Art, Forgiveness

Yesterday, I wandered down to the Vancouver International Film Festival for a viewing of Shane Koyczan's "Shut Up and Say Something". Koyczan, who is a long-time spoken word poet, really broke into the national limelight when he performed at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It was one of my favourite moments in the Olympics (and there were an awful lot of those). 

The documentary, which spans over four years of his life, following him through a number of cities, is about art. About how performance requires a vulnerability that only comes to be on stage, about his growing up and where he draws his material from. How a difficult childhood of bullying and abandonment has led Shane down a path of not only creative discovery, but of trying to make amends with his past. He tries to give voice to his struggles, and those of countless others.

Part of the documentary also covers his meeting with his father, long estranged, who left when Shane was a baby (he was raised by his grandmother). The documentary captures so well the anger, struggle,love and the wanting to forgive throughout. 

It really got me thinking about forgiveness. Art is imbued with so many of our struggles and triumphs as artists, but perhaps one of the greatest gifts it offers us is a way to bridge together our creations with forgiveness.

Forgiveness is hard. It is hard. The capacity to forgive wholeheartedly is sometimes the purview of incredibly evolved human beings (think about your various Lamas and nuns). Because it's just so much easier to burn up inside than to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

Artists, however, have a special backstage pass to be able to access that most elusive and difficult of abilities. We as artists, have a deep, deep reservoir that feeds our creative impulses, often to some benefit to the world. Whether we are showing the world pain and saying "hey, I've been there too" or whether we're showing them something beautiful and saying, "there is better out there", artists have an incredible capacity to perform the things we feel and a capacity to express things that are difficult in only words.

Shane's journey to forgiveness, especially to his father has not been an easy one, and I get the sense that there is a lot there that needs to be worked out (he was on stage for a brief Q/A session after the film). Abandonment leaves a kind of dent that is easy to fill in ways that are not good. Anger often comes rushing back to fill that vacuum and has to be held at bay. It takes energy. 

But if that documentary taught me anything, it's that so much of our power as artists lies in our ability to use what materials we have - what emotional materials we have - and create something that clears away the dust. Forgiveness of ourselves and others helps us be better artists. Emotions are malleable materials. We constantly edit them just as we do our art. Whether you sing, act, dance, write, paint, create in other ways, the ability to manipulate your material is at the very heart of what you do. Emotion, forgiveness, is no different. It serves a purpose. It informs how you mold your reality.

I know that as a writer and musician, I've had many moments where revealing emotion comes at a cost, sometimes high (like crying on stage. That was awful). But it's an investment you have to be willing to make to grow in any capacity.

Shane's beautiful poetry comes from such an investment. It has a price. But it also has a benefit.

This is perhaps too much thought that's gone into this one small encounter, so I leave you with this poem of Shane's. If you do get a chance, check out the documentary (I hear it'll be on Knowledge Network in Canada in the next year or so).

Naming Rights

I have been thinking a lot about names lately. I've been thinking about them because of the Oscars and because of Jimmy Kimmel. Here's a link describing his treatment of names slightly outside of his norm. He managed to make the name of the first Muslim to win an Oscar (the wonderful Mahershala Ali) into a running gag for the entire show. Not only was making fun of someone's name the very basest of humour, it was insulting, bigoted, and juvenile. Making fun of someone's name is something an elementary school bully might do. In fact, I have been the direct recipient of such name-calling and it can be damaging.

People with unusual names (like Mehnaz!) know all too well the daily tribulations of having these names. "Is that how I pronounce that?" is something that I hear far too often. I work in an office of hundreds of people and I show up at meetings with my colleagues ready to spell out my name. I am overjoyed when someone pronounces it exactly correctly I usually give the barista my nickname (Meena) when I'm waiting for an order because it's far too difficult to explain my real name.

My mother chose my name. She wanted a Muslim name that was unusual in our community of Ismailis, but nothing too outlandish sounding. She asked my father which he'd preferred between two names and he chose Mehnaz. I suspect he might have chosen it because there is a very famous singer by the same name and we are a musically-minded family. It is not a common name in the west, but it is incredibly common in Iran (it is after all, a Persian name), and other parts of the world with large Muslim populations.

Had we continued to live in our enclave of Ismailis in East Africa, my name wouldn't have caused many to bat an eye. Sure, it's not Aliya or Alisha, but it rolls off the tongue after a little while.

But we didn't stay in East Africa. We moved to a country full of Jessicas and Benjamins and my name wafted through the air like curry in an office lunchroom. I never hated my name, but I tried to find ways to ease the discomfort of others who couldn't pronounce it. When they would ask whether they had pronounced it correctly, I would make a flippant remark that I didn't really mind as long as the first and last letters were in the right place. In essence, I was letting them define me.

We see that in a society where different cultural values aren't always respected, choosing a name can be an indication of how malleable and easy parents are trying to make their children's lives. In the Muslim community, where identity politics is a critical juncture, names that are easy, hybridized, and pronounceable are used more and more. Strongly ethnic or cultural leaning names are no longer the order of the day. We are choosing to sanitize names because a Khadija might be stopped at airport security, but a Jenna might slip by (both Muslim names, both beautiful). We choose these names because Adam might have a better chance at getting the job than Shiraz. I can't say that I'm not just a little bit relieved that my last name isn't strongly Muslim-sounding. It's nebulous enough to confuse people before they give their heads a shake and the moment has passed.

Names afford us social license, whether we think about it or not. And that social license can easily be placed in the hands of others. But to accept the terms of others is to deny our own history. My mother chose my name. My name meant something to her, whether it was just how it sounded, the arrangement of the letters, the meaning. All those make up my history. And that history is important. To apologize for that history is to diminish it and yourself.

To accept a name without judgment, to think of it as beautiful, regardless of its rarity is to, in turn. accept another human being as legitimate; it means that we are saying, you have a story and a history, you mean something to the world, and I will endeavour to say your name as it was meant to be said because it is something of an honour to know you.

Whether your name is Sarah or Sharifa, your name matters. You deserve to have it pronounced correctly by the barista and you deserve to make space for your own history.

For more on names, you can watch this lovely talk by Duana Taha