As Christmas nears (and Black Friday begins in the U.S.), shoppers will be flocking to malls to purchase new shoes and many other items. But for the women participating in Arts alumna Katherine Govier’s (BA ’70) Shoe Project, shoes represent more than just fashion or an opportunity to shop—as new Canadians, shoes help them make big strides with their language skills.
Since 2012, the prolific Canadian novelist has headed the Shoe Project, a writing group for immigrant women at the Beta Shoe Museum in Toronto. Once a week, participants share stories about their lives inspired by the shoes they wore.
“It gives us something concrete to talk about,” says Govier. “People can attach emotions, memories to shoes. They have special occasions where they wear certain shoes. Shoes are a fantastic spark.”
Govier recalls one participant, originally from South Sudan, who lived in Uganda as a refugee before coming to Canada. There, she and her husband ran a market stall, trading off shifts in order to ensure one parent was home with their children. It seemed like a balanced partnership until her shoe broke one day and her husband refused to give her the money to buy a new pair. That day, she walked home in shoes that were falling apart, through the mud, humiliated and heartbroken. “So many people have a critical moment they can attach to a pair of shoes,” says Govier.
But happier tales also emerge. One woman from Panama had always wanted to teach but wasn’t able to study education until she was 45 and living in Canada. When she finally convocated, she bought a pair of red espadrilles to wear under her graduation gown – a nod to her homeland.
In addition to writing their stories, this year’s participants are performing their stories, too. It’s empowering for the women and important for the broader community, says Govier: “It’s not just helping these women with English, it’s helping us figure out who all of these people are coming to us. It’s not just this faceless category of ‘immigrant.’”
“People can attach emotions, memories to shoes.”
When Govier isn’t mentoring women through the Shoe Project, she’s working on her own manuscripts. After graduating from the U of A, the Edmonton native moved to Toronto to launch her career as an author. At the time, Canada’s writing and publishing industry was in its infancy. “People warned me that you couldn’t make a living as a writer in this country and at the time, no one was,” she says. But within a few years, the literary climate experienced a renaissance and it became possible to survive—and thrive—as a writer.
Govier has authored nine novels and three short story collections, and edited two collections of travel essays.
Katherine Govier’s website
The Shoe Project exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum