Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Thank You to Bharati Mukherjee Twenty-five Years in the Making

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Twenty-five years is a long time to repay a kindness, but being able to finally publicly thank Bharati Mukherjee is something I’m very grateful to be able to do at all. In Calgary, in 1986, I took a workshop with her that I still think about, one that gave me sustenance for many years and taught me something essential about teaching.

I had a Vice Principal years later who believed that teachers are their student’s first books, that students learn as much from teacher role models as from books; they learn about character, fairness, kindness, respect, good judgment, industry, and curiosity. I would absolutely say this was true in my time with Bharati. There are two moments I remember so clearly.

The bombing of Air India flight 182, which had killed 329 people, most of them Canadian, had occurred the year before, on my birthday in fact, June 23, 1985. I remember the catch in her voice and how her eyes filled with tears when she said, “This was a plane full of young people on holiday. Families have not just lost a generation of children; they have lost their future.” This empathy fueled the book that came out a year later, The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy. That moment set the standard for me about the empathy it took to be a dedicated writer

Secondly, I remember being so nervous on the day we were to discuss my work, Bayanihan, a story about a feminist co-op household in Vancouver, comprised of women from all over Canada, trying to be progressive but ironically still riddled with prejudices about class and race. Bharati spent a great deal of time talking about what she called “unhousement,” explaining that when one is “unhoused” from their culture and homeland it creates both loss and gain. She looked me straight in the eye, smiled, and said the one sentence of encouragement that meant everything, “This story is about the insights of loss and gain and anybody who can write a story like this has what it takes to be a writer.”

At the IFOA on Saturday, I had the to opportunity to tell Bharati this story and to thank her in person. When I told her that my first novel had just been published by Coach House, her face lit up with the same smile as if twenty-five years were yesterday. She said simply, “I’m so happy to have been right!”

That’s the power of encouragement and kindness, twenty five years later. Thank you again, Ms. Mukherjee.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page