Arts·Point of View

How Anne Shirley became one writer's 'bosom friend' as a young Canadian newcomer

For Oussayma Canbarieh, the classic novel from L.M. Montgomery — who passed away 75 years ago today — helped her accept herself and embrace her new home.

For Oussayma Canbarieh, the classic novel helped her accept herself and embrace her new home

Amybeth McNulty stars as Anne Shirley in Anne, the newest adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery's beloved 1908 novel. It is currently airing on CBC-TV. (Caitlin Cronenberg)

I've always been captivated by stories about young orphaned characters struggling to find home and acceptance. Stories like Annie, Les Misérables and Remi Sans Famille marked me as a young girl. But of all these melodramatic tales, Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables captivated me more than the others, and was one of the first stories I discovered when I first came to Canada from the Middle East as a pre-teen.

An early edition of the Lucy Maud Montgomery classic. (CP/HO)

I remember many summers spent sitting in my backyard, Anne open on my lap, first in French, then in English to master the language. I have watched every pop culture variation of the story — the cartoons, the Japanese anime, the TV mini-series and the movie. As a young adult finding myself absorbed in her story yet again, I rediscovered Anne under a different light and it made me wonder: what is it about the story that's still enchanting me today, just as it did when I was a child?

I first read Anne of Green Gables at a sensitive time in my life. Just like Anne, I was transitioning from a little girl into a young woman, and I was desperate to find acceptance. I was also a newcomer to Canada and I wanted to fit in. Just like Anne, I read a lot of books, excelled at school and was a child of imagination. I also was insecure about my looks; although I wasn't a redhead, didn't have freckles and wasn't called "carrot," I used to wear heavy prescription pink-framed glasses, which gave me my fair share of bullying and the nickname "telescope.'' And just like Anne, I hated when people misspelled my name and wasn't afraid to correct them. She was Anne with an E and I am Oussayma with a Y. I wanted to be Anne Shirley's bosom friend. And then there was Gilbert Blythe, my secret crush.

I first read Anne of Green Gables at a sensitive time in my life. Just like Anne, I was transitioning from a little girl to a young woman, and I was desperate to find acceptance.- Oussayma Canbarieh, writer

To me, Anne and Gilbert had the ideal relationship, which may sound strange because he teased her and insulted her, and she hit him and ignored him throughout the whole story as he was chasing her asking for her forgiveness. It certainty sounds more childish and crazy than romantic — but it was how his love and respect for her grew that made him so dreamy.

Gilbert was always surrounded by beautiful girls who desperately wanted his attention, but he was fascinated with Anne and insistent on repairing their broken relationship. Anne, on the other hand, was focused on her goals and authentic to herself. Gilbert recognized that. He appreciated her for who she was and later supported her in her dreams. Knowing how strong-headed she was, he wasn't intimidated by her and he loved her for the content of her character. Just for that, Gilbert won my heart.

Megan Follows as Anne of Green Gables (Anne Shirley) in a still image from Kevin Sullivan's 1985 film version of the popular P.E.I. novel produced for CBC (Sullivan Entertainment/CBC)

Young girls in today's world are exposed to so many false role models who are far from being ideal. Reading Anne of Green Gables was very healthy for me — which is why I find it important to highlight stories featuring heroines who are strong, bold, ambitious, real and anything but perfect. Those who read the book can certainly identify with Anne Shirley's character one way or another. And although the story took place in the late 1890s, Anne of Green Gables is still relevant today. I was a nerdy-looking girl from the Middle East, transplanted to a new culture, and I was able to choose Anne as an anchor that showed me how to accept who I was — and realize that the "telescope" phase is only temporary.

In loving memory of Lucy Maud Montgomery, who passed away 75 years ago today.

Anne airs this Sunday at 8pm (8:30pm NT) on CBC Television.

About the Author

Oussayma is an award-winning Canadian journalist born in Damascus and raised in Montreal. She’s worked on multiple subjects from Canada, the US, the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia and South East Asia. Oussayma has also produced several TV series and Web documentaries. Her work has been featured on national and international media outlets, including CBC/Radio-Canada, Radio Canada International, Al Jazeera, AP, Deutsche Welle Radio, Huffington Post, AJ+, Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development, SNTV and the Montreal Gazette. Oussayma studied Business and Journalism at Concordia University and travelled to more than 40 countries.

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