Women Asking Women: Corinna Chong and Taslim Burkowicz
These two British Columbia based authors, Corinna Chong (The Whole Animal, Arsenal Pulp Press) and Taslim Burkowicz (Ruby Red Skies, Roseway Publishing) interview one another about their novels that grapple with alienation and self-discovery. Both stories have protagonists deal with the strains of mixed-cultural identity. Read more below.
In honour of Women’s History Month, we asked women writers from across the country to pair up and interview each other on all kinds of things: their processes, their inspirations, their thoughts on WWW (writing while women). We can’t wait to share these conversations with you.
Corinna Chong: The mother-daughter relationship is a prominent theme in your novel, Ruby Red Skies. Can you comment on some of the ways you explore the many facets of this theme in your writing?Taslim Burkowicz: The theme of mother-daughter relationships appeals to me as a first-generation Indo-Canadian. My mother had to start a new life in Canada, and my grandmother never learned to speak English. The vast changes that have taken place in my own family in terms of immigration and the need to start new lives in new places over such a short period of time has often had me examining the generational gap that exists between me and my foremothers.In Ruby Red Skies, one of my two main protagonists, Ruby, struggles with her relationship with her mother. Ruby’s mother is from a different era, one where she has to hide her divorce from society. Her reaction to Ruby marrying a white man is expressed as an ultimate betrayal, especially because Ruby gets pregnant and married at such a young age. Originally, Ruby’s rebellion against her mother’s values fuels her anger and validates Ruby’s actions for many years. But as time goes on, the rift between her and her white husband continues to grow, in part because Ruby herself does not value keeping her culture alive in their marriage. When her own mixed-race daughter turns 19, Ruby finds history is repeating and estrangement between herself and her daughter is growing. Where once Ruby thought being “Canadian” and “modern” would help her to bridge the gaps with her daughter that she had felt in her own relationship with her mother, she finds her daughter become increasingly irritable with her. Faced with these realizations, Ruby begins to search for the Rajput ancestry she has lost.Ruby Red Skies thus deals with not only the current relationship of a mother-daughter dynamic, but also one from a previous generation. Ruby’s own mother has died and left Ruby to pick up the pieces. Ruby’s therapizing her issues with her mother through her journey are contrasted with that of the second protagonist, Rubina, and her struggles with her mother in 1610, who in her own way is also abandoned by her own parents. I purposely contrasted Ruby and Rubina’s parental issues to mirror one another although they live four centuries apart to allow me to further explore the mother-daughter theme in the novel.I suspect the theme of parent and child relationships will continue to intrigue me, particularly when adding ethnicity, heritage, identity, and upbringing into the mix.
Taslim Burkowicz: Belinda’s Rings takes a close look at a mother-daughter relationship, showing its strains and inevitable connections, keeping characters of Asian descent as the main protagonists. Your newest book The Whole Animal deals with the strange, eerie, and disconcerting, while demonstrating humanity’s complexities. How important is it for you to feature people of colour in your writing, and how has your own personal upbringing and culture been reflected in The Whole Animal, particularly in the vivid imagery and themes of self-discovery?Corinna Chong: Writing about people of colour is important for me, not just because I believe representation matters, but also because I’m interested in drawing attention to and exploring the implications of our engrained assumptions that white is the default race. When I began studying writing seriously as a university student, I always imagined my characters as white; it never occurred to me to see them any other way until my professors began to expose me to the idea that this could be a choice. I think this reveals a fascinating reality about the power of white supremacy as a lens for viewing the world; even as a visibly non-white person, I carried unconscious allegiances to my half-white roots that were infused in the way I approached my writing. Making a conscious decision to envision characters who don’t fit the mold—in other words, who more accurately reflect my own experience—became a conduit for discovering my own identity as a writer and in the broader context of my community. I think that many of the stories in The Whole Animal deal with this kind of grappling with identity and self-discovery, sometimes in ways that extend directly from race (as in “Porcelain Legs,” where a hair growing out of her mother’s eyelid becomes emblematic of the growing resistance of a pre-teen girl to her Chinese identity), and sometimes in ways that are more oblique. Ultimately, I feel that everything I write is informed in some way by my upbringing as a child of a mixed race family and my continued experiences as a biracial woman, and the complicated feelings of disconnection and alienation that have often arisen from them.Corinna Chong: Ruby Red Skies follows two women living vastly different lives, one in 21st century BC, Canada, and the other in 17th century Mughal, India. What interests you about examining the lives of women in contemporary and historical settings simultaneously?Taslim Burkowicz: Medieval India in the 1600s was a world of disgruntled princes, peasants, warrior queens, castles, concubines, and camels – an understandably vastly different setting than modern-day British Columbia. I chose to juxtapose the life of a dancing girl left to fend for herself in the harem under the tumultuous reign of King Jahangir with that of a somewhat ordinary housewife living a disillusioned life in British Columbia for the very purpose of showcasing the similarities that these women share. Ruby’s cozy, sheltered life in a beautiful house is threatened when she learns her husband is cheating, and thus not an entirely different scenario than Rubina, who cannot call the harem a true home, finds herself in. While Rubina navigates dangerous locations such as battlefields, Ruby goes to the wildfires in British Columbia to search for answers, thereby putting herself at risk. Living in contemporary times gives us a false sense of security that we are safer than we are, when now more than ever, climate change, fueled by our current capitalist economic model, is threatening the safety of our immediate environment.My hope in writing a novel featuring a woman from medieval India is also to humanize the past, thereby making a piece of Indian history, not usually discussed in a world which is more fixated on Western history, have a chance to become unearthed. It was appealing to me to contrast this storyline with one in the modern-day setting and give Ruby an opportunity to search for her Indian identity, uncover her heritage, and find her voice. Historically, literature has adopted the stereotype of Indian women as being subservient and writing this novel gave me the occasion to showcase the legacy of the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan who hunted tigers and fought on battlefields while riding an elephant.Writing a storyline where the two characters in each timeline go back and forth between each other was the best way for me to have the reader contrast and compare the past with the present. We are the past and the past is us. How different are we from our ancestors living four centuries ago? Are we really as free as we think we are?Taslim Burkowicz: I really enjoyed your short story “Kids in Kindergarten” for the CBC short fiction prize, especially your candid writing style. How did you come up with ideas for the stories you wrote in The Whole Animal?Corinna Chong: Thank you for reading “Kids in Kindergarten”! That story began with the opening line: “She said the ones whose mothers didn’t really want them were always the best behaved.” I was interested in exploring themes of infertility and pregnancy loss, and that sentence struck me as one with many potential layers, especially for a person like my protagonist, who is desperately longing to conceive a child of her own. Each of the stories in the collection began as its own separate entity. Often I’m inspired by something I hear or see—a news story on the radio, an anecdote from a friend, a striking image or curious moment—and that gets me thinking about the people who could be behind it. What I love most about writing stories is how exploratory they can be. I don’t really think about plot when I’m starting a story, and am instead focusing on building out that initial kernel and exploring all of its possibilities. The process of doing that is thrilling and even therapeutic for me, as it becomes a way of processing thoughts and feelings that I’m struggling to make sense of.
Corinna Chong: Who is your ideal reader? What do you hope they will take away from reading your book?
Taslim Burkowicz: Firstly, my ideal reader is someone willing to jump into two very different timelines. They will need to be patient hopping from1600s Agra back into contemporary British Columbia. Overall, there is a lot of adventure in the book, because even in the modern-day storyline, Ruby drives into the heart of BC wildfires and onto another journey to an unexpected destination.
Secondly, my ideal reader would also have to be someone that is interested in learning about history, particularly that of the Mughal Empire. I have included a Mughal Empire family tree at the start of the novel. This time-period first interested me when I visited Rajasthan and looked at the ruins, and I did a lot of research to make sure I got the details correct, such as what kind of food King Jahangir ate, what clothing was worn by peasants and royals, what coins were circulated, which sherbets were popular, and which monuments were constructed during the era to make sure all were represented accurately. The time of the Mughal rule is deeply fascinating – the betrayals and battles are Shakespearean in nature.
Lastly, any reader who is interested in reading a book that features people of colour and their plights, is welcomed. In this book Ruby searches for her identity, but she also breaks the cliché that Indian characters have to solely be sari-wearing, chai-drinking tropes. Ruby, for example, has a deep appreciation for grunge music, and then falls in love with swing dancing, vintage clothing, and jazz music. In my writing, although I am Gujarati, I try to feature Indians from many backgrounds, be it Rajput, Hindu, Punjabi, or otherwise, because living in Canada, a pan-Indian identity appeals to me. I find that the Brown experience is – if not one that shares in many commonalities – one that has many overlaps. In the Mughal Empire, women hailing from many backgrounds resided in the harem. Thus, in my writing, it is very important for me to bring the “Indian” voice, or the voice of the Brown person to the table. My ideal reader is thus someone willing to hear what that voice has to say. In this novel it may be a betrayed Brown housewife married to a white man. In my next, it will be a 17-year-old Brown girl who, amidst experiencing many losses and traumas, jumps headfirst into the underground rave scene in the 90s!Taslim Burkowicz: I am looking forward to reading your new collection of short stories, The Whole Animal, coming out in Spring 2023. What authors and books have influenced your writing journey and why?Corinna Chong: So many writers have influenced me that it’s tough to choose! I think Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore are the two short story writers whose work I most adore. Both Dance of the Happy Shades and Self-Help, which I read as an emerging writer, sparked in me a world-shifting understanding of what a short story could do. I continually return to the work of these writers and find myself blown away every time, mostly by the way they use language so sharply and succinctly to illuminate truths that I hadn’t been conscious of until reading them on the page. My hope is to someday be able to channel at least an iota of their brilliance in my own writing!
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Corinna Chong’s short fiction has appeared in magazines including Grain, Room, and Riddle Fence. She won the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize for “Kids in Kindergarten.” Corinna Chong’s first novel, Belinda’s Rings, was published by NeWest Press in 2013. She lives in Kelowna, BC, where she is an English and Fine Arts Professor at Okanagan College.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.