Utpal Borpujari

April 21, 2010

I was not prepared for the chaotic rhythm of India: Shandi Mitchell

Shandi Mitchell sure has a sense of humour that comes through the way she describes her writing space at home –  “1) A beautiful studio overlooking the canal. No phone, no email. It’s where I’m supposed to write, and 2) A cramped upstairs half- story office. The only place to stand up straight is under the peak. My desk overlooks the street, which is under construction. This is where I write.” It is apparent that the place does not matter when it comes to creativity, at least in this award-wining filmmaker-writer’s case. Her Under this Unbroken Sky recently won the best first book prize at the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (CWP) for the Caribbean & Canada region. She was in India, her first visit to the country, to participate in the CWP event recently. Mitchell spoke with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on her writing and her impressions about India:

Your book is about a Ukrainian family that immigrates to Canada in 1930s hoping to find a better life. There are so many migrant communities in Canada, including from India. Why did you choose the Ukrainian backdrop?

My paternal side is Ukrainian. I was intrigued that I came from a family that didn’t have a past history. Even though my grandmother spoke only Ukrainian, I was raised as a Canadian child, and only spoke English. I had lost my culture, my language. But what I discovered is that I had also lost the history. I was told that my grandfather had died of flu in the 1930s, but when I was 18, I discovered that that was not happened in the 1930s, during Stalin’s regime. That’s what sparked me off. While researching, I found that Canada was also revising its history, and we were only talking about the past of 70 years but it was being sanitized and cleaned up. Then I found out other countries too were doing that. All these voices, the blood and bones on which our country is built on, their stories are gone. And I wanted to almost fabricate a blur between the real and fiction in my book.

As a writer how disturbing it is for you that history is ‘sanitised’? shouldn’t history be told as it is?

I think we need to know our past to look forward. It’s important to carry all of our stories forward as a humanity, and I don’t think you can separate the light and the dark from the active living. For me, I need all the complexities of those emotions in order to try to understand the existence. You cannot learn without loss.

Do you think if you write fiction instead of an academic book based on research, people would take you more seriously?

The risk is there. But actually a new genre of revisionist fiction is coming up, like Quentin Tarantino just did with the film “Inglourious Basterds”. Narrative revisionism is quite interesting. I intentionally blurred the idea of fiction and reality in my book. There is no truth, and I told it from multiple points of view, and every character will interpret the events differently, so I think it will remind the reader that the idea is of remembering, that not one of the stories is true, but it has taken the pieces out of history, pieces that should not be lost.

Did you also go into the histories of other migrations during your research? The Indian subcontinent for example has witnessed huge migrations.

I have been hearing about such migrations happening in India. Canada is a country of immigrants. Germans, Polish, Ukrainian, Indian – I have contacts with migrants from various origins there. The commonality is that you are leaving behind everything that you are, everything that you were, and you land in a country, and there is a loneliness, there is a disconnect, and there is a question of what is home, I think that is shared between whoever makes that journey. I tried not to write the politics, but I feel everyone shares all the fears.

This is your first visit to India. What has been the experience?

I think it’s extraordinary. For us in Canada, India is a mythological, magical country. To come and see it, is such a great experience. I have read a lot of fictional books describing this world, but it does not prepare you for this somehow chaotic rhythm, the somehow controlled chaos. I met some school children, and I asked one to describe their country to me, and one child told me ‘India breathes, India eats, India feeds’. From that moment I knew how to enter this country. I think Delhi is an extraordinary city.

Does the notion of India being a magical, mythical country get broken when you land here?

No. I think I will never understand this world, it’s so complex. The threads cannot be pulled apart, they are all woven together. I will have to come again and again, and I hope to.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 21-04-2010)



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