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From the prairie to Japan, people are people

by Barbara Black


Linda Ghan's 1989 novel, A Gift of Sky, is not only being reprinted in Canada this fall, it is being published in Japan, in Japanese.

Ghan taught in both the English Department and the Continuing Education's Language Institute for some 17 years, and after going on leave to teach writing at Ibaraki University for two years, has decided to leave Concordia altogether to continue her life in Japan. A Gift of Sky fits right into her students' curiosity about life in the big, wide-open spaces, where our great preoccupation is bridging cultures.

The novel is set in the 1930s in rural Saskatchewan, and follows a young woman through her early days in a small Jewish farming community to school in Weyburn, and finally normal school and her first teaching post. It's not autobiographical (Ghan is too young for that) but it was praised for its lively, realistic portrayal of the special qualities and problems of prairie life.

Here's an excerpt from her foreword to the 1998 edition: "When I was growing up in Saskatchewan, there wasn't a lot of literature celebrating the beauty of the prairie. Fiction generally focused on depression and drought and loneliness and no trees.

"I wrote A Gift of Sky 10 years ago partly as an acknowledgment of the incredible beauty of this land, where the sky comes to your feet and where forests would only get in the way.

"It was also written to record a period of hope and optimism. The pioneers who came in the early 1900s came for the possibility of a future. Within 15 years, open prairie was converted to ploughed fields, and there were homes, barns, crops, and schools.

"Everyone I grew up with had parents or grandparents who were born in another country. We were Rasmussens and Ghans and Chabots and Hansens and Silversteins. I don't remember any of that mattering. We were who we were."

However, when her own family moved to Weyburn, Ghan entered a more complex world. Some people voiced mistaken assumptions about Jews; for others, her dark colouring meant that she was a native. "It was not a pretty experience," she said. Later, she taught for several years in Jamaica, and what she learned there about racism became a play called Coldsnap.

In Japan, as in life generally, she tends to find similarities across cultures rather than differences, but there are surprising exceptions. For example, she finds that in Japan, farmers are socially superior to businessmen, because land is so precious.

The country has three English-language national newspapers, and when she found out that books by Canadians were almost never reviewed, she volunteered, and now writes frequently for one paper. She became involved with the Canadian embassy's extensive cultural program, and started a Canadian studies program at her university.

She is a regular interviewer of visiting English-language authors for the Japan Foundation, which has led to encounters with Margaret Atwood, Joy Kugaro, and the eminent Caribbean/British writer V.S. Naipaul. "I was so nervous about interviewing him that I read 13 of his books," Ghan said.

The interview got off to a rocky start when she mentioned the charges of racial insensitivity occasionally levelled against the rather conservative writer, but after that, things improved to the point where the Naipauls became personal friends with her. Now she has been invited to England for an extended visit with them.

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.