Divya Mehra’s family owns The East India Company, one of the few restaurants I have yet to visit in Winnipeg. She probably thinks I’m a racist because of this fact.
The stereotype of the hard working Asian immigrant at the laundromat or ethnic restaurant is a persistent image. When I read W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen The Wind for the first time, I was not at all amazed by the caricature of “Wong” and the depiction of his ostracized daughter. I remember telling this story to Divya in an email, but she had not read the book.
My own experience of coming to Canada in the late 1980s and not speaking a word of English, and the ensuing experiences that formed from this starting point, will always be ingrained in how I approach each day. The same context holds true for Divya, but she is angrier about it.
We first met at a Starbucks on Osborne Street during a studio visit. She was named to me in passing, and I remember it was anchored by a reference to her parent’s restaurant. When I looked up her work, I was so astounded to see someone of my generation conceptualizing identity politics within a narrative of pop culture and art history, polarizing audiences along the way.
It was winter in Winnipeg, and even after realizing I was from Edmonton and not Toronto, she still gave me a lift to MAWA and actually kept in touch. In 2012, Divya joined me on a short road trip from Winnipeg to Saskatoon to visit Heather Benning, whom she had recently met during a Banff residency. Along the way we re-enacted a cross between Thelma and Louise and Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.
On the road, we ate like truckers and drove through sleeting rain, trying not to die on unmarked, unpaved roads in rural Saskatchewan. Our car got stuck in the very middle of Saskatchewan. This was not the first time this had happened to me. Clouds were hanging low enough to make you wonder what kept the sky from collapsing to the ground, but they were no help to us. Divya’s cell phone had no reception, and mine was down to its last bar. Familiar as it all was, nothing felt quite the same anymore. One wrong turn and that was that. Stuck in the Prairies again.
I had already been stuck twice in the snow in Saskatchewan, but evidently I didn’t need snow to trap me. The dry air and land didn’t know how to soak up the rain, and pockets of viscous mud had formed in the low points of dirt roads. Those who lived there knew not to drive on these unmarked roads. We drove right down one, driving into an even deeper pool of mud. Best of all, Divya had decided to wear white shoes that day.
Heather and Larry once again came to my rescue. I heard almost disbelief in her voice when we spoke on the phone. AGAIN? Retracing how many clicks we drove after the Venn sign and how many turns we had made, they eventually found us caked in mud up to our knees. Unable to get the truck past the mud pockets, we watched as Larry ripped through the adjacent farm fields where the ground was solid enough to hold the truck. He backed his truck in and Heather hitched it to our car, pulling it to high and dry ground.
Unlike the last time, when the car got stuck in the middle of nowhere, I felt neither fear nor freedom. The main difference was that I no longer lived in the Prairies, and I wasn’t completely alone this time. Divya and I talked mostly about belonging and not belonging on the Prairies from the perspective of our racialized experiences. We are different, and in some ways this was more obvious than in others. Whether we stay or leave, whether we can ever be prairie enough to fit in, we are a part of the landscape, though we may not ever understand it in this generation. Regardless, the Prairies boils down to the people—those who help you out, and those who make you feel unwanted. Together, they made a day be a day here.