Reading the Ice: a review of 'Dreamer', Akim Aliu's inspiring debut graphic novel memoir

11:00 AM EST
min - read
Gary Mok
11:00 AM EST
min - read

Around the midway point of Akim Aliu’s graphic novel memoir Dreamer, written with Greg Anderson Elysée, a teenage Aliu skates forward with his head down, focused on the puck, until an opponent flashes by and stuns Aliu into breaking the fourth wall.

“Whoa! Did you guys just see what I saw?!” he exclaims to the reader.

The opposing skater is Aaron Atwell, a fellow Black Canadian hockey player who would quickly grow close to Aliu and become one of his best friends.

In a sport that has proven unkind to players who look like them, they at least have each other.

A recurring theme in Aliu’s memoir is the importance of finding your people — those individuals you can trust and who return that trust with unwavering support. The book is marketed to youths aged 8-to-12 but has value to any burgeoning or long-time hockey fan of any age.

Dreamer recounts many of Aliu’s experiences from his perspective, in a similar style to his May 2020 essay for The Players’ Tribune titled “Hockey Is Not for Everyone.”

In Dreamer,  Akim Aliu talks about his journey and what he had to deal with. (Photos submitted by Akim Aliu, credit to CBC)

Many words from his 2020 essay are embedded within this memoir along with evocative illustrations by Karen De la Vega. The on-ice scenes are rendered beautifully, one early montage of Aliu learning to skate at Trinity Bellwoods Park particularly standing out.

Dreamer is incredibly impressive at crafting the off-ice moments, especially ones involving racist incidents experienced by Aliu and his family. The illustrations help bring the words to life by creating the creeping sense of dread and, ultimately, defiance in the face of oppressive systems.

The constant oppression Aliu was subject to comes up time and time again, in new but also familiar ways, and the reader can witness Aliu’s mental and physical growth. He was just a kid who once dreamed of nothing more than owning an Eric Lindros jersey and playing in the NHL.

But dreams change.

Without completely spoiling the book, Aliu eventually pushes back on the wisdom granted from one of those closest to him in order to chase something more.

Through his search, readers of Dreamer are offered even more than they probably signed up for. There is educational value in learning about the injustices that Aliu faced coming up through hockey. It’s also valuable for young people to see the payoff of being persistent in pursuing your dreams.

It’s important to have dreams and it’s of equal importance to apply determination and doggedness to pursue them. But in Dreamer, Aliu also shows the value of self-reflection, and how individuals need to be open to growing their dreams just as they grow themselves.

Aliu went from completing one dream of making it to the NHL to later co-founding the Hockey Diversity Alliance. More recently, he spoke out about systemic barriers and questionable practices about purchases of teams in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. His work continues; his dream continues to grow.

Within both the book and The Players’ Tribune essay, Aliu notes how the existing systems in hockey work to maintain the status quo, to eliminate differences wherever possible.

“They will pummel you mercilessly until you break, or until you give in, whichever comes first,” he says.

Aliu didn’t end up breaking nor giving in. This memoir is an inspiring record of his relentless commitment to hockey. 

It’s also a continuation of his ever-expanding dream.

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