the years I have met many Eastern writers and artists who have struggled in the
Western world all their lives. Many of them were quite accomplished and
successful in the East. They were well respected by their own countrymen. They
were hoping that after the initial struggling phase, they would become part of
the main stream but they never did. Many of them wonder what went wrong.
One such artist is Younga Verma. When I
interviewed him, he shared with me that in India he was artistically and
financially quite successful, but even after living in Canada for more than
twenty years, he is still struggling economically and creatively. He feels sad
and melancholic. He believes his physical and emotional health has deteriorated
over the years. When he reminisces about his past, he sighs deeply and says,
“Canadians never accepted me as an artist”. Over the years I have met many other
writers and artists like Youngo Verma who feel disillusioned, disappointed and
When I think of the hurdles these Eastern
writers and artists face in the Western world, the following factors come to
Many Eastern writers create their
poems, stories, essays and plays in their mother tongue. Such creations are
published in the East or in ethnic newspapers and magazines of the West, but
never find any place in the mainstream magazines because they are not written in
Most of the Eastern writers and
artists that I have met are very quiet, shy and introverted. They are very
dedicated in their creative work but they do not know the art of “selling
themselves”. They are proud of their Eastern modesty and such modesty becomes a
barrier to getting their creations introduced to a wider audience.
3. SYSTEMIC DISCRIMINATION
In some Western communities the people
in power are prejudiced against non-Western writers and artists and do not
welcome them to their organizations. When Eastern writers and artists apply for
grants or make submissions, they usually receive letters of regret. Such letters
are ambiguous and do not offer any concrete suggestions to Eastern writers and
artists about how they can change their presentations so as to be included next
time. There seems to be a communication gap between Eastern artists and Western
organizations that never gets bridged.
When Eastern writers and artists
living in Canada ask my opinion as to how they can become successful in the
Western world, I share with them the following suggestions.
I suggest to my Pakistani and Indian
writer friends that they need to become fluent in English. They need to interact
with Canadians on a regular basis so that they become confident in expressing
themselves. If they do not feel comfortable with the English language, then how
can they expect to be interviewed by the mainstream media?
I suggest to Eastern writers that they
need to get their creations translated into English, so that mainstream people
can appreciate them. When I published my English translations of short stories I
was pleasantly surprised to receive a call that my story “Island” was selected
for a Canadian anthology of world fiction for high school students.
When I wrote poems in English, they
were included in an American Anthology of Poetry. I would have never had that
opportunity if my stories and poems had not been available in English. Language
builds the bridge between writers and readers
3. TAKING COURSES
I suggest to writers and artists that
they take some courses at Canadian universities so that they become familiar
with the system in the Western world. In many cases what is perceived as
discrimination by immigrant writers and artists is actually their own lack of
knowledge. Western organizations are quite methodical and follow certain
traditions. Once Eastern artists know the inner workings of the system, they can
become successful. I relate to them the experiences of professionals who went to
school in Canada and had no difficulties getting jobs after they graduated. I
share with them my own example. After I studied psychiatry at Memorial
University in Newfoundland and received my Fellowship from the Royal College of
Physicians of Canada, I had no problems finding employment in hospitals in
different provinces. Artists who graduate from Canadian schools have easier time
entering the mainstream than those who are graduates of Eastern universities.
Many Eastern artists are reluctant to spend another three years back at school
studying what they already know, but I feel it might be worth it if they
seriously want to establish themselves in the Western world. In those university
courses they learn not only the art and the craft but also the politics of the
system, which is very important in becoming successful. They also meet other
students and professors who connect them with key people in the system.
I share with Eastern writers and
artists that either they have to become more outgoing and extroverted and do
their own networking, or if they are too shy or do not feel comfortable from an
ethical point of view, they have to hire an agent who can connect them with the
right organizations and institutions. It is quite informative and rewarding for
Eastern writers and artists to stay in touch with mainstream organizations where
they can feel the pulse of the social and political climate.
5. ACCEPTING SOCIAL,
POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC REALITIES OF THE WESTERN WORLD
It has been my observation that in
the East, artistic success is quite independent of financial success. I have met
many accomplished writers in Pakistan who were well respected by other writers
and quite popular in public but still struggled financially all their lives. My
uncle Arif Abdul Mateen was one such example. In spite of receiving the best
poet’s award in Pakistan and his collection of poems being taught in university
courses, he had to work as a teacher to earn his livelihood. His creative
success had no relationship to his financial success. He enjoyed his popularity
by reciting his poems in radio and television programs.
Many Eastern writers and artists do
not realize that in the Western world, artistic success is intimately connected
with commercial success. Many dedicated and committed Eastern writers and
artists have a difficult time accepting the social reality that in the Western
capitalistic world, art has become a business. This reality is hard to accept
for idealistic Eastern writers and artists who believe in socialistic ideology.
After publishing more than a dozen
books in Pakistan and India, when I entered the publishing world of the West I
realized that my publisher was willing to invest money only when he thought that
my books would sell. After the sales of my book From Islam To Secular
Humanism...A Philosophical Journey he felt encouraged. Now he has offered me a
contract for three books of the Green Zone Series focusing on mental health. My
publisher is particularly excited about these books because they can be included
in the ever-expanding Self-Help and Relationship sections of Canadian
Over the years I have also realized
that Canadian readers prefer to read novels rather than poems and short stories,
while most Eastern writers love to create poetry and short stories. So there is
a gulf between Eastern and Western literary tastes. The only Eastern writers who
have become successful in the Western world are those who write novels in
I believe that for Eastern writers
and artists to become successful, they need to understand Western social,
political and economic realities.
I have also come to the sad
realization that all over the world, creative people do not get the respect,
acknowledgement and appreciation they deserve. We all know that teachers,
nurses, doctors and lawyers earn far more than writers and artists. I was
shocked to find out that a writer is paid only 10 of the sales; the other 90
goes to the publisher, distributor and bookseller. That highlights the realities
of the business world in the West. Even most Canadian writers and artists have a
difficult time earning their livelihood through their art.
Dear Friends !
I am sharing these ideas for those
Eastern writers and artists who want to be creatively and financially successful
in the Western world. This discussion does not involve Eastern writers and
artists who have adopted other professions to earn their livelihood and who
receive their emotional and artistic satisfaction just by the act of creating,
nor those who are happy being accomplished in their own culture in the East and
their ethnic community in the West.
I am sending you Youngo Verma’s
interview as an attachment. I look forward to your comments.
January 28, 2003