My childhood was a small planet enveloped by the atmosphere of my grandmother’s stories. All I possessed on my planet was small-scale: home, school, a long narrow street, a couple of alleys, a few people. But what I could have, immeasurably, was made available to me through the imaginary milieu of her stories. Our holy trinity secretly united storyteller, story, and listener, so magically charmed that I felt myself invulnerable. The world of stories was the realm of impossibilities. In it, all impossible things could become possible; all I had to do was to wish and dream, and the rest came true in one way or another. In fulfilling dreams, the magic was in the process and the interaction whereby common objects allowed common people to be empowered.
Among the impossibilities, what fascinated me most was the ability to become invisible. The idea of not being seen by others was exciting per se. However, something beyond this attracted me vaguely. I could sense the freedom to do whatever I liked and to go wherever I wanted without fear that it would be forbidden. Moreover, invisibility to me equated safety. To be unseen was a privilege, a special advantage offered only to heroes and heroines. This blessing could turn the blessed one into a hero or heroine. Some years later, while discovering the joy of immersion in mythological tales, I was fascinated by the effect of the Cap of Hades, simply because I could see nothing but its positive aspects.
Then came the years of exposure to a series of real storms flooding me with undeniable realities. The true nature of invisibility began to emerge. I learned that society as a heterogeneous complex whole consisted of different groups with different labels and weights. Among categories, I noticed that those based on social power were crucial in terms of determining each individual’s share of the world. I realized some could see themselves “in power” as long as they continued to consider others “invisible”. I understood that in real life the Cap of Hades was how powerful people made others powerless.
The problem of becoming an outsider, the disadvantages of non-membership, and the drawbacks of being second-class citizens are not exclusive to particular societies or countries, though they take different shapes in different environments and contexts. In Canadian society, although the category of the powerless includes all lower-class people —immigrant and native-born alike —the most important distinction occurs between the ruling class and minorities consisting of indigenous people and a growing population of “visible” immigrants. The weak socio-economic position, along with institutional barriers, tends to make them voiceless in society.
When I came to Canada as an immigrant, I was aware of my social status as a member of the minority. What I did not know then was the quality of my social standing. I was unaware that I would remain invisible in my second land. I had taken root in an upside-down land where people were accustomed to be ignored by a ruling group orbiting around a dictator. I had come from a land where writers, deprived of primary professional rights, had to struggle merely to put pen to paper. In Canada, with great respect for Canadian values like democracy and diversity, I gradually discovered the scope and depth of the invisibility prevalent in the society.
One wintry morning during my first days in Toronto, job hunting, I left home in search of a company that had an opening. Having taken time to consult a map and review the address and directions, I was sure I could find the place easily. It was at the other end of the city, and I had to take a subway as well as two buses. On the first bus, flurries blowing in the street seemed to me nothing but the white blessing of a vast, generous land receptive to anybody. An hour and half later, when I got off the second bus, I noticed that the blessing had turned into a snowstorm from some unknown territory of cold. Feverishly determined to find my destination, I ignored it and began to look for the building number. As gusty hands pushed me back, I found that I had missed it by several thousands.
After a while I began to doubt the address on the piece of paper folded in my wet gloved fist, and my sense of direction as well. There was no pay phone or a store in sight so that I could check the address. Moreover, I had already asked for the address on the phone, and I didn’t want to ask an explanation or paraphrase for fear of revealing myself as an incapable newcomer. So I resolved to get help from passers-by and kept wandering streets in search of a clue.
As much as I was determined not to give up, the snowstorm was equally bent on defeating an opponent trusting to Quixotic naivete. Thoroughly unsuitable for the weather, my clothes were soaked. My sodden shoes again and again caused me to slide and fall on the slippery sidewalk. With frozen fingers and toes, numbed nose and ears, and a shivering body, I kept grappling with the furious squall. Whenever I fell down I tried to get up quickly. But several times I couldn’t stand without making a huge effort. Some moments were tense with mixed feelings of fragility, loneliness, and bewilderment at the blank stony looks people gave me as they passed.
I remember another job-hunting day in Toronto, a few years later. I headed for a library, seeking a post as a clerk. That hot, humid summer day, I walked in order to have time to review what I’d learned about finding a job, now an obsession. Having attended several workshops and counselling sessions, I was confident that I had good background knowledge. I was aware of my advantages and disadvantages. I knew my strengths —education and experience —were doubtful here, since there was no regulatory body to accredit my credentials and my non- Canadian experience was considered irrelevant. However, knowledge of the job and volunteering experience could be considered if I were lucky enough to find the right place or right person at the right time. Clearly, what made my qualifications questionable were official obstacles I encountered as an immigrant. This led to the vicious-circle consequences of sometimes being judged overqualified, sometimes underqualified. My disadvantages also involved unofficial barriers. I had learned by experience that having a strange-sounding or spelled name could be grounds for rejection; that the Canadian labour market was sensitive to age; that religion, though never asked about directly, could be a negative factor; and, last but not least, that an immigrant applicant, despite official policies on equity, could not compete with a native-born counterpart.
With all this in mind, I went to the library’s Human Resources Department and asked for a job. After a while, I was given an application form. Experienced enough, I confidently entered detailed information. But there was one question for which I had no answer: ARE YOU A MEMBER OF A VISIBLE MINORITY? I had never thought about it. The meaning of the term and the implications were clear enough. Yet how could I answer such an ostensibly straightforward question? I well knew that not to belong to the majority meant that I was a member of minority. But thinking about myself as a member of a visible minority, regardless of what benefits it might bring me, was annoying, if not offensive. The odd juxtaposition of a negative quality like “minority” and a positive adjective like “visible” was itself complex and contradictory. In the meantime, my physical visibility as a mark that could be decoded by others suddenly seemed like an open wound. I felt trapped and entangled. How could I know the reply to this question? Look in my pocket mirror or ask somebody who looked like me? I knew that the HR officer was observing me impatiently, but I felt that my pen had halted forever inside that blank space.
Some years later, with visible lines on my face after a long period of being enmeshed in a desperate struggle for sustenance, I indulged myself by taking time off my evening job to attend a multicultural event. The program included a lecture on a dying language, which the speaker used during his last ten minutes, thus forcing the audience to listen to a language they could not understand.
When I came out, it was as bitterly cold as a Toronto autumn night should be, but I felt warmed and stimulated by the ebbing echo of those empty words. I indulged myself again, this time in taking a cab. I’d hardly sat in the back when I heard the driver’s voice. My mind, still occupied by a victimized language, was unwilling to listen to English in any form. In a few minutes, though, the driver caught my attention with his sweet Spanish accent and, even more, by his enthusiasm to communicate. In his fifties, he was a stout man, his speech constantly changing pitch, occasionally halted by the pauses of a non-native speaker, but he was keen on keeping eye contact through the rear-view mirror. Looking at his expressive eyes and hands, I felt I was being driven into a series of stories within the familiar frame of the immigrant’s odyssey yet coloured with his personal history.
Having told me about his lasting love for his wife despite a recent divorce, he continued his blues by expressing the deep frustration of an immigrant artist condemned to go through a dual denial of identity by sacrificing his vocation in favour of physical survival. Coming from a Latin American land embroiled in political turmoil, he had soon realized that, with scant savings and no market knowledge, he could not count on making a living as a sculptor. What made the reality harsher was that he could not afford sculpting supplies. I kept listening, assuming my visible-immigrant presence was the best proof of a sincere empathy. He ended by telling of a poet friend of his who had died recently in utter isolation, leaving behind nothing but a few shoeboxes full of paper scraps bearing the legacy of his poems.
After this supplement to my first hard-won evening of leisure in Toronto, I took refuge in my cramped room. Disturbed at being kept from writing over the past years, I sat at my desk to express myself through the only means I knew — words. I had to transform the image of a sculptor’s shaping hands welded to a steering wheel, and shoeboxes of poetry preserved in a taxi’s trunk, into words emerging from my inner self. I turned on computer and started to keyboard all I had in mind without looking at the screen. After an indefinite time, I felt I was done. I looked up to see what I’d accomplished. The screen was blank.
Here and now, I sense the phantom of a storyteller wandering in and among these scenes. I stare at it to recover a trace of my grandmother. It’s in vain, for this is the phantom of someone who, wearing the Cap of Hades, has haunted the world of invisible people. Yet this storyteller, like my grandmother, has the immortal voice of voiceless individuals. And this voice is now telling us a Canadian story:
Once upon a time, there was a very old land that happened to welcome some white newcomers who came and forced its native people to wear the Cap of Hades. Then came other newcomers, for the door, once opened, could never again be closed. This definitely did not sound good to some of the older arrivals. In the meantime, it was clear as day that a welcoming land with an open door needed newcomers. For this reason the old-timers found a solution: newcomers were certainly welcome, but only through accepting a gift: the Cap of Hades.
Born in Tehran in 1953, Fereshteh Molavi lived and worked there until 1998 when she immigrated to Canada. She worked and taught at Yale University, University of Toronto, York University, and Seneca College. A fellow at Massey College and a writer-in-residence at George Brown College, Molavi has published many works of fiction and non-fiction in Persian in Iran and Europe. She has been the recipient of awards for novel and translation. Her first book in English, Stories from Tehran, was released in 2018; and her most recent novel, Thirty Shadow Birds, was published by Inanna Publications in 2019. She lives in Toronto. www.fereshtehmolavi.com