A confessional: Jagmeet Singh’s new memoir forgets the author’s central story, why he wants to be Prime Minister
Love & Courage: My Story of Family, Resilience, and Overcoming the Unexpected, by Jagmeet Singh, 309 pages
For much of his adult life, Saint Augustine roamed the ancient Roman world from his home base in North Africa and watched his hopes fade to black. He was empty and taciturn and a gloomy campaigner who lived a promiscuous lifestyle.
Before his conversion to the sacred screed (he was the father of modern-day Catholicism), he believed all the particles that make us human were divided between good or evil. He wrote: “my inner self was a house divided against itself.” He fell into fits of self-loathing and searched in vain for someone as interesting as himself to write about. When he found no one, he penned his memoir, Confessions.
All his fears and misgivings spilled forth like a sump pump disgorging a load of filth. His mind was a running diatribe that exposed him as a solipsistic delusionist with no guiding principle. His crisis of faith opened him up to the acceptance of almost anything – including wholesomeness. His life changed the morning after a monumental piss-up when he awoke (or came to) and heard the glorious sounds of children at play. Their sing-songy voices struck a chord so deep he couldn’t move.
He tumbled back to a time when he too was young and carefree and innocent. This is when he began to flush out all the ugly sediment that had settled in his soul during his wasteful years of adulthood. He scrambled to his feet and, for a few glorious minutes, watched these children at play. Then, from a side table filled with books, he plucked the bible and opened it to a random passage from St. Matthew. Something otherworldly was at play, as if a host of angels were singing in harmony – or so he thought. The passage talked about returning home and giving up all worldly possessions. It was a slap-in-the-face moment, Ebenezer Scrooge coming to his senses, or George Bailey slumped on the bridge after his satanic visit to Pottersville.
Augustine became the great moralist and minimalist. He cut his possessions to the bone. He went further and deeper than anyone had ever gone before. He recorded it all for posterity.
He reached into the inner sanctum when the storm clouds of doubt meet, and spoke in the bluntest terms possible about the re-making of him. His life came into sharp focus, as if he were fiddling with the lens on a camera. The disassembling began. Ugly pieces fell off. He purged himself of his home, jewellery, money, and all the attitudes that drove him to reach for all those wasteful wants in the first place. It was as if he was running freely across an open field and all his body parts were falling off. Everything he had once believed true was stultifying secularist bulls…. ‘I lived in misery, like every man whose soul is tethered by the love of things that cannot last and then is agonized to lose them.’
This warm feeling went beyond cause and effect to what he comfortably called rapture. Without this confessional, there would be no Shakespeare to expose the inner turmoil of Lear, Hamlet, or Lady Macbeth.
His book ‘Confessions’ was the western world’s first true memoir. It changed literature. It changed the future for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
This past year in Brampton, two local politicos exposed their inner thoughts in a time-honoured tradition: they wrote confessionals. One (Patrick Brown’s) seemed driven to set some personal and political records straight, while the other (Jagmeet Singh’s) offers up a rather blunt personal account, almost devoid of politics.
Jagmeet Singh at the Brampton launch of his new book earlier this week
Brown’s book, Takedown, was issued just weeks after he had completed his political resurrection and upset Linda Jeffrey to secure the top political posting in this city. The book was a revelation to political wonks interested in power struggles, backstabbing staffers, the discordant mess of the nomination process, and the sign-up semantics needed to win a leadership bid.
The other was released this past week by the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, only months before this October’s federal vote. It delves into the soul of someone who will soon be asking you to put your faith in him when walking into a different type of confessional in the fall. When you stand silently, ready to mark your hope for the future, Singh wants you to place your faith in him. In return, he is promising to lead this country and fulfill your franchise.
There’s a commonality at work here: two men publishing books after just turning 40; and deeply tied to the politics of the city.
But they are separated by their narratives: Brown’s book bathes in politics; Singh goes out of his way to avoid it.
The mayor chose a seminal moment in his career – his takedown as leader of the PC party of Ontario in the lead-up to the 2018 provincial election.
Singh writes a get-to-know-me tale that ignores the most salient moment in his existence as the first visible minority (a brown-skinned, turbaned, bearded Sikh) to lead a major party into a federal election.
It also begs a question: why would men in mid-life and mid-career feel the need to publish a confessional when they have so much more living to do?
While Brown’s book has already been reviewed by The Pointer, Singh’s hasn’t – and it gets off to a great start.
The prologue immediately turns our attention back to a mid-September day in 2017 at one of the events announcing his candidacy for the leadership of the federal NDP. It was a gathering of supporters at Professor’s Lake Recreation Centre in Brampton. This was home court for him: the MPP for Bramalea-Gore-Malton from 2011 to 2017, and deputy leader of the Ontario NDP.
He writes: “As I drove through the surrounding neighborhoods, I looked out my window and took in the buildings where I’d held countless community events over the years, each one bringing together hundreds of constituents who made up one of Canada’s most diverse communities.”
Great. Finally, a political book that’s Brampton-focused. The prologue centres on a heckler named Jennifer approaching him as he stood at the microphone to address the crowd. She moved close to him, and in a very menacing manner, said, “We know you’re in bed with sharia.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d been confronted with Islamophobia. The way he looks, he must be a an anti-western-sympathizer. The hater continued: “When is your sharia going to end?”
It didn’t matter that he was Sikh, not Muslim. She continued: “We know you’re in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood. We know by your votes.”
The hostility level was rising as the TV cameras recorded the confrontation for posterity.
What was Singh to do? He looked over at his beloved mother Harmeet and remembered what she and her faith had taught him: Everyone has their own uniqueness. There is a place for everyone in the world.
Instead of confrontation, he offered up love.
Those in the room “deserved better than having their optimism derailed and drowned out by bigotry,” he writes.
To the audience he said: “What do we believe in? We believe in love and courage, right? Love and courage!”
Singh’s cool and compassionate response came from his faith based on “beta,” we are all the same, the sons and daughters – one – we are all connected.
He addressed the audience again: “As Canadians, do we believe in celebrating all diversity? Give me a round of applause for diversity.”
His response went viral. He was feted worldwide for his even-handedness, his coolness under fire. He met hate with love. A universal coming together was playing itself out in a Brampton rec centre.
Singh had the leadership in his hip pocket – and the title and beginning for his book.
And that’s where the intermixing of personal and political ended – as did the promise of an interesting book. Sure, there are compelling highlights: growing up the son of Sikh parents who hopscotched across the country as his doctor father (Jagtaran) took them from Newfoundland to a half-dozen different homes, before settling in Windsor, Ontario, where Jagmeet (Jimmy) spent most of his formative years. There are the racist haters again, calling him “Paki” and mocking him a “diaper head” for wearing his patka, a small square, thin piece of cloth that covers a Sikh boy’s topknot of hair before they mature and start tying a turban. He was pushed around by bullies, and the memoir came to a riveting full stop when, in Chapter 6, he explained how he was sexually abused by his taekwondo coach – assaults that he kept hidden for years. There’s the constant theme of his father’s bouts of alcoholism that pulled apart the family and left them in financial ruin. He also writes at length about his relationships with his sister Manjot and his younger brother Gurratan, now MPP for Brampton East.
He also offers a deep dive into his faith, and how it has influenced his life.
Even his name has resonance: Jagmeet: “friend to the world.” Understandably, he says he found writing the book “liberating.”
But the plodding style and the lack of context (how his leadership of the NDP has been influenced by his upbringing) seems to have left a void after its promising prologue. Yes, in many ways this is the all-Canadian story of a child of immigrant parents who made good: lawyer, politician, and political leader of the party of Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, Ed Broadbent and Jack Layton. But the other stuff never made it to the pages.
At least Brown’s attempt wove the past and present to create a more satisfying whole.
Anyone with the conceit to write about themselves, and wants to put it into book form, should also offer up some literary niceties. While Brown tries, but fails, Singh, doesn’t even make an attempt. The narrative falls flat, and stretched out to 309 pages, seems too much by a longshot. Perhaps a magazine profile would have been better.
Love & Courage is to literature, what a selfie is to world-class photography.
Passages about education, his entrance into law school, even his father’s attempts at rehabilitation from alcohol are drawn out and lack the compelling moments of a life moving towards public service. This begged to be part of the storyline.
So did these facts and incidents.
In 2014, Singh was denied a visa to India for raising the issue of the 1984 Sikh pogroms in New Delhi and dozens of other cities across India.
In a 2017 episode of the Ontario series, Political Blind Date, he was paired with former Toronto councillor Doug Ford. They went on a bicycle ride in downtown Toronto and took a streetcar together along the St. Clair line. The two became friends.
Pure political gold.
In 2015 he became deputy leader of the NDP in Ontario, then jumped to the leadership run of the big party two years later. He won in the first round with 54 percent of the vote!
How did he do it?
Readers don’t know.
He was recognized by the media for his good looks, his stylish way of dressing. He identifies himself as a progressive and a social democrat in a world that now seems to favour alt-righters and populists.
More gold. No mention.
In January 2018, Singh became engaged to and then married Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu, a fashion designer and co-founder of a Punjabi clothing line. He proposed to her at the vegetarian restaurant where they had their first date in front of friends, family, and members of the media that Singh had invited.
How about a few paragraphs? In March of this year Singh won a federal seat in Burnaby, B.C. and is now placed to lead his team into a political battle for the future of Canada. What attracted him to the NDP? Who were the men and women of the party that influenced him to seek out the bid seat?
From humble beginnings, he’s now close to the political pinnacle.
Many readers would have enjoyed a weaving of both the personal and professional storylines together in Love & Courage.
The book needs more.
It screams out for more.
It's difficult to comprehend the omission of such details, and the brushing aside of other edifying material, like the fascinating Sikh political history, perhaps this world’s great story of a faith community that has fought not only for its right to protect uniquely identifying characteristics, but, more importantly, has throughout the world quietly managed to infuse any surrounding political life with the types of values that transcend secular and religious pursuits, values that are universally pursued by all who want to live in a truly just society.
The history of Sikh struggle and determination is very much a political story. A human story.
Again, so much rich material was right there at Singh’s fingertips, but escaped his words. Had he written the memoir at a different stage in his life or if he wasn’t trying to become the next Prime Minister, perhaps these omissions could be accepted.
It’s disingenuous to readers, and of himself, to present an inner work devoid of all these obvious themes, at a time when they are clearly filling his every thought and impulse – he had a singular force surrounding him while writing, to become Prime Minister of Canada. Any suggestion otherwise, is pure spin, just ask any politician who has ever run for public office, much less the highest one in the entire land.
He deserves criticism for publishing a book that, while it reveals much of his humanity, rings of another agenda altogether. As a way to frame his own narrative, to create his own story and talking points that could help get Singh elected.
Why not talk about the sexual assault in a way that doesn’t just model behaviour for others to fight their demons, to let their horrors out while understanding it’s not their fault. These are noble motivations and Singh has done a great service to survivors and future victims. Even if he simply had to lay the truth bare, for his own peace, why not address the need to fight a political fight to change the power imbalance, to confront the stigma, the questionable track record of the courts, the criminal justice system as a whole and law enforcement specifically. It’s a culture that has contributed to the victimization of victims over and over again. And why not challenge certain cultural barriers and traditions that Singh knows about intimately.
Maybe, while on the campaign trail, he will try to intermingle the memoir’s themes with his intentions for governing.
He has been criticized for being light on policy and sketchy on details, more style over substance. His bespoke attire and glitzy magazine spreads have raised questions about a focus on building his brand. He has turned issues like police carding, which he was late to recognize, but quick to take pseudo-action on, after the provincial Liberals and the media had already done the heavy lifting, into opportunities. Self-promotion has been a criticism that still dogs him.
Singh has put himself in a trap. If these past months spent penning his memoir, in a turn of reflective reckoning, failed to conjure even a hint of how all his experiences set him on the current path toward the leadership of an entire nation, is that the type of leader we’re looking for? Someone so caught up in his own life that he failed to realize, whether he likes it or not, it’s now a past, present and future that he’s chosen to intertwine with 37 million Canadians.
And if the memoir was part of a campaign decision, to frame his own past, present and future for those 37 million Canadians ahead of October’s vote, it falls remarkably short in telling us why he should be the next Prime Minister.
In the era of Trump, it’s perhaps naive to think politicians today are much different than celebrities in their approach to winning over an audience of voters.
If the book was meant to do just that, it’s quite likely failed. Too flat, not particularly well written and lacking the compelling narrative of a man whose life experience, right to the present, has been sewn together with his broader aspirations, for himself, and the country he hopes to lead.
Saint Augustine wrote: “For my part I declare resolutely and with all my heart that if I were called upon to write a book which was to be vested with the highest authority, I should prefer to write it in such a way that a reader could find re-echoed in my words whatever truths he was able to apprehend.”
This is the stuff that makes great confessionals. It’s nice to bare the soul, but also to entertain – and enlighten. Augustine’s book changed the course of western literature by turning it inward, where the shadow life resides.
Hamlet is profound because it was an early examination of universal stories that are dark and used to be untold.
Singh’s confessional captures his “immigrant experience” and how he is helping to frame modern-day Canada.
Unlike Singh’s confessional, there’s little doubt about the motive behind Brown’s book – it was not written to win votes or change policy. Both allow readers to take a peek at who, in their hearts, they really think they are. That’s great. But the personal is the political and only one seems to realize this.
Because that connection isn’t fully laid out, especially by a man fighting to reach the highest office in the country, the reader is left wanting.
While Brampton was barely mentioned in Brown’s book, it peeks out its head in Singh’s. But instead of playing a major role after the prologue, it burrows and disappears.
The old saying, “life begins at 40,” very much applies to both Singh and Brown. Brampton readers have hope that at their relatively young age, they have more political victories in front of them, and will find time to pen a second or third book.
For them and readers of The Pointer, here is a short snippet from one of the greatest personal/political confessionals ever written. An example of how this can and should be high art.
From Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama:
“What I do know is that history returned that day [9/11] with a vengeance; that, in fact, as Faulkner reminds us, the past is never dead and buried – it isn’t even past. This collective history, this past, directly touches my own. Not merely because the bombs of Al Qaeda have marked, with an eerie precision, some of the landscapes of my life – the buildings and roads and faces of Nairobi, Bali, Manhattan; not merely because, as a consequence of 9/11, my name is an irresistible target of mocking websites from overzealous Republican operatives. But also, because the underlying struggle – between worlds of plenty and worlds of want; between the modern and the ancient; between those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, while still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty toward those not like us – is the struggle set forth, on a miniature scale, in this book.”
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