Published Poet, Translator, Academic Nedra Rodrigo Talks About Her Passion For Community Building & Empowering The Younger Generation

How did you think your childhood, or your formative teenage years play a part in you developing a passion for community building & the arts?

I think I was happiest as a child when I was involved in the arts in some form: singing in the church choir, doing theatre, or watching movies. Colombo is a very ethnically and religiously diverse place, so we were all engaged in each other’s celebrations, festivals and food. But at that time, especially after the riots, most Tamil girls lived very cloistered lives. So, these arts events were the only social events I went to apart from family gatherings. On the other hand, my dad liked to travel, and being exposed to the arts in other countries helped me develop a comparative understanding of cultures, and that was exciting and formative for me as well. Art is a mediating force to help us navigate through complex issues and negotiate difficult conversations that we might not otherwise be able to have, so the arts play a large role in any kind of community building I do.

I was a very shy, introverted child though. I could not have predicted that I’d be involved in community building in any direct way.

How did experiencing the war in Sri Lanka impact the decisions you made when you came to Canada?

I felt very disempowered when I came to Canada and found myself confronting an entirely different set of prejudices. I had very little decision-making power as a young woman living with my newly immigrated family. It was only when I moved out on my own, and had the social supports to do that here, that I found I could make decisions for myself. I was determined to go to university here, something I could not have safely done in Sri Lanka. I think the war has scarred us in ways we may still not have processed; it certainly took a long time for me to stop being fearful.

What made you decide to pursue a PhD and create the Tamil Studies Symposium at York University?  

I started on my PhD because I wanted to think through my own condition – I’m a person who needs to intellectualize things to be at peace with myself. I wanted to think through how political refugees come to feel disempowered as they enter a place that is supposed to be a safe haven for them. It seemed that they were losing something in the process, and I wanted to figure out how and what that was.

I created the Tamil Studies Symposium because York University, which has the highest Tamil student population in the country, has very few resources and no Tamil faculty to advise undergraduates or graduate students on projects they might want to do related to their own culture and identity. Without any Tamil Studies courses or program to bring them together, they were isolated in their work. The Symposium became a way to create a network of young academics to engage with each other’s work and be exposed to seasoned researchers who could act as their mentors. The Symposium also brings artists, academics and community members together so that we can see the vital ways in which our work affects each other’s. It grew into an international thing because there are tons of diasporic Tamil youth who feel disempowered in academic spaces, and they see this as a space where they can speak freely and explore ideas on their shared experiences away from the Eurocentric gaze.

You are described as a “published poet, translator and academic; organizer of community workshops; and curator of cultural events.”  How do all the different things you’re passionate about and work on, feedback into one another (if at all)?

I’ve curated the “Tam Fam Lit Jam” for a few years now and done writing and poetry workshops because I’m passionate about the variety of voices that are ignored in the mainstream. When I first ventured into the downtown poetry scene, I was often the only non-white person in those spaces, and while many welcomed me and treated me well, these were not safe spaces. I used to love going to Desh Pardesh back in the day because it was a great space to be surrounded by a sea of very diverse brown people. I try to recreate the positive aspects of those spaces in the work I do as a curator. 

Translation naturally falls into that work as well, because I feel the need to bridge some of the generational gaps in our community by bringing the literature to a younger generation that wouldn’t have access to them otherwise. I know it sounds like I do several different things, but it all comes down to community, education and culture. These are things I care about, and am happy to put my energy into, because I find them fulfilling, and I see the benefits they bring.

You are quite involved in the Tamil Community Centre.  How did you get involved in that initiative, what is your role and why are you excited about it?  

I was invited by some respected community members to join the steering committee and am now on the Board of Directors of the Tamil Community Centre. My role has been mainly around research, grant writing and community consultation, but we are a volunteer committee, so we all wear different hats at different times. 

I’m excited about this project because I know how hard the community has worked in the past to get us here, and the dream is finally within reach. It’s a way for Tamils to give back to the communities around us, but also to have a space where we can be unapologetically Tamil. I remember the days when we couldn’t get a space to hold our events, and to know that there’s a space we can all count on is thrilling to me. I look forward to being able to streamline vital services to the community here, and for the community to be able to host cultural, networking and educational events here. We’re also a very hospitable people, so I look forward to welcoming all other communities into this space as well.

Most opportunities are found through informal networks via networking.  Even though people know this, I find that a lot of people don’t invest time building up their network.  Why do you think this is?  What is your definition of networking and how do you go about doing this?

From my own experiences, I’d say that many people in our community who dealt directly with the trauma of war tended to be insular as a form of self-preservation. They build incidental networks because someone always knows a Tamil guy who does a job that needs doing and they’ll reach out to them because they feel more comfortable hiring a Tamil person. 

However, a lot of people of my generation (and I think this is truer for women) are quite overcommitted and don’t have time to invest in building their networks.

I organize workshops and art events as my form of networking; we bring people together with shared interests, and they often end up mentoring each other or collaborating with each other. I’m constantly amazed by the generosity of the younger generation in how much they are willing to collaborate and share the glory with each other. It gives me life!

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