The award-winning author shares insights into writing stories that resonate and the familial bonds that continue to inform her work today.
Notable: 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 USA 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.”
Shauna Singh Baldwin 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.”
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.” The resulting memoirs, written during her grandmother’s trip to Milwaukee and subsequent trips to India, was printed for their family members, and formed the starting point for the award-winning novel.
Her ongoing quest for new and hidden stories is inspired. “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; 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 back to India a lot…I did a homestay for a week.” 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 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 stereotyped 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 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’ll 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.” 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.”
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)
*A version of the story was also published by The Huffington Post.
Story By: Manjot Bains | Photography: Indian Summer Festival