Poet George Ellenbogen wrapped up a 30-event tour with a talk at Eastern Michigan University on Monday in the Halle Auditorium.
The talk, “Ethnic Journeys: Memoirs of George Ellenbogen and Evelyn Shakir,” encompassed a variety of experiences from the lives of Ellenbogen and his late partner, fellow writer Evelyn Shakir.
Ellenbogen grew up in a predominately-Jewish neighborhood in Montreal. He said that there were only four to six non-Jewish students at his high school. Going to college was a shock, but also what he and his classmates had wanted.
“We were interested in that outside world, all the ‘ologies’: psychology, sociology, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche…” Ellenbogen said.
Ellenbogen read extensively from his recently published memoir “A Stone in my Shoe: In Search of Neighborhood.” Evelyn Shakir died three years ago, but Ellenbogen made sure that her memoirs were published.
Ellenbogen’s first reading was a journey through his life, starting from elementary school, into high school and then transitioning to his ancestry and the histories of his family coming to Canada.
In a later reading, Ellenbogen uses subtle religious metaphors to talk about and deal with the death of one of his classmates in elementary school.
Carol Haddad, of EMU’s College of Technology, read from Shakir’s memoirs “Teaching Arabs: Writing Self” on behalf of Shakir and at the request of Ellenbogen. Shakir was a friend and mentor to Haddad, and Haddad’s aunt worked closely with Shakir’s mother at the Syrian Ladies’ Aid Society, which Shakir’s mother founded.
Shakir grew up in a part of Boston that was almost exclusively inhabited by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants. But in both Shakir’s memoirs and Ellenbogen’s, there are a lot of interactions particularly between Jews and Muslims.
The readings from Shakir’s memoir were grittier but also more personal. The first highlighted at one point the kinship that she felt with Jewish children, growing up Muslim, and how this kinship was encouraged by her family.
The second reading dealt with the complex role of sex and parenting, focusing on Shakir’s relationship with her mother. The reading not only dealt with religious and sexual taboos, but also the intersection between individual cultural identity within her family and the struggle to fit in with American life.
“I think she would have been happy – she was not a person who would brag,” Haddad said.
“It was a wonderful relationship for 32 years, kind of a United Nations in a sense,” Ellenbogen said.
Paul Jouney, psychology major, felt a particular connection with Shakir’s work.
“I’m third-generation, I still see the similarities with family culture, just in the way they describe things,” he said. “But now I’d say the culture has become more modernized, more Americanized, and the traditional Lebanese behaviors have become more watered down. But it’s just a fact of life.”
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