Tyee Books

'Everything Was Good-bye,' a Canadian Romeo and Juliet

BC Book Prize winner Gurjinder Basran on constricted girlhood, arranged marriage, a mother's pride and more.

By Fiona Tinwei Lam 22 Apr 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Fiona Tinwei Lam is the author of two books of poetry, and the co-editor of the non-fiction anthology, Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood.

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'Chip away at the alienation': first time novelist Gurjinder Basran.

The BC Book Prizes were announced last night. The winner of the fiction award is Everything Was Good-bye, by first time novelist Gurjinder Basran.

As few novels have been written about the first generation Indo-Canadian experience, Basran's novel provides an invaluable window into what it is like to grow up caught between western and Punjabi culture. The main character in the novel, Meena, is a first generation Indo-Canadian teenager, the youngest of six daughters. Her widowed mother works as both a farmworker and a housekeeper at a local hotel in order to support the family. Meena lives in kind of a parallel universe in relation to her more well-off, permissively-raised Caucasian classmates who are blithely oblivious to the racism and economic hardship her family endures. Meanwhile, she struggles to assert her independence while living in a close knit community where tradition, family duty, and cultural ritual dictate how she should spend her time, whom she can choose as friends, and what she can pursue as a career.

Meena is befriended by Liam, a fellow outsider and kindred spirit at school. But because he is a boy as well as white, she has to keep her relationship with him hidden from her mother and community. The thread of that secrecy -- and the consequences of it -- run through the rest of the story, tying beginning to end, while providing a different take on the age-old theme (from Romeo and Juliet to Mina Shum's film, Double Happiness) of forbidden romance.

In the novel, Liam and Meena's other Caucasian high school classmates and work colleagues repeatedly fail to understand the reasons why she rebuffs their invitations to socialize after school or work. When I recently asked the author in an email interview whether this lack of understanding persists today, Basran replied that "...most young people aren't up front about why they aren't able to socialize with their friends and they also don't challenge their parents about it. This of course only perpetuates the lack of understanding on both sides. The truth of the matter is that within communities like Meena's, the socialization isn't encouraged because there is a fear that socialization will lead to assimilation. The community very much wants to preserve its identity and cultural heritage so it can be quite insular. I've always thought the best way forward is to encourage more community building that isn't culturally specific in an effort to chip away at the alienation."

Can love be arranged?

Arranged marriage is a major theme in Everything Was Good-bye. Meena's mother worries about how to marry off all of her daughters, and how their behaviour will affect their reputations and eligibility as potential marriage partners. Later in the book, the adult Meena ponders her options: while one sister welcomes an arranged marriage, another sister copes with ongoing spousal abuse. As Meena slides into an arranged marriage herself, submitting to the expectations of her family and community while ignoring her true self, the subtle and not so subtle repression and violence she experiences in her marriage lead to an inevitable cultural collision.

When asked about her views on arranged marriage, Basran doesn't come down completely against it, but does emphasize the necessity of free choice: "I think that an arranged marriage has the same chance of success as a 'love' marriage, especially when compatibility is taken into consideration when entering into the arrangement. If both parties are committed to the marriage and each other, they can have a very satisfying relationship. In the book, the arranged marriages that aren't working are the ones where the couples have different values and or levels of commitment to each other. Ultimately a person should be able to choose which approach to marriage is right for them; I don't think an arrangement should be expected or forced on anyone."

I also asked the author about the influence of media attention over the past five or six years on spousal abuse in the South Asian community. The issue was brought back into the spotlight last month with Muhktiar Panghali's sentencing hearing for the second-degree murder of his wife, elementary schoolteacher Manjit Panghali. In 2006-7, there was a spate of spousal assaults and deaths of Indo-Canadian women in the Lower Mainland that led to awareness campaigns and community forums. Although some denied that culture was a factor, former attorney general Wally Oppal noted how the incidence of spousal assault in the South Asian community was directly linked to discriminatory attitudes towards girls and women.

Basran denied the media attention played a part. "I tried my best to never pay attention to any of the controversial topics that were making news. Though I was aware of many of the cultural issues, I didn't want the novel to be a response to the specific issues that the community was facing. Any controversies that came out of the narrative were dictated by the characters actions, not mine."

'Bigger than my life'

The impetus for the story initially came from a journal project with her sisters. Basran stated, "We were writing about various experiences from our past in an effort to better understand our unique perspectives. For a multitude of reasons the ambitious project was short-lived but I continued to write and many of the short pieces that I had written about my own youth were the seeds for the narrative."

Despite working full-time as a regional manager with Bell Mobility and being a mother to two pre-teen children, Basran later managed to develop those narrative seeds into a manuscript with the encouragement of writing mentor Wayde Compton at The Writers' Studio at Simon Fraser University, a part-time year-long certificate program in creative writing that Basran attended in 2006. Basran then continued to work on the manuscript under the guidance of Pasha Malla through the Wired Writing Program at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Her manuscript was a semi-finalist for the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and won Mother Tongue Publishing's Search for the Great B.C. Novel Contest in 2010.

"The most difficult part of writing the book was the physical and emotional toll it took on me. I juggled my writing with a full time career and a busy family life so carving out time to write was a challenge. On top of that, in order to write with any degree of authenticity I found myself asking questions, revisiting memories, thoughts, experiences -- it was both an excavation and exploration of self that could not be contained in the writing and spilled into other aspects of my life. At times the narrative became bigger than my life and consumed me."

Basran acknowledges the parallels between her own life and that of her main character. "I was very much like Meena when I was growing up and like her, I am the youngest of six daughters who were raised by a widowed mother. The loss of our father and the feelings of alienation in two worlds (Punjabi and Canadian) and the lack of personal freedom were issues that impacted us profoundly. However when it came to the actual characters, they are composites of people I've met, known and dreamed up."

As she was concerned about her family's reaction to the book, she showed them an early draft. "It was difficult for some of my sisters to read it, but no one suggested I change anything, and even if they had, I don't think I would have. After that point I didn't feel the need to show them alternate drafts, and I think they had faith in my judgement and are certainly proud of the end result. My mother can't read English and my attempts of explaining the narrative to her in any detail have been hampered by my poor Punjabi. Despite this I know that her initial skepticism has faded and she's proud of the achievement."

Indeed, Everything Was Good-bye is an achievement to be proud of, and has garnered the recognition and positive attention it is due.  [Tyee]

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