In the books I write, I make it a point to feature Indo-Canadian characters who struggle with their identity and what that encompasses in a post-colonial world. In Ruby Red Skies, my main character Ruby, wrestles in her failing relationship with her white husband. As she addresses the complexity of her past, she ventures into wildfires, remembering stories she was once told about her Mughal ancestry. Thus, the type of books I tend to gravitate towards also include tortured characters.
Whether plagued with how to reconcile past traumas and betrayals or how to make sense of their own sexuality or race contextualized within our capitalistic society, here is a list of books showcasing my favourite kind of character: the flawed.
The Robber Bride, by Margaret Atwood
I was a teenager when I read this book. Sitting on my parent’s burgundy velour couch, I inhaled it over hours until I finished it. The Robber Bride features Zenia, the classic toxic friend who systematically betrays three of her female friends. The book stayed with me over the years, not because of Zenia’s complexity in being able to integrate herself into the lives of people and destroy them, but because of the magical way Atwood describes ordinary lives to the readers. How we build lives with the people we love, how we make tea in the morning, how we become the type of people who might raise chickens or go into academia—Atwood makes the mundane glisten, helping us realize how the flaws that build up in us over time can cause our eventual downfall.
Glass Beads, by Dawn Dumont
As I was wandering the library looking for my next read, Glass Beads caught my eye with its striking cover of stylish boots and Native artwork. Dumont’s book is comprised of short stories featuring four complex characters who are struggling to live life off the reserve. In a post-colonial world, Dumont’s characters all have seemingly different issues that plague them—one wishes they had more ties to their Cree ancestry whereas another never fully reconciles with past trauma. Each character has a unique way of reckoning with the world, bound together only by their shared cultural past. Dumont uses realistic and vivid dialogue in this book helping us share the experience of Indigenous characters being thrown into urban Canada. And she doesn’t shield us from the rawness.
Brother, by David Chariandy
The retro turntables on the cover of this book drew me in, and I was brought right into the subculture of the Toronto hip hop scene. Brother follows the story of two siblings who are forced to raise themselves as their Trinidadian mother works all hours to keep the family afloat. While Chariandy makes dialogue come to life with urban lingo, Trinidadian slang, and black cultural references, the book stays with you because of the haunting complexity of the characters. Chariandy’s characters try to find a place for themselves in a white world where black men have a confined space in which to grow.
Help! I’m Alive, by Gurjinder Basran
I read this book just this week, because as a fellow Indo-Canadian author, I loved Basran’s portrayal of an Indian upbringing in Everything Was Good-Bye. With a teenage suicide as the focal point, Basran tells the journey from the point of view from all the people closest to the boy. While Basran realistically constructs the teenage experience for the reader, it is the story of the Indo-Canadian mother that draws me in. Pavan, who secretly smokes joints and is filled with a crippling anxiety when it comes to her sons, makes me cheer for an Indo-Canadian female character who breaks the expectations of how brown women are typically presented in our society.
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, by M.G. Vassanji
I was drawn to this book because M.G. Vassanji has the same cultural background as I do; he has Indian ancestry, and his family was born in East Africa. Vassanji does not shy away from featuring characters who are complicated, tortured, and dark. Vassanji navigates the politics that come with Indians settling in a place that is not their home, capturing the brown immigrant experience of being stuck in an “in-between world.”
The Subtweet, by Vivek Shraya
Last week, I listened to Shraya’s book on audio, because I love a good narration. Shraya brings to focus the Indo-Canadian experience of being brown, being young, and being an artist. She pulls together a cast of characters whose insecurities and self-doubt inhibit their capacity to love and support one another. In a post-colonial world where even brown people’s success is measured by the standards of Western culture, what space do brown women have to succeed?
Anatomy of a Girl Gang, by Ashley Little
When my youngest son was still nursing, I stayed up all night and devoured this book. Unflinchingly dark and violent, Little portrays the world of Vancouver’s street life through the eyes of girls forgotten by mainstream society. Impulsive, thrill seeking, and living for the day, Little’s characters are as tortured as they come, giving us a realistic depiction of teenage life in the Eastside. Little makes us question how viable our capitalist society is in giving people an equal chance at life.
The Cure for Death by Lightning, by Gail Anderson-Dargatz
This book, presented to me in an English class at college, is one of the best examples of a book featuring a cast of imperfect characters: there is a boy with Tourette’s syndrome with a terrible nickname and a mother with a man’s voice and extra finger. Anderson-Dargatz has Beth navigate her coming of age and sexuality in the backdrop of a poor Canadian farming community, adeptly interweaving race and class.
Ruby used to be a fiery, sexy, musical genius. But when she got pregnant as a teenager in the 90s, her life took a turn into banality. Now a middle-aged Indo-Canadian woman, she feels unseen and unheard by her white husband and struggles to communicate with her mixed-race daughter. When she discovers her husband cheating, she embarks on a quest to unearth exciting secrets from her past. To find what she needs, she drives straight into B.C.’s raging wildfires, accompanied only by the fantastical stories her mother used to tell about their ancient Mughal ancestry — a dancer named Rubina who lived in the concubine quarters of the great Agra Fort. This book is at once historical fiction and political romance, deftly navigating themes of mixed-race relationships, climate change, motherhood, body shame, death and the passage of time.
Comments herecomments powered by Disqus