Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Moment Against Silence

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Writers are often selfish. It's part of what we do. We need to have privacy and silence to craft the perfect line or envision the perfect scene. We ignore dinner plans, phone calls, doctor's appointments and anything else that may get in the way of writing.

But sometimes, we look up. We walk the streets. We hear the spray of gunshots. We re-read the newspaper until we are sick with sadness or moved to tears.

Some of us write to escape the world.
Some of us write because we can't change it.
Some of us write because we want to change it.

And some of us write to write.

To write because there is nothing else we can do. There is no adequate response, no grand gesture, no display of grief that can possibly match the sorrow that makes our hearts burn.

We can only find that fire and fuel it into the writing. It is our greatest power and our greatest healing. We may be selfish in the act of writing, but what we write is an act in selflessness (if the writing is good, that is).

Over the last few days, the news coming in from Toronto and Colorado has brought me beyond tears. I've sat with the stories of dead teenagers and wounded women, gunned down fathers and students cut down in their prime. I've watched the news until the voices of victims have become murmurs in my head.


I started writing because I was bullied at school. Because I was rejected, unaccepted, ridiculed and marginalized. I had no solution but to write. When I work in classrooms in the GTA, I come across students who have been in similar situations. They find no relief at home and no relief at school.

When you don't give kids a voice, they find a voice in violence.

It's not a simple solution. I'm not saying that we can solve gun violence simply by teaching kids how to write and perform. I'm only addressing what I can address: performance and writing. It takes a lot more to deal with such a complex and difficult issue.

But I have seen, firsthand, how disengaged kids in inner city schools have become engaged. I've had kids come into my workshops rolling their eyes and laughing at the thought of poetry. By the end of the workshop, they're spitting rhymes that belong on the radio. I've seen how their faces light up when they receive praise from their classmates. I've read poetry from grade 7 students that has put mine to shame.

I've talked to students who admit to being victims of racism, verbal abuse and stereotyping. I've heard them complain about the lack of support they've received. I've listened to them speak about the fact that no one takes them seriously because they're just "kids" or "teenagers" or "students".

Through these discussions, they have regained confidence. They've found their voices. They've rapped about anti-racism. They've rhymed about stereotypes. They've collaborated on building communities.

It may be one step in a very long journey to combatting gun violence, but if it's a step they are willing to take, why not?

We often call for a moment of silence after tragedies. Silence is vital, but so is speech. I encourage us to call for a moment against silence. A moment where we can speak about these issues- freely, candidly and in depth.

And YOUTH should be part of the discussion. Give them a voice, and you'll find that it'll echo.

Call me naive. Call me idealistic. Call me unrealistic.

But I would rather act upon the possibility of a teenager picking up a pen instead of picking up a gun.

*In memory of all the lives lost to gun violence*

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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Sheniz Janmohamed

Sheniz Janmohamed is a spoken word artist, author and graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. Her first book, Bleeding Light (TSAR) a collection of sufi-inspired English ghazals, was published in 2010.

Go to Sheniz Janmohamed’s Author Page