Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

These Questions Three with Robin Maharaj

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These Questions Three with Robin Maharaj

October 11th: Eleventh Post

In a rather unusual coincidence, Robin Maharaj and I both taught English for several years in the same Pickering high school, Pine Ridge Secondary, seated a few seats apart in the same workroom. I’m fascinated by the connections and disconnections between teaching and writing, and truly appreciate his answers to These Questions Three.

1. In a second coincidence, in the same year, 2010, we both published adult novels from the point of view of highly perceptive teenage narrators, your teenager being Samuel in the Trillium Award winning The Amazing Absorbing Boy, (Knopf Canada, 2010). You’ve talked about this novel being inspired by an immigrant experience of Toronto and riding the GO train as a commuter, but I’m wondering to what extent your years as a teacher also played a role in helping you to hear and see Samuel?

My experience as a teacher allowed me a glimpse into the adolescent sensibility. This was important for me as a teacher and it continues to a significant writing asset. Even though I did not know it then, The Amazing Absorbing Boy may have been sparked at Pine Ridge, when I discovered there were students who had moved from Toronto and who missed the sense of community they had experienced in the city. Fiction often springs from a curiosity about and an examination of incongruity, and I was interested in these students nostalgic recollections of neighbourhoods the media had labeled as “crime infested.” I set my novel in one of these communities, Regent Park.

2. Despite the fact we never discussed our work in progress and that our books come from vastly different cultural traditions half a century apart, we both have larger-than-life Aunties in our novels who could be sisters. Like my Aunt May who descends from above, your Auntie Umbrella, who appears as if “in a puff of sulphurous smoke,” is long unmarried with a fiancé who flew the coop. Both Aunties share the same rigid morality, the same sanctimonious bossy manner, and the same mantle of Christian righteousness, apparently passed to them from Jesus Christ himself. While I hesitate to use the term, is there something universal about the elderly and disappointed maiden aunt?

Certainly. Fiction is replete with these maiden aunts and for good reasons. Apart from the obvious fact that their unflinching sanctimoniousness makes them easy to satirize, I believe there is something inherently tragic about individuals who have solidified their views into a couple inflexible dictums. Typically, they are wounded, cagey, and eccentric. Everyone knows someone like this and, in fiction, they are as common as a Dickensian solicitor. Frequently, they exist fully formed in our imagination.

3. Like many aspiring writers I’ve met, one of the many reasons I became a teacher was because I naively believed I’d have plenty of time off to write. Instead I discovered that given the triple exhaustions of preparing, teaching and marking, I should have been just about anything else on the planet if I wanted to write. Was this your experience? And in a parallel question, seeing as we both taught various grades and levels of English and the senior Creative Writing class at Pine Ridge, despite the hard work of teachers, can writing really be taught? Are schools doing a good enough job exposing teens to the diversities of contemporary Canadian writing?

Years ago, when I was doing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick, one of my professors told me that if I intended to seriously pursue a writing career, I should consider some form of manual labour to supplement my income. I thought he was joking but in a sense, he was right. It is very difficult to combine writing with a full time teaching career. Both occupations utilize the same resources, both involve the same skills and processes – planning, improvising, revising, researching, for instance – and because teaching is more structured, writing often suffers. When I was at Pine Ridge, I usually began to write at 11 pm, a time when I was quite exhausted. I left the job because, increasingly, I felt that I could either be a good full time teacher or a good writer but not both. For this reason, I admire writers who manage to combine both professions.

Writing is different from most other subjects taught at schools in that there is no body of work a teacher can use as a model or from which he or she can extract rules, laws, or hypotheses, etc. I familiarized myself with writing strategies and techniques in my early twenties by reading and rereading particular books and reflecting on the narrative choices the writers had made. When I went to UNB I had, more or less, already settled on particular writing strategies. However, my presence in an academic programme gave me a sense of a community, and solidified many of my goals. This, I believe, is an under-appreciated benefit of writing programmes.

Things may have changed but when I was a high school teacher about six years ago, schools were terrible at focusing on contemporary Canadian literature. Many of the required texts were by American writers and I found that most of the students and a large proportion of teachers were not familiar with contemporary Canadian writers. I suspected that the folks who designed the syllabus were stuck in some previous generation. This was quite frustrating because so many good books were ignored.

Finally, Dorothy, I would like to congratulate you on your book’s publication. These are uncertain times in the industry and being published now is a real testimony to the book’s quality.

Thank you to Robin both for the kind words and for a most insightful set of answers to These Questions Three! For more on Robin please check out his website and his upcoming appearance in our old stomping ground:

Ajax Library Luncheon
October 22, 2011, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Ajax Library, 55 Harwood Avenue South. Tickets are $15.00 and available at the Main Branch Library. A talk about my writing experiences will be followed by a question and answer session. There will be a light lunch. For more information call 905-683-4000 ext. 8811 or visit

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page