Ottawa International Writers Festival features Djamila Ibrahim and the stories of her life

Djamila Ibrahim. Photo: Dana Jansens

Djamila Ibrahim came to Ottawa in 1990 from Ethiopia and she went to high school and university here. Then she worked in the federal public service for several years before leaving to follow a lifelong passion for writing. Her first book, Things Are Good Now, is a collection of short stories dealing with the dislocation people go through when they leave their homes and come to this country. It has been called “vibrant, gutsy and thoughtful.” Her stories have been shortlisted for the University of Toronto’s Penguin Random House Canada Student Award for Fiction and Briarpatch Magazine’s creative writing contest. These days she lives in Toronto where she is working on a novel. But she will be back in town this weekend as part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Beforehand she answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I was born in Addis Ababa. I grew up surrounded by a big family. I was too young to be affected by the political climate of the country but old enough to be aware of the fear and worry that permeated the lives of the adults around me. I always loved to read — my father imparted his love of books to me — so I devoted most of my free time to reading.

Q. Can you tell me about your life here?

A. I spent most of it in Ottawa. I went to high school and university there. I have a general arts degree from the University of Ottawa. Most recently, I worked for the federal government. I now live in Toronto where I write and work as a freelance editor.

Q. When and why did you start writing?

A. I started writing when I was a teenager, mostly sappy poems about teenage angst, and continued to do so after high school, but only sporadically. I took up writing seriously about six years ago.

I write because I enjoy the process of capturing and articulating ideas and emotions and because I want to tell stories that are often overlooked in Canadian literature.

Q. How long were you in the federal public service? What did you do there and why did you leave.?

A. I worked with the federal government for 10 years. I started as a clerk with the Passport Office and my last job was as an acting senior advisor in the briefing department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. I left because I wanted to try something new and took up writing because it was a dream I had wanted to pursue for a long time.

Q. Did that work flesh out for you some thinking about the “immigrant experience.”

A. To some extent, yes. For example, while I worked at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, I was more closely in touch with what was happening in the world and Canada’s role in it, both in terms of immigration and refugee issues, and in regards to the challenges newcomers face in their new home. Some of this has made its way into my stories. In the last story of the collection titled Heading Somewhere, one of the characters is a Canadian foreign service officer. In Little Copper Bullets, one of the male protagonists works at the Passport Office.


Q. How did this collection of short stories evolve?

A. I didn’t have a theme in mind when I set out to write this book. I wrote about things that preoccupied me at the time. It’s only at the end, when I submitted my manuscript, that I realized there was a thread running through the stories (home and belonging, identity, global migration.)

Q. Can you talk about Little Copper Bullets?

A. Little Copper Bullets’ genesis was an anecdote about an Eritrean female freedom fighter I’d heard about from a friend. This woman had spent most of her life fighting for her country’s independence from Ethiopia. When the war ended, she was left jobless and grappling with the misogyny of her traditional society. I was intrigued by this story. How does a woman who had sacrificed her life for the common good cope with these kinds of betrayals? How would she fare if she came to Canada? Would the relative freedom of Canada make up for the isolation and racism she might have to face in her new home? Little Copper Bullets is also a love story between a man and a woman from two warring nations and the way they navigate their divided allegiances while trying to build a home together in Canada.

Q. And about Not A Small Thing?

A. Not a Small Thing began with news articles I read about Muslim women who were attacked because of their hijab. As I read about these attacks and the rise of Islamophobia in general, I wondered what it must be like to be a practicing, young Muslim Canadian woman? How do these young women process the bigotry that threatens their safety while staying true to their beliefs? At the time, I was also reading and thinking about the complexities of female friendships and the intersection of anti-Black racism and misogyny. Not a Small Thing is a coming of age story that contends with all these ideas.

Q. And about You Made Me Do This

A. This one is a little bit more personal. A few years ago, I went to visit a couple (friends of my parents) who had lost their son to street violence. It was heartbreaking. I sat in the living room, staring at the mother of the deceased, wondering what it must be like to lose a son. I thought about the deaths of other young Black men I’d heard about or those that made the news. For months after that day, I couldn’t erase the look on the mother’s face, her anguish.

I knew that was a story I needed to write. I knew very little else about this family which allowed me to fictionalize the rest of the story.

Q. The movement of people around the world is one of the most difficult and complex issues of our time. Why are you writing about it?

A. After I left my job with the federal government, I took some time to travel outside of Canada. I wrote some of the stories in the collection while travelling. I was very aware of the fact that I could travel easily around the world because of my Canadian passport; that this privilege is not afforded to most of the world’s population. Everyday, I read about refugees trying to cross into Europe from the Middle East and Africa, those who were subjected to unspeakable atrocities in prisons in Libya and elsewhere or those who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. I needed to process what was happening in the world so it was inevitable that these things would affect my writing.

Q. Do you think countries like Canada are doing enough for folks who have been displaced by war, poverty?

A. I think we can and should do more as a country not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it’s beneficial to Canada. Like most of the developed countries, Canada needs immigrants to make up for the declining birthrate. Waves of immigrants, including refugees fleeing wars and poverty have been responsible for a great deal of the success of Canada in the past. Research shows newcomers continue to do well and contribute immensely to the prosperity of the country so even if we’re being pragmatic, saving lives benefits Canada.

In town: Djamila Ibrahim will appear April 28 at 8:30 p.m. on a panel called Borders and Belonging with Arif Anwar and Sharon Bala. Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.