Passings: Professor Rishma Dunlop inspired many with her poetry

York University English and Education Professor Rishma Dunlop died Sunday evening (April 17) after a long battle with cancer. The following In Memory of Rishma Dunlop was written by York University English Professor and dear friend Priscila Uppal.

In Memory of Rishma Dunlop

Rishma Dunlop
Rishma Dunlop

Rishma was a woman who wore a number of hats. Literally. She collected hats and hat boxes. One of the things we shared.

Rishma was also a mother, sister, daughter, wife, lover, friend; as well as an educator, professor, poet, essayist, prose writer, mentor.

But Rishma rejected labels. Another thing we shared.

In fact, our first conversation was about our dissatisfaction with labels.

I met Rishma because she invited me to lunch to discuss a project. I had no idea at the time that this would be the first of countless lunches we would have together and the first of many projects we would end up collaborating on.

Rishma had met with Denis DeKlerck, publisher of Mansfield Press, who had recently published her first book of poetry, The Body of My Garden, to propose an anthology of poetry by South-Asian Canadian women. The publisher liked the idea and suggested that Rishma seek me out as a co-editor.

We spent much of the lunch venting and laughing about how neither of us liked being slotted into any category: whether one of gender, ethnic or national background. So we hated the hyphen between South and Asian, we hated the term South-Asian (we both grew up calling ourselves Indian) and though we were both proud to be Canadian and to be women, we thought it was an indication of how little things in publishing had progressed that it was necessary for us to put those words on a cover for it to clearly indicate a void in the current publishing climate. We agreed that the poets and poems we would eventually select for the anthology would actively work against those categories and would showcase the exciting and innovative artistic practices of those artists outside of any prescribed labels or themes. The resulting anthology was Red Silk, and it is still being taught in schools.

That was only one of Rishma’s many accomplishments; one of her many literary, academic, artistic, and educational projects that contributed to her life of defying expectations, producing work that mattered to her, and developing her own personal and professional style.

Rishma published dozens of essays (particularly lyric essays), some fictional and memoir prose, and even some drama, in various academic journals and literary anthologies. She also published five full collections of poetry: The Body of My Garden, Reading Like a Girl, Metropolis, White Album, and then her last book, Lover Through Departure: New and Selected Poems.

As evidenced by that title, Lover Through Departure, Rishma’s life as a poet and professor was bound up in her life as a lover, traveller and friend. Through longing and grief, she believed one could learn love and tenderness; hence her beautiful line “Tenderness is our best gesture in the face of death” (“Metropolis Redux”). And her love of the world was always intimately bound up in her love of words: “The heart is literate./It wants to read the pages it has unfurled” (“Reading Amy Lowell”).

Rishma was a dedicated Professor in the Education and English Departments, and an important member of the Creative Writing Program (she coordinated the program for several years). Her teaching and research philosophy was firmly rooted in the idea that artistic practice is a highly beneficial method for knowledge acquisition and creation. In fact, she was the first person in Canada to submit a novel to earn a PhD in education. Her students always appreciated her passion for the arts and her mentorship, and nominated her for several teaching awards. Her scholarship and writing earned her several important awards and honours, including a Fulbright Scholarship and membership as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

But my favourite memories of her were outside the classrooms of York University, when we were travelling together to literary events, conferences and readings. Our first trip together was out west to promote Red Silk. I stayed in her home in Penticton and her daughters graciously offered to be our designated drivers while Rishma and I hopped from winery to winery, drinking full-bodied reds in full-bodied dresses.

We gave dozens of readings together as fellow artists, and as fellow colleagues we organized tons of events and sat on so many committees together I’ve certainly lost count. The latter frequently required a good deal of patience and I always considered it a goal of mine, when we were at stuffy meetings or boring lectures, to crack Rishma’s always elegant demeanour and cause her to break out into what I like to call “you’re-so-bad-but-you’re-so-right” giggles.

We went to movies and plays and conferences together, including one in Scotland where we had danced on the grounds of a castle. But I think my favourite one was in Sri Lanka, where we performed at this intimate festival in an old fort town of Galle, on the ocean, where the writers were feted on opening night with elaborate fireworks that literally exploded our ears and fell into our champagne glasses, and where we ran past snake charmers and sat on the porch of one the most beautiful hotels in the world trading stories with Tom Stoppard, Richard Dawkins and Simon Sebag Montefiore. I remember her saying her partner (soon-to-be husband) David Sobelman would have adored the view. They had considered him accompanying her on this trip, as I had considered whether my own husband should join us, but we’d decided against the expense. And besides, we had each other for company and commiseration and celebration. And that we did.

It was one of those “who knew” things. It would be Rishma’s last trip outside of Canada. A few months later she was diagnosed.

I don’t want to mention cancer. It’s another horrible label. But it is the reason Rishma is not with us today. And so I must mention it, and mention that I’ve rarely seen the kind of grace and perpetual elegance that Rishma displayed in dealing with the disease over the last four years. Unfortunately, undergoing treatments for cancer is another thing Rishma and I ended up sharing. And even when her prognosis got worse while mine became more hopeful, I always knew Rishma understood the deep pain we, and our loved ones, particularly our partners, were feeling, and she always sent me her love and healing vibes, even when she could have used that energy to think solely of herself. I am deeply grateful for her generosity in that and many other things. And I’m so grateful that in our last visit together, sitting on her bed, that I managed to get her to crack one of her famous smiles.

Probably the only thing Rishma disliked more than labels was someone else speaking for her. And so I want the final words to be hers. This is my favourite poem of Rishma’s; it showcases the tenderness of her heart, her sense of humour, and her profound appreciation of the most important things, and people, of her life.


for my daughter who would be my eulogist

Dearest Rachel

Last night you had a dream. It was my funeral.
You were reading my eulogy. You spoke of my
perpetual claim that any day was a good day to die.

There is nothing definitive to be said of the dead.
But I have some request for your future script, my darling.

Tell those who are gathered that I have loved and
I have been beloved.

You do not need to speak to virtue or morals. You may
wish to say I endured suffering but I believe
my bruises to be pale beside the wounds of history.

Tell them that I loved my companions most of all.
Tell them you were one of them who gave me
a better way to journey alone.

Spread my ashes in the waters of the bay I have loved,
for there, on the wings of cranes, in the embrace of the delta
and its wetlands, it is always morning.


You may have:
my black dress
my red shoes
my pearls
my hats and suitcases
my books and manuscripts.
Make of these things a breathing archive.
Writer yourself into every century.
Find me again and again as one with whom
faith could be kept.

A memorial reception will be held on Wednesday, April 27 at Mount Pleasant Funeral Home, 375 Mount Pleasant Road (east gate entrance) at 6pm.  Visitation will start at 5pm and the gathering shall continue to 8pm.

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