Monthly Archives: August 2015

BWS 09.09.15: Sabrina Ramnanan

SabrinaRamnanan

Sabrina Ramnanan was born in Toronto to Trinidadian parents. She completed her B.A. in English and B.Ed. at the University of Toronto before entering the school’s Creative Writing Program. Sabrina is the recipient of the 2012 Marina Nemat Award for the most promising student.

Ahead of her Sept. 9 appearance at Brockton Writers Series, she took the time to talk to us about her first novel, Nothing Like Love

BWS: First novels are often the shorter ones in a writer’s career, but Nothing Like Love tops 400 pages. What was it like to create a world so big and full on your first try?

Sabrina: Writing the big, bold world of Nothing Like Love was incredibly liberating. Every time I flip through the novel to choose a passage to read I am amazed that someone let me cram so many crazy, badly behaved characters into one story.

BWS: Do you think you overcame any roadblocks a later-career writer might not have encountered with such an ambitious novel? Or, conversely, do you think there were advantages that came with being a first-time novelist?

Sabrina: If Nothing Like Love seems ambitious it’s because I sometimes worried it would be the only novel I ever wrote, which, as it turns out, pushed me to make 1974 Trinidad as vibrant and compelling as I possibly could.There were certainly advantages to being a debut novelist. Nobody knew who I was in the literary world. I never felt weighed down by anyone else’s expectations but my own. There were no previous sales figures I needed to match or exceed. And, I had no clue that once the book was published the terrifying work of promoting would begin. Now that I’m working on my second novel I have all of these things on my mind, which sometimes gets in the way of the good stuff.

BWS: Would you dare classify your novel in a genre? A profile in U of T Magazine earlier this year called Nothing Like Love a comic novel, but it also hinges on a suspenseful story of forbidden love, like a romance, perhaps. Do you find the question of genre helpful to the way we talk about literary fiction, or the way you yourself talk about your own work?

Sabrina: I try not to classify Nothing Like Love in a genre, which sometimes makes it difficult to describe to people for the first time. But if I have to choose between comic novel and romance, I choose comic novel. I certainly didn’t set out to write a romance novel. What I wanted to do was comment on heavy topics like gender inequality, arranged marriage and the dangers of gossip with a feather-light touch. It is intentional that Vimla and Krishna are only ever physically together a few times in the entire text. But perhaps you’re right; perhaps it’s a romance and I just don’t know it.

BWS: Do you read much Trinidadian or Caribbean literature? Which writers or works (from the region, or anywhere else) do you count as influences?

Sabrina: I have been particularly influenced by Rabindranath Maharaj, Shani Mootoo and Niala Maharah who write about Trinidad and have taught me, in their own ways, how to write dialogue in the Trinidadian dialect.

BWS: You have a son who’s a toddler, and according to a recent profile in the Toronto Star, you’re still supply teaching, too. How do find the time to write?

Sabrina: I wrote Nothing Like Love before my son was born, so I had the luxury of going to yoga, crying over my laptop, and taking long strolls while I waited for the muses to speak to me. Now, instead of crafting a paragraph for an hour in my office, I scribble sentences, single words, snippets of dialogue and any other bookish ideas that pop into my head in a little blue notebook. It is messy and disorganized but I’m finding it a more effective way to brainstorm without censoring. So, while I don’t have pages and pages written, I do have some solid ideas and a few interesting characters that I think I’ll keep. It’s a big step in the process and I’m grateful I’m this far.

BWS: Can you tell us any more about the new novel you’re working on?

Sabrina: My second novel is set in Toronto but will have a very distinct Indo-Caribbean flavour. It will explore what growing up first-generation-Canadian means and tell a story that I hope all Canadians of immigrant parents can relate to.

BWS: We look forward to it, Sabrina, thanks so much.

Sabrina Ramnanan visits the Brockton Writers Series on our sixth birthday, Wednesday, September 9, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Irfan Ali, Sarah Henstra, Lana Pesch and a special guest talk by Nancy Jo Cullen, “What to Consider if You’re Considering an M.F.A.”

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BWS 09.09.15: Lana Pesch

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Originally from Saskatchewan, Lana Pesch is a Toronto-based writer and producer. Her short fiction has appeared in Taddle Creek and Little Bird Stories: Volumes I and II. She was also long-listed for the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize, and won the Random House of Canada Creative Writing Award at the University of Toronto in 2012.

Moving Parts is Lana’s first book, a collection of short stories. She stopped by the blog this week and shared some insight on the form in this guest post.

How Should a Short Story Work?

For my birthday last week, I woke up to a copy of Neil Gaiman’s new book, Trigger Warning, which my husband bought for me.

In the introduction, I read: “I grew up loving and respecting short stories. They seemed to me to be the purest and most perfect things people could make: not a word wasted, in the best of them. […] My favorite collections would not just give me short stories but they would also tell me things I didn’t know, about the stories in the book and the craft of writing.”

That’s when I really woke up. My passion was re-ignited in the way it always is when I know I’m at the beginning of something good.

I’m not familiar with Gaiman’s work, but I’m excited about this book because of that introduction. Because I agree with him. I’m ready to dive into this collection of “short fictions and disturbances” and be told things I don’t know, both about the stories and the craft of writing.

Over the course of writing my first book, I repeatedly encountered the question: How should a short story work?

The short answer is, there is no single, correct, or short answer. But here are a few thoughts.

Any story, I think, should make us wonder and question. A good story should leave its reader affected somehow: shocked, enlightened, itchy, comforted, disturbed. A great story will resonate and linger after the book has been put back on the shelf, or the screen turned off.

Short stories take us on journeys with selected brushstrokes. They can cover a lot of territory, and can—should—be complex and provocative. And while comprehensive in scope, they should remain economical in size. Not a word wasted, in the best of them.

From Zsuzsi Gartner’s note from her work as judge for Grain’s short fiction contest in 2012: “A great short story casts a long shadow, sings a song itself, is embedded with the atomic particles of other stories past and stories yet unwritten, and yet is wholly itself.”

Gartner goes on to say that a story should contain multitudes, entire universes. And, why not? We are all made of stars, after all.

Stories connect us. They make us feel less alone. We recognize ourselves in characters who are struggling, striving, or longing for something or someone. Characters who are fundamentally seeking acceptance, recognition, love, or a sense of purpose and belonging. Characters like us. Watching how a character goes about his or her business might be something we can relate to, or the experience can open up a whole new world and tell us things we didn’t know. As Gaiman goes on to say: “We authors, who trade in fictions for a living, are a continuum of all that we have seen and heard, and most importantly, all that we have read.”

No kidding.

I’ve read a lot of short stories and continue to discover new authors. The stories I reread are the ones that inform my own writing. The stories where I find new things every time I read them. Stories that leave me thinking: What just happened there? How did the author do that? Why do I need to read this again?

In The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Ben Marcus writes a brilliant introduction that includes this nugget: “Stories keep mattering by reimagining their own methods, manners, and techniques. A writer has to believe, and prove, that there are, if not new stories, then new ways of telling the old ones.”

Cheers to that, Ben.

I’m fascinated by human behavior—the extremes of good and bad, and the spectrum in between. We are a flawed species, constantly making mistakes, learning by failing, and coming out the other side. The stories in my book were written and evolved over time. Years. While experimenting with style and form, I was writing about characters and ideas that I found curious and was trying to understand. How do we arrive at one decision and not another? What informs those choices? What are the consequences of our actions?

In the September, 2015 issue of The Walrus, Lisa Moore singles out four Canadian authors (Russell Smith, Heather O’Neill, Irina Kovalyova and Guy Vanderhaeghe) who are reinventing the short story. “Traditionally,” she writes, “the Canadian short story is staunchly based in realism, with a narrative arc that ratchets up through conflicts and semi-resolutions toward a crisis, and epiphany, and a tidy conclusion. The shape is almost hard-wired in our collective brains. But a new crop is working against these constraints, with wider plots that spread into the lives of characters who may be only tangentially linked to one another. They spread out over time, too, rather than adhere to the traditional shape of action, epiphany, denouement.”

I feel in some ways I too am part of this new crop, perhaps with one foot lingering in the traditional camp.

Moore also writes: “Reading one [a short story] is the literary equivalent of stepping off a diving board and plunging into thin air. In that brief moment, everything can somersault. You can experience a wild heavy ride that can change you.”

And hopefully, I would add, shape us into becoming more compassionate human beings.

Gaiman’s introduction to Trigger Warning ends with an apology. He states his belief that a short story collection should be the same all the way through, not so “hodgepodge” and “willy-nilly”, and how his collection fails in this manner: “For this failure,” he asks, “as for so much, I request your indulgence and forgiveness, and hope only that somewhere in these pages you may encounter a story you might otherwise never have read.”

Well said, in my opinion. Now I hope you will please indulge and forgive me, as I say the same thing about my own book.

Lana Pesch visits the Brockton Writers Series on our sixth birthday, Wednesday, September 9, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Irfan Ali, Sarah Henstra, Sabrina Ramnanan and a special guest talk by Nancy Jo Cullen, “What to Consider if You’re Considering an M.F.A.”

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BWS 09.09.15: Sarah Henstra

SarahHenstra

Sarah Henstra is a professor of English at Ryerson University, where she teaches courses in gothic literature, fairy tales and fantasy, and women in fiction. She lives in Toronto with her two sons (one teen, one tween), and a poodle named Nora.

Of course, you might also know Sarah as Guest Speaker Coordinator for BWS. It’s our great pleasure to finally get her on the blog, to talk about her hot-off-the-presses debut novel, Mad Miss Mimic!  

BWS: Writing a young-adult novel, one could presume your imagined reader is a teenager. How conscious are you of your audience when writing?

Sarah: My impulse to write Mad Miss Mimic for a young-adult market had mostly to do with the approach I wanted to take to the story and the elements I wanted to include in it: a seventeen-year-old protagonist, a suspense/adventure plot, and romance. While I was writing the book I didn’t think about my audience as teenagers, specifically; I recently read that 65 per cent of YA books are purchased by adults, anyhow!

BWS: Teenagers today have never known a world without the internet, and since 2011, according to the to the Beloit Mindset List, they may not even realize that the expression “off the hook” once had something to do with a telephone! What’s it like trying to write historical fiction for a younger audience?

Sarah: In a way, the historical setting lets me “off the hook” when it comes to understanding the mindset of today’s teens. Rather than trying to capture a contemporary teen outlook or “voice,” I can take my readers someplace entirely outside their everyday experience. Like a science-fiction or fantasy author, my job is to build a convincing world for my characters. But this has inherent challenges, too. When I teach creative writing, I find a common problem with sci-fi is that the story gets bogged down in exposition. There’s a temptation to belabour the world-building, spending dozens of pages at a time describing the architecture or energy systems of the foreign planet or future society. With Mad Miss Mimic I strove to include just enough period detail to draw readers into the world of 1870s London, but not so much that it would overwhelm or distract from the story.

BWS: Though set so far in the past, Mad Miss Mimic is full of concerns just as relevant in our time: gender equality, terrorism, the war on drugs, the wealth gap and more. Can you talk at all about “translating” today’s issues and those from generations ago in a manner that today’s (younger) audience can relate to?

Sarah: I didn’t set out beforehand to fill Mad Miss Mimic with contemporary thematic concerns, but in crafting a set of tensions to drive the story forward I naturally turned to types of conflicts that would feel tense to today’s readers. The role of women in society, addictions, the marriage contract, voice and agency—these are topics that interest me personally and professionally. I had great fun exploring the dramatic possibilities of these topics in the “historical” contexts of opium importing, pharmaceutical experimentation, conspiracy and sabotage.

One issue I didn’t set out to elaborate with any degree of historical accuracy, though, is class. It’s nearly impossible that a Victorian girl of Leonora’s standing would consort with a Tom Rampling no matter how extreme their circumstances. Nor would theatre acting ever have been a possibility for a titled lady like Aunt Emmaline—not without total social condemnation. Finding the balance between faithfulness to the “realities” of the period and openness to exciting, unlikely scenarios as they presented themselves was half the fun of writing this book.

BWS: You teach the Gothic novel, and in addition to its 19th-century London setting, the narration in Mad Miss Mimic largely shares a style and a vocabulary with novels of that era. Are there specific authors you’d cite as influences on this novel? How did you develop the style that you used?

Sarah: I spend a lot of time with a novel I teach, reading and rereading, making lecture notes, researching scholarly opinions about the text, and choosing passages to examine with the students in class. I teach the same courses for several years in a row, too, and only swap out a few novels to keep things fresh. So yes, the books I teach have an enormous influence on my writing. Mad Miss Mimic borrows elements from Jane Eyre (the mistreated orphan, the journey towards love-with-independence), Great Expectations and Oliver Twist (the eccentric benefactress, the urban underworlds), the Sherlock Holmes mysteries (the egocentric bad guy, the plot to bring down the government), and others.

Mad Miss Mimic is a historical novel, though, not a 19th-century novel. While it imitates some of the syntax and vocabulary, its sentences aren’t nearly as long and convoluted—for that matter, neither is its plot! Still, when my agent read the first draft she made a long list of vocabulary words that I needed to cut from the text. These were words that I’d used for the sheer joy of using them and not because there weren’t more familiar, straightforward synonyms. It was a process of scaling back and simplifying without losing the nineteenth-century aura.

BWS: What do you make of the argument that, to some extent, young-adult fiction is less about “what” tweens/teens are reading than simply making sure “that” teens are reading? Do you feel any conscious drive to inspire a love of classic literature with your work, to inspire young readers to look back to the classics or maybe even resurrect older styles by being themselves inspired to write?

Sarah: Part of teaching literature is evangelizing for literature. In studying a text with my students, I’m always already making a case for why I believe that text is worth reading and studying. It would be fantastic if reading my novel made someone want to read more of the classics! However, teaching undergraduate readers and chatting with readers of Mad Miss Mimic since it was published has shown me again and again that people who really love reading and are curious about writing don’t have rules for themselves about what genres and periods they will and won’t read. I was a greedy, omnivorous reader as a teen. I guess that’s the kind of reader I’m thinking about when I write, too.

BWS: What are you writing next? And will we ever see Leonora again?

Sarah: My next book, The Red Word, is a campus novel (for adults, not teens) about a war between a group of militant feminist students and members of a frat house. It’ll be published in early 2017. After that is another YA novel, but contemporary, this time. I am not sure if we’ve seen the last of Leonora. I’d dearly love to send her to America…!

BWS: We’d love to see that, too! Thanks so much, Sarah.

Sarah Henstra visits the Brockton Writers Series on our sixth birthday, Wednesday, September 9, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Irfan Ali, Lana Pesch, Sabrina Ramnanan and a special guest talk by Nancy Jo Cullen, “What to Consider if You’re Considering an M.F.A.”

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Brockton Writers Series 09.09.15

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 9, 2015

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L-R: Lana Pesch, Sabrina Ramnanan, Sarah Henstra & Irfan Ali.

Come celebrate Brockton Writers Series’ sixth anniversary, with special guests:

Irfan Ali
Sarah Henstra
Lana Pesch
Sabrina Ramnanan

AT

full of beans Coffee House & Roastery

(it’s their birthday, too–five years!)

1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto

Guest speaker at 6:30pm

Nancy Jo Cullen, author of Canary

“What to Consider if You’re Considering an M.F.A.”

Readings begin at 7:00

The reading is PWYC (suggested $3-$5) and features a Q&A with the writers afterward. Books and treats are available for sale. Please note that while the venue is wheelchair accessible, washroom facilities are not.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

Print

GUEST SPEAKER

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Nancy Jo Cullen’s stories have appeared in The Puritan, Prairie Fire,Grain, Plenitude, filling Station, The New Quarterly, This Magazine andThe Journey Prize 24 and 26. She has published three collections of poetry with Frontenac House Press. Her most recent book, the short story collection Canary, is the winner of 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Nancy Jo is the 2010 winner of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Emerging LGBT Writer.

READERS

Irfan Ali is a writer from Toronto’s west end. His poetry collection, “Who I Think About When I Think About You”, was shortlisted for the 2015 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award. He’s currently finishing up a manuscript, this is it., a story of love and loss told in poem. Outside of his craft, Irfan keeps himself busy as a teacher, program manager, and DJ.

Sarah Henstra is a professor of English at Ryerson University, where she teaches courses in gothic literature, fairy tales and fantasy, and women in fiction. Some of her best story ideas come from classroom discussions. She lives in Toronto with her two sons (one teen, one tween), and a poodle named Nora. Mad Miss Mimic is her first novel.

Originally from Saskatchewan, Lana Pesch is a Toronto-based writer and producer. Her short fiction has appeared in Taddle Creek and Little Bird Stories: Volumes I and II. Lana was long-listed for the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize, and won the Random House of Canada Creative Writing Award at the University of Toronto in 2012. Moving Parts is her first book.

Sabrina Ramnanan was born in Toronto to Trinidadian parents. She completed her B.A. in English and B.Ed. at the University of Toronto before entering the school’s Creative Writing Program. Sabrina is the recipient of the 2012 Marina Nemat Award for the most promising student. Nothing Like Love is her first novel. 

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