Kanwal Rahim: Storyteller and Poet


Kanwal is a storyteller and poet who often weaves dance and humour into all her artistic expressions. Kanwal has studied Kathak, Middle Eastern and Central Asian dance traditions. She is a graduate of Second City's Program in Improvisational Comedy and recently completed Spoken Word at OCAD and the Yemoya International Artist Residency with D'bi Young. She has graced many stages in Toronto, including Sound Poets Circle, SpeakOut, South Asia Calling Festival, Canadian Women’s Foundation and the Feminist Art Conference. Her poetry can be found in the recently published Ochun: Watah Anthology (Book I). 

To learn more about Kanwal's work, follow her on twitter:   https://twitter.com/kanwalrahim



1:    Why did you decide to do Second City's Improvisational Comedy program, and how has it informed your aesthetic as a writer and a performer?


‘Shy’ would be an understatement to describe me growing up. I was so ‘painfully shy’ that I could rarely look people in the eye and continued to suffer from severe social anxiety and depression well into my late 20s.Then at the age of 28, I was struck with a sudden realization that I could not go on living like this anymore and was in desperate need of even the slightest open window through my inner suffering of low self-esteem and paralyzing fears. 

For a period, I became nearly mute and one day, from a random online search, I contacted Toronto’s Music & Dance Org. and began taking Kathak (Indian Classical Dance Classes). So I owe my life completely to dance and at the time it felt like the only way I could communicate with the world was through movement. My teacher spent almost two years ensuring I would lift my gaze to eye-level. With immense low self-worth and self-esteem, I felt like a burden on the earth with nothing to contribute to the world. It is dance that resurrected my grace and audacity. 

Almost six months into dance and I began taking improv classes at Second City in late 2008 for the same reasons. Again I knew nothing about improvisation and a random search online led me to the Second City Training Centre in Toronto. I felt the urgency of having missed out on so much of life, so I threw myself into the deep end and just yelled ‘sink or swim baby! 

In 2012, I graduated from the Second City’s Conservatory Program in Improvisational Comedy. To my surprise, I became the first Pakistani-Canadian woman to graduate from the comedy program at Second City!!  Now in hindsight, struggling with depression I see that life had gotten too serious and so this plunging into playful silliness was most healing and uplifting. Improvisation on stage provided a safe space for my innate sense of humour and resurrected my sense of joy and play. It was easier to manage my fears of public speaking and being seen when I was able to allow myself to be silly and unshackle self from severe social expectations.

My background and training in improvisational comedy as well as dance inform my aesthetics as a writer and performer very much. Improvisation is very fast-paced and comedy in general is a medium of emotive exaggeration which provides the raw potential for silliness and hopefully bursts of laughter from the audience. So the fast-paced urgency of improv translates as brevity and wit into my writing as well as performance especially in poetry and pieces intended for spoken word where I need to convey a feeling or point of view in limited amount of words or in a very short time of 2-3 minutes. 

I never realized this until now but improv has been deeply beneficial in my writing process especially when I need to quickly spill some sudden sparks of memories, emotions and thoughts. This sense of play and silliness definitely helps bypass or quiet the voice of the inner critic and censor. 

Experience in dance and comedy has been essential in making me a more confident performer in terms of my physicality and deeper awareness of movement, timing, voice and emotional expressions on stage.  It also helps me detect and vary the tone of a written piece, i.e. comedic, angry, sad, harsh, soft, etc. 

Dance has been vital in terms of my physical presence and comedy provides the ability to laugh at myself when I stumble and improvise my way through real or perceived mistakes. Not taking things too seriously and being spontaneous are most essential to being and thriving as a creative. 



2:    You have travelled extensively and lived in many parts of the world -- can you speak about your travels and how they informed your perspective?


Being a Pakistani-Egyptian-Emirati-Canadian makes me a hybrid, mash-up, fusion, a third-culture kid and global citizen. I’ve had a truly exhilarating and most blessed upbringing and yet at the same time very ungrounding and alienating. This distant and sometimes aerial view manifested as the ‘outsider syndrome’ magnified in my psyche especially during adolescence.  Especially as I didn’t have the creative tools to record and ground my experiences and so in recent years, I’ve been taking the time to reflect upon and curate my memories.

When I was younger, I felt severely tortured by conflicted feelings of identity and the ideas of home and belonging but in recent years, I’ve had a deep embracing realization:

  1.  I am truly blessed to have many homes
  2.  I’ve grown to become comfortable in occupying this in-between space. And this early life experience has developed my capacity to survive in the ‘maybes’ and the uncertainty of not knowing 
  3. This mosaic upbringing has made me resilient in terms of re-birth, starting from scratch and letting go
  4. This development of my personhood has been quite painful but then that is the nature of birth, it’s not supposed to be pretty. There is people screaming, there is blood, puss and that’s just like any new life coming into this world.

My perspective can also swing from positive to negative, most days I feel like a mobile microcosmic global village but some times in moments of anxiety and despair, I can feel like a ‘global clusterf#@!’  Over the years, I have developed the ability to manage and sustain long-distance relationship with multiple cultures, societies, histories and peoples but at times this can also be exhausting and disheartening. 

Because of my diverse and multicultural background, my art is inspired by excavating how I engage with the world from those multiple places, spaces and identities.  



3:    How do your Pakistani roots/heritage inform your writing?


I believe there is some weight to the saying ‘the years before five last the rest of your life’, thus my earliest childhood years in Karachi means that the core or kernel of my identity is very much Pakistani.  As an adolescent immigrant, my first few years in Canada were difficult and so it was the songs, art and literature of my people that kept me grounded and alive with joy. 

My mannerisms, Muslim upbringing, connection to my ethnic memoni dialect and my national mother tongue Urdu are all embedded in my being and to paraphrase Yann Martel from Life of Pi, ‘our first wonder goes the deepest; all wonders after that fits in the impression made by the first.’  So I owe to my Pakistani roots the original landscape of my artistic imagination.  At times, I still view the global human community as a child of modern Pakistani culture. In my adult perspective, I connect with Canada as my father and Pakistan as my mother. 

In terms of writing, I often feel equally incompetent in multiple languages. Only when I took the spoken word writing course at OCAD, was I encouraged to write in a manner that reflects my multi-lingual spirit. This has allowed my writing process to be gentler and my voice to be more authentic. 


“A daughter of the Indus River and the Sindhu people

and keeper of the oral dialect Memoni, 

I inherited my love for storytelling from my villager grandmothers.”


From Artist Statement: Kanwal

To see more of her work check out Kanwal's LaVaLab Profile

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