Canada’s Women Heroes : Surjeet Kalsey

Women who Named the Unnamed
Celebrate the (here and) Now

Surjeet Kalsey

Surjeet Kalsey: The Woman Who Continues to Speak Up
against Patriarchy

By Mandeep Wirk

Often the subject dictates the form. Still poetry’s spontaneous burst of lyrical thought is closest to my heart.’

Surjeet Kalsey has the unique honor of being the only writer in Canada’s Punjabi Sikh community who has produced over the years a sizeable body of woman/migrant-woman focused Punjabi literature such as poems, short stories and stage plays, and she has also been active in building Punjabi writers community in Vancouver while challenging the community’s male dominated environment by speaking up and taking a stand for women’s participation, representation and empowerment.

Surjeet’s writings and social activism have been instrumental in both guiding and facilitating the ‘institutional completeness’ of the Punjabi-Canadian community. The Punjabi Cultural Association was founded in 1972 and the Punjabi Literary Association of Vancouver in 1973, just before Surjeet landed in Canada. She has been an active founding member of the Punjabi Literary Association of Vancouver since the early seventies, and she is also a founder of Samaanta (1982), Women’s Sahara Group Abbotsford (1996), and Punjabi Literature Society Abbotsford (2008). In 2014, Surjeet was the first woman writer to win the University of British Columbia (UBC)’s Writers Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the development of Punjabi literature, Punjabi culture, promotion of Punjabi language as mother tongue in Canada, and for introducing mainstream Canada to Punjabi literature through her translations. Surjeet edited Contemporary Literature in Translation in 1977, presenting the work of 24 Punjabi writers, bilingual readings were held and attended by English speakers of various ethnicities, allowing Punjabi poetry into the larger society. In 1992, Surjeet published the anthology Glimpses of Twentieth Century Punjabi Poetry in English Translation, presenting 55 poets from Punjab and its diaspora.

In 1982, her play ‘Mehlin Wasdiyan Dhiyan: Daughters Behind Palace Doors’ addressing wife assault was performed in New Westminster, it was the start of Punjabi women’s theatre here in BC. This was the first South Asian Canadian play on the unspoken issue of violence against women on a public stage, and interestingly, some of the actors included women survivors from support groups using drama therapy. Later, her collection of seven three-act plays of the same name came out in 2002 that examines wife abuse, sex selection, parent-child conflict, visa getting process, quality of life of South Asian immigrant women in Canada, relationship of immigrant women to their sponsors, and the hopes and dreams of immigrants for a better life in Canada. All the plays in the collection have been successfully performed on stage in New Westminster, Surrey, and Abbotsford.

Surjeet was born in Amritsar and grew up there. Having lost her mother when she was very young, Surjeet, her sister, and brother were raised by their father. Then her father passed away when she was just ten years old, and her older sister assumed the responsibility of raising and educating her siblings. It is devastating to lose beloved parents at any age, but even more so when one is so young. From her early teens, Surjeet started to channel her grief into writing poems. She went onto attend Punjab University in Chandigarh where she completed her Masters in English, and another in Punjabi. Upon graduation, she secured a government job as a News Anchor of ‘Pradeshik Samachar : Regional News’ for All India Radio Chandigarh. She had been working as a news broadcast journalist for five years when her sister felt that it was time for Surjeet to get married. She met Ajmer Rode, an Indo-Canadian writer and engineer, and the couple married in 1973. In 1974, Surjeet immigrated to Canada. She later commented that she had already built a complete life for herself in India, but now in Canada she had to start all over again, retraining and finding a job.

Settling in Vancouver, Surjeet joined the MFA Program in Creative Writing at UBC, receiving her third master’s degree in 1978. She also took training at Battered Women’s Support Services, did volunteer work in transition homes and women’s shelters, and held support groups for battered women. This led her to study further and in 1997 she graduated from UBC with her M.Ed. in counselling psychology. Since then Surjeet has worked as a counselor and family therapist.

Her writings don’t just explore lives of women and migrant women. In her poem ‘Siddhartha Does Penance Again’, Surjeet presents the reality of majority of migrants whose anguish of displacement from everything familiar is likened to the pain experienced by Prince Siddhartha who abandoned his family and the comforts of palace life to search for the end of human suffering in the real world. However, the immigrants instead of finding themselves enjoying a better life in Canada, are left with the bitter feeling of disillusionment when all their hopes and dreams are smashed. Here is an excerpt from ‘Siddhartha Does Penance Again’:

Every day they pack us into closed wagons
to dump us into the raspberry strawberry or blueberry fields
When the sun dives into the other side of the mountain
we are brought home shaken and tired
I throw myself into the fourth corner of the common room
Swallowing several bitter droughts of somrus
Every day I try to write to you with my aching fingers
So that I may tell you
I’ll come home very soon
or I’ll apply for your immigration very soon
Contemporary Literature in Translation 1977, 33-34

At considerable personal cost, Surjeet continues to speak out about how women are silenced in myriad situations. In literary circles, how male writers undermine women by interrupting women writers as they try to express their viewpoints or they will not be allowed as much time as the men, and, how women’s input is not ‘valued’ as much as men’s. For Surjeet, her writings are her ‘voice’ in a society that renders women ‘voiceless’. She calls her personal blog ‘Voiceless’ to showcase her writings that challenge and critique patriarchal social structures for both their inhumanity and lack of vision.

As we have seen, she is a writer whose creative spirit embraces numerous genres: poetry, short stories, plays, reviews, editing, and translation. She says, ‘…often the subject dictates the form. Still poetry’s spontaneous burst of lyrical thought is closest to my heart.’ Poets who have inspired Surjeet are Punjabi poets Mohan Singh and Amrita Pritam, and Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Also, she feels, no one writes a short story better than Ajeet Cour (Kaur) whose stories of women’s lives are rooted in social realism. Rejecting romanticism herself, Surjeet’s writings are also based in the reality of women’s lives with the intention of empowering women to develop agency over our own lives.

Visit Surjeet’s personal blog for a complete listing of all her poems, short stories, dramas, translations, edited works, and plays.

Mandeep Wirk Mandeep Wirk is a writer and social activist who also works as a visual artist, photographer and educator. Her writings have appeared in various publications in Lowermainland. Mandeep is working on a book of non-fiction that is ‘a memoir of sorts’, and she is working on a set of new paintings.

Women Who Named the Unnamed
Pakistan’s & Local Women Heroes

Saturday, September 28, 2019
6 – 9 PM
Centre Stage
Surrey City Hall
13450 – 104 Avenue
Surrey, BC, Canada V3T 1V8
Phone: 604-591-4011

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