The Annahid Dashtgard Interview

“We need more women of colour to speak bravely about how to take our power back.”

– Deepa Purushothaman, author of The First, the Few, the Only

Annahid Dashtgard is a critically acclaimed racialized immigrant writer and recognized diversity and inclusion leader. A diversity and leadership consultant for nearly three decades, she has experience designing and leading change on individual, organization and system levels.  Annahid has managed national campaigns, advised on policy and led many organizational development initiatives. Her memoir Breaking the Ocean: Race, Rebellion and Reconciliation cemented her as a leading voice in Canada on issues of immigration, racism and diversity. Her latest book, Bones of Belonging: Finding Wholeness in a White World, is out now. Annahid lives in Toronto.  

In a series of deft interlocking stories, Bones of Belonging shares experiences of searching for, and teaching about, belonging in our deeply divided world. Annahid writes with wisdom, honesty and a wry humour as she considers what it means to belong—to a country, in a marriage, in our own skin—and what the impact is when belonging is absent. 

What follows is an interview with the author about what inspired her new book, an incredible story of a boy with one skate, passing grades for mainstream television for inclusive hit shows like Beef (highly recommended by this reporter), the need for diversity in climate change and how it is possible to do what seems like the impossible. There’s a lot to talk about and pay attention to so let’s get this interview started.

NGM: Equity, diversity and inclusion is on the tip of everyone’s tongues…but still, we are nowhere close to any sort of nationwide handle on exactly how large an issue this truly is. In a general or not so general way, what have you noticed between Breaking the Ocean and the release of Bones of Belonging?

AD: Before the pandemic many people thought we were in a post-racial world (the notion!) The pandemic coupled with George Floyd’s murder exposed massive racial gaps in access to healthcare, wellbeing and safety, forcing a societal reckoning and conversation about racism.  For about six months after George Floyd it was the trendy topic to be talking about, and although many institutions (whose names I won’t mention here!) backed off, nevertheless this last four years mark a massive step forward in general awareness of the need for equity for non-white communities.  Let me put it this way: I never would have guessed five years ago that the term white supremacy would go mainstream.

NGM: What were some of the most astonishing / remarkable / noteworthy responses or discoveries you got from researching / putting this book together?

AD: I started writing this book at the beginning of the pandemic and finished the final edit just as we were unmasking again (about three years in total).  I was surprised to find how much hope, humour and beauty came out in these stories during such a bleak time.  One of the stories- ‘Skates’- describes my husband telling our children how as a newly immigrated child he was left to hobble home alone in a blizzard one day with a single skate on because he wasn’t able to remove it by himself.  I kid you not, on the same day this happened our family went for a winter walk in the nearby ravine and came upon a makeshift skating rink, a scene in direct juxtaposition to the other.  I couldn’t have invented these moments of full circle, hope and healing!  It was truly a blessed journey to be writing these pages. The writing got me through and I hope it sparks that same belief for others that we can do hard things, we can get through hard times and we are much more resilient than we often think we are.

NGM: You do podcasts and documentaries – what do you get from these rival genres that you don’t get from the cold black and white page?

AD: I quote my husband saying in Bones of Belonging “when you write it’s like your soul meets the page” and for me that’s true.  The other creative mediums feel significant but less meaningful because I don’t have as much control to go digging for the deepest truth as I do when I’m writing. When I hit truth on the page I can feel it, and I think it shines through in the words. 

NGM: What has been some reader feedback – either from an email or in person that surprised you? What didn’t surprise you about people’s reception of the book?

AD: I hoped but wasn’t sure the book would be equally impactful for white as well as non-white folks and I’ve been so pleased that’s been the case.  There have been wonderful reviews on Amazon, goodreads and social media from random people that have brought me to tears.

What did surprise me (given this is my second book and it was a Canadian bestseller in its first week) was how little notice it got in the independent bookstore and literary festival world which I expected to be more responsive.  I think there’s many reasons for this but let’s say one of them is that the literary realm is still dominated by white people who have a harder time discerning voices of writers of colour, particularly ones writing about race. I constantly encounter what it is I write about- the upswing is I have plenty of fodder for future books.

NGM: Writing wise, what are your next steps?

AD: The next book is a handbook for leaders of colour.  There’s lots out there for women leaders but little written for the first, few or only leaders of colour in white-led institutions.  After that, I’ll go back to stories somewhat like Bones of Belonging.  I have all my book titles mapped out in my head (like Ed Sheeran’s album titles, ha!)

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions and for dedicating your life to something that seems like an essential service. What are some other books or movies that are helping steer things in the right direction – in your opinion. I mean, we don’t really call ourselves (as authors) influencers, but, we are. We’re just awkward about everything. So what do you think is worth checking out right now?

Gosh, for the first time we’re seeing TV shows and movies featuring characters and cultures that a generation ago would be considered unrelatable (like Black Panther, Beef, Sex Lives of College Girls etc.).  There is more and more content from other countries available now. I learned a lot about Asian culture watching the first season of Beef on Netflix. I’d say we learn from what we watch– do we need to watch another show about a f*ckd up white serial killer or can we access something relatable that introduces us to a person, group or country we may be less familiar with. 

I also have to plug our free monthly Anima Leadership cafes where we chat about different inclusion issues as a rich learning opportunity for people (sign up  And lastly, being a writer, reading memoirs from BIPOC and diverse voices— Alicia Elliot, Jesse Wente, Adam Pottle, Amanda Leduc, Jenny Heijun Wills etc– is an amazing way to expand our ways of thinking and being in the world.

What was the hardest part (besides finishing it) or section or moment of putting Bones of Belonging together?

The introduction! It starts with “Dear Reader: No matter who you are, this book is meant for you.”  I wrote it at the end of the editing process and I struggled to muster the spark and brain space  to easily weave all the themes and metaphors in the book together in three short paragraphs.  I had to keep working and working at it, but I think it turned out as I hoped: a simple yet impactful introduction to this book of bones.

NGM: Why is inclusion so important and what is the biggest deterrent in its way in terms of access to legitimate information that will help schools, companies and the average Netflix subscriber change their perspectives or learn greater truths?

There’s many reasons why inclusion matters.  On a moral human rights level everyone should have equal opportunity to be themselves and succeed in their place of work and communities rather than annexing off differences in order to fit in with dominant norms and paying a huge physical and mental health cost for doing so.  But also, on a societal level, our best (and perhaps only) chance of solving complex system challenges like the climate crisis is if we have an array of diverse viewpoints at the table- no one perspective will be enough on its own.  So we need more diverse representation at leadership levels and for those voices to matter and be heard.

I think what gets in the way is that the equity and inclusion conversation has been increasingly harder to access as it has become more and more academic.  This is the only area I can think of where learners are expected to not make any mistakes, and face strong consequences for doing so. Rather than the party everyone wants to attend, equity work is often the police cell people are afraid of being locked into.  I think we need way more accessible entry points and story is the most universal one– this is the biggest reason I wrote Bones of Belonging as a series of stories as I hope people can both relate to, and learn something, from them.

Nathaniel G. Moore is a writer, artist and publishing consultant grateful to be living on the unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi'kmaq peoples.

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