Discovering Myself in A Uni Literature Course: An Introspective

By Saf Shams

credit: Sanjan Randhawa

“What job?”

There is a running joke among those of us studying the humanities, especially us students of literature, that once we graduate, we shall find ourselves jobless. I do not know how much truth there is behind these playful ramblings, but I have come to terms with my relationship with literature over the years.

My journey began when I decided to walk the fruitless path of an English major after a high schooler me murdered a Percy Shelley poem with fifty shades of highlighters. But as I ventured into the field, I found myself quite distanced from the readings we had. For the large part, it was all about the stories made by and for people whose experiences did not resonate with my own. Literature, to me, was a gateway to understanding the world around us, and also ourselves, but I failed to find myself between the passages of colonizers describing the untameable mountains, the gentlemen going on about debates of sensibilities, the high-born women with their blazing worlds, and the overwhelming whiteness of it all. There were bits and pieces of works from non-white, non-Western writers, but they were too few and far between.

Sure, I understood more about the world, about other people, but I found nothing of myself in it.

Coming into my second year, I had more or less the same expectations from my experiences in the first: more narratives by and for people who I could relate to in only the bare minimum. This perception, however, was quickly shattered by an unsuspecting course I enrolled in simply because most of the other options had waitlists more unscalable than Mount Everest.

ENG378 Asian Canadian Literature was a small class. It was a Zoom class. I expected it—like all of my first-year, fully-online classes—to drain the life and joy out of me to the point where I would lose all interest.

So I was quite taken aback when I found myself engaged in the course, made all the more bearable because of a professor whose enthusiasm for the subject seeped through the digital screen and poured life into all those grey boxes with names plastered over them as if they were digital tombstones. A professor who inspired, classmates who seemed interested and alive, and topics and readings which understood me—I had stumbled into my own university literature utopia.

Instead of binging on Netflix I felt interested in my work which touched on themes I knew—I felt—in real life. The struggles of a first-generation immigrant, the diaspora experienced by those who were formed somewhere in between the land left behind and the land they come unto, the clash of cultural beliefs and norms, political struggles, issues of identity, family, and the attempt to fit in to a society while still being considered, at some level, an “other.” Within these books and lectures, within the poetry that hurled her words as spears into the soul and the passages that brought down apocryphal epiphanies, I recognized myself.

Of all those works, however, the book that impacted me the most was Samra Habib’s We Have Always Been Here, a memoir about a girl who immigrated from Pakistan and tries to find herself in Canada. I shall not spoil too much but consider this a light spoiler warning.

The nostalgia for home; the struggles of identity and finding herself; the bonds which shape her family, especially with her mother; the experiences in school and the hurdles that come with love, along with all the troubles of figuring life out as a young adult when the world, full of its societal norms and expectations, is one that does not fully accept or recognize you. All are themes I resonated with on such a personal level, often coming to tears or being emotionally hyper-invested as the story progressed. Not to mention all the niche references I could relate to as a desi kid. (Rooh Afza, anyone?)

By understanding the book, I managed to understand myself better.

In the end, I think that is all literature really is. Thousands upon thousands of stories, a sea of words composed by people of various backgrounds and lifestyles, connected beyond time and space through empathy and understanding. A collective unconscious, waiting to be known and understood. A well of infinite possibilities, waiting to be found. Through literature, I was able to experience lives vastly different from mine while also reading about existences of which mine is an echo. At the bare minimum, it is a cathartic and epiphanic experience.

That’s really all it takes. Just a bit of representation and an engaging environment can transform a few hours of academia into a discovery of oneself.

ENG378 is a course I am still enrolled in, and I plan to cross its finish line. And while I remain unsure whether or not I shall ever reply to that age-old question of future careers besides “What job?” I do know something for certain: this understanding of myself—and an understanding of the worlds inhabited by people across generations—is worth more to me than anything else, and I would trade nothing for it.

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