By Mansoor Ladha (Calgary, Alberta, Canada based Journalist)
Kamal Al-Solaylee, in his book Brown, has brilliantly described what being brown in the world means today. The writer takes a global look at the social, economic, political and personal implications of being a brown-skinned person. With hundreds of personal narratives and on-the-street interviews conducted over two years across 10 countries and five continents, Al-Solaylee enables the reader to slide under the skin of the “other” to experience being a brown person.
My own experiences as a brown person who used to live in a black society in Tanzania, becoming later a brown man living in a white society in Canada, is contained in my book Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West. This true story begins in Gujarat, India, where my ancestors came from before settling in Africa in the 19th century. From India to Africa to Canada—that’s my story: from a minority in Africa to a minority in Alberta.
I am often asked: Why did you write this book? As a writer and journalist, I felt obligated to describe my experiences as a man of colour living in black and white societies alike and how colour has played a part in my life.
In the early 1970s Canadian employers demanded Canadian experience as a prerequisite to getting employment. New immigrants had to go through a vicious circle of “no Canadian experience, no job; no job, no Canadian experience.” Some Asian immigrants in the 1970s even anglicized their names in a desperate search for work. They believed their foreign names identified them as non-white immigrants, and so their job applications immediately went to the bottom of the pile. Badru Kanji became Bud Kanji, Sadru became Sam, Firoz to Phil and Kamru to Ken. But even that didn’t work. Personally, I saw this, and I rejected several attempts—particularly by co-workers at the Edmonton Journal—to change my name to “Mike.”
A painful experience that many Asians, including me, have experienced at some stage is when someone has yelled “Paki, Paki, go back where you came from”—in Canada, one of the most welcoming, multiethnic, multicultural and diverse countries in the world. For someone who thought I had already found a home in Canada, the phrase “Go back where you came from” springs several questions to mind: Where am I from? Am I from Dar es Salaam, where I spent part of my adult life? Or Zanzibar, where my parents and I were born? Or India, where my third-generation ancestors originated?
More disturbing questions follow: Will our children and grandchildren be accepted as equals in this country? Will they be asked where they come from? Should I be despondent because one person on the street verbally abused me? Will the colour of one’s skin always be an issue? This is the Asian diaspora lament waiting for a response.
Non-white immigrants bring their whole history—the history of their skin—with them when they come to Canada. Books written by minority writers have a vital role to play in humanizing the struggles immigrants face and in displaying the diversity of our society. Our books, TV shows, movies and articles need to reflect this reality.