Cultivating Common Ground

Is it an aspiration whose unattainability is borne out by the divisions of our present moment?

McGill encampment for Palestine. Photo Pasha M. Khan

If our theme, “Cultivating Common Ground,” suggests an aspiration or prayer, we wonder: Is it an aspiration whose unattainability is borne out by the divisions of our present moment? As this issue of Montréal Serai is published, the Israeli army has exterminated more than 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the most cautious estimate. While the International Court of Justice deliberates over South Africa’s accusation that the state of Israel is committing a genocide, most Zionists and their allies counter that Israel is waging a just war of self-defence. There are no common ties, it appears, to bind together enablers of genocide and supporters of Palestinian survival and freedom.

A motley crew of students and other activists have formed encampments at McGill University, the Université du Québec à Montréal, the University of Toronto, and all over the world. They include Palestinians and other Arabs, Christians, Muslims and Indigenous folks. They include queer and trans youth who decry the pinkwashing of the genocide in Gaza, Black activists simultaneously drawing attention to the ongoing war in Sudan, and an increasingly vocal, visible and unabashed contingent of anti-Zionist Jews, led by Independent Jewish Voices. All of these protestors demand from universities their divestment from weapons manufacturers involved in the killing, and from the Netanyahu government responsible for turning Gaza into an estimated 37 million tonnes of debris.

Against this backdrop of human-made devastation, we want to conceive of common ground otherwise. Our common ground from the beginning is on the Earth that makes possible our common existence. The Earth itself is the first to give hospitality to all creatures, whether we honour it or desecrate it. Between the Earth and its creatures—oppressed by ecocide, genocide, and great and small deaths and dismemberments—solidarities beyond mere civility are necessary in order for marginal beings to exert power.

In the wake of such disquieting global affairs, our issue focuses on voices of resilience in the face of discrimination, oppression, injustice and censorship. How do we carve out a space for literary and artistic expression in an increasingly intolerant world? How do we build resistance through collective effort and find solace in kinship? 

And why limit the focus to human voices? This issue considers both human and nonhuman perspectives, doings and dealings to reimagine a geography of coexistence. Shifting our gaze from humans as creatures with singular authority and autonomy to control spaces and places and to use, abuse and represent nonhumans, we invite our readers to take the “nonhuman turn.”

Representing nonhuman perceptions of humans is a tricky business. Doing away with our anthropomorphic lenses is nearly impossible. What is possible is to acknowledge the presence of nonhuman perspectives in literary and artistic imagination, offer an inclusive image of cities and countries, and cultivate a common ground for all creatures that live on the Earth.

In this issue

The artists who responded to Serai’s call for submissions have given us answers that we had not anticipated to the questions of solidarity, relation and common ground. Our contributors offer a fresh vision of a multispecies space. Whether their representations are anthropocentric or not is up to our readers to decide. 

From the transatlantic slave trade to the Trail of Tears, Auschwitz, and the genocide in Gaza, poet Andrés Castro’s “Edge of Humanity” travels back and forth in time, imploring us to imagine the commonality of past and present genocides and offering perspectives of a “historical cure for monsters.” 

Somewhere in Pakistan a middle-class queer man finds a Bumble hook-up, in Arslan’s story “Another Day, Another Toxic Man?” In the jaundiced glow of the dating app, he is oblivious to everything but his correspondent’s horny banter and the need to steer clear of the authorities. Yet somehow the strictures of the Pakistan state, despite all the loopholes for those with means, evoke in our hero a sense of duty to somebody surprising. 

In “Seeds of Fortitude,” Simon Van Vliet versifies with urgent force regarding the brokenness of the world and the possibility of putting it back together:

All hands on deck
aflame our capsizing boat
lonely sinking only planet 

In his short story, “Death Announcement,” Kashmir-born writer Ashok Malla, now based in Montréal, interweaves the lives of two characters, one canine, one human, and meditates on death, grief, and many facets of freedom that come with a leash for women.

Like swimming microorganisms, Cyril Dabydeen’s poems put out flagella and cilia in the direction of others. The act of reaching out is a form of propulsion for his verses, offering a tribute to four women in “Reckoning and Resilience: Integrating the Great White North.”

The space of theatre is a fertile ground for artistic creation and connection in collaboration, as you will see in “Building Community through Clowning and Indigenous Teachings on Manitoulin Island.” In an interview led by theatre practitioner James Douglas, the director and troupe members of the Debajehmujig Theatre Group discuss their co-creative production of The Quest, where a space for performance becomes a meeting site for reviving and sharing the Anishinabek worldview. 

Tracing unexpected affinities, loss, and humanity’s destructive impact on the biosphere in her poetry, Kathryn Jordan writes:  

If only you could
fly again,
through the upland pines,
away from boiling forests
and poisoned waters,
far from what we’ve done.

In “The Hooded Crow’s Couplets,” writer and researcher Titiksha Pandit invests avian speakers with autonomy and authority, not as mere backdrops in her poem but as characters who view humans as co-inhabitants of the urban and rural realms.

Separate strands fall in Masha Ryskin’s and Serge Marchetta’s yarn-centred multimedia art. In “Fragile Memories,” the artists describe their collaborative practice and their interest “in the memory of a place evidenced by traces of human presence in a landscape.”

At the centre of Sridevi’s art piece “Biomimicry,” inspired by Mithila wall painting, stands a swelling, flourishing tree. Its roots tap into the well-watered ground that is a foundation upon which other beings also stand. 

And in the depths of a fluctuating, indifferent winter, Gage Michael Wheatley’s photos invoke the quiet breathing of plant matter: grassy clumps, bare and dead trees becoming earth, softly perspiring rocks. Dead matter turns into new life; the world renews itself. Yet it is clear that certain species—like humans—may not survive into a new cycle should we fail to make common cause with the Earth. “Inheritance: Acknowledging our place in a more-than-human-world” offers us hope nonetheless: “… we have an opportunity to fix the damage we have caused, and though we can’t bring back all the lives and biomes we’ve lost completely, we can do right by those that yet remain.”

Whether it is biological kinship, interspecies intermingling, migrant solidarity or artistic symbiosis, this issue curates a lively collection of reflections on creating a more inclusive place for all. Some offer a way to get through our troubled times. One provides Indigenous inclusive practices, teachings and community-based narratives. Another prescribes a counterforce against cruelty. Others picture a world on the brink and in need of salvation through resilience, resistance and concerted effort. Together, they elevate, enlighten, inspire. They map a geography of coexistence.

P.S. Don’t miss Dan David’s reflections and insights on what divides us and brings us together in “Degrees of Separation,” and Maya Khankhoje’s incisive book review, “India is Broken: But Not Beyond Repair.”

Prof. Pasha M. Khan is an Associate Professor and Chair in Urdu Language and Culture at McGill University. He is interested in tales of wonder in languages such as Urdu-Hindi, Punjabi and Persian, as well as literature more broadly, social justice and queer/trans aspects of South Asia and South Asian/Muslim diasporic history. Pasha teaches courses on Sufism and South Asian cultural history. He is the author of The Broken Spell: Indian Storytelling and the Romance Genre in Persian and Urdu, as well as several academic essays. Follow Pasha @mkhanpasha on Twitter/X and @pasha_m_khan on Instagram. 

Shahroza Nahrin translates from Bangla to English and contributes creative nonfiction to literary magazines. She co-translated Shahidul Zahir’s Life and Political Reality: Two Novellas (HarperCollins India, 2022) with V. Ramaswamy. The book was long-listed for the National Translation Award in Prose 2023 by the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). One of her translated stories has been anthologized in Bangladesh: A Literary Journey Through 50 Short Stories (BEE Books, 2023). She graduated from McGill University with an MA in English literature. Follow Shahroza @shahroza_nahrin on Twitter/X; @srednivashtar and @shahrozanahrin on Instagram: and at Shahroza Nahrin on Facebook.

Editorial note: Readers are welcome to share the photo taken by Pasha M. Khan at the Palestine Solidarity encampment in late May 2024 at McGill University, replacing the earlier photo of a protester’s dog wearing a keffiyeh. None of our photos can convey the horrific brutality of the Israeli genocide against Palestinians as Israel intensifies its war crimes in the face of mounting international condemnation.