“I’ve always been interested in telling stories,” says Ashok Mathur, “and for me, stories don’t stop with any form of reality.”
Which is no doubt why the Kamloops-based author’s third novel, A Little Distillery in Nowgong (Arsenal Pulp Press, $27.95), is narrated by an unborn child of indeterminate sex, and why the ghost of the narrator’s grandmother also plays an active role in the plot. Mathur avoids the term magic realism, preferring to call his work “fantastical”, and that it certainly is—although in this case the imaginary is thoroughly rooted in the real-life particulars of the author’s half-Hindu, half-Parsi heritage.
“The earlier novels that I’d produced had been takes and retakes of various forms of mythology and cosmology, mostly Hindu cosmology,” Mathur explains, reached on his cellphone while on a field trip to the PuSh Festival in Vancouver. “And I was becoming more and more fascinated with my mother’s history, which was Zoroastrian, Parsi history.
“She’s a great storyteller,” he continues. “So I wanted to riff off that and create an artifact that would be respectful of those stories, but that would also encourage others—and myself as well—to enter into a new exploration.”
One of several threads explored in A Little Distillery—which otherwise follows the Khargat family’s peregrinations through India, to the U.K., and eventually to Canada—is the Zoroastrian faith. The author doesn’t go into the details of that religion’s rituals, but his narrative is coloured by its central tenets: humata, hukhta, and huvarshta, or “good thoughts”, “good words”, and “good deeds”.
“This is another thing from my mother,” says Mathur, whose maternal grandfather was a dastur, or Zoroastrian priest. “She was very, very strong on these religious tenets. And she’d say, ”˜Well, they’re so practical! It makes sense for everyone to live by them, whether they believe in Zoroastrianism or not.’ ”
His own interpretation of this creed means that Mathur feels a pronounced sense of responsibility, both to his forebears and to future generations. “We tend to think that we live in an existence of right now, which we do,” he explains. “And we also live in a place with a past and a future.”
Honouring all three dovetails nicely with Mathur’s work as director of Thompson Rivers University’s Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada, a multimedia resource centre and think tank for artists whose work touches on aspects of the colonial past, the fractured present, and the multicultural future.
“I think the lab that I have there is really a social experiment that reflects the sort of creative process that artists are interested in, which is ”˜Let’s try this!’ ” he notes.
Mathur’s next literary project is emblematic of his work with CICAC. It’s an imaginative retelling of the history of John Fremont-Smith, a native of the U.S. Virgin Islands who escaped slavery to become a pioneer in the B.C. bush and, eventually, a Kamloops city alderman.
“He was among the first non-Native persons to be moving into this region; in fact, he joked about being ”˜the first white man in the area’, ” Mathur says. “But you look at his pictures and it’s very evident that he’s not, unless by ”˜white’ you mean ”˜non-Native’. So it’s very interesting, this history of identity and race and colonization and recolonization.”
Making it even more fascinating is that the author now lives in a building that Fremont-Smith once owned. It’s also where the former prospector died, and the author says he can sometimes feel a lingering presence in his apartment.
“There’s a particular place that, when I’m standing there, I always see something through my peripheral vision on my right-hand side,” he says. “It’s almost as if you’re living in a house full of people and someone’s just gone down the hall.
“Ghosts, of course, mean many things to many different people,” he adds, and this particular revenant is more encouraging than antagonistic—one more sign, Mathur feels, that he’s on the right track.