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Acknowledgements The Editor is thankful to the following publications in which some chapters of this book have previously appeared:
* Asian Tribune online
* Authors Den online
* Chowk online
* Pakistan Christian Post online
* Sulekha online
* thanal online
* The Stephen Gill Gazetteonline
The Editor is also grateful to Stephen Gill for his encouragement and support in the completion of this book.
When I was approached to write a foreword to the collection of essays on Stephen Gill’s literary writings, the first word that flashed past my mind was Eirenepoios, the ancient Greek word for ‘Peace Makers’ or ‘Peace Poets’. During the last two decades Stephen has chosen the path of being a torch-bearer for humanity through poetry. His unique poetic prism has shown a powerful array of nuances that shed light for peaceful co-existence. He has shown the power of poetry with its ability to philosophize in his poems as in Songs of Harmony and in Shrine. His poems have been a vehicle for individual liberation and the discovery of the unknown vignettes in us of the human spirit.
I have known Stephen for almost 35 years. Although a diverse writer of many literary genres, I have known him mainly as a poet transplanted in Canada, who has brought his poetic voice of a South Asian geography and melded comfortably as an illustrious poet with the rest of mainstream Canadian poetic voices. His poetry has bold metaphors of places and the life within these places which shows that he has adapted comfortably to the country in which he lives. Since all Canadians are immigrants excluding the First Nation peoples and the Inuit, Stephen who has lived in Canada for decades could be classed as a Canadian writer of Canadian literature.
I have watched the mesmeric impact he has had with his audience when I had the opportunity to share the stage with him at readings across Ontario, Canada, and as guest poets at the Austin International Poetry Festival in Texas, in the US. In much of his poetry he has succeeded well in the verbal and structural experimentation of the poetic form. Stephen’s poetic hallmark is his rhythmic uncompromising language finding the perfect tongue to make it easy for his readers to understand his celebrations and concerns around him which also happens to be ours. His poetry has been a vehicle for human-liberation.
Stephen being a prolific poet and a writer, I congratulate Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal, the Editor of essays and critiques of his work, as such a collection with the intention of discovering Stephen Gill through the power of his written word is timely to understand this excellent writer and especially through his poetry.
Co-founder of Gloucester Spoken Art,
Poetry & Storytelling Series in Ottawa,
On the surface, Stephen Gill seems a perfect candidate for postmodern status. A child of Sialkot, his imagination being shaped in the shadows of the snow-covered peaks of Kashmir, he was transplanted to Karol Bagh, New Delhi, where as an adolescent he experienced the horrors unleashed by the partition of India and his family was targeted as Christian. This nightmare led to exile, first to Ethiopia, then to England on the way to a new life in Canada. Memories of this past haunt his writing, ever-present yet at the same time on a long retreat. Cherished foods, clothing and places hold little interest for a people intently watching Hockey Night in Canada on their televisions or navigating standardized streetscapes of doughnut shops and commercial strip malls in their SUV’s--though here another snow-covered landscape lies always to the silent north.
In The Canadian Postmodern, Linda Hutcheon has identified marginality, or “ex-centrism,” as an essential element of postmodernity, noting that Canadians in general perceive themselves as marginalized. Within Canada, she argues, those who are not made to feel part of the dominant culture by reason of race and ethnicity feel even a further degree of marginalization. Although he has stated his belief that “home is where our feet are,” Stephen Gill’s position in his adopted land remains “ex-centric.” Professor R.K. Singh and Mitali De Sarkar have noted that he “seems to challenge Canadian poets who are skeptical about immigrant poets like him” (“A Search for Elysium,” The Mawaheb International (Canada), June 1998), while poems such as “A New Canadian in Toronto,” from Shrine, in which Gill writes of a city whose lips “smell like plastic flowers,” and where “the word friendship/you’ll hardly find in its book,” speak volumes about his sense of deracination. (He has noted in an interview with Dr. Agarwal, the editor of this collection, that diaspora in Hebrew means exile.)
Stephen Gill’s novel Immigrant provides further evidence of this sense of alienation. The protagonist, Reghu Nath, a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa, where Gill himself enrolled at the same level of study, finds himself a stranger in a strange land of coldness (both climatic and interpersonal), prejudice and provincialism. Certainly Canada of the 1960s, the historical setting of the novel, though forever congratulating itself on its cosmopolitanism and general atmosphere of tolerance, remained in many ways a bastion of Eurocentric privilege—especially in the publishing and academic worlds, where power was still concentrated in the hands of a WASP elite, primarily in Toronto. Having metamorphosed from a colony of England to what Canadian nationalists argued was a cultural and economic colony of the United States, Canada experienced a schizophrenic geo-political sense of marginality that must have been a perfect breeding ground for Stephen Gill’s personal feelings of diasporic estrangement.
Arriving in Canada in the late 1960s, an exile from the United States during the war in Vietnam, I experienced similar feelings. One of my graduate classes at the University of Toronto was conducted by the then-Master of Massey College in his private living quarters where, in an elegant room furnished with a grand piano and Turkish carpet, we sat at green felt-top tables under 18th century prints. In our final class, we were served lunch, with sherry, by the staff, all visible minorities dressed in livery. On this occasion the class was joined by the Master’s wife, who discussed with a fellow graduate student, an Englishwoman whose husband was Canadian vice-president of a multinational corporation, their mutual friends in Rosedale and Forest Hill. One of their bridge partners was presently on safari in South Africa: “wasn’t that just like her?” I was white, of Anglo-Saxon extraction and Protestant upbringing. Even after fifteen years as a foreigner in South Korea and Japan, I have difficulty imagining the degree of alienation that Stephen Gill, with several more degrees of separation than myself, must have felt during his early days in Canada.
Nevertheless, Dr. Gill has always been quick to acknowledge his debt to—and admiration for—Canada and its pluralistic, democratic society. Yet his writing often attests to his personal sense of displacement as a foreigner in a land of foreigners. Professor Singh and Mitali De Sarkar have observed, “Reading Gill’s verses one finds he is his Indian self seeking a voice in a new land. His social norms, standards and values are neither fully Indian nor fully Western, but rather international. . . . With the blurring of boundaries in the mental landscape that once surrounded his entire being, Gill is subjected to a nomadic subjectivity concerning his status in a new land. In this new setting he is constantly territorialised, deterritorialised, and reterritorialised . . . .” Again, Stephen Gill seems a perfect embodiment of the postmodern condition.
However, where Stephen Gill decidedly parts company with the postmoderns, with their emphasis upon particularities and, in Linda Hutcheon’s words, “acknowledgment of self-situating limitations of address,” is in his pursuit, as a humanist, of the universal. (One might note here that Hutcheon has also observed of postmodern fiction that it “is not really any more democratic or accessible than earlier modernist fiction,” being equally contrived, manipulative and elitist.) If, as she argues, the postmodern exhibits an “urge to trouble, to question, to make problematic and provisional [the modernist] desire for order or truth,” Stephen Gill’s work, while acknowledging enormous obstacles to the quest for order and truth, nevertheless insists upon the absolute of universal peace.
Stephen Gill’s belief in universality is the cornerstone of his devotion to World Federalism. Rochelle L. Holt has noted that while most writers in the 1990s were struggling to stress the differences between many cultures, Stephen Gill was “professing the opposite, a more complex cognition which the masses have not yet learned in yearning for separate glorification of each race, each colour, each sex, each age . . . the poet tells us through his work that we are beyond brotherhood and sisterhood as we achieve the forgotten meaning of ‘neighbourhood,’ not isolated and separate but one large melting pot where we all appreciate our uniqueness while affirming our similarities” (The Pilot, January 20, 1992). In his own words, Stephen Gill, as a citizen of the world, told Professor Jaydeep Sarangi in an interview published in the Pakistan Christian Post, “My fellowship with people of diverse creeds has convinced me that people are people. This conviction is based on my visit[s] to different countries. I have discovered that people are people no matter what their beliefs and cultural values are. Underneath their skins they are the same—their hearts and thinking are the same. People everywhere have the same fears, the same hopes and the same instincts for survival.”
In an insightful essay that appears within this collection, Shweta Saxena has further pinpointed what essentially divides Stephen Gill from the postmoderns. In her essay, Saxena observes that the images of loneliness and despair that recur in the poems of Shrine remind one of Kierkegaard’s existential angst. If, rather than dismissing or suppressing such feelings, one ‘faces up” to this angst, the possibility for transformation exists. Stephen Gill’s poetry and prose never make light of, or avoid, his personal despair; indeed, it might be argued that the overall mood of much of his early verse is one of pessimism and despondency brought on by the stupidity of the human race. However, Gill draws a Kirkegaardian line in the sand, refusing to surrender to his despair. Whereas the postmodern sensibility frequently responds to this condition through the employment of irony and parody, with a concomitant rejection of universals and “master narratives,” Stephen Gill expresses what Saxena describes as “full faith in the notion of universal brotherhood.” It is this commitment to the absolutes of unconditional love and universal peace that keeps him from retreating into irony, cynicism and relativism.
Where, however, Gill is in accord with the postmoderns is in the desire to frustrate any resolution of differences that involves the absorption of the marginal by the centre, unless, for Gill, that centre be one of universal brotherhood where all differences are accepted and recognized. Gill’s poems do in fact have other characteristics that connect to the postmodern—Patricia Prime has written of his “gift of language, the immediacy of his wit and word-play.” However, Stephen Gill’s irony is essentially verbal and not deconstructive, nor is it designed to neutralize the possibility of universal truths.
Where, then, does the power of Stephen Gill’s verse lie? I recently read an article in a Japanese newspaper about the Free Hugs Campaign, a phenomenon that began in 2001 when an American, whose mother had died, decided to walk Miami Beach holding a sign reading “Free Hugs.” The subsequent offer of free hugs by an Australian in 2004 sparked a worldwide movement. A Stephen Gill poem might be likened to a “free hug,” not a sloppy or gratuitous gesture but the embrace of a fellow survivor following a cataclysm—along the lines of D. H. Lawrence’s “Look We Have Come Through.” Stephen Gill survived and transcended the atrocities that he witnessed in his teens through personal―and literary―acts of courage, drawing a line in the sand that refused despair. In his autobiographical account of this time, he has written:
It was a shock when I realized that the darkness I left behind had been chasing me continuously. The thought of cruelty of humans always remained in my mind like my own shadow. The more I thought of it, the more I became obsessed to write about it.
Stephen Gill has been able to come to grips with his own―and our collective―anxieties by venturing into the liminal territory of his extremely fertile imagination.
Rochelle Holt has further suggested that there are two types of poets, the “esoteric-academic who yearn for awards, grants and publications by university/commercial presses vs. the poets of the masses who write for the sheer joy of the personally/universally-healing process.” Stephen Gill clearly belongs to the latter category. The key to what constitutes the healing process in his work can be found in the love that pervades his art. It is what the American poet and editor Cid Corman would have called the intelligence of love. Corman wrote, “it is love that keeps us alive and keeps the works of love alive. Only to the extent that that love is openly and utterly entered into the work has it the capacity to evoke as much. Not IN return, but AS return.”
I think it would be fundamentally wrong to regard Stephen Gill’s literary quest for world peace as in any way the dream of a romantic—his vision is that of a realist who has witnessed first-hand the unbearable alternatives to universal brotherhood. One is here reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s observation that it is the dreamers, not the realists, who believe that the world can continue on its current path without ending in destruction. Whether his subjects be specific, as in the poems “Amputee” and “Mother of an AIDS-Ridden Son,” or more general, as in his many peace poems that employ imagery of the dove, Stephen Gill helps us understand that without love and compassion, our lives are essentially meaningless. His splendid haiku, which he calls trilliums, demonstrate his innate sense of love and reverence for all that is life, no matter how commonplace or insignificant the object(s) of his observation might be.
Stephen Gill has been internationally acclaimed for his contribution to global peace. He has been awarded three honorary doctorates, including Honour of Doctorate in Literature from World University in the United States and Doctorate in Literature from the World Academy of Arts and Culture in China. His many honours include Laureate Man of Letters from the United Poets Laureate International, the Pegasus International Poetry for Peace Award, the Global NRI Award from the India-European Union Friendship Society, and The Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. Poet Laureate of Ansted University, Dr. Gill has been appointed Dean of Creative Writing and Peace Studies at Marquess College in London.
In this age of postmodernity, one senses a growing tendency, especially among the young, who represent our future, to regard life itself as a tired practical joke. Irony has become their front line of defense against dehumanizing technology and brutal irrationality, a means of reconciliation to a frightening world where the postmodern appears to be in danger of slipping into the “posthuman.” In these dark times of suicide bombers and holy wars, Yeats’s rough beast slouching ever closer to Bethlehem, Stephen Gill’s work stands as powerful testimony to the nobility and humanity that have always been found in man, yet are much less often found in men. May this book be a celebration of the life-giving, peace-loving values of a writer who is not merely a national―but properly a world― treasure.
Contemporary world ethos is marked by macabre dance of venomous hatred and ignoble strife. Peace is in peril and human dignity is in disaster. The adders of racial antagonism are ready to devour us. The evils of envy, jealousy, anger and impure desire are distancing us from the emotions of love and sympathy. Religious fanaticism, class-struggles, caste consciousness and racial prejudices have made this world a sterile waste land, where ‘the time is out of joint’. Due to this presence of barren social system, Coleridge’s observation ‘Water, water everywhere/ Nor any drop to drink’ seems very relevant.
In such a torpid and sombre world, the creative works of Stephen Gill provide a ray of hope. Through his works, Gill has been able to spread ‘rays of peace’ over ‘the selfish sea of politics’. His message of peace can eliminate ‘the withered leaves of greed’ and ‘the valley of terror’ from the world. This harbinger of peace is having several doves (emblem of peace in his poetry) in his hands.
This man of versatile literary genius was born in Sialkot, Pakistan, where he passed his early childhood. He grew in India, where he experienced the fury of senseless religious intolerance. His harrowing experiences in India during the partition days have resulted in the flowering of poetry in him. Those partition period memories of ‘stinking atmosphere’ haunt Gill even today. He has himself said, “I carry the luggage of my discomforting experiences wherever I go.” After his chaotic stay in India, he taught in Ethiopia for three years. After this, he migrated to England and then this creative genius finally settled in Canada. Thus, Gill has experienced diverse cultures. Due to his involvement with various cultures, civilizations and nationalities, Gill has become a renowned advocate of religious tolerance and multi-cultural coexistence. Through his works, he exhorts the people of the world to shun the reptiles of ethnocentric and jingoistic prejudices, racial antagonism and religious obscurantism.
The present critical anthology is an attempt to examine the various literary merits of this harbinger of peace. The contributors have endeavoured to analyze Gill objectively and judiciously in this critical anthology. I thank all the contributors warmly for their unbiased and penetrating evaluation of Gill’s creative works.
I must also express my sense of gratitude to Stephen Gill for sending me his works. I shall ever remain indebted to Gill for his co-operation and guidance in the completion of this project. Besides, he also posted some of the articles of this anthology on his online Gazette. I thank him for that too.
I am also thankful to Prof. A. N. Dwivedi, with whom I had discussed the whole project and who read its first draft. I must not forget to thank Asoka Weerasinghe and Prof. Daniel Bratton for writing respectively the Foreword and Introduction of the book.
In this academic venture, the role of my wife Shikha is no less important. Without the psychological support provided by her, this literary pursuit might not have been possible. I must thank her for this. My brother Karunesh assisted me in tackling with some computer related problems. I am also thankful to him.
Perhaps, the greatest contribution in the creation of this book is that of Information Technology. Internet has made the world a global village. This wonder of contemporary civilization made the work of communication easy for me. Almost daily, I had email discussion with Gill about this book and other literary activities. I salute these IT based Internet services.
Finally, I am thankful to Authorspress for publishing this book.