Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Brown Paper Packages Wrapped up in String...

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Brown Paper Packages Wrapped up in String...

In The Sound of Music, when Julie Andrews sings that one of her favourite things is “Brown paper packages,” she doesn’t mean a blog, but I do. Niranjana Iyer’s blog Brown Paper is indeed one of my favourite packages of literary insight, no strings attached. When I open it, I can always find books that may be missing from elsewhere and can always count on hearing a refreshingly unapologetic feminist voice. My thanks to her for These Questions Three.

1. When we first met a few months ago, I was fascinated by your back story. Can you please explain a little bit about how you got to there from here? Please feel free to define “here” and “there” in any way you wish.

After completing my MBA, I worked for a while in large corporations (last with Citigroup), till I started believing I was entitled to do what I really wanted. I wanted to read and to write, and not just on stolen hours on weekends. So I got myself a Masters degree in the arts, and then I started sending out my work.

Clark Blaise says about Indian immigrants to [North] America that material success “has been the easy part. After all, they were programmed to study hard, invest wisely, and live frugally. But that other Constitutional promise, 'happiness,' has been elusive.” I’m a product of the Indian upper-middle class that Blaise so astutely portrays, and in some ways, I had to give myself permission to be happy and to believe that things would work out. And you know what? They did. Sure, it’s been a bumpy road--I initially received nothing but rejection from every Canadian publication I approached. (Fortunately my work got picked up in the US, otherwise I might have returned to banking.) I now work as a freelance writer and spend much of my time reading and writing.

2. Even in just its title, your blog, Brown Paper, impresses me as having both a substance and a direction that sets it apart from other blogs. Can you please address your goals as a blogger, one who writes from the fully-conscious esthetic of a woman of color?

I feel that a lot of Canadian writing is focused inward, intent on (further) explaining Canada to Canadians. My own interest primarily lies in understanding and analyzing how Canada intersects with the rest of the world, particularly with Asia, and that’s where I write from. For instance, when I interviewed Camilla Gibb (for Bookslut) about her novel The Beauty of Humanity Movement, I asked her about the challenges she faced while writing about Vietnam--a country that has a knotty history with the West. I wanted to know what people in Vietnam thought about her book.

My blog is fairly eclectic—my posts include my response to the AGO's Maharaja Exhibit, a piece about spotting the word 'Google' in Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree (1943!), and my reaction to a review in The Walrus of Rupinder Gill’s memoir about growing up Indian in Kitchener—-but I think all my writing reflects my particular sensibility.

Which leads me to my second point: I believe blogging has value when your audience comes to you for a specific viewpoint. I have no time for bloggers who write “I didn’t like this book but I didn’t dislike it either. It did teach me something about [insert African or Asian country of choice].” My blog writing is a product of my identity as a brown feminist South Asian Canadian woman, yes, but also as an eighties-pop addict, die-hard urbanite, book fiend, lapsed MBA, a vegetarian, a mother and much more, and I acknowledge my multiple selves when I blog. I’m aware that many (most!) people simply aren’t interested in such particular writing, but I’ve never blogged to deliberately grow an audience--I’m very grateful to those who stumbled upon Brown Paper and then stayed.

3. We’ve spoken at length about the many challenges and discriminations still facing Canadian women writers today. Just to be different, I’m going to ask you the opposite question. In 2011, what gives women writers hope?

Back when I lived in England and my husband and I were debating a move to Canada, I wrote “Women Writers Rule!” under reasons for Canada. Of course, after endless rejections, my view is now a bit more… nuanced.

What gives me hope? First and foremost: hearing publication stories like yours, where a good book gains recognition and respect and affection, and stands as an affirmation that content matters. I’m also heartened that writers now have direct access to readers via self-publishing and net-based marketing tools. The literary world is mostly curated by dudes who haven’t realized that the planet's English speaking population doesn’t all look like them, but writers from the margins have now stopped seeking their permission to publish their work. Consider Canada-born, New York based Zetta Elliott, who self-published her novel A Wish after Midnight after multiple rejections; the book was subsequently picked up by Amazon's publishing division. When Vancouver-based Navjot Kaur learned her son was bullied in kindergarten due to his Sikh religion, she set up a small press to publish a picture book explaining her faith. Such examples make me believe that we don’t have to wait for the dinosaurs to die before things improve.
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Niranjana Iyer
Twitter: @NinaIyer
Women Doing Literary Things: http://literarywomen.wordpress...
Website: http://niranjana.wordpress.com

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

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