“Stories are always worth being told for the simple reason that long after you’ve gone, it’s still there…and it’s an example of how we survive.” - Joan Bismillah
From growing up in a convent to becoming an activist student to a career in midwifery and a forbidden love, Joan Bismillah’s life is the stuff major motion picture plots are made of. But it wasn’t until she became a Creative Writing student in her 80s that she became convinced she should get her story down on paper.
Now, at 91 years of age, Bismillah has not only written her story, but her memoir, A Chameleon from the Land of the Quagga, has been published as well.
Beginning with her childhood in South Africa, the book tells the story of Joan’s early life in a convent, where she later tried to return and become a nun to escape her grandmother. “My grandmother was a Victorian tyrant,” she explains. “We were often at loggerheads. And to get away from home – nice girls those days could not leave home without bringing disgrace to their families – I went to see Mother Superior at the convent and asked her to rescue me… and she said ‘My dear to be a nun there are certain vows and you would probably manage most of them. But the final one, obedience? No, you will not be able to cope with that.’”
The theme of disobedience reappears throughout the memoir as Bismillah becomes a young activist, then a midwife and falls in love with an Indian medical student. The two are secretly married and flee to England to escape the prejudice and oppression they encounter in South Africa. They later settle in small-town Southwestern Ontario, where Bismillah once again learns to adapt to the world around her.
It was in Canada that Bismillah’s love of learning was rekindled. “We had arrived from London, England and landed in Fergus, Ontario. 4000 people turned into 380. I helped my husband out and took the children to school and there was nothing to do. I was just completely lost,” she says.
“Guelph University was just opening its art department. Quite by chance I ran into a very kind gentleman who happened to be the Dean. And he said, we’re just opening now, why don’t you come to a meeting?”
Joan recalls wondering at the time if she was still capable of learning at her age. “I was all of 35,” she laughs.
“I enrolled that same evening and thought, I’ll take German - because it was close to Afrikaans - so at least I won’t make a fool of myself. I think as you age, you become very self-conscious when you’re with a lot of younger people. They’ll look at you and you think: Oh my God, what am I doing here? Anyway, it worked out and I enrolled full-term for the next four years which helped me come to terms with living in Canada.”
It wasn’t until after Bismillah’s husband died and she was in her 80s that she began taking creative writing classes at the School of Continuing Studies. She says the writing was a panacea of sorts for her grief and that the encouragement of her classmates and instructors, particularly Ibi Kaslik, was in large part what led her to completing her memoir.
“[Ibi] was by far the best teacher I’ve had. She was dedicated and she had our interest at heart and you couldn’t help but listen to her,” Bismillah says.
One of the things that surprised Bismillah most about writing her memoir was how well she remembered the events of her life once she began writing them down.
“Everything just came flooding back in a way and I could remember in detail,” she explains.
Even her own writing ability took her by surprise, but she says her SCS instructor gave her the confidence boost she needed early in her classes.
“I was surprised at how I could write and it was all because I was encouraged by somebody like Ibi who had instilled it at the very beginning and that was it and I didn’t bother about it again.”
Beyond those early doubts about her writing ability, Bismillah says the most challenging thing about writing her memoir was finding the discipline to get it done. “I sat down and I decided that I would treat it as a job,” she says.
“You have to be disciplined. So I would start at nine or 10 in the morning and I would work right through until five or six in the evening most days. That I think was the most difficult thing, was to sit down and tell myself, you’ve got to finish it, you know, get on with it. It’s to be disciplined, I think.
Bismillah says she wants to encourage other people who might feel it’s too late to learn something new or to tell their own stories to think again.
“First of all, it’s never too late. And the stories are always worth being told for the simple reason that long after you’ve gone, it’s still there and it’s an example of how people live or what people do and how we survive. And that’s the only reason I can think of for wanting to write the story,” she says.
Bismillah also stresses the importance of sharing each other’s stories to build a more empathetic world. “Living in a multicultural society as we are, it’s important because we become more tolerant of each other if we know something about each other. Otherwise we become ignorant,” she explains.
“We all have basically the same emotions and same feelings. That is common. But there are all these other factors in life that makes our life interesting or uninteresting or sad or whatever and those are important, and I think you learn from them.”
For information about the School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing courses, click here: https://learn.utoronto.ca/programs-courses/creative-writing
Joan Bismillah’s memoir, A Chameleon from the Land of the Quagga, is available through Friesen Press: https://books.friesenpress.com/store/title/119734000068962624/Joan-Bismillah-A-Chameleon-from-the-Land-of-the-Quagga