Written by Katherine Govier for PEN Canada
I wanted to work with immigrant women who had the potential to lead, honing their writing skills in English. Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, wanted to create a small exhibition featuring, “the shoes that brought me to Canada”. We met at a dinner party. Our two ideas came together with private sponsor Heather Gardiner and The Shoe Project was born.
Every Thursday in the fall of 2011 I met with twelve women, ages 18 to 60, who had come to Toronto from the Ukraine, Columbia, China, Chechnya, and many places in between. Elizabeth opened the rich storage vaults of the Bata and spoke of the cultural significance of shoes. I brought tea, and various members brought their baking. We talked about writing and we talked about immigration. We laughed over expressions using shoes that are common in many languages: “waiting for the other shoe to drop” was one that puzzled almost everyone. “Filling someone’s shoes” and “walking a mile in his shoes” seems universal. Shoes are quite profound: intensely personal, they go farther than that, to speak of geography, weather, work, religion, and gender. Actually, there is very little that shoes DON’T speak to.
The women all found that they had a shoe-inspired tale. Writing their stories in 800 words was one thing. Providing a 100-word caption for an item on display in a showcase was even harder. One woman wrote about being smuggled across the border from Eritrea in 40-degree heat in a pair of Nikes. Another described her terror donning ski boots to take the ultimate test, sliding on sticks down a hill in the Canadian Rockies. Another brought the tiny Gerber baby shoes her 1-year-old daughter wore when they touched down at Pearson Airport from Pakistan. She was a journalist: it was her husband, a garage mechanic, whose skills had given them entry, and he who was employed within six weeks of their arrival. She had to wait twelve years but now, we are all overjoyed to know, she works at CBC Radio.
By the end of eight weeks, each member had written a personal essay and provided the footwear to match. The ‘snapshot’ exhibition with shoes and writing opened at the Bata. It seemed like a good idea to have the women step up to a microphone and speak. That brought us to another, equal ambition: to have senior actors coach them in how to project, and speak in public, even act a little. Enter Leah Cherniak, director, mime, and performance coach.
A couple of years went by and we have worked with two dozen women. We moved to bigger spaces, a theatre among them. More women writers and theatre people worked with us: Alissa York, Marina Endicott, Caroline Adderson, and soon to begin, the poet Anne Simpson in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The Syrian revolution began. Immigrants and refugees became big news. The #MeToo movement began and women’s stories were of greater interest than they had been. The Shoe Project attracted other writers, actors. We started Shoe Projects in Canmore Alberta, then Calgary, Halifax, Vancouver. 2017 and Canada’s 150th arrived. We applied for a grant and didn’t get it. We decided to keep doing this anyway.
The Shoe Project continues. We’ve worked with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and now we have teamed up with PEN Canada. All Shoe Project members are not writers, to begin with, but some are. Mostly they’re women, regular people, with stories of bravery, trauma, and even humour to tell that, without some help, will be lost between languages.
The Shoe Project is now national, Vancouver to Halifax, operating in 5 cities this fall.
This month “Our Shoes, Our Streets” runs at the Studio Theatre in North York, at Yonge and Sheppard. There will be ten performers from Turkey, China, Columbia, Nigeria, Nepal, Syria and more. There will be two performances on Sunday, September 23, at 1.30 and 4.30; the five-month anniversary of the van attack that occurred in the very same neighbourhood that senselessly killed 10 people, the majority women.
This is our first time venturing out of the heart of downtown and we’re doing it as a tribute. We’re talking shoes but also streets. Streets and sidewalks are where newcomers first connect with our country. They are how we love or hate our cities, and where we feel safe, accepted, or threatened. They are our home stretches, our dog walks, our routes home, and were there before chatrooms, treadmills, and subways.
Come and meet Umut—and her shoes—an ophthalmologist from Turkey who the regime decided was a terrorist because of her charitable work in Africa. Listen to Maya and see her snowboots; she recently arrived from Syria, an activist who hung on at home for years but ultimately fled when the bombs fell across the street. Hear Mujgan, 22, a photographer from Istanbul with a big Instagram following, tell her story about trying to find the mystery in Toronto streets in her Birkenstocks. Hear Wei Tao tell where her Lucky Bird shoes led her.
PEN will be hosting an onstage panel at 3 pm. Attendance is free if you have tickets to the first or second show. You can support the work of PEN by supporting The Shoe Project.
Tickets are $20. Click to purchase.