Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Shashi Bhat

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Shashi Bhat

Debut author Shashi Bhat's The Family Took Shape (Cormorant Books) has been drawing praise since its publication in late spring. The National Post praised the modern family tale for its "strange and very beautiful ending, proof of Bhat’s tremendous promise".

Shashi, who was nominated for the prestigious RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in 2010, speaks to Open Book today about writing the family, portraying a character with autism and her upcoming excursions into magical realism.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Family Took Shape.

Shashi Bhat:

The Family Took Shape is about a girl in a South Indian single parent family, growing up outside Toronto with her autistic brother. Whether she knows it or not, nearly every action she takes in her life is somehow influenced by the experience of growing up with him. Both children are under the care of their mother; their father dies when they are very young. It’s called The Family Took Shape because I wanted the novel to follow the growth of the family, and the way the members of the family shape each other.


How did the character of Mira come to you? Do you have anything in common with her?


Mira was inspired by my childhood experience, in terms of ambivalent emotions of having a sibling who often appears so different from her, and who is so difficult to communicate with. But the events in here are mostly fiction or very exaggerated versions of real-life incidents. For example, the father dies in a car crash before the book even starts, whereas my father is very much alive. Anyone who knows my mother will read this book and know that it’s in no way her. There’s a chapter in here where Mira is mercilessly bullied. A girl actually spreads apple sauce on her and then basically pushes into a bee hive — I workshopped that chapter in grad school and afterwards a couple of my classmates said “I can’t believe that happened to you,” and I said, “errr, that’s because it didn’t". I often use personal experience in my writing, but these experiences often need twisting and tweaking and exaggeration to shape them into proper stories.


Was it challenging to write about family in such an intimate way? Did you discuss your writing process with your family at all? What did you enjoy about writing this family?


I love writing about family, probably because I’m so close with mine. Early in the process, I showed a chapter or two to my parents and asked them how they felt about my taking inspiration from my brother. I knew that people reading the book would probably assume most of it was true, even though it isn’t. My parents were actually quite moved, and fully supportive. They just advised me not to write about any of our numerous aunties and uncles!


You've written two siblings who seem very different but both are longing for things in different ways. Do you see common characteristics in Ravi and Mira?


They are both limited in communicating — Mira may not have a diagnosed reason for it, but I think her internal life is so complex that it’s an obstacle in her feeling at ease with other people. As a result, they’re both outsiders, and yes, both longing for security, certainty, and, to put it tritely, to be “normal".


Ravi is autistic. Did you engage in research in order to write this character? If so, tell us a little about that experience.


I definitely did research, in small chunks as I moved through the chapters. The biggest challenge I had was in trying to write an autistic character and still have him be authentic, a real person in his own right; I didn’t want him to read like a list of symptoms, and I didn’t want the reader to just feel pity when they read about him. I tried to characterize him indirectly. For example, I included descriptions of the enigmatic drawings Ravi makes, and based a whole chapter on his attempts to pass a test on The Hobbit at school.


You are also a writing teacher. Is there a relationship between your writing and your teaching? Do they affect each other in any way?


Teaching fiction workshops has made me a better critic. When you only have a half hour or so to discuss a piece of writing, you have to really be able to pinpoint the elements that need working out. One of the first writing professors I had could, in a single sentence, tell you what was wrong with your story. It sounds reductive, but I loved it. One of my students this year told me our workshop was “brutal, but in a good way.” I think that’s the best comment I’ve ever gotten, because that’s how I try to be with my own work.


Family stories often end up being the most enduring. Are there other novels you've read and loved that centre on the family?


There are so many: Alice McDermott’s After This, Preeta Samasaran’s Evening Is the Whole Day, Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters.


What are you working on now?


I’m working on a short story collection. Some of the stories verge on magic realism — there’s one about a dragon boy, one about a giant who lives in a university library, one about a cat burglar who’s literally feline. I’m also experimenting with writing about illness in a blackly funny way.

Shashi Bhat's short fiction has been published in numerous journals, including Threepenny Review, PRISM International and Event Magazine; her story “Indian Cooking” was a finalist for the 2010 RBC Bronwen Wallace Writers’ Trust Award. She was born in Richmond Hill, Ontario, and currently resides in Halifax, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Dalhousie University.

For more information about The Family Took Shape please visit the Cormorant Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

1 comment

Enjoyed reading this interview - unpretentious and straightforward. Thanks.

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