Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Bänoo Zan : The Best of Times, the Worst of Times


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the season of Light. It was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair. In short, the period was so far like the present period that it can only be received in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Adapted from Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


I don’t pick up phone calls from unknown numbers. I listen to the voice mail if the caller leaves a message. On December 9, 2021, when I heard my phone ring, I saw that I was receiving a call from another Canadian province. And when I then listened to the voice mail, I was incredulous. I had been selected as the Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta, September 2022-May 2023.

with Calgary Poet Laureate Wakefield Brewster

It was the best of times. This was a great honour. Immigrants are seldom considered for these competitive positions in Canada. Despite the lip service paid to minorities, it is only when immigrants suffer cultural and political amnesia and assimilate to Canadian norms that we are validated. The shrinking of the concept of justice to the geographical borders of Canada means that immigrants and refugees are not even considered in the discussions around diversity. Literary spaces are monopolized by those born in or assimilated into North America. This strategy has resulted in polarization, mimicking the political scene. The literary scene is ravaged by blood-feuds among competing tribes fighting over resources, recognition, and celebrity status, glaringly ignorant of and indifferent to global threats against writing: the curtailment of freedom of speech and the increasing hold of regressive ideologies over public discourse. The literary scene combats lack of diversity by letting go of the diversity—of ideas and perspectives, by appeasing dictators and marginalizing self-critical voices. Literary artists no longer aspire to tell the truth but wish to appease their peers. In the context of all that is going on, the Writer-in-Residence position acquired a symbolic significance for this immigrant. For her, it was the best of times.  

with University of Calgary writer-in-residence Leah Horlick: photo by Cy Strom

It was the worst of times. We landed in Edmonton on September 1, 2022. And on September 16, Mahsa Amini was murdered in custody of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s so-called morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly. And thus started one of the most prolonged waves of protest that changed the face of Iranian cities. So far, more than 500 people have been confirmed dead.  Over 600 people have lost one or both eyes as a result of  being shot in the face by security forces at protests. Many have had life-altering injuries. Thousands of schoolgirls have been targeted in serial poisonings.  Tens of thousands have been arrested (20,000-30,000). Again, the Islamic regime has descended to new depths. Many protestors released from jail are dying in suspicious circumstances. The Iranian officials are teaching Shaytan how to be satanic.[1] As a migrant whose being is bound up in Iran, it was—No!—it IS—the worst of times.

It was the season of light. It was the season of darkness. Being the Writer-in-Residence, I was able to shed light on the darkness. I call myself a “war-correspondent-in-verse.”  This means that for me poetry is not an exercise in wit, but a weapon in the struggle against silence and complicity. To write from a place of presence demands presence: it demands that you critique, undo and challenge the forces of erasure and fear. Unless you combat the injustice your own people commit against your own people, your fight for justice is at best deluded and at worst a betrayal of justice. Culture, religion, history, and politics of your community or nation are the foundations of your “self.” Self-critique is the most authentic critique.

[1] Iranian proverb: به شیطان درس می دهند

Woman, Life, Freedom Protest in Edmonton with Cy Strom

It was the spring of hope. Poetry thrives in the community and inspires the community. Poetry is the urge to speak and to listen, to testify and to witness, to sing and to protest. From the very first month, I found poetry gatherings in Edmonton and attended them. And, when I started my own public events, the community embraced the invitation. The events I ran were open to the U of A, the people of Edmonton, and the international community. I ran 27 weekly writing circles and 6 monthly Shab-e She’r Open Mics on the university campus. As in previous years, I curated the poetry nights of the HAPPENING Multicultural Festival. In all these activities, I included the University of Alberta and the local Edmonton poetry communities to facilitate closer collaborations between different circles.  These events showed the poetry community in Edmonton that the doors of campus can be open to them, and they showed the campus community that they can engage writers outside academia.

It was the winter of despair. When I arrived, the university had suffered serious budget cuts and many positions were lost. For the first month or so, there was no assistant in place for me. But as an immigrant and an organizer I did not wait for help. I invited myself to the challenge, and connected with poets and organizers. Together, the Department, the community, and I worked to overcome the odds: isolation, differences of opinion and approach, budget cuts, lack of resources, and minus God weather

Shab-e She'r March 2023 University of Alberta: photo by Farah Ayaad

The period was like the present period. I worked on writing projects, finalizing a poetry manuscript, Identity, for which I am seeking a brave and visionary publisher. And, with Cy Strom I proposed an anthology titled Woman, Life, Freedom: Poems for the Iranian Revolution. We are now accepting poetry submissions and financial contributions for the project.  Please see the links below, contribute, and spread the word to individuals and organizations that may be interested. We are open to interviews about the project.

I published poems, poetry translations, essays, and reprints of my poems or poetry translations. I gave several interviews. “Dawn,” one of my poems about the ongoing Iranian revolution, was translated into Chinese. It was also used in a musical composition.

w Shima Robinson (centre) and Charlee QueenXO (right) at Edmonton Poetry Festival : photo credit : Cy Strom

I performed at different events, visited classes, conducted workshops, and delivered speeches in-person and online. Students and community members booked consultations and mentorship sessions with me. In total, I had at least 34 one-on-one sessions or consultations with small groups and 39 public readings and appearances. And, in the last month of my tenure, I received an invitation from the Edmonton Arts Council to join the Edmonton Poet Laureate Selection Committee. The committee announced Shima Robinson, a brilliant poet and a phenomenal organizer, as the tenth poet laureate for the city.

Writing Retreat Black Cat Guest Ranch Alberta: photo by Cy Strom

I thank the community members and organizers, poets, professors, students, editors, and interviewers who invited me to their spaces, pages, and stages, spread the word about activities and events, and participated in them. They made poetry a true exchange and a challenge to self and the world—a place for honest critique and growth. The truth is that none of us have a monopoly over the truth. We need the wisdom of all of us to expose lies masquerading as truth.

In short, the period can only be received in the superlative degree of comparison only. Those nine months were the best months I have experienced in Canada as an immigrant. Listening, sharing, collaborations, and support were more mutually reciprocated. Those months were more of a conversation than a monologue; more of a call and response; more poetry. And I owe it all to the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.

Much love,

Bänoo Zan

With Farah Ayaad Shab-e She'r Volunteer in Edmonton

Social media links


1.   Call for Anthology Submissions to Woman, Life, Freedom: Poems for the Iranian Revolution:

Link to the Anthology Fundraiser:

CBC Ideas Interview with Nahlah Ayed:

4.    WiR exchange recitation organized by Calgary Distinguished Writers Program:




Bänoo Zan is a poet, librettist, translator, teacher, editor and poetry curator, with more than 280 published poems and poetry-related pieces as well as three books including Songs of Exile and Letters to My Father. She is the founder of Shab-e She’r (Poetry Night), Canada’s most diverse poetry reading and open mic series (inception: 2012), a brave space that bridges the gap between communities of poets from different ethnicities, nationalities, religions (or lack thereof), ages, genders, sexual orientations, disabilities, poetic styles, voices, and visions. Bänoo was the Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta, Canada, Sept 2022-May 2023. Bänoo, along with Cy Strom, is the co-editor of the poetry anthology: “Woman, Life, Freedom: Poems for the Iranian Revolution.” Deadline for sending poems is March 2024. Please read the full submission guidelines and submit work here: They are also looking for sponsors for this project:

Social media links
LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter,  Instagram

Songs of Exile (Guernica Editions Website)
Songs of Exile (Amazon)

Letters to My Father

author photo credit: Cy Strom

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