All is not quiet on the multicultural front: local book clubs promote reading in diverse languages

Book clubs are more than just forums for reading lovers to share ideas about literary works: they can also be venues for immigrants to reconnect with their own cultures, or for speakers of several languages to strengthen their bond with a culture that is not originally their own.

There are a number of ethnic book clubs currently operating in metro Vancouver, most founded in the past couple of years, and meeting at various public libraries.

Nurturing roots

Harjinder Thind, Information Services Librarian at the Fleetwood Branch of the Surrey Public Library, launched the Punjabi Book Club last year at the urging of the local community.

The club has about 12 men and women of mixed ages in its regular attendance, and meets monthly at the Fleetwood branch.

“The idea is to encourage people to read, connect and discuss. The discussions are very lively and members really enjoy [them],” says Thind.

Kashmir Aulak is retired, and has lived in Canada for over half a century. She attends the book club to connect with the more recent Punjabi immigrants who she says feel much less pressure to assimilate to mainstream Canadian culture than she ever did upon moving here.

“We were discouraged to keep our culture,” she confides.

However, because she has adopted Canadian culture more Aulak finds that many of her beliefs are less traditional than those of her fellow book club attendees, particularly when discussion touches on the rights and the roles of women.

Establishing dialogue

Manjit Nagra loves attending the Punjabi book club because it allows her to socialize and be exposed to various points of view. Though most books discussed so far are written by Punjabi writers, the club also read a book by the Russian author Maxim Gorky translated into Punjabi.

Though harder to follow, Nagra appreciated the experience of reading a book from a different culture because reading for her is not only a way of connecting to her own roots, but is also conducive to discovering other cultures and religions.

“It gives me something to talk about, and it’s easy to start conversations; that’s the reason I read lots of books,” says Nagra.

Nagra finds that in Punjabi she reads mostly novels, whereas in English she chooses spiritual books that help her start dialogue outside of a Punjabi context.

Reaching out to new people coupled with a love of reading is what motivated Winnie Lai Wah Wing to join the Cantonese Book Club that meets monthly at the Richmond Public Library.

“The atmosphere of the book club is really lively. We don’t really have a host, so everyone usually just gathers and begins discussion,” says Wing.

Preserving the magic of language

Nurturing reading in various languages is really important to Fernando Este, Librarian 1 with Programming & Learning Services of the Vancouver Public Library and host of the Spanish Book Club at the Central Branch. Currently at capacity with around 20 members, the club was met with overwhelming enthusiasm from the community when it launched in the fall of 2012.

Himself an immigrant of Latino background, Este feels that the exploration of Spanish language and literature is also a celebration of Canadian values.

“Multiculturalism is part of the fabric of this nation. We celebrate our cultures…by reading the books of wonderful people that represent our language,” says Este.

Though the club is mostly comprised of native Spanish speakers and immigrants, it also includes Spanish enthusiasts from other backgrounds.

Iranian-born Mariam Moussavian fell in love with this language upon moving to the south of Spain three decades ago.

“Spanish has something magical in it. It is sensual – like Persian” explains Moussavian.

She appreciates that this book club allows her to not only maintain her Spanish, but to learn new vocabulary when reading books such as Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel which is steeped in Mexican culture and dialect.

Moussavian is content the club reads books originally written in Spanish, because translations never quite conjure the cultural specificity of a work.

“The soul is in the language,” she says.

Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate was on this year's reading list at the Vancouver Public Library's Spanish Book Club. | Photo by Laila Neihoum, Flickr

Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate was on this year’s reading list at the Vancouver Public Library’s Spanish Book Club. | Photo by Laila Neihoum, Flickr

For more information about the Punjabi, Cantonese, and Spanish book clubs, check out the websites of the Surrey, Richmond, and Vancouver Public Libraries respectively. If you want to run your own book club out of a library, visit how-do-i/4902.aspx for Surrey Libraries, or email, or for Richmond and Vancouver Libraries respectively.