Toronto-based Punjabi author Jarnail Singh—who wrote a fictional account about the impact of the Indian residential school system on indigenous communities—will be honoured with a major literary prize in Vancouver on October 29.
Kaale Varke (Dark Pages) is based on a dialogue between an Indo Canadian counsellor and an indigenous man who is a residential school survivor.
It's this year's winner of the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature, which comes with a $25,000 cash award.
First published in 2015 by Sirjana, a Punjabi literary magazine, the story was widely read and appreciated in the Punjabi community. Jarnail Singh later published a collection of his short stories under the same title.
Thousands of indigenous children were forcibly sent to religious residential schools by the Canadian government to indoctrinate them into Christianity. Once at these schools, they were forced to give up their own language, indigenous names, and customs. Defiance would often invite punishments. Then there were the children who also suffered sexual abuse. The Canadian government has already apologized for this cultural genocide.
Kaale Varke gives readers an idea how the residential school system has left a deep impact on indigenous communities that continue to suffer substance abuse and violence.
Jarnail Singh feels that since the South Asians and Indigenous peoples share a history of racism and colonialism, the story appeals to many in his community. Like Canada, India too was colonized. His story too takes a look at this linkage.
The Vancouver-based Canada India Education Society and the UBC department of Asian studies created the Dhahan Prize with the objective of promoting Punjabi language and literature. Named after prominent businessman Barj Dhahan, it will be presented at a gala event at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC with a keynote address from Giller Prize-winning novelist M.G. Vassanji.
Jarnail Singh will be the third prize winner since 2014.
When the first award ceremony was held at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, it opened with a traditional song by Cecilia Point from the Musqueam First Nation.
Barj Dhahan feels that such narrative will go a long way in educating Punjabi audiences and help in breaking stereotypes that also prevail within the South Asian communities against indigenous peoples. “It is important to recognize that we are sitting at unceded lands belonging to the First Nations.”
He pointed out that just as indigenous communities are trying to preserve their languages that residential schools tried to erase from their collective memory, Punjabis, too, are struggling to save their language from extinction. Dhahan also announced that the foundation is looking into the possibility of getting stories and work done by other award recipients translated in English so that the mainstream audience can also gain access to the work of these writers.
Jarnail Singh was born and raised in Punjab. He immigrated to Canada in 1988. In all, he has published six collections of short stories, three of which were written in Canada.