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Newcomers to Alberta tell their stories

Alberta has been home to international immigrants since the late 1700s. The pace of the influx varies but has been noticeable for the last decade.

Alberta has been home to international immigrants since the late 1700s. The pace of the influx varies but has been noticeable for the last decade. Net international migration has outpaced net interprovincial migration to Alberta in nearly every three-month period since 2007. It’s no surprise, then, that the province’s literature tends to reflect the diverse nature of its people.

Among the notable recent books in that line is Homes, by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, written with Winnie Yeung (Freehand Books, $19.95).

Al Rabeeah’s parents left Iraq with him and his siblings in 2010, started a small bakery in Syria, then escaped that war-ravaged country in late 2014 for a new life in Edmonton. He started attending junior high school almost immediately. Winnie Yeung, one of his teachers, encouraged him to write about his experiences as a child caught in wars and then as a refugee.

The result is an unaffected, sometimes harrowing, often charming record of growing up in places where people try their best to live normal lives while destruction rages around them. The shock of arriving in Edmonton on a December day after a flight over vast empty stretches of land was only the first step in adjusting to a much safer life but one with its own stresses.

Homes stands out for the simplicity of the narrative, and the freshness of an older child’s perspective. Abu Bakr’s view of life in crumbling war zones has a directness and day-to-day variety that differs from the perspective in television reports. It’s a touching and surprisingly gentle read.

Decidedly more detailed and analytical is Amma’s Daughters, by Meenal Shrivastava (AU Press, Athabasca University, $29.95). Here we have the story of a family in northeastern India in the mid-20th century, along with many insights into the culture and politics of that time and place.

The book is nominally a memoir, but has a number of twists.

It is not a memoir by Shrivastava, a professor of political economy and global studies at Athabasca University. She reconstructs a memoir as if written by her mother, Surekha Sinha. The subject is Surekha’s life and that of her mother, the Amma of the title. Some of the material comes from a 1962 autobiography by Amma, some from Surekha’s writings, and some from Shrivastava’s own research.

The book treads a blurry ground between fiction and non-fiction. Many conversations presented in quotation marks cannot possibly be accurate word for word; an epilogue reveals that one of the recurring characters in the story is actually a composite of several real women. And the narrative occasionally gets bogged down in unnecessary detail.

The reward for sticking with it includes portraits of strong individuals, an appreciation for the largely ignored role of women in India’s drive for independence, and glimpses of a culture belonging to the background of thousands of people now living in Alberta.

Other immigrant stories start closer to home. Their Stories Were Not Told, by Sandra Semchuk (University of Alberta Press, $34.99) recalls the experiences of thousands of Ukrainian men interned in Canada during the First World War because their original homelands had become enemies of the British Empire. About half the book consists of unconvincing academic speculation. Many of the scores of photographs are Semchuk’s own and often lack any real point. Also, the story of the wartime prisoners is hardly news by now. But the plentiful archival photographs and a long section of interviews with internees’ descendants tell a stark and often compelling tale of wartime injustice.