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Storytelling and the Truth about Brown Women

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“Why do you want to act?” I was asked this by my Acting Professor on the first day of my three-year performance training. I get asked this by my parents’ friends, people I just meet, and even by myself in the privacy of my home in the middle of the night. And I always tell myself the same thing: it’s about storytelling. We tell stories because they are important; they give others an opportunity to reflect on their own stories or the stories of others. Stories teach us. Stories make us feel, make us think. Stories make us reflect upon our own actions. That’s why I went into this profession, to tell storiesbut not just any stories. I’ve told many people this: I wouldn’t be an actor if I didn’t have brown skin.

I knew that statement may upset people. I grew up culturally very confused. I was born and raised in Vancouver to two immigrant parents from Tanzania in East Africa. Most kids at school would get confused whenever I would say this. I was faced by many people with the Amanda Seyfried-type expression from Mean Girls: “If your family is from Africa, why aren’t you black?” And then I would have to explain that my family is East Indian, specifically Gujarati, and that we were part of the Khoja Ismaili Muslim community. And that also felt strange to say, considering the fact that my immediate family was filled with agnostic-atheists who barely attended the mosque.

Growing up irreligious and belonging to a culture dependent on religious affiliation was a major conflict of interest for my cultural identity. I rarely attended the mosque and tried to integrate seamlessly into Western Canadian cultureonly it wasn’t seamless. I’d turn on the TV and flip to as many channels as I could, including YTV, the Family Channel, and the Disney Channel, and couldn’t find a single character on screen that looked like me, or even had my hair colour. I struggled to relate to any Bollywood movie my parents would force me to watch on Friday nights, knowing that each brown girl I saw on screen spoke pure Hindi, a language I couldn’t understand.

Many Indo-Canadian second- to third-generation millennials feel this cultural confusion intensely. Some more than others, some not at all. It was when I started auditioning at the age of seven for film and TV that I began to develop my passion for telling brown stories. I started being asked to come in for auditions for the very channels I used to watch as a child, and for predominantly South Asian roles. I noticed a stark difference, back in the early 2000s, between the number of roles I was called to audition for and the number my white friends were called for. And most people were resistant to making commentary on it. I was young and inexperienced, which didn’t help my case.

I received many audition calls in which the descriptions of these South Asian characters were abysmal. Several descriptions asked for the characters to be dressed in traditional South Asian attire, despite the character being in a scene set in a Canadian school. Many of the descriptions had no idea what words to use; they asked for bells and jewellery that jingled, hoping to get the vibe of a South Asian girl dressed to the nines for a Bollywood wedding. I felt stereotyped every time I walked into an audition room. I always felt like I was shitting on my ancestors when I saw a roster of white casting directors behind a table excited by my exotic outfit. I felt like a pawn being used to appease their white guilt by providing them with their version of diversity.

When I reached fifteen years of age, I started turning down auditions I thought were racist. I received an audition to play an immigrant South Asian child in an ESL class who couldn’t speak English well and became the butt of the joke for the entire episode. I ended up turning it down once I read the scene. I couldn’t believe it when the episode aired on Canadian TV; there was a laugh track playing for this episode in response to the student failing to make any sense.

By the time I reached my adult years, diversity was starting become the “in” thing. I auditioned for theatre school and got in and trained for three years at university. In those three years, I began to find my voice. I realized I had such strong opinions about Indo-Canadian representation and accurate representation of people of colour in the industry. I started shifting my training more into theatre. I learned that, even with the initiatives that both industries try to implement to be more inclusive, there is still a long way to go.

I learned early in my voice training that I apparently wasn’t doing a great job of hitting my Ds and Ts with the tip of my tongue. I later realized this was because I could do other phonetic Indian sounds that weren’t in North American phonetics (such as D for das, the word that means ten in Hindi, and T for Tasbih, the word for Ismaili prayer beads). I was made to read speech textbooks that incorrectly asked students to pronounce South Asian words such as Allah and Aga Khan in an anglicised way. I vehemently rejected pronouncing them in such ways, as I knew I was correct in my pronunciation.

I played multiple characters in Victorian, Shakespearean, and Chekovian plays. I played characters called April, Molly, Helen, Angeline, and Ann. Every night, after a show, I would notice how many white folks were present in the audience. I saw no one from my community seeking out these plays. Finally I asked myself, “And why would they? Would you?”

Once I got to my final year, while I was wearing a corset and four layers of petticoats during a warm-up before a show, I heard myself say “I am not a white girl!” to the catwalk above my head in the theatre. Several of my non-brown friends heard and seemed quite aghast by my outburst. It was like everything had been accumulating inside me until that moment. It was in this final year that I solidified something for myself as an artist: I have to tell stories to represent brown women, not to entertain white folks.

When I graduated, I made that my personal mandate. I wanted to be in shows that gathered more brown folks inside theatres. I wanted brown women to see themselves onstage. I wanted them to want to relate to their own stories. I didn’t want them to feel like their existence was insignificant or not cookie-cutter enough for life in Western Canada.

Recently, I was in a play set in a fictional Middle Eastern town with five South Asian and Middle Eastern women who told stories about the burqa, hijab, niqab, and other head coverings. I played an agnostic character who refused to wear the hijab and I didn’t have to change my Canadian accent at all to play the role. As an actor, I felt free. I didn’t have to stereotype people of my community, nor did I have to stray away from them to tell a Canadian story. I felt like I was telling a story of my kind of people. We sold out every single night, and not from the usual demographic of theatre-goers. Brown women were lining up to see this show.

I still have a very long way to go in my career and I know there are still so many obstacles along the way. However, I feel so determined. This is an industry that desperately needs accurate representation and a huge dose of truth; we cannot afford to fail anymore at delivering the truth in storytelling. It is a beautiful gift that we can give to other people and it’s exactly why I do it.


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It was day two of the festival and we were already running on more adrenaline than sleep. The dusty air was cooling as the sun nestled downward, the aromatic changeover from sunscreen to bug spray just beginning. We had gotten used to the constant jostling it took to stake our claim in front of the mainstage. I had heard of Alabama Shakes, but they weren’t one of the bands we had come to see. So, my gaggle took the opportunity to remove ourselves from the chaos and perch up on a grassy hill overlooking the cavernous Gorge, whose majesty always threatened to outshine whoever was playing. We needed the break, all of us saturated by music and happy to turn our attention elsewhere. But when the bluesy melodies started, they pleasantly surprised me.

Breaking through the social buzz, I looked to the stage and everything around me became still. There she was: Brittany Howard, front and centre, bursting with exuberance. And shake she did. She belted, bouncing and moving wherever the music took her body. Her electric guitar jiggled along, nestled under her chest. She was un-contained in a way that I’d always thought was reserved for thin women. How was she making this look so good?

I had spent my entire music-obsessed life idolizing women with big voices and tiny frames, convinced that I needed both. I always tried to make myself as small as I possibly could when I was on stage. And here was this woman in low-rise jeans and a fitted button-up, stomach un-camouflaged, curly hair pulled casually into a ponytail, unabashedly taking up all the space in the world. The Gorge didn’t have shit on her. It made me uncomfortable: I felt exposed, like the sort of unease that accompanies wearing pajamas in public. Something shifted. Beside me, my friends were re-hashing the pros and cons of Eryn’s relationship with her on-again-off-again boyfriend. How were they not see what I was seeing? I was mesmerized. Shaken.


It was the spring of 2012. Sunshine had finally awakened the West Coast. I was nineteen, and the wave of my aspiration to become an indie-folk frontwoman was cresting. It only made sense to take the road trip to my first ever music festival. I’d been performing as a folk duo with my bandmate, a lifelong friend, for a couple of years. With her and three other friends, I took my parents’ old Toyota Forerunner down from Vancouver to Washington, GPS set to the edge of the infamous Gorge. We covered the truck with window markers, “SASQUATCH 2012” scrawled along the sides and “JUST MARRIED” on the back, which both distracted from the rusted-out bumper and made us some curious friends along the way.

Thanks to messy festival traffic and an overly optimistic sense of time, we’d arrived well after dark. The evening air was still warm; it teased us with rain and carried several varieties of smoke around the grassy campground. We were barely able to find a spot that would fit our musty old ten-person tent, which boasted missing poles and duct-taped canvas seams. Making what we affectionately named “The Burrow” structurally sound by flashlight (with the help of some kindly neighbours whom alcohol had made very generous) was a feat that formed an unbreakable bond. We spent the rest of the cell-serviceless weekend weaving through hot crowds and dirt clouds, hands held tight in a train so we wouldn’t lose each other.

For my friends, the trip spawned new best friendships and roommate arrangements. For me, it began my pursuit of chasing down whatever secret it was that Brittany Howard knew on stage that day that I didn’t. Because while I loved (and still love) performing with my dear friend, I could never shake this feeling that lived in the pit of my stomach, right beside my nerves: that I didn’t quite fit on stage with her. I could feel every audience we walked out in front of reviling or pitying me, standing there at least twice her size. I obsessed about my body before every show, squeezing into my tightest tummy-shaping underwear, despite their hindrance on my breath.

Meanwhile, my friend was pursuing a modelling career alongside music. I pretended not to notice the different ways we were received by people in the industry. It wasn’t her fault, after all. I didn’t want it to affect our friendship, for her to think I was jealous. But when she once tried to get us signed through a talent agency that had hired her for modelling, I hesitated in queasy silence, not wanting to state the obvious. It didn’t matter how talented I was. Once they saw my body, they would want her and not me.


In 2018, the two of us had moved across the country, her to Montreal to pursue music and me to Toronto to focus on writing, each of us following our own uncertain paths, as you do in your twenties. The better part of my path had been spent training my brain to accept the fact that my body isn’t to blame for all the shame and insecurity it carries, or the lack of space society makes for it. Maybe this was Brittany’s secret, or maybe it wasn’t. But I had learned that my body exists in a paradigm premised on a bold-faced lie: that if we all try hard enough, we can be small, and if we are small, then we are good. And then I’d realized that this paradigm was one that I had the chance to shift.

I was thrilled when my friend invited me to get the band back together for a mini-tour through Ontario: we would open the show as a duo with the songs off of her upcoming EP, and then join the headlining band as backup singers. This is how I found myself performing on a festival mainstage for the first time. The two of us were back side by side; and this time, it felt different.

It was our last show after a string of nights in pokey small towns. We’d spent our days driving pin-straight roads through flat fields of wheat and corn, the Louvin Brothers and Dolly Parton taking turns keeping us company, preaching Satan is Real and I Will Always Love You out the windows. We’d spent our post-show, wine-soaked nights cooling off in black lakes that showcased the stars, before turning in to our snugly shared Airbnbs. After our last long drive, we finally arrived at Hillside Festival, this time being put up in a swanky hotel with overzealous (but welcome) air conditioning and a mountain of memory-foam pillows.

I hadn’t been back to a musical festival in several years, having happily left that experience in my early twenties. Things looked different from backstage, but the texture was the same. The dusty dry grass; the mingling scents of sunscreen and bug spray; the way your brain tunes out faint beats from other stages to focus on who it wants to hear; the quiet camaraderie you feel with thousands of surrounding strangers, merely because you’re all there in this chosen fray.

Night fell. Lights went up, illuminating the swarms of mosquitoes fighting for their time in the spotlight. We traipsed out onstage and took our places. The opening guitar riff floated out over the crowd and the drums thudded toward my cue. As I reached down to take a gulp from my water bottle and pick up my tambourine, I looked up and saw a train of bedraggled young women clamouring to the front, hand in hand so they didn’t lose each other.

Stage left was ours. Mine. As the set danced along, I felt myself growing bigger. Every hit of my tambourine against my bare leg sent a ripple down my thigh. I stomped, hit harder. Phones were out, filming and photographing as close as they could. I bounced and moved wherever the music took my body. I sang with all the outmost corners of myself. I breathed deep into my gut, extending it as far as it wanted to go. My arms jiggled, naked in my sleeveless bodysuit. Not once did I think about them, nor the other parts of me that move right behind a beat.

The encore ended and I stood, sweating, curly hair wild and unleashed by my movement. As I steadied my breath and beamed out at the cheering crowd, my eyes were caught by a bright moon of a face near the front. Something about it felt familiar. Was I imagining it, or was she staring back at me? Young, mesmerized. Still. Just waiting to grant herself permission to shake.

Être acadien(ne) c’est dans l’sang!

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On dit souvent qu’être Acadien(ne) c’est quelque chose qu’on a dans l’sang ou dans l’cœur.

Voyez-vous c’est qu’être Acadien(ne) ça ne vient pas avec un pays ou avec un gouvernement. Toutefois, comme peuple Acadien nous avons une riche culture, des coutumes acadiennes, des chansons qui racontent notre passé, un « parler » unique et coloré avec de beaux accents qui changent selon les régions ainsi qu’une immense fierté pour notre histoire et ce que nous avons vécu … et survécu.

Mon nom c’est Sonja Williams, née Bourgeois, une acadienne de Chéticamp, un joli petit village acadien au Cap-Breton en Nouvelle-Écosse. Pour moi, être acadienne c’est effectivement dans l’sang et dans l’cœur! C’est d’être née à Chéticamp d’une mère née Desveaux, d’être une descendante des Boudreau et des Broussard, c’est d’être connue comme une mangeuse de mélasse et d’être fière de dire que j’suis la petite cousine à Ronald Bourgeois, auteur-compositeur-interprète de Chéticamp.

Dans les mois qui ont précédés mon mariage en 2012, des gens s’inquiétaient de mon héritage acadien si je prenais le nom de famille anglais de mon mari. Je leur répondais simplement qu’être acadienne, ça fait partie de qui je suis pour toujours et même si mon nom de famille est Williams, ça ne change rien!

À chaque année, autour de la Fête nationale de l’Acadie le 15 août, on voit bien sûr des couleurs et des célébrations acadiennes un peu partout mais pour plusieurs, être Acadien ou Acadienne, ça se vit à tous les jours, et c’est aussi… :

  • de ne pas être gêné de parler avec son accent acadien même si les gens se moquent parfois ou ne comprennent pas toujours du premier coup;
  • de se rendre au Lieu historique national de Grand-Pré en Nouvelle-Écosse pour voir ton nom de famille sur le mur et pleurer en regardant la vidéo sur l’histoire de tes ancêtres;
  • de célébrer la Fête nationale de l’Acadie le 15 août et partager l’expérience avec des milliers d’amis Acadiens;
  • de courir la traditionnelle mi-carême à Chéticamp en mars;
  • de chanter à tue-tête « Je suis avec toi aux Jeux de l’Acadie » avec la mascotte Acajoux (au moins une fois dans ta vie);
  • de se déplacer à Charlottetown pour assister à la pièce musicale Évangeline au Centre des arts de la Confédération même si tu connais l’histoire par cœur;
  • d’avoir les frissons en écoutant la chanson « Mon chez-nous c’est l’Acadie » (écrite par Paul D. Gallant).

Bref, c’est d’être fier-e de qui tu es….

Mon ailleurs-ici 

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Mon parcours de vie, malgré ses particularités, est commun à bien des gens. Sans doute ce récit provoquera-t-il sourires ou soupirs songeurs. Vous rencontrerai-je dans certaines intersections de l’ailleurs-ici?

Parents au purisme linguistique impératif, père au discours crépusculaire, convaincu de la disparition des Québécois à plus ou moins long terme, me voilà dès la jeunesse aimantée par l’idée d’un effacement à venir et par l’amour des mots. Déjà aussi une certaine marge, un décalage … sans doute un accent non marqué ou peut-être un visage singulier m’attiraient les regards songeurs. Tant de fois m’a-t-on demandé si j’étais française, italienne, espagnole, hongroise, libanaise, voire iranienne. Tournée vers l’Europe, je découvrais aussi une filiation, d’autres cultures; je m’éloignaiscroyais-je—de la mienne, alors que j’y baignais. Déjà en décalage, un pied dans l’ici, un pied dans l’ailleurs.

Le pied dans l’ailleurs, c’est aussi la science-fiction devenue à l’adolescence une compagne au long cours, une amie qui repose sur l’altérité comme moteur fictionnel, porte un regard songeur et distancié sur notre espace-temps, prodigue des visions crépusculaires ou libératrices, réfléchit entre autres sur le colonialisme, la langue, la femme … une amie enfin que l’institution littéraire a longtemps rangée dans le non dominant, le mineur.

Plus tard le travail m’a conduite dans l’ailleurs des ciels immenses du Manitoba, puis au pied de l’océan, ici en Nouvelle-Écosse. L’ailleurs se renversait en ici, l’encore-chez-moi-déjà-plus-chez-moi se teintait de couleurs différentes sous mon regard désormais distancié. Mais l’ailleurs-devenu-chez-moi se dérobait – se dérobe toujours. Tant de fois ai-je entendu le just-arrived?-how-do-you-like-it-here?, tant de fois m’a-t-on demandé if I was French, Spanish, voire Scottish. Je serais toujours la minoritaire audible, une (sorte d’) immigrante, l’ailleurs de l’autremais de quel autre s’agit-il en fait?malgré mon ici. Souvent ai-je senti la différence de culture. Pourquoi ne chantes-tu pas les chansons d’enfants avec nous ? Quoi, tu ne les connais pas? Comment ça, tu ne sais pas qui est Dr Seuss ? Ah, c’est drôle, l’expression que tu utilises. L’ailleurs s’aimante à l’ici lorsque l’intervalle est lieu d’existence, n’est-ce pas?

Tôt ai-je saisi que le crépusculaire, le purisme, le décalage qui m’habitaient se doteraient maintenant d’autres nuances. Le Manitoba m’a ouverte à la réalité de la francophonie hors Québec, au français comme langue de combat, tout comme à la lassitude d’avoir toujours à demander, défendre…. Le Manitoba et l’Acadie m’ont fait comprendre d’autres jeux (socio)linguistiques, d’autres contextes sociaux. Tant de fois ai-je senti le sempiternel maudit-Québécois-se-jugeant-supérieur, ai-je ressenti le sentiment crépusculaire, l’urgence du purismeet son contraire: la manipulation ludique, l’abandon à la langue dominante, la connivence.

L’intervalle se complexifiait avec un conjoint anglophone, les enfants, l’école.… Le crépusculaire me taquinait, le purisme faisait des velléités, la lassitude ricanait, tous trois contrés par les moments d’insouciance ou d’humour. Le quotidien rythmé par les bris de communicationcar si on parle tous anglais, on ne parle pas tous français mais aussi par le ludique, la double culture. Lire Dr Seuss et Les débrouillards, c’est mieux, n’est-ce pas? Mais j’ai la chance au travail d’utiliser beaucoup le français et de côtoyer d’autres ailleurs-ici, d’autres actualisations d’intervalle, d’autres miroitements du minoritaire.

Le travail et la vie personnelle font de moi une passeuse culturelle, désireuse d’inviter à entrer dans cet intervalle de la rencontre. Je réponds au crépusculaire, au décalage, par l’amour des mots, l’engagement culturel et communautaire, même si la lassitude veille toujours. Je suis québécoise par l’origine, acadienne par le lieu de vie, franco-canadienne, francophone, humaine.

Sans doute vous serez-vous reconnu un peu dans ce parcours, sans doute vous ai-je rencontrés dans certaines intersections?

Un effet d’entraînement 

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Je n’ai pas cherché la francophonie par exprès. Je suis née à Terre-Neuve, dans une famille complètement anglophone, et mes parents ont choisi de m’inscrire en immersion française tardive parce que j’avais de bonnes notes en école élémentaire. Bref, je suis tombée dans la francophonie sans comprendre la conséquence et l’influence que cette langue aurait sur ma vie une quinzaine d’années plus tard.

Pendant ma jeunesse, je n’ai jamais trop réfléchi à mon opinion sur le français. J’étais un bon élève, je suivais mes cours en français sans plainte. Ce ne fut pas avant ma dernière année de secondaire, où venait le temps de choisir un programme d’études universitaire que je me trouvais à dire « Bon.… J’aime bien mes cours de Français, peut-être que je pourrais l’étudier ». L’idée m’a frappée tellement soudainement, je ne me comprenais même pas. Quand mes proches m’ont poussé vers un autre poursuit, et je demeurais la seule à défendre l’idée de suivre le français, j’étais une adolescente naïve qui écoutait ses aînés plus sages et expérimentés. Ça va sans dire qu’après un court trimestre comme étudiante de biologie, parmi les échecs les plus colossaux de ma vie, je me suis inscrite dans le programme de Langues modernes et classiques à l’Université Saint Mary’s, où je me suis enfin plongée directement dans ma langue de cœur.

Ma chute était rapide. J’ai pris avantage de quasiment toutes les opportunités que l’université me présentait, un trimestre en France, des sessions à discuter en français avec mes profs et d’autres étudiants, pour combler le tout avec un diplôme de maîtrise en Littératures françaises. C’est à travers mes études que j’ai appris la phrase « francophone d’apprentissage », une phrase que je crois me décrit à 100%.

J’habite aujourd’hui au Nouveau-Brunswick, la seule province bilingue du Canada. Je suis enseignante d’immersion française. Ayant bouclé la boucle en quelque sort, je me trouve de l’autre côté du pupitre, espérant que j’allume chez un élève la même passion que je ressens pour le français. Mais dans ma province, la relation entre l’anglais et le français demeure très compliquée, remplie de chagrin des deux côtés depuis longtemps. Il me semble que la façon dont je suis tombée dans une vie bilinguefrançais le jour au travail, anglais le soir avec les amis et la familleest devenue une représentation d’une relation linguistique idéale.

Mais parfois, je me sens un peu coupablej’ai le meilleur des deux mondes en parlant les deux langues de ma province. Je sais que le fait que je sois bilingue est l’une des raisons principales pourquoi j’ai pu trouver une poste d’enseignement à temps plein tout de suite après avoir complété mes études, tandis que mes amis qui n’ont pas le niveau de français suffisant doivent faire de la suppléance ou se contenter de chercher un emploi dans une autre domaine. Même plusieurs parents de mes élèves me disent qu’ils ont choisi l’immersion pour leurs enfants parce qu’ils veulent qu’ils aient un avantage dans le marché du travail quand ils seront adultes. Ces parents n’ont pas tout à fait tort, mais ça reste décevant de voir une attitude aussi pragmatiste autour d’une langue et d’une culture tellement riche.

Pour moi, le français m’a ouvert plus de portes que j’aurais cru possible. Ça va sans dire qu’au niveau professionnel, parler plusieurs langues aide ces jours-ci, mais au niveau personnel je trouve que j’ai une vie énormément riche. À travers mes divers intérêts, j’ai pu rencontrer plusieurs amis francophones que je n’aurais jamais rencontré-e-s sans ma langue d’adoption. Je n’ai pas eu peur de voyager dans d’autres provinces et d’autres pays, qui m’a donné la chance de voir et vivre d’autres cultures. Je fais tout ce que je peux pour partager les nourritures, les littératures, les films que je puisse avec ma famille. C’est la moindre façon que je peux leur remercier pour tout ce que mon statut de francophone d’apprentissage me donne.

Mes parents ne l’ont pas compris quand ils ont choisi le français pour moi, et je n’ai pas compris moi-même jusqu’à ce que je sois devenue adulte. La seule déception qui me reste c’est que je ne peux pas partager l’ensemble de mon monde enrichi avec ma famille, qui demeure unilingue jusqu’à présent (malgré quelques tentatives d’apprendre les phrases essentielles). Mais cela aussi fait partie de l’apprentissage qui vient avec le vécu, et je sais que si un jour j’aurai des enfants, je ferai tout mon possible de leur fournir la belle chance que mes parents m’ont donnée, car le français a sans doute changé ma vie.