Don Gillmor leads workshop for PEN’s Writers in Exile

Don Gillmor (centre) leads the workshop for the writers, including Bushra Elfadil (left) and Lidiia Karpenko (right).

In January, eight members of PEN’s Writers-in-Exile group gathered around a table in downtown Toronto to discuss their remarkable stories of repression and survival. Award-winning author and journalist, Don Gillmor, led them in a writing workshop over two Saturday afternoons.

Writers provided their feedback on each story before Don offered his suggestions, along with a printout of those details. The submissions, ranging from short stories to a chapter in a novel or memoir, were daunting, hopeful and sometimes poetic.

Luis Horacio Nájera listens as Don speaks.

Luis Horacio Nájera, an investigative journalist from Mexico who reported on drug cartels, said the workshop was helpful on many levels — from practical advice about the Canadian market to clarification of concepts and storytelling techniques.

“Writing is a complex exercise of connecting ideas, words, and emotions,” he said. “When performed in a second language, the challenge of presenting a compelling text requires as much guidance and help as possible.”

Syrian novelist and poet, Abdulrahman Matar, spent eight years in prison for his writing, and was tortured. He says the workshop was transformative.

Writers Shams Erfan and Abdulrahman Matar are joined by Margo Kelly.

“It has opened a wide window for us to be part of the cultural life in the new homeland, and not just in the circle of exiled writers. Don Gillmor’s notes and instructions have brought about clear changes in my vision of the literary text that I write, and in how I look to the potential reader, and also in understanding the foundations of writing in a society that is radically different from my culture.”

The chair of the Writers-in-Exile, Gezaghen M. Demissie, also a participant, said he’s deeply grateful to Gillmor. “What set Don Gillmor’s comments and suggestions apart were their profound insights, reflecting the perspective of a seasoned novelist who delves deep into the intricacies of our stories.”

“PEN Canada is doing an incredible job,” said Lidiia Karpenko, a journalist and TV host who fled the war in Ukraine with her daughter, leaving her husband behind in Kyiv, as he was barred from leaving the country (see more in her Globe and Mail op-ed). She’s happy to have found like-minded people in the Writers-in-Exile group.

“I’m broadening my horizons, hearing stories that are similar to mine, but happening in different parts of the world. I gained valuable knowledge and advice from Don and the participants of our workshop. This gives me the strength to write about my painful experiences, about what civilian Ukrainians go through when they come under daily enemy fire.”

Don speaks with Pedro Restrepo and Keith Leckie.

Don Gillmor, who has taught writing at the University of Toronto and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, said it was an honour to work with writers who have endured such extraordinary hardship, with threats of imprisonment, torture and death.

“Out of that hardship come extraordinary stories. It is important that these stories be heard,” said Gillmor. “We get regular news reports on the world’s major conflicts, but the world’s gaze is fickle. We watch, sympathize and move on. Already the world is quietly turning away from Ukraine. We never really grasped the civil war in Ethiopia (2020-22) with its estimated 800,000 dead. Syria has fallen off the radar. The Kurdish genocide of 1991 is mostly forgotten. It is through stories that we gain an understanding of these events.”

For Lidiia Karpenko, PEN’s workshop created the momentum to forge ahead with her writing and not be discouraged.

“There are many of us who have suffered from wars and the insatiability of dictators. Our voices should not be scattered in the wind, together we will sound loud, accurate and influential.”

L to R: Shams Erfan, Lidiia Karpenko, Bushra Elfadil, Chro Zand, Don Gillmor, Pedro A. Restrepo, Luis Horacio Nájera, Gezahegn M. Demissie, and Abdulrahman Matar.

Don Gillmor is a Canadian novelist, journalist and children’s book author. He is the winner of 12 National Magazine Awards and the author of several fiction and non-fiction books. In 2019, he won the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction for To The River. His latest book of fiction, Breaking and Entering, has been praised by The New York Times and other publications.