THE BLOG

Finding Strong Indian Women in Hidden Stories

07/07/2013 06:49 EDT | Updated 09/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Shauna Singh Baldwin: award-winning author and technology consultant.

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Claim to Fame: Her first novel, What the Body Remembers, won the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book - Canada/Caribbean, and has been published in several languages.

Home: Born in Montreal, raised in India, she moved to the U.S. when she was 18 for university where she met and fell in love with her husband of 28 years.

Insider Info: The transnational writer runs an espionage-themed restaurant, The Safe House, with her husband in Milwaukee.

Quotable: On her evolving writing process: "I questioned things I thought I knew."

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Shauna speaks in lyrical prose. She drops quotes from Chekhov and Rushdie, and notes the influence of the Guru Granth Sahib's rhythms and musicality in her writing.

"I think it comes from my early training in reading the Guru Granth Sahib as a child," Baldwin said.

The award-winning author debuted with What the Body Remembers, a Partition era novel loosely based on her maternal grandmother's autobiography. Years ago when Shauna was a self described, "hot shot technology consultant," her grandmother came to visit her in Milwaukee. Shauna, busy with work, gave her grandmother a notebook and suggested that she write down her personal stories.

What emerged were pages of personal memories of the trauma of partition - and it was the first time Shauna and her family heard about their grandmother's experiences. "I realized that until then, my grandfather had been the person who told my grandmother's stories about Partition," she said.

The resulting memoirs, written during her grandmother's Milwaukee trip and subsequent voyages to India, was printed for their family members, and formed the starting point for an award-winning novel.

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Her ongoing quest for new and hidden stories is inspiring. "I look for the gap... the gap where the story isn't being told and I tell that story." Shauna's books and short stories are rich with description and historical notes. She devotes a lot of time to her research by travelling, interviewing, reading and revising. It's a full immersion into the story of her characters. While writing her most recent novel, The Selector of Souls, she travelled to India multiple times and did a week-long homestay. Her passion for her craft is immense. On one trip to India she imagined the small town outside of Shimla where part of the book is based. "My stories come to me as images and sounds," she explained. She described the place to her uncle and they drove through the area trying to find it amongst the hills and trees.

You may think Shauna is just another South Asian woman writer talking about the pains of being a woman in a stereotypically regressive culture, but while some of these images and ideas appear in, The Selector Souls, her political commentary on female infanticide, religious fanaticism, and patriarchy in India are hard to ignore and are worthy of ongoing discussion.

"I thought, okay, in What the Body Remembers the Muslims were the villains so in the next book they have to be the protagonists." Her next book, The Tiger Claw, did indeed star a Muslim woman, Noor Inayat Khan, a real spy who worked against Nazi invaders in Paris during World War II. Her next novel, The Selector of Souls, took a different shift, embracing yet another set of identities, seemingly at odds but through her narrative, surprisingly complimentary. "It was important to me to write as a Hindu and a Christian."

When she's not working as a technology consultant or writer, you can find Shauna at The Safe House, an espionage-themed restaurant in Milwaukee that she runs with her husband of 28 years. "It's a very secret place, we don't even advertise the location," Baldwin said. The fun, quirky restaurant and her husband's collection of books provided the foundation for Noor Inayat Khan's story." I was lucky I had access to his library. I had all these books to research for The Tiger Claw."

Shauna Singh Baldwin is in Vancouver for the Indian Summer Festival. Her talk with Satwinder Bains is nearly sold out and takes place at SFU Woodwards on July 7 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $15, or for $20 you can get a ticket to this event and the Reclamation/Exclamation event beforehand.

The Essential Shauna Singh Baldwin Reading List

What the Body Remembers (1999), Commonwealth Prize for Best Book (Canada - Caribbean)

The Tiger Claw (2005), Finalist for Canada's Giller Prize

English Lessons and Other Stories (1996), Friends of American Writers prize

A Foreign Visitor's Survival Guide to America (1992)

We Are Not in Pakistan: Stories (2007)

The Selector of Souls (2012)

Photo credit: Indian Summer Festival