Taslim Burkowicz: Life After Chocolate Cherry Chai
As some of you know, I review books for Net Galley. For the sake of transparency, I had never completely finished an ARC until I stumbled across The Desirable Sister by Taslim Burkowicz. Instantly, I was drawn into an expertly drawn world of rich characters, an intriguing plot, and kick ass females tackling real world issues. After devouring her book, I did a little research.
A Little About Taslim Burkowicz
Taslim Burkowicz’s work is inspired both by her Indo-Canadian heritage, as well as her global travels and experiences. Her first novel, Chocolate Cherry Chai, was listed on CBC Books’ 2017 Fall Preview list. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and education from Simon Fraser University. Taslim resides with her husband and three boys in Surrey, B.C., where she focuses on writing, running and dancing.
Luckily for us, Taslim was open to having a conversation about her upcoming book.
Here goes our interview…
As someone who grew up in a Gujarati family in Canada, you experienced the “in-between” as I usually call it. How has living in between two (or perhaps more!) cultures and identities affected you as a writer?
I did experience the “in-between” feeling you describe, being born in a Gujarati family, but being raised in Canada. I believe that for many years I oscillated back and forth between the two identities. Many times, I felt like a spy peeking into how each culture functioned, but never seamlessly fitting into one perfectly. Observing how Canadian and Indian culture varies intrigued me to the point it made me a writer, or the writer in me found ways to make use of these experiences.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I went to India, I had trouble being accepted as being Indian, and once I was nearly arrested on a bogus charge. In order to get out of the situation, I spoke Hindi, surprised the officers, and dodged the charge. I used this incident to help me create the fictional scene in The Desirable Sister when Gia confronts the police officers in Goa on a hilltop.
As a fellow world traveler, how would you say that your experiences abroad has shaped your storytelling?
The obvious answer is new surroundings make for fresh scenes; because I am drawn to using sensory writing to describe settings. For example, the chaotic frenzy of Tokyo’s nightlife or Africa’s dusty Serengeti make for excellent backdrops. The less obvious answer is, ironically, traveling has helped me describe places I have never actually been to with more confidence. Looking through art history books, I tried to put myself in Gia’s shoes by imagining Paris museums as she might have seen them in person. As a writer, when I travel, I always notice odd things to begin with, and Serena’s observations of airports reflect this (expensive chocolate and cheap coffee). I layer such observations from my real travels into places I have never been.
What was the first book that made you cry?
Bridge to Terabithia got to me in elementary school. I was moved by the portrayal of such a deep and true friendship rather than the loss that was experienced. When a book affects me, I don’t usually cry, but I feel something in my gut. It is the attention to small details that get me. For example the raw and dark desolate times in Red Sorghum which were described with splendid cruelty might have initially got me interested, but it was the description of the way dog meat was consumed by starving humans, and how the human’s muscles gleamed like wilds dogs which moved me.
Do you have any recent favorites?
Yes! I base this on several criteria. For the love of capturing a time period and my passion for Hemingway, I would say Paula McClain’s candid portrayal of the relationship between Hemingway and his wife Hadley in The Paris Wife. For the type of book that I could not put down and which featured Vancouver’s gritty gang life, Ashley Little’s Anatomy of a Girl Gang. For a book that was startlingly dark but a refreshing account of the things we might think but do not have the guts to speak aloud, Jen Beagin’s Vacuum in the Dark. I try to dedicate as much time to reading as I do to my own writing, because the love of one nurtures the other, I could spend all day on this subject.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Most definitely it energizes me. As a runner I would compare a productive writing session to a challenging run. They both might be a struggle to get through, but you rarely regret pushing yourself through one, and after, you experience a similar euphoria.
What are some common traps for aspiring writers?
Being told that we should write for ourselves. I feel like we ultimately write for the pleasure of others, with the goal being producing simple, clean writing. Getting lost in redundant words, or the poetry of excessive description may lose readers. It is not a bad idea to write a book we all wish we could read, or to therapeutically process your own thoughts through characters. But writing a lengthy anecdotal account of your own life and experiences, or a long description of a zombie encounter might be hard to translate into literary fiction.
If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
To read even more. To explore the classics. I would not say write or read in lieu of living life, because life experience makes for good writing too. But I would tell my younger self to replace spare or idle time with consuming more literature. Now that I have a busy family life, I miss the times that good armchairs, good reading lights, and cups of tea went to waste.
How did your writing process change from Chocolate Cherry Chai to The Desirable Sister?
With Chocolate Cherry Chai I wrote in a more unstructured format; my goal was to process the culture I grew up with and represent the varied way Gujarati women experienced life in different time periods and places. With The Desirable Sister I had a more precise plot in which I wanted to explore the idea of colorism and I decided I wanted this to unfold linearly. Chocolate Cherry Chai was more experimental in the nature of the way the book skipped around chronologically and had hints of magic realism, but I wanted The Desirable Sister to be less of a magical experience and more of a book that would realistically demonstrate the way women are evaluated on their skin pigment every single day.
What does your current writing practice look like?
As of yesterday, I was designing a family tree of the Moghul Empire because my upcoming third book features two plot lines, one which is set in 1600s in Agra, India and features a dancer that performs for the royal courts, and the other, modern day Vancouver, where a women is searching for her self identity when her marriage fails, with the backdrop being the raging fires of BC in the summer of 2017.
My days consist right now of editing to make sure both plot lines go back forth smoothly. It is an ambitious task, but I am hopeful that working with two completely different plot lines will make sense in the end product. Currently, I am rereading the work and doing minor rewrites, but this is my favorite stage of writing because you get to ice the cake that you have spent so long baking, and enjoy the work as a reader might when they first embark upon a book. I try and distance myself on each reread and see if things make sense from an outside perspective.
On The Desirable Sister
The Desirable Sister has many detailed scenes in different settings: the party scene in Goa, suburban supermarkets in Vancouver and a safari in Africa. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Typically, I start my writing process first, and then I begin researching alongside this as I introduce a character or setting. For me, the party scene in Goa and safari in Africa were easier to construct then it was creating Gia’s artist and fashion background. For this I had to consult several art history books, but also look at runway fashion from various decades to make sure they were consistent with the time period in the book. For this novel to work, it is important that Gia is believable as who she is, and her occupation and personality were the most challenging to construct. Research takes time, but I try not to let my creative flow become obstructed by it, which is why I write and research simultaneously.
The Desirable Sister tackles many societal ills. The sisters are at odds from an early age, playing out generations of the “skin color hierarchy”. In addition to the tension and competition between them, they battle adultery, ruined friendships, domestic abuse, infertility and motherhood. What drove you to contribute to the narrative on these issues?
Initially my goal was to demonstrate how deeply colorism can affect the way in which society perceives women, the way in which women perceive each other, and the way which women perceive themselves. These conclusions would lead us to determine that a woman who passes as being white would have greater advantages in the book. However, I wanted to press a little deeper and explore what limitations a woman being perceived as white, particularly an Indo-Canadian woman, would have. Beyond feeling a profound loss of identity, or perhaps freedom in discarding a culture she might be potentially embarrassed by, I wanted to show that being desirable is not always preferable and can lead to damaging outcomes.
The scenes dealing with infertility, nuance of motherhood, and generational connection between women were particularly poignant in this book. What are some lessons that you would like the reader to take away from the women in The Desirable Sister?
My main hope was to for women of all shades to come together in a realization and reject the “white” standard of beauty as the universal prescription. However when I did research for the book, which included reading articles on colorism, I came across two disturbing facts which I tried to touch on in the book: 1) white standards of beauty existed as far back as the Moghul Empire in India, about 1500s onwards, whereupon concubines and royalty that were stowed away in the harem were known to be fair skinned because they did not do manual labour. The idea of fair skin as being preferable, thus predated British colonialism. 2) blind people tend to take on the same views and ideas of colorism that our society as a whole takes on.
Thus, my hope that colorism be disbanded within this generation seems rather impossible. Living in a capitalist culture that thrives on selling beauty products that make you doubt your self worth makes it nearly impossible to divorce women from the idea that Western ideals of beauty are not worth attaining. I am more hopeful that we try in small ways to celebrate the universal beauty of womanhood. In the same way I hope that this book will demonstrate there are many ways to be mothers and daughters. The reason I included struggles of fertility and motherhood was to show that women of all color experience limitations in both and even white privilege cannot reverse infertility.
Most of the female characters within this book had strained relationships with their sisters. Do you think it is a common phenomena to view your sister as competition? Or do you think it was a direct result of the other gender/racial/colorism dynamics within the families? (It seemed like the result of generational trauma to me.)
I would say strongly that society and upbringing would have a lot to do with this. In a capitalist culture which stipulates competition is healthy, it would seem impossible for sisters to escape being compared to one another. Furthermore, I included class struggle in this book, for example when one sister begins to do better economically than the other, this added for another dimension of the way capitalism strains family relationships. I also tried to create a sisterhood between Gia and Harmony, and when their friendship suffers a betrayal, I wanted to show how sisterhood has the potential to be broken apart by a man.
What did you edit out of this book?
Not a whole lot was edited out content wise, but as far as scenes go, I removed a part where Kasim sees Silvie Winters and her new boyfriend while leaving the furniture shop. It was a scene where he wondered about her and played out a lifetime unfolding had he stayed with her.
In terms of editing, I had to decide which characters would come in and out of the novel. Kasim and Zeenat do not disappear forever, they come back, but I had to pick the amount that I wanted them to come back. I loved reintroducing characters that you thought you would never see again, but that would remerge. At the same time, I also played with the idea of a few characters not coming back and fading away. Because this is how life naturally goes, some people come back and others never do.
How do you select the names of your characters?
They come to me at odd times: usually while I am running. Gia, Serena, Corey, Kabir, they all came to very fast and I was certain who they were as they introduced themselves in my mind. However, with Karen Johal, it was her apple scent that came before her name or personality.
Do you hide any secrets in The Desirable Sister that only a few people will find?
Not so much secrets as a map of destinations. Many of the places listed in the novel were or are real places with real names (Carnivore, or Luv-a-Fair), but some names are never mentioned. The restaurant that Serena, Kal, Sunil, and Karen meet up in, for example, was an iconic meetup place once upon a time in Vancouver in that time period and has since been renamed.
What was your hardest scene to write?
People have guessed the hardest scene was the incident between Gia and Kabir. However, it was much more difficult to write the scenes where Sunil becomes increasingly aggressive, because it had to be a gradual build up. This kind of behaviour sneaks up on women and is easy to ignore, justify, make excuses for. It was hard for me also to write scenes where the women in the novel do not share their secrets with one another. But I believe this to be an authentic experience, especially when it comes to abuse or pain. We do not want to burden others with our experiences and sometimes, we also do not want to be burdened, so we hide in the safety of ignorance.
What do you want readers to know about The Desirable Sister?
That I worked hard on deciding which characters should make a reappearance in the “The Desirable Sister” because I wanted the focal part of the story to remain on the two sisters. When Gia sees Danny, Harmony, and Alice Kessler, it was not important that words were exchanged. Sometimes it is important for a person to talk for closure to happen, and other times closure occurs without this. Our relationships with people are always changing, even when they are over. This is reflected when Gia juggles her feelings about her estranged relationship with her aunt Gulshan years later, while Serena idealizes and sometimes questions hers. So even though characters might not appear in the physical sense, you see the other characters continue to process their ongoing feelings toward them.
What’s next for you?
I will be promoting my second novel, The Desirable Sister. Upcoming events will be listed on The Roseway Publishing page on Facebook. But I will also be working on my third novel! Here is a little taste of what is to come:
Wildfires are sparking up again in British Columbia. But on Ruby Andrews’ 20th wedding anniversary, she finds it hard to think of anything beyond the banality of her marriage; the only thing piquing distraction being the tales of Rubina jaan, a ravishing dancer who performed for the Mughal courts in the early 1600s. When a string of betrayals shakes up Ruby’s predictable lifestyle, the 38-year old woman uncharacteristically abandons her responsibilities to search out her daughter’s secret biological father, a rock star staying in the epicenter of the raging fires.
Gia and Serena Pirji are sisters, but as the first-generation born in Canada to immigrant parents, their lives play out in different ways because of their skin tone. Gia’s fair skin grants her membership to cliques of white kids as a teen, while Serena’s dark skin means she is labelled as Indian and treated as inferior. This superficial difference, imposed by a society obsessed with skin color and hierarchy, sets the sisters into a dynamic that plays out throughout their lives. In a world where white skin is preferable, the sisters are pitted against each other through acts of revenge and competition as they experience adultery, ruined friendships, domestic abuse, infertility and motherhood.
Taslim Burkowicz’s vivid, sensory-rich writing style brings readers to the party scene in Goa, suburban supermarkets in Vancouver and a safari in Africa, where Gia and Serena navigate through the highs and lows of a tumultuous, loving relationship. The Desirable Sister reveals the bitter games of treachery women are forced to play to achieve the ranks of beauty and success, and ultimately shows the strength of love between sisters. (less)
You can read more about Taslim here: Fernwood Publishing.
The Desirable Sister will be available for purchase on Amazon beginning November 2nd, 2019.
Her debut Novel, Chocolate Cherry Chai can be purchased on Amazon or through Fernwood Publishing.