How my grandmother’s fearless nature helped inspire a book

Natasha Deen

A bold decision by this author’s grandmother helped her fully embrace her Guyanese cultural roots—and even inspired a novel.

by Natasha Deen

When my family moved from Guyana, South America, to Alberta, Canada, the Canadian government had just opened its doors to non-white immigrants. This led to funny moments (like having to learn that the Guyanese interpretation of “not spicy” was often not the Canadian interpretation), awkward moments (having to constantly explain that it was “Guyana,” not “Ghana”), and wondrous moments (I owe a great debt of gratitude to my parents’ friends, James and Georgie, for introducing me to tacos). Too often, however, the moments were painful and humiliating.

There are only so many times a person can explain that no, they don’t have a “first” language. English is their first language. Or that other brown person in the room isn’t related to them, they’re just another brown person in the room.

For many immigrants, the friction between their home country and their new country is traumatic. Trying to navigate the code switching and cultural norms can be frustrating. In my case, it was especially painful because I was born Canadian (we’d moved to Guyana when I was three weeks old). Shouldn’t I have naturally and easily fit into this country of my birth? I quickly learned to stay quiet about my background, to laugh at the “jokes,” to be invisible and assimilate—at any cost—into Canadian culture.

As time went on, there was a growing societal shift to “embrace your culture.” Even then, however, there could be bumps in the road. Western society was open to the foods, dances, and fashions of my culture, but things like philosophy, social customs, and family dynamics could still trip me up.

Guyanese culture, for example, embraces the idea that our ancestors watch over us. As children, we’re taught to be aware when we call the name of a deceased relative because they will hear and come to us. We’re also taught to be aware of the environment because our ancestors will occasionally send signs to let us know they are with us still, protecting and looking out for us.

(It’s an interesting philosophy for many reasons. I often wonder if this is a low-key way of ensuring children behave when away from parental or guardian eyes. “Your great aunt is watching you. Behave.” I also wonder if the philosophy wasn’t also a pushback against colonial and enslaving forces. You can steal our family members, but you cannot separate us, and you can beat your religion into us, but you cannot conquer our souls.)

Western society was open to the foods, dances, and fashions of my culture, but things like philosophy, social customs, and family dynamics could still trip me up.

But it was a philosophy I (and many people who come from cultures that embrace this thinking) kept quiet. Who wanted to be called superstitious? Who wanted to have their culture mocked as backwards?

I thank my grandmother for the shift in my thinking. She had moved from living with her parents, to living with her husband, to living with her children after his passing. At the age when most people stop looking for adventure, she decided she’d had enough of living with others. Sure, she was in her seventies, but it was her time to live on her own, to be fully independent.

Her declaration was met with worry. She was aging. She should be with one of the children. She had never lived on her own—was she sure this was something she’d thought through?

My grandmother was audacious and rebellious. She was not going to kowtow to anyone telling her what she could and couldn’t do. No one was dictating her potential.

The fearlessness of her decision! She had no idea how her choice would play out, but she rolled the dice anyway. My grandmother understood how society viewed her as an elderly person, as a woman, as a woman of color, and the constraints it wanted her to live under, and she still chose adventure.

My grandmother’s decision gave me the space and breathing room to begin the process of embracing all of my heritage, not just the parts that society deemed acceptable, and my grandmother’s example gave me the grounding to choose agency in how I identify myself and how I move in the world.

And through all of this processing, The Signs and Wonders of Tuna Rashad evolved. In that book, I wanted to celebrate my culture’s views of our ancestors. I wanted to show that science, the modern world, and traditional ways could coexist. I wanted to create space in the pages for readers to consider the uniqueness of grief and love, and how both identity and family come together to help us. Tuna’s story owes a debt to my grandmother and her breathtaking audacity, and for that, I’m forever grateful.

Natasha Deen writes for kids, teens, and adults, and believes the world is changed one story at a time. As a Guyanese-Canadian and a child of immigrants, she’s seen firsthand how stories have the power to shape the world. When she’s not writing, Natasha enjoys visiting schools, libraries, and other organizations to help people find and tell the stories that live inside of them. She also spends an inordinate amount of time trying to convince her pets that she’s the boss of the house. Natasha is the author of the Lark Ba series, the Guardian series, and In the Key of Nira Ghani.

Visit Natasha at her website.

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