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teacher, poet Uma Parameswaran

by Joyce Scane | November 13, 1998

I was born in Madras in south India, but I grew up in central India. I had all my schooling in India, including my master’s degree. Then I received a Fulbright grant to study in the United States. I came to the United States to study American literature. It was there I met my husband. After we married, we wanted to start a new life. Since we believed Canada was less racist than the United States, we decided to come here.

It’s a rather funny story as to why we chose Manitoba over the other provinces. My husband had to decide quickly in 1966 whether to take a job in Alberta or in Manitoba. We looked at a map, and we said, “Winnipeg is farther south than Edmonton, and therefore it must be warmer.” And we came. As you know, Winnipeg is the coldest city in the world.

Manitoba was very welcoming at that time. Everybody really felt welcome. It was as though the Manitoba ethos was trying to make up for the cold by being very warm in personality. We felt totally welcome. It may be because of our background and the time we came, but our experience was very different from the experience that I know is true of people who now come from Asia. In the 60s and 70s, it was the professionals who came from India, and we had no trouble getting jobs. Times have now changed, and people who come today do have trouble finding work.

I know that people have been having problems that are essentially racist or gender related. As women they are suffering, and if they have brown skin they have further problems. Here are a few verses from a poem which I wrote about the immigrant experience:

We are new Canadians
Come from many races
Black, white, olive, brown,
All alike, for all the many places
High tech, mid tech or no tech
Are one.
          

What we were not told, never guessed, Is written in our children’s faces Furrowed with tears because of our race Or colour, or tongue that stumbles Over words so alien to the many places From which we’ve come.

Will doors shut on them as on us? Landlords’, employers’, neighbours’? Have we come from Niger and Luzon, From the Antilles and Hongkong To these vast empty spaces Only to see our young ones’ faces Slapped by unthinking scorn, Unfeeling barbs From closed fists and closed hearts?

When we arrived in Winnipeg, I stayed at home for about a year. Then I got a position teaching English at the University of Winnipeg. I’ve been there ever since. As I tell my students, I have been in Canada longer than they have since most of them were born after 1966.

Although I stayed at home during my first year in Canada, I did a great deal of writing. I had always liked to write, and had done so in India. One of the short stories I wrote, “The door I Shut Behind Me,” won the Lady Eaton short story contest.

I usually don’t write consciously about the immigrant experience. My readers think I do. A writer tries to be as true as possible to the experience being described. It is the critics who put labels on things. I try to write for all Canadians.

One of the ways that I am involved in the Indian community is by writing plays. I wrote a play, Sita’s Promise, for children to perform. The play connects the Hindu epic, Ramyana, with Canada. Rama and Sita came to Canada, the play says, and before they went back to India, Sita made a promise, that she will come again: “I, through my children, shall surely come again and sing and dance with the children from all over the world who make this (Canada) their home.”

more to consider

Many people in Canada think that there are a lot more immigrants than there used to be. How much of that has to do with the colour of peoples’ skin?

According to The 1998 Canadian Global Almanac (edited by John Robert Colombo, published by Macmillan Canada), the total number of foreign born persons in Canada is less than it was in 1911 as a percentage of total population, percentages calculated by me from the numbers given there. Take a look:

  • 1911: 22%
  • 1931: 22.2%
  • 1951: 14.7%
  • 1971: 15.2%
  • 1991: 15.9%

Prior to 1962, federal immigration laws favoured immigrants from the United Kingdom, Europe or the United States. By 1967, any explicit criteria relating to race or ethnicity were removed. Since then, immigrants have come from around the world. Uma Parameswaran and her husband came to Canada because it was perceived to be less racist than the US. Or was/is it just less obviously racist? When we look inside ourselves, what do we see and feel?

resources for this story
  • I’ve Something to Tell You: Stories of Immigrant Women, by JOYCE SCANE, ed. Includes Uma Parameswaran’s story, which is excerpted here. The stories in this book are interesting in and of themselves. They also are designed to be used in “English as a second language” training courses to give women the opportunity to read about their peers. Various formats have been used in the interviews to provide a model for such students (and others too) to follow while writing their own interviews. Also available from Green Dragon Press are two videotapes – Starting Again (11 mins., VHS) and A New Life in Canada (12 mins., VHS). Contact Green Dragon Press, tel. (416) 251-6366, fax (416) 251-6365. Green Dragon Press, | 1998
  • What Was Always Hers, by UMA PARAMESWARAN, first book of prose fiction, Broken Jaw Press | 1999
  • Changing Patterns: Women in Canada, by SANDRA BURT and others, see especially Roxana Ng, “Racism, Sexism and Immigrant Women,” p. 279, McClelland & Stewart | 1993
  • If you are curious about Winnipeg, Manitoba, the Statistics Canada website includes “Statistical Profiles of Canadian Communities.” Give Winnipeg, or the community you live in, or the community you are thinking of moving to, a test run by clicking on StatsCan below.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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