Few among the masses can navigate Toronto’s winding maze of cultures like Aparita Bhandari.
The veteran reporter has been covering the city’s arts and culture scene for more than a decade, leaving her well-versed in Toronto’s complex network of communities and the characters who keep them thriving.
A regular contributor for CBC Radio and a prolific freelancer, Bhandari has penned pieces for the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Toronto Life, Now Magazine, Hazlitt, and Chatelaine, covering everything from Indian psych-rock bands, to Nepali photo exhibitions, to how one properly eats a traditional Ethiopian meal.
Bhandari’s work presents an alternate look at the immigrant experience—one that celebrates more than overcoming adversity. She spoke to the Ryerson Review of Journalism about the influences behind her work, and the need to tell stories that may not be told otherwise.
RRJ: Tell us a bit about how you cover culture and what you’re trying to represent.
Aparita Bhandari: I’ve always been interested in arts and culture. That’s just who I am as a person, given my background, having grown up in New Delhi. My father was a diplomat, so I’ve grown up always interested in different cultures. Through my university years, as an English literature student, I always gravitated toward topics like postcolonial theory. My coursework was always works of various African writers from Nigeria, Kenya, Australian Indigenous writers. I’d say that my life experiences dictated my interests, and my interests dictated my writing.
It was more by instinct than by design that I was covering the positive spin, but given that minority cultures are in the news for an assortment of reasons, for me arts and culture was a way to get a glimpse into the lives and the humanity of these people.
This was just something I was doing naturally. I wasn’t thinking about it. For me, it was mostly like, “Oh my god—this is so interesting. I kind of relate, but I understand it on a deeper level.” You know, like an Ethiopian elderly lady reminded me of old ladies that I would see in my South Asian culture.
I don’t necessarily call it my beat, but those are the stories I’m interested in. I will also tell other stories of the majority culture, but I tend to gravitate toward these stories because they’re often not told.
RRJ: A lot of coverage of the immigrant experience in Canada views it through a grim lens, focusing on oppression in other parts of the world or national policy issues. What are your thoughts on the value of representing that experience more positively through cultural coverage?
AB: It brings out the humanity. Somebody’s difference is often covered as an obstacle to whatever they’re doing. For instance, when I had first started at the Toronto Star as an editorial intern, at that time the Sri Lankan Tamil community was often covered in the context of youth gangs. Naturally as a reporter, one of the first things that I gravitated toward was, ‘Oh, I want to do a deep investigative piece,’ where I get into it and see who they are, where they come from, all of that stuff. I tried digging into that, and I found some fascinating stories.
But at the same time, there were other stories within the Sri Lankan Tamil community—plays that they were putting on or literature that they were putting out, or other sorts of ways in which they were articulating all the issues that they were facing.
So I find it becomes a way to connect with somebody we might sometimes glaze over.
RRJ: How do you think your work relates to the coverage of the larger social and political issues facing immigrant communities in Canada?
AB: It’s about finding that compelling story at the end of the day. The way that I have always approached my stories is by asking “Who’s the person at the centre of it?” “What is he or she doing?” and “Why does it matter?” Sometimes I struggle with the “Why does it matter?” because it’s frustrating to explain that to an editor. But at the end of the day, I do see the point of it all.
I think that oftentimes communities get frustrated because they’re covered like communities. They’re covered like the “Sri Lankan Tamil community,” or the “Somali community,” or the “Nigerian community.” When you say that, you immediately think of things. If you say “Somali,” people immediately think of Dixon. Or, if you say “Sri Lankan,” people immediately think of Scarborough. You say “Punjabi,” and people immediately think of Brampton.
I remember when I was talking to one person from the Canadian Tamil Congress, he said, “Why don’t you guys ever come to us to do a story about income tax ? We have the same troubles”—and it made sense.
This is changing as newsrooms are changing. We have a long, long way to go, but hopefully most of the time, they try and reach out. When it comes to talking about the hydro bill, oftentimes we don’t see diversity. I think by covering those arts and life stories, whether it’s a cookbook or a dance performance, we are able to bring them more into the newspaper or the newscast. Hopefully we’ll also translate that we are one collective Canadian community, despite our various different pockets that we have.
RRJ: What are your thoughts on the potential challenges facing people from minority cultures, or those who have immigrated to Canada, that want to be a part of the journalism industry?
AB: Until you change the whole concept of privilege, there’s not going to be much difference. The way that diversity is being addressed is by changing people. There’s a constant rotation of people at the lower level. So there are ways to get into mainstream organizations on an entry-level type of a thing. Oftentimes, that’s where most people remain stuck.
The number of people on the management side is still an issue. And until that changes, I don’t think you’re going to see that real diversity we’re talking about. Even sometimes the most well-meaning, well-intentioned person with white privilege sitting at the table can make the most inane remark or comment, which completely throws off the way that things are covered.
Until that changes, it’s still going to be pretty hard. It’s not that it cannot be done—it can. At the end of the day, it becomes a little bit about networking. It becomes a little bit about finding the right mentor.
People can come, and they’ll likely be told, as I was, “Work in the smaller markets. Start something on your own, and show us how you’ve done this, that, or the other.” You need to have real passion for it in order to continue. Serious passion.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.