BWS 13.01.21: Sonal Champsee

Sonal Champsee writes plays, fiction and essays. Her work has been published in anthologies and magazines such as The New QuarterlyRicepaper, and Today’s Parent. She holds an MFA from UBC, is an instructor for the Sarah Selecky Writing School, and is currently working on a novel.

What happens to a writer who can’t do more than watch pleasant television? Sonal muses on pandemic brain, not writing and the Great British Bake Off.

So, I haven’t been writing.

Whether that’s pandemic-brain or garden-variety resistance or something else entirely, I don’t know. But it’s been very clear that my capacity for mental tasks is limited. Even reading has been difficult. Television is more my speed, but not any television. No gritty dramas. No complex storylines. Nothing that requires a commitment. I’ve instead been binge-watching past seasons of The Great British Bake-Off.

What a joy the early seasons are! No kitting out an entire patisserie in thirty minutes using nothing but gluten-free flour. Instead, it’s make a cake. Bake some cookies. Make a pie. Disasters are a mousse that didn’t set, a cake that didn’t rise, a pastry that crumbled, all of which are soothed by Mel and Sue, doling out comforting words and hugs. No social distancing! How much do I long to be upset over a cake and be given a Mel-Sue sandwich? And then still have cake to eat.

And the food! I did not know the British had so many words for cake. Victoria Sandwich. Lemon Drizzle. Iced buns. I pat myself on the back, a little, since all of this deliciously spiced and sweetened British baking comes from the many places they colonized. What would a classic steamed British pudding be, without colonialism to flavour it?

There are much better cultural critiques on the Great British Bake-Off than this one, but invariably, it is a brown-skinned baker that becomes the flavour person. The one who adds mango and chili to things, who draws on their heritage to give us Jamaican Black Cake and Buko Pandan ice cream. Sometimes this is to their detriment, as the flavour can be too bold for the improbably named Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. But more often, it seems, these bakers are expected to Bring the Flavour.

It has almost become a trope. If you are brown, you will bring in your cultural background to make flavourful food, because of course you cook it frequently and are an expert in the cuisine. The white bakers will draw from other countries as well—Bake Off has shown me that British people seem to know their Indian food, even if they pronounce it funny. But this seems something they can sprinkle in on occasion, rather than an expectation. In Canadian Bake Off, it certainly feels like multicultural contestants must bring some of that multi-culture to the gingham alter.

But then, if they didn’t bring this in, who would?

Isn’t it better that Chetna makes the same kachoris she makes at home, rather than some random blond making them for the first time based on a blog about someone else’s singular trip to India? Isn’t it better that Nadiya made a wedding cake decorated with sari fabric motifs instead of someone else trying it because they saw it on Indian Matchmaker?

I don’t have answers. I have experiences.

Certainly, as a young writer, who also wasn’t writing much, there was a time when award-winning desi-Canadian literature would exclusively take place over there. Back home, although India has never been my home. And so already, without having started, I was afraid because I didn’t want to write about a country I had never lived in, and yet still felt expected to present and explain. I never wanted to include South Asian characters, because it felt as though they must be stories about The Struggle, and not stories about anything else.

Certainly, I have hit upon these same expectations in writing workshops. With literary agents. In my own writing classes, where my brown-skinned students will ask me, am I really expected to write about The Struggle, and then will turn in stories featuring white characters to avoid it.

And yet, I loved those stories set in India, and immigration stories, and stories about The Struggle, in that I could still recognize something of myself in them. As familiar as mom’s cooking, which is food I never make.

And yet years later, my stalled novel in progress is still largely set in India. And I wonder, is this creating more expectations for desi writers? Should I even write this at all?

Ultimately, though, I think the answers can be found in the Great British Bake Off. When Nadiya, with her headscarf and perfect eyebrows and increasing confidence won. Through tears, she declared, “I’m never ever going to put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never going to say ‘I can’t do it.’ I’m never going to say ‘maybe.’ I’m never going to say ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can, and I will.”

And she has.

Sonal Champsee visits Brockton Writers Series via ephemera series on Wednesday, January 13, 2021 starting at 6:30pm alongside Dominik Parisien, Laure Baudot, and Kirby. Our guest speaker, Cree-Métis scholar Deanna Reder, will give her talk on, “Supporting Indigenous Authors: from the archives to the Indigenous Voices Awards”.

Special note: As we adapt to current social distancing regulations, we’re happy to announce our event will be hosted by the wonderful ephemera series! They have already done their show online multiple times, so we are thrilled to benefit from their technical expertise, while also increasing collaboration within the literary community and growing connections between organizers, authors, and audience. You can attend the event by watching on the ephemera series YouTube channel. Please log in at 6:30.


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