Have you ever had one of those days where you've been completely blindsided? Well, yesterday I had one. I went to the Write! Toronto conference with the Word Guild. I enjoyed their writers' conference so much in June, that I could hardly wait to get to this "mini" version. I signed up for a three-part workshop entitled, "Fictionalizing Your Story: Components of a Short Story." I had written a short piece for our writer's group about a woman's struggle with a painful marriage and the first thing one of our writers asked me was, "Is that true?" And I had to admit it was a true story. I often have difficulty with plotlines so real life stories are easier for me to tell. I had ideas that this workshop would spur on my imagination, enlarge my setting, better tell the story. Little did I know that I was going to get a dose of real life that knocked me on my rear!
Tynedale Intercultural Ministries visited the conference to encourage writers to tell stories of refugees who are now living in Toronto. There is a writing contest to capture the "newness" a refugee experiences in making a life here in Canada away from their countries of origin. We were introduced to "Matthew," a gentle Christian man from Iran, who had been imprisoned, tortured and nearly executed because of his faith. As he read his carefully prepared story, his voice broke more than once and I was horrified at what he experienced. And all because he spoke out in favour of Christianity to a Muslim society. I couldn't stop crying as he shared a detailed account of his death sentence, his supposed final hours of life and the horror of standing on a stool with a noose around his neck, his head in a hood. How can this be? How can this happen? What a sheltered life I lead. What a life of privilege and freedom!
We were then introduced to Maria from Zimbabwe and Leo from Liberia. They led a panel discussion without revealing their horrors. It was important to them that if we are to write their stories, even through fictional means, that we had to get the word out that they are people of dreams, accomplishments and responsibility. Many people have a stereotypical view that refugees want to take from Canada and give nothing. Matthew was happy to report that he had paid back every cent he had been lent and is proud and thankful to pay Canadian taxes to a country that he now calls his own. All three panelists were educated, accomplished, energetic contributors who deserve our respect. They also wanted us to let people know that being a refugee is not their identity.
My question to them was, "If we write fictionalized accounts of refugee stories, will this bring any dishonour to you? Would this diminish what you went through? After all, there are plenty of real stories to tell." They didn't think it would. Some people will read fiction more readily than factual accounts. All they cared about, was that people become aware of what is going on in other countries and the plight of those who come to Canada with nothing, having given up everything they know for the safety and freedoms we enjoy.
It was an eye-opener to me. I can't help but wonder what I was doing there. I'm grateful to have had the experience. And I'll pray for these three people of hope and courage.