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Ghomeshi recalls trying to fit in as a 14-year-old new Canadian

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The year Canada brought its constitution home, one of its future stars was trying to reconcile his own national identity.

To that end, the insecure, "pathetically neurotic," 14-year-old Persian-Canadian New Waver made a list of the things that mattered to him most.

The 11-item list was bookended by the names David Bowie and Wendy. "Fitting in" appears twice.

Jian Ghomeshi never did meet his musical idol and it didn't last with his dream girl. And it's safe to say the popular host of CBC Radio's Q and member of the '90s satirical folk-pop foursome Moxy Fruvous didn't get where he is by blending in with the crowd.

But as any high-school misfit can attest, it takes a while to figure that out.

"I needed to be cool to fit in. And being cool might mean makeup and pointy boots and Bowie. This was not exactly the conventional middle-class prescription from Tehran," Ghomeshi writes in his new memoir, 1982.

He'll be at McNally Robinson Booksellers at 7 tonight to read from and sign the book, which this week made Maclean's bestseller list.

Part coming-of-age tale and part love letter to a bygone era -- the telephone had a cord attached and making a mix tape could take weeks -- 1982 recounts this pivotal year of the author's life through a dozen music-infused stories, each based on a 1982 pop radio hit.

While Ghomeshi takes a self-deprecating, humourous approach to teenage angst, his was clearly exacerbated by the fact that he grew up in the largely white, conservative Toronto suburb of Thornhill at a time when visible minorities weren't that visible. It's tough enough carving out your identity without being associated with terrorists or getting called "Paki."

Still, Ghomeshi, 45, says he didn't want to do an overly earnest book, and so opted for entertaining, instead.

"I didn't want it to come across as some kind of political, ideological or polemical screed, sort of like: "By the way, this is what it feels like to be an Iranian in your society," he says during a phone interview.

"I had no interest in writing a life story or memoir that was a list of accomplishments or facts and figures. What I really wanted to do is find a device to write something creative. I get off on trying to be creative. That's what I do with my show and it's my favourite part of that."

The image on the cover of 1982 is a broken cassette tape with the handrawn label Scary Monsters Mix. It's actually a mix tape he gave a girl back in high school, Ghomeshi says, and she dug it up and contacted him when she heard he was writing a memoir.

"The book is kind of set up like a big mixed tape," says Ghomeshi, who was born in England and immigrated with his parents and sister (Jila is a linguist at the University of Manitoba) when he was 10. "There's a lot of music in there because music was my salvation, it was my escape and it was my celebration, as it was for a lot of people."

More superficially, he says, the book is about his obsession with David Bowie and wanting to be the (very pale) British rock star, and his equally obsessive crush on a New Wave classmate and cool girl named Wendy.

But even that, he admits, was part of his desperate quest to fit in and make people like him, all the while hoping they wouldn't notice his "weird name, largish nose and brownish skin." Never mind being Muslim, which set him further apart from his peers, even though his family was secularist and never engaged in any religious activities.

While his target audience is potentially anyone who can identify with being an oddball in high school, Ghomeshi says he's been most surprised at the number of immigrants who have contacted him.

"What's resonating with a lot of people is more the story of a first-generation immigrant coming here and dealing with being the only ethnic family on the street in a conservative, white neighbourhood," he says. "I think that story is very Canadian, one that anybody who has moved here from somewhere else and been caught between neither fitting in in the old country or entirely fitting in here will understand."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 G11

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