family origin’.
I do that not just because i am a non-Sikh Punjabi and can not read or write Gurumukhi but also because 60% of Punjabis the world over are NOT of Sikh orientation, and most of the published Punjabi literature is NOT written in Gurumukhi. Indeed, the first Punjabi literary work was written in Shahmukhi or Persio-Arabic script by a Muslim Punjabi named Baba Farid (1173-1265).
My suggestion to organizers of literary and cultural events would be to do either of the following:
- For Punjabi literature conferences that are catering only to Punjabis of Sikh orientation, please write ‘Gurumukhi Punjabi Literature’ instead of just ‘Punjabi Literature’.
- To claim that an event is dealing with ‘Punjabi literature’, a fair representation of Punjabi literary works in Gurumukhi, Shahmukhi and Devnagri must take place. The same holds true for representation of Punjabi authors of Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh orientation; and, of corresponding communities and issues.
Before i finish, there are lighter things to discuss since the two conferences are generating some activity in areas where Punjabi literary communities have flourished; and, that includes Surrey and Vancouver, the (Lovely) Lower Mainland.
Here, i want to tell you The Story of Four Friends, three of whom are on a committee delegated with the task of deciding who is/was going to present papers on various issues of literary importance for one of the two conferences. The Three members of the committee met, and decided to send three papers to the conference from BC, and then proceeded to elect themselves as the three presenters.
The story does not finish here even when it is a powerful end.
The Fourth friend objected to it, and in return, was awarded with a fourth paper and another space for presentation at the conference.
I have objections to the process where presenters were ‘agreed upon’ and papers were ‘allocated’ by a three-member committee to its own three members. In other words, the three decision makers who were to send three representatives of BC Punjabi literary communities to a conference in Eastern Canada, ended up electing each other for representation by awarding the three papers to themselves. On top of that, the objections raised by the Fourth friend were not based on the critique of the process but spoke to the exclusion of an individual and another denominator; and so, was readily satisfied and silenced upon receiving the hand out.
My problems are with the process and not the people. In my view, all the four people well deserve to be at the conference to present their work and views but not in this way. Next time, please get others to nominate you or at least resist being the sole membership of a self-nominating decision-making committee.
As well, the first three and the fourth presenter all write in Gurumukhi, and all hail from Punjabi Sikh community. This in itself would be misleading for the participants of the conference in the East as it gives the impression that there are no Shahmukhi or Devnagri Punjabi writers in BC or that there are no Muslim, Hindu or Christian Punjabi writers in BC. My four friends are well aware that that is not the case.
If the purpose of the two conferences is to develop Punjabi language and literature than the conferences must be way more inclusive in representation than they are now or have been in the past.
In this, there are reasons other than the development of Punjabi language and literature that may help us to become inclusive. It is inevitable that public funds are accessed to organize national and international literary and cultural events, and because of it, the organizers and decision makers of such events must take responsibility to represent in diversity the communities they undertake to represent; and, to not view and define Punjabi communities in Canada from the standpoint of personal or single-group interests.
There is hope that the Punjabi Literature Conference in Ottawa tomorrow will address these issues of diversity in Punjabi language and literature; and, will decide upon a policy of outreach to and inclusion of Punjabi writers of all scripts, gender, abilities; and, of diverse religious, social and economic backgrounds.
I must also stress that such discrepancies are found in all communities where a section has more power or influence in relation to others. There are similar scenarios in Punjabi Muslim communities in Pakistan where such events are organized without assuring rightful representation, for example, of women, gay people, writers in rural areas, and non-Muslim Punjabi writers.
Also, living in Surrey (12.67% South Asians) for the past decade, i can not help notice the activities of organizations such as Surrey International Writers’ Conference (SIWC). Over 25% of Surrey’s ‘visible minority’ population is South Asian (Punjabi Sikh majority) yet the representation of Punjabi and South Asian writers in the SIWC has been none or negligible. See the presenting authors’ list for the SIWC 2008.
Now view one of the strongest reasons for this non-representation:
Surrey International Writers Conference (SIWC) sports an all ‘white’ organizing team in a multicultural city (46.1 ‘VM’), and year after year, produces a conference promoting English language writers of Anglo-Saxon origin while using public funds endowed to it by Surrey Board of Education through its Continuing Education program.
I wonder if the decision makers at Surrey Board of Education are aware of Surrey demographics, and if the mandate of the Board does include equality of representation when allocating public funds for literary and cultural development of the people of Surrey.
Also, the SIWC Team may not be aware of literary groups and organizations of Surrey Punjabi writers that are operating here for over thirty years, and of the fact that Surrey South Asian communities do have published authors in them.
If my expectations are unrealistic, the situation needs clarification from the SIWC, Continuing Education program and Surrey Board of Education.
Failing all else, my usual suggestion would be to at least change the name if not the essence of the Conference. Instead of just ‘Surrey International Writers’ Conference’ (SIWC), it could be ‘Surrey International White Writers’ Conference’ (SIWWC) or ‘Surrey International White English Writers Conference’ (SIWEWC).
I will not worry about the increased length of the proposed names and their abbreviations as to my estimation, it may not require much additional Continuing Education funding to implement a name change.
‘As of 2006, the population of surrey is 394,976, a 13.6 percent increase from the 2001 population. The foreign-born population is 150,235, constituting 30.28 percent of the city’s population. Visible minorities number 181,005 or 46.1 percent of the population, while Aboriginals constitute 1.9 percent of the population. 
‘As of 2006, visible minority groups in Surrey are as follows:
• 27.5% South Asian
• 5.1% Chinese
• 4.2% Filipino
• 2.4% Southeast Asian
• 2.0% Korean
• 1.3% Black
• 1.1% Multiple Visible Minority
• 1.0% Latin American
• 0.5% Japanese
• 0.5% Arab
• 0.5% West Asian
• 0.2% Other Visible Minority’
‘Newton has the largest population of all the city’s town centers, as well as the most ethnically diverse population; over half of the population is considered visible minority (predominantly Sikh). According to the 2001 census, the population of Newton was 91,595.’