Thoughts on Place and Connection - a conversation with Jessica Gobran

Posted August 8, 2019

Following my HSMBC talk in June, I was interviewed by University of Calgary student Jessica Gobran on the topic of commemoration and history teaching. I had some thoughts following the interview, which I shared with Jessica and in this post. Jessica's response is below.

Hi Jessica,

I want to thank you again for the nice conversation yesterday because you gave me some things to think about.

I thought I’d put them down for both you and I, because there are some really interesting kernels there to unpack. (Or to “pop,” if I was to stay with the “kernels” metaphor.)

You said that since you’re from Egypt you didn’t share an experience like the one I shared in the HSMBC talk about my grandfather’s childhood home. You said that you didn’t have the same connection to land.

First, I wanted to clarify that the story was about a connection to place, not to land. Colonialism was about rupturing the relationship to the land, so, as a settler, I don’t really have a relationship with land. As part of my ongoing efforts of developing and living reconciliatory relationships, I am trying to garner a relationship with the land, but I’m not there yet. So I just want to add that level of reflection.

But to extend your thoughts, if you were saying you don’t have a connection to place in Canada because you’re an immigrant, let me say that I didn’t realize I had a connection to place in Canada either until I told that story.

I moved around a lot as a child. We lived in Florida, California, and the Caribbean. I always said that Toronto was our “base,” even though I didn’t really believe it myself. Saying it was our base just storied “where I was from” to people, but when we lived in Canada, we mainly lived in the suburbs north of the city. We only lived in Toronto-proper for maybe 2 years in total before I moved downtown at 20 to go to the University of Toronto.

As a child who lived in a lot of different places (14 elementary schools), I would cringe when friends showed me the high schools their now, kindergarten-aged children would attend 10 years in the future. 'How can you be so sure about place? How can someone stay in a place that long?' I’d think(/shutter).

But when I was preparing that talk, I realized that I am a 5th generation Torontonian. 5th generation! And that’s just on my grandfather’s side. My grandmother’s mother is French Canadian and, according to AncestryDNA, we have very long roots in French Canada.

Seeing this, realizing this, was a shock to me.

I hadn’t connected historically to a place in a way that you may have heard in that story, and that is true now that it is storied.

This also makes me think of my mother, who can’t seem to drive down a street without saying: “that’s where I worked for one summer when I was 15,” or “this is the building where I bought a pair of dance shoes,” or “this is where I opened my first store.”

I used to (and still do) sigh loudly when she’d tell these stories because it was like, “Mom! That was in the past. Live in the now. It’s a Korean grocery store now!”

But as I get older (and I am not that old), I find myself telling the same type of stories as my mother, and often in the same places: “There’s the first place I had Thai food, and above that was the store where my mom got dance shoes.”

I tell those stories more as I get older because I like to remember - to bring to remembrance - these experiences from 10-15 years ago. They are stories that give me legitimacy to where I am now, especially as the neighborhoods change and other people are claiming it, making their own memories and seemingly leaving little space for my own. (That is how space and place work, especially in a big city and university town, so not a critique, just a fact.)

In telling these stories, I am storying a particular narrative of myself grounded in my connection to then as a way to claim my belonging to a changing and quasi-unfamiliar place now.

So, you may not feel any connection to place (/land) in Canada in the same way I shared in the story about my grandfather, but I guarantee you will.

In 20 years, you’ll be telling your daughter or niece or friends’ children or a stranger on the street - “that was the building where I took X class with Dr. X. It really changed my view of things.” Or “that used to be a Starbucks where I once wrote a paper I was really proud of.” Or, “I knew someone who lived in that building. I even went to a party there.” Or “that was my first house.”

You will have connections to these places because you have connections to these places, they are just too present for you now to see them as a set of stories that ground you to this place.

I know that when they tear the building down that I lived in throughout my 20s (and they will tear it down: old building in prime real estate), I know I am going to feel that they took a piece of me with it, even though I haven’t been there or had experiences there for ten years. I will always point to that spot, even when it is unfamiliar to me, and say, “I lived there.”

So, if "memory is performance," (Gobran, 2019), then when we are thinking about young people in schools, we can maybe think that maybe they aren’t in a place to perform those connections, those memories, yet.

Most young people are focused on the future or the present. They don’t need to story into the past to make sense of themselves for now because their focus is on “growing up.”

And so, if we’re talking about the “can of worms” of all the connections outside of Canada – yes, that is difficult, but shouldn’t be our focus. History educators have to think about connection to the lived realities of young people now. We need to think about their lived experiences of the present. The stories in the making that will be bringing them into the future.

History education is a way for us, as adults with more knowledge about the world, to provide some (hi)story to those realities, so when young people are in the future they can look to a national past to see themselves there, and here. To see that both we were there/they were there.

To link this to another part of our conversation: I had said that the statue wars are about tradition versus progress.

This can be expanded to think of youth, by their very nature, are progress. They are interested in the future.

Adults, who are older and therefore have a longer past, represent tradition. Because they are living memories of what was. Because I remember 25 years ago, in a way that you don't (or can't).

When we focus on teaching over learning in the history classroom, we’re focused on tradition over progress.

When we focus on learning over teaching - when we prioritize students over the grand narrative or skill development - we are allowing in space for progress over tradition.

This emphasis on progress over tradition is what provides greater space for justice and the stories we should be telling ourselves about the future.

To connect us with place in ways that remind us how we are connected to place. And that we are important in these places. And worthy of being in these places. And this is what history education should be about.

The ever-changing corner of Hayden and Yonge.

My mom got dance shoes on the upper floors of this building. I had Thai food for the first time in what is now the Pizzaiolo. The HMart was a Kitchen Stuff Plus from which I outfitted much of my first apartment.

For more on the changes to this corner, see this BlogTO post from 2015.

Screenshot from Google Streetview. May 2019

Jessica's response

August 9, 2019


Wow, thank you for sharing this with me! You’re right: there is definitely some interesting kernels to “pop.”

I have to say, it really challenges me to differentiate place and land. I wasn’t thinking of it this way, and I’m glad you drew that distinction. It actually reminds me of something Dwayne Donald told me when I interviewed him. He told me that often he asks the students he works with where they came from, or to what people they belong to. Sometimes when he asks this, he gets very emotional reactions because these students realize in that moment that they don’t know who they are in the rich narrative sense that one might experience with Indigenous mythology and story. I think that’s what I felt when I listened to your HSMBC talk — you had this coherent story about your grandfather’s childhood home and could clearly trace and connect it to who you are today. I’m sure I have that implicitly as well with my own stories and connections to place like you mentioned, but because of my preoccupation with the future and present (and my preoccupation with studying the history of others over the course of my degree rather than my own), I lose sight of how the accumulation and collection of my own stories has come to form who I am in this present and who I will be in this future. Maybe more intentional and explicit acknowledgment and prioritization of my “places” is step one in making that connection more apparent. I know for sure that if I do end up in a social studies classroom, bringing this idea forward will be a goal for me.

I know we talked about how the term “historical consciousness” carries a certain set of assumptions and such, but to me, this is historical consciousness. Maybe we should come up with another word for it!

Thank you for teasing out these ideas with me!

- Jessica