On the third Tuesday of every month, the George Mackie Library is home to Punjabi litterateurs.
For two hours, a pair of Punjabi writers, poets or songwriters discuss their work and their writing. Each writer gets 45 minutes to tell the room full of readers how they were first inspired to write and read sections of their work.
Sometimes the writers bring tea or samosas for the audience to enjoy while they listen. Often there will be 30 people in the audience, and at times much more, as people stand against the walls or poke their heads in from the hall.
For Mohan Gill, the man behind the library’s Poetry Night in Punjabi, it’s the mark of success for what he felt was a much needed space for Punjabi writers.
“We don’t even know about writers,” he said. “Where they come from, how they come to be a good writer. Their history.”
“In those 45 minutes, they can tell their story: where they come from, how they started writing, who influenced them and why are they writing, why do they have to write. At the end they also share with us their creativity.”
Gill is a writer himself, having published a dozen books of Punjabi poetry and prose. He wrote a weekly satirical column in the Indo-Canadian Times for eight years and has been on the executive of many writing associations.
Yet how many readers know his story?
Gill fell in love with literature while growing up in the Punjab region of India. He started a library in his village, reading the books it held “not only once, but many times,” he said.
“Those acted as … fuel to my fire of creativity inside. From that, I started writing over there.”
He began seeing his poetry published in literary magazines in India and meeting with writers’ associations.
When he came to Canada in December 1977, that stopped. He found work at a sawmill in Prince George, living there for nine years, his literary life on hold.
“There was no literary atmosphere over there in Punjabi,” he said about Prince George. He dabbled, but didn’t focus on his writing until he felt financially stable.
“It’s in people, but they don’t know how to express it,” he said about the ability and desire to write. “And when they get [in] an atmosphere of creativity, then they also get inspired. They have that in them, but they didn’t know it was there.”
That is another key part of the Gill’s Poetry Night in Punjabi, which has been taking place in the library for the past eight years: the opportunity for writers to learn from and inspire each other.
“That’s why we try to give this platform for all of them,” Gill said. “First to know each other, get together, then to learn from each other.”
Poetry Night in Punjabi features two different Punjabi writers from the Lower Mainland on the third Tuesday of every month. Occasionally, if a writer is visiting Metro Vancouver from another city, Gill will invite them to speak as well. Past attendees have included Burnaby playwright and novelist Sadhu Binning, short storyist and founder of the B.C. Punjabi Cultural Foundation Jarnail Singh Sekha, and of course, Gill himself.
The nights run between March and November, with the next event happening on Sept. 19 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. A mushaira (or poetry reading) wraps up the year on the third Saturday of December, where a number of writers get five minutes to read a portion of their work.
“There are some who are established writers, and there are some who are just starting writing,” Gill said. “But we include everybody with the same respect.”
“To get the writers together, somebody had to do something,” he added. “Why not me?”