Anita Kushwaha is the author of Side by Side (2018, Inanna Publications), a book that I put on the 2020 long list for “The Very Best!” Book Awards for Best Fiction. Ms. Kushwaha has a new novel coming out in late January entitled Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters, to be published by HarperCollins), which I am looking forward to reading. Before she gets too busy promoting that book, I wanted to interview her for The Miramichi Reader.
Miramichi Reader: Tell us a bit about your background, education, employment, etc.
I was born in Ottawa and raised the nearby town of Aylmer, Quebec. While I’ve written since I was a child and always wanted to be a writer, I also have a great love for research and the environment, which led me to study ecology in undergrad and human geography in graduate school. My life before writing was based in academia, teaching, working as a research assistant, and being out in the field. I loved that portion of my career, which even brought me to the eastern Arctic, but once I had completed my doctorate, I felt ready to move on. I decided to commit myself to writing, which had been a life-long dream, studying through the Humber School for Writers under the mentorship of Shyam Selvadurai. When my novella, The Escape Artist, was published by Quattro Books, things started taking off for me and gave me the confidence to keep pursuing my writing aspirations.
Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.
I read widely across genres, and many authors have influenced me, but I’ll mention a few key ones here. I grew up in a small town in Quebec, raised on books that didn’t reflect me or the experiences of my immigrant family. The consequence was that it limited what I thought I could be, and which stories mattered. When I was nineteen or twenty, I read “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri. That collection of short stories changed everything for me. I’ll never forget the nuances of South Asian family life in those stories, some of which brought tears to my eyes because finally, it was there, it was seen. I started to believe that not only could I write from my perspective, but there might also be someone out there willing to read what I had to offer, someone who might need the stories as much as I did back then and always will. I suppose that’s why writing for me is an act of place-making. You can carve out a place for yourself with a book. You can inject your voice where it was previously dismissed, minimized, ignored.
I call Margaret Atwood my High Priestess – reading her has always felt like taking a masterclass to me. When I read her work, I need to have a notebook beside me, because her creativity sparks creativity in me. She also reminds me to write bravely.
I’ve recently completed Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet and was blown away by her mastery at weaving together the personal and political. Her work has deeply influenced my current WIP.
I also grew up reading a lot of Victorian femlit and love the Brontes. Hence the nod to Jane Eyre in Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters.
Do you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?
I love Wuthering Heights and go back to it every now and then, falling under the same moody spell. (It’s no wonder I wrote a tragic love story!) I’m in awe of The Blind Assassin [by Margaret Atwood]. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the LOTR trilogy, which I read as a teenager, a Christmas gift from my father. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, as well as her poetry (see: Mirror), are a part of my heart.
“After losing a loved one to suicide, writing about the upheaval [in Side bySide] was part of how I processed and healed.”
Your first full-length book, Side by Side was an impressive debut novel, and one I longlisted for Fiction in 2020. In my review, I commented that “Side by Side is so well crafted that the reader distinctly perceives Kavita’s horror every step of the way.” I would be interested to know just how you managed to do this. (I hope it’s not too personal of a question!)
Thank you again for your kind words and for including Side by Side in your long list, I’m honoured! It will always be the book of my heart. Not the book I ever thought I would write, but nevertheless, the book that needed to be written. After losing a loved one to suicide, writing about the upheaval was part of how I processed and healed. As a survivor, I felt strongly that I needed to do something, so my loved one’s life wouldn’t be in vain. The book was my way of combatting stigma and shedding light on the ripple effects of suicide, this loss like no other, while also exploring issues through a cultural lens, which is often overlooked yet adds further complexity to grief. I mentioned earlier about how a book can be a place. That’s what I hoped Side by Side would be for others whose lives had been touched by mental illness and loss by suicide. I wrote it with them in mind, since survivors tend to be marginalized and their experiences misunderstood. It’s remarkable how many readers have reached out to me and shared their stories after reading the book. Connection and validation are also what I hoped the book would inspire.
Now let’s move on to your newest novel, Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters, coming January 2020. Can you tell us a little about it? How is it different (or similar) to Side by Side?
The book is a mother-daughter story told in alternating timelines, about a mother and daughter who never meet. The story begins with the revelation that Asha’s parents have kept her adoption a secret her entire life. But why? As she is thrust on a journey of self-discovery, the reader is introduced to Mala, and the choices and secrets which end up shaping both their lives.
SLOMAD is similar to Side by Side, and my work in general, in how it places the lives of South Asian women at its centre, and the social and cultural pressures they face. My hope is that the book sparks conversations around choice, the importance of following one’s inner truth, and women’s mental health.
If you could write a biography of any person, living or dead, who would that be and why?
I never got to meet my grandparents. I would love to sit with each of them and document their life histories.
What are you working on now?
My current WIP is with my agent at the moment, actually! It’s a sisterhood story, more bitter than sweet, inspired by The Blind Assassin and the Neapolitan novels. Lots of complex family dynamics and secrets, also in keeping in with my interest in exploring issues of identity, belonging, immigrant experiences, and the lives of South Asian women. I was fortunate to receive a Literary Creations grant from the Ontario Arts Council to support this project.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I spend so much time sitting and thinking, my body craves movement. I love running, cycling, yoga, and time outdoors. Reading, napping, and eating are also favourite pastimes.