For Basma Kavanagh, being an artist and poet was not on her parents’ agenda for their daughter’s future, but they grew to respect it. She discovered that on her Lebanese mother’s side, her grandfather was a poet and three aunts wrote poetry as well. “I feel like we do carry our ancestors in a way,” says Basma. “There were poets before me and I’m even named after one of them.”
Her mother, Afra, moved to the US in 1966 to study. She wasn’t planning to stay, but she received a scholarship to do her M.A. in English in Illinois. There she met her Glace Bay-born husband. “This handsome man from Canada,” as Basma puts it. Afra had a brother in the US who watched out for her, but her parents were not happy. She is the youngest of 15 and many moved away. “Lebanon is like Cape Breton in a way; everybody leaves.”
I didn’t feel like I had to make art about my identity. I resisted that, but wanted to make a book about my mom and her sisters and her story.
They lived 10 years in Winnipeg, where Afra taught high school and had her son, now a café owner in Tallahassee, and then Basma. “As her introduction to Canada she really enjoyed it,” says Basma. “There were people there from all over the world. She was very social and energetic and always looking forward.” They moved to Nova Scotia, where Sana was born, eventually settling in Sydney. Both parents taught at the University College of Cape Breton, now Cape Breton University (CBU).
Basma’s father learned some Arabic and the parents visited Lebanon with their young son. The daughters didn’t go until recently. To Basma, culture is complicated. “She was Lebanese and we weren’t. There was a bit of a wall there. We were half-Lebanese, but what does that mean exactly? That’s something I’m still grappling with.” Nor did Afra teach them Arabic. “Maybe she was protecting us in a way. She didn’t want us to marry Lebanese men and be taken away to Lebanon.”
In Cape Breton, she felt more in common with immigrants from Pakistan and India. “My dad was very much a local boy but we weren’t. You had people there — MacDonalds and MacLeans — who had Lebanese ancestors and they knew what tabbouleh is but they were Christians from the north, while my mother was a Muslim from the south.”
With her “getting away from Cape Breton feeling,” Basma went to Toronto for art school and worked as a tattoo artist. She returned to illustration work at CBU in the Integrative Science Program that combines Indigenous Knowledge and western science. She and her husband lived in Manitoba, Vancouver Island, and in Qatar. “People there saw me as a little familiar. They’d hear my name and speak Arabic.” They eventually settled in the Annapolis Valley.
Lebanese culture is in her work “in subtle ways.” Basma has been a finalist in writing competitions, and in 2018 published a poetry book called Ruba’iyat for the Time of Apricots. “I didn’t feel like I had to make art about my identity. I resisted that, but wanted to make a book about my mom, and her sisters, and her story.”