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Jamil Jivani

May 17, 2018 by Speakers' Spotlight

The Weight of the Question: Jamil Jivani and His New Book, Why Young Men

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Brooke Porter spoke to Jamil Jivani about terror, men, and his recent novel concerning both. Read the conversation here:

At 15 years old, Jamil Jivani failed the grade 10 literacy test. Today, he teaches Law at Osgoode, delivers prolific talks to organizations all over the country, and recently published his first book.

April 2nd marked the release of Jivani’s timely debut, Why Young Men: Rage, Race, and the Crisis of Identity. The book, which is part memoir, dives into an examination of the psychological and socioeconomic conditions that can drive young men into lives of crime and terror.

Why Young Men is heart-wrenchingly relevant after Toronto’s recent van attack, which ended the lives of 10 civilians – an atrocity that aligns with an escalating pattern of unthinkable actions perpetuated by young men.

A journalist posed the question on everyone’s mind to Jamil in 2016: Why?

“I buckled under the weight of the question,” he writes, “I was overwhelmed by how many directions it could go in.”

Why Young Men is an exploration of exactly that: the directions we ought to seek out for answers.

The book spans from Jamil’s upbringing in Brampton, Ontario, to his academic work in Brussels during 2015’s terror attacks. The book clearly navigates the complex experiences that many young men of colour are facing in the modern world today, and why their experiences can potentially propel them to extremism.

While the book is by no means the first in the conversation surrounding young men, masculinity, and manhood, it does succeed in filling a gap that has existed when it comes to writing from personal experience.  Academics covering political and structural violence are often removed from it. Jamil, on the other hand, knows it by heart.

Why Young Men is anchored by Jamil’s pain of having an absent father and by the helplessness of seeing his peers fall victim to institutional violence.  The sentiment of Jivani’s stories – from his tearful breakdown after attempting to purchase a gun, to his horror upon first baring witness to the conditions in Newark, New Jersey — gives life to material that may otherwise seem unapproachable.

Jamil makes no attempt to cast himself as a hero. He simply writes his truth, and the truth itself is what ties his experiences and successes to the thousands of boys this year who will find themselves at the same crossroads between violence and education as he once did.

This is a book that, one hopes, will end up in the hands of people who need it most.

Your memoir is, regretfully, even more relevant to Torontonians after the recent terror attack on Yonge. Do you have any words of hope for citizens now living in fear?

At moments like this, it’s important that we focus on the influences around our young people and how they’re learning to deal with their frustrations and unhappiness – including grief following a tragedy like the Yonge Street van attack. We can provide the vulnerable young among us with better tools to handle life’s challenges and avoid the self-victimization and moral relativism that leads to violence of this sort. We also need to be mindful of the ideologies that promote conflict and division in our society.

Men of colour have been traditionally demonized in discourse on terror. But the vast majority of young men committing these crimes are white. Who is complicit in this bias, and what can we do to change it?  

In these conversations, race is often an obstacle to seeing how similar different kinds of extremism and violence are. Many of us are used to seeing jihadist terrorism as very different from mass shootings or alt-right neo-Nazi violence. We also see inner-city gang violence as being different from the aforementioned kinds of extremism. There are common threads in most of these situations: deep personal dissatisfaction, searching for belonging, insufficient support networks at home or in the community, harmful ideologies that encourage violence. Our news media often makes it difficult to see these common threads because of a focus on sensationalism. Our politicians often rely on divisive or sheepish rhetoric as well, and don’t advocate for a better way to talk about and confront these issues.

I like the book’s greyness. You are careful to not denounce the actions of your loved ones – instead you offer sound reasoning for why they took the actions they did. Did you face any pressure, internally or externally, to make this a tale of good/evil?

I went into the research and writing process with the intention of better understanding young men who appear in news headlines as victims and perpetrators of tragedy. I would have failed to achieve this goal if I wasn’t willing to look at the world from the perspective of people who are easily dismissed or misunderstood, which requires a commitment to complexity and not just stories of good guys and bad guys. Once I started to honestly look at the lives of young men across North America and Europe, I had to maintain that standard for everybody – even people I knew personally. My father, for example, was difficult to write about with empathy and context for his choices. I used to be angry at him for not being around, but I had to learn to understand him, too, like I did the other young men I write about.

Describe to me who you dreamed would hold this book.

I imagined this book being something that could have changed my relationship with my mom when I was younger and we struggled to communicate. So I hope there are parents and youth alike who might read the book and find some stories and ideas that make it easier to understand each other.

Canada’s troubled race relations are often paled, if not completely obscured, by our American neighbours. Can you recommend a place to start for Canadians hoping to learn more?

It’s difficult for us to escape the influence of the United States when talking, writing or thinking about race relations in Canada. I think a great starting point is the work of Nicholas Keung at the Toronto Star. He writes about immigration and diversity in Canada from a very local perspective, with a focus on people of all races and religions. Another helpful place to start is a black history reading list put together last year by a CBC panel that included one of my former York University professors, Dr. Andrea Davis. I credit Dr. Davis with helping me find a passion for learning and I’d encourage others to take a look at her suggestions on that reading list, especially Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill.