Canadian-born author Shauna Singh Baldwin says she’s always eschewed the notion that what’s going on in a novelist’s personal life must come out on the page. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight from her Milwaukee office, she laughingly declares that writers should receive more credit for their imagination and research skills.
But she admits that while writing The Selector of Souls—her most recent novel centring around two dramatically different yet forceful Indian women—she was heavily influenced by something that happened to her. Baldwin’s feminist play We Are So Different Now had been adapted in India into a misogynist production, upsetting her greatly and causing her to remove her name.
“I had to disown my own creation,” says Baldwin, author of six books. “Well, who does things like that? Fathers who think their daughters are mistakes.”
The Selector of Souls opens with a disturbing scene of a northwestern Indian Hindu midwife, Damina, committing the infanticide of a newborn girl. It underscores a tale of sexism and religious communalism in India in the 1990s, just as the country was opening its economy up to the world and nuclear tensions were rising with neighbouring Pakistan.
“Sex selection, as it turns out, hits everything,” Baldwin maintains. “It is a problem that is endemic and intrinsic to all of life. It is a symptom of everything.”
She’s one of numerous socially conscious novelists, essayists, and poets who will speak at this year’s Indian Summer Festival in Vancouver, which takes place mostly at SFU Woodward’s from today (July 4) to July 13.
Baldwin, who was born in Montreal and earned a master’s of fine arts from UBC, says that The Selector of Souls received an “excoriating review” last year in the newsmagazine India Today for its depiction of sexism in that country. But after a Delhi student was gang-raped on December 16, spurring widespread protests, her book attracted a much warmer reception. “By the time I got there in January, people were actually ready to listen,” she reveals.
Baldwin, who spent her adolescent years in India, is fascinated by how South Asian women advance their cause. She points out that in North America, feminists talk a lot about their legal rights. In India, activists focus on “the language of duty”.
“The women are calling for people to do their duty toward them,” Baldwin emphasizes. “The early feminists used it, and Indian feminists are using it too. And I love it.”
She admits that she could easily write about multiculturalism in North America, but the difference here is that if someone is uncomfortable living in a pluralistic neighbourhood, it’s relatively easy for them to move. In India, it’s not so simple, because people of different ethnicities and religions are forced to live in close proximity. “It’s a perfect place to set something that rubs people up against each other,” Baldwin says.
This sometimes explodes in communal rioting, most notably during the anti-Muslim attacks in the state of Gujarat in 2002, the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, and anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi in 1984.
Like other Sikhs living in Milwaukee, Baldwin had to come to terms with a monumentally horrific event last August in her city. A white-supremacist gunman shot and killed six people and wounded four others at a gurdwara in the suburb of Oak Creek before committing suicide. “It’s the people of Oak Creek who actually reached out to the people in the gurdwara community and said, ‘You know, you belong here.’ ”
Baldwin sees a strong parallel between the Milwaukee gunman’s rage and the behaviour of militant Hindu men at the Babri Masjid mosque, which is mentioned in The Selector of Souls. In both instances, she says, there was a gross sense of entitlement.
At the same time, she acknowledges that Indian men face enormous pressures, because the lack of a social safety net imposes greater obligation on them to support extended families. And she believes that the lack of government services promotes patriarchy, because conservative religious institutions fill the gap.
“It wasn’t so long ago in Canada and the U.S. that this was also the case here,” Baldwin points out. “But it was colonialism that made it possible for the West to achieve all of those social benefits.”