In the play Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, the character of Eitan, injured in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem, lies in a coma. As his estranged parents and his grandmother hope for his recovery, they bitterly dig ever deeper into their familial dysfunction. At one point, the doctor tells them about Eitan, “What matters is the voices of those dear to him. His parents, his friends.”
His father responds, “His friends are in Berlin.” His mother, “Or New York.” His grandmother, “But his fiancée is here.” (The Palestinian fiancée that his parents cannot fathom and regarding whom they are nasty, based on a mix of racism, fear, guilt, concern over their own identity, secrets they have kept and more.) The doctor tells the trio, “The stronger the emotional attachment, the quicker the brain responds. We reconstruct ourselves through affection.” Godspeed to Eitan, then.
Birds of a Kind is a fascinating, if somewhat predictable, story and Mouawad’s exposition of complex and hyper-relevant topics, such as group identity versus individual choice, is nuanced and poetic; he uses language beautifully. It is no wonder that Montreal-based translator Linda Gaboriau earned the play its 2019 Governor General’s Literary Award for translation (from French to English).
Also faring well in last year’s awards was Calgary writer Naomi K. Lewis, whose Tiny Lights for Travellers was a finalist in the non-fiction category of the prize, which is funded and administered by the Canada Council for the Arts.
Lewis is extremely candid and self-critical in this travel memoir. Readers learn about her family, her struggle with developmental topographical disorientation (which means she can’t envision a map in her head and, therefore, often gets lost), the complicated messages about Judaism she received growing up, her insecurities about being Jewish (including a botched nose job when she was a teen) and her failed marriage, among other things. We follow her on her literal and metaphorical journeys to self-discovery, -understanding and -acceptance, as her personal story is interwoven with her retracing of the route her grandfather took in 1942 to escape from Nazi-occupied Netherlands to southern France, from where he then traveled through Spain and Portugal to get to London, England.
While Tiny Lights for Travellers includes excerpts from Lewis’s grandfather’s journal of his escape, it is mostly about Lewis and her exploration of identity, family history and the Holocaust. As Lewis notes well into her book, “the journal seemed a tease, so withholding, the anomalous 30-page confession of someone who otherwise lived inside his own experience with no desire to make himself known to anyone.”
Lewis may have set out with a goal of learning more about her grandfather, of connecting to her past, “trying to find what made me,” but there are not clear links from the past to the present. The journey is revealing in the end, just not about her grandfather or exactly how she came to be who she now is, but rather in coming to terms with who that person is.