Canada’s Women Heroes : Surjeet Kalsey

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

Surjeet Kalsey
poet/author/translator

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.
surjeetkalsey.wordpress.com

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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.
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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

Buy your ticket online at this link:
tickets.surrey.ca
Tickets $25
Box Office : 604-501-5566

More information
Women-who-named-the-unnamed
In-gratitude-we-celebrate-our-women-heroes
View our objectives and goals.

We gratefully acknowledge
that we are on the unceded Coast Salish territories of
the Semiahmoo, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Kwantlen,
Qayqayt, Tsawwassen, Musqueam,
Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

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A Surrey Woman of Courage : Katheren Szabo

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

Katheren Szabo
poet/activist/survivor

Katheren Szabo: The Heart of Newton
By Zoë J. Dagneault

Katheren Szabo is a social innovator, grassroots organizer and advocate for those who have survived systemic social, physical and sexual abuse. She is the founder of Cedar Bark Poets and co-facilitator of Friends of the Grove. Katheren is a graduate of SFU’s Envision Financial Community Leaders Igniting Change program.

Katheren was born into a family of incest. Her harrowing young life included moving fifty times before the age of ten, and being sex trafficked by her mother. Amid this emotional abuse and torture, Katheren found solace in books. To cope with her overflowing emotions, Katheren read a book a day for her entire young life. She also took to writing poetry. Katheren learned that encoding her deepest secrets was the safest way to document her experiences and feelings, while evading the teasing and ridicule of her family. She has ‘six feet of poetry journals’ stacked in her apartment. Katheren recounts memories as a little girl, being sent to men’s houses where she was raped and molested, given money to bring to her mother, then walking home. Her family made fun of her and chastised her for her uncontrollable crying.

A little extra kindness from a couple of teachers, and a strong kinship with an arts teacher, drew Katheren into the creative realm just enough to help her survive. She left school in Grade Seven, never to return. Katheren suffered continuous sexual and emotional abuse in her youth, finally leaving home at the age of sixteen. The road did not become any easier; predatory men sought her out and she fell prey to several violent and heartbreaking relationships. Katheren had four children before she could get her bearings. She had no familial or government support when she received the medical diagnosis of three misshapen vertebrae which made it impossible to lift and carry her children. She had adapted by leaning and dragging her children when they were babies, along the sides of walls to move them from place to place. In 1991, disabled at thirty years of age, with four children under the age of six, she asked the Ministry of Child and Family Development for help and applied for a disability designation.

On advice from a counselor she was encouraged to document her physical disability and abuse history. Katheren filed a police report disclosing the years of molestation and abuse at the hands of her father and men in their community. Her father promptly had a heart attack and died. Katheren tried to bring charges against eight men who had repeatedly sexually assaulted her when she was between the ages of three and ten, one of whom was an RCMP Officer in Ladysmith, B.C. Katheren accurately named, gave descriptions of, and provided addresses of the pedophiles, yet was told that there was not enough evidence to press charges. Years later, she requested to have the files sent to her; the envelope arrived open in the mail. The RCMP had sent the file, unsealed.

Katheren’s disability and abuse records were used against her, and her four children were taken away. She was given one hour a month with two of her children at a time. Her children’s foster home was in Mission, and Katheren was living in Duncan at that time. Their family visits were scheduled for 9am. Having no additional resources, she would arrive the night before and sleep in parks and under trees to see her children in the morning. She suffered repeated attacks during this period. Katheren fought tirelessly to regain custody of her children.

With the loss of custody of her children and her aggressive physical pain, Katheren turned to drugs to cope. Katheren lived in the addictive cycle of self-medicating heavily for seven years. She still attended monthly meetings with her children. She never stopped loving and missing them deeply through this time. This period of her life remains a painful and sorrowful time for her to recount. She has been free from hard drugs for eighteen years.

Katheren’s move from East Vancouver to Surrey’s low-income housing left her isolated and immobile in her complex for ten years. The years of trauma and violence had caught up with her. Isolating felt like the only safe way to exist. A woman in her neighbourhood, who reminded Katheren of herself, was murdered. Something in Katheren recognized that she wanted to do something about it, to engage with the outside world again. She found out that she qualified for a mobility scooter and decided to hold a vigil for the murdered woman. She committed herself to hold vigil for sixty days. Katheren continued this sixty day Community Safety Vigil for the next five years.

In this time she met friends and neighbours and began to forge community connections and creative networks. She met two other like-minded citizens whose goals were to raise hope and create a safe and healthy sense of community. Over the next several years she organized annual Christmas parties, Nat’l Poetry Parties, numerous block parties and an Open Doors for Peace Party. Katheren also organized a Sierra Leone-style forgiveness party, Fambul Tok in 2017. Katheren and her cooperators have grown the Friends of the Grove based on The Better Block Model; transforming the community space from one of disconnection and danger, into a place of connection, art, music, food, friendship and families. Christmas, 2019, will mark their sixth annual community holiday event.

Katheren creates whimsical creatures, such as lady bugs and beetles, that magically appear around the community. Many families with children thank her and admit to having small families of her enchanting critters in their homes and gardens. Katheren uses public grants to fund her community engagements and creative projects. When there is no funding available, she finds a way to make ends meet. Regardless of the challenges, she brings people together and is a lifeline for many who have little positive community connection or hope.

Katheren is regularly asked to speak at community engagements across North America. She received a standing ovation at the Tamarack Institute’s- Neighbourhoods: The Heart of Community event in Montreal, Quebec, 2016. She spoke at the 38th Annual Research and Treatment Conference sponsored by the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers in Atlanta, Georgia, 2018. She was keynote speaker at the 2nd Annual Sierra Leone Community of B.C. Celebration. Recently Katheren spoke at Surrey’s Social Innovation Summit, speaking on leadership and sharing her change maker’s journey thus far. This year she received an Award for Recognition for her exemplary service in supporting community development by The Sierra Leone Community of B.C. Today Katheren is endearingly known as The Heart of Newton.

Katheren Zsabo has triumphed where the most resilient human might understandably collapse.
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Zoë Dagneault is a settler-citizen-poet residing on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Skxwú7mesh and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Zoë is curating a collection of poems, prose and creative non-fiction that explores motherhood, childhood, and feminism within our social-spiritual structure. She lives with her family at the base of a large mountain.
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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

Buy your ticket online at this link:
tickets.surrey.ca
Tickets $25
Box Office : 604-501-5566

More information
Women-who-named-the-unnamed
In-gratitude-we-celebrate-our-women-heroes
View our objectives and goals.

We gratefully acknowledge
that we are on the unceded Coast Salish territories of
the Semiahmoo, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Kwantlen,
Qayqayt, Tsawwassen, Musqueam,
Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

..