In her debut novel Bone and Bread (House of Anansi), Saleema Nawaz folds readers into the story of two sisters: Beena, the eldest, the dreamer, the teenaged mom; and Sadhana, the younger sister, the artist, the anorexic, the perfectionist. Nawaz traces their lives from their childhood apartment over their parents’ bagel shop in Montreal and into their divergent adult paths, telling the history of the two sisters as they draw back from one another and return, their orbits bound by their memories of struggle and love. A wise and colourful narrative, Bone and Bread makes for very satisfying binge-reading.
Nawaz is also the author of the short story collection Mother Superior (Freehand Books), which was shortlisted for the Quebec Writers’ Federation Best First Book Prize. Her story “My Three Girls” won the Journey Prize in 2008. Originally from Ottawa, Nawaz currently lives in Montreal.
Melissa Bull: You’re getting a ton of attention for your new novel. I think it’s going to do very well—I’m excited for you.
Saleema Nawaz: I can’t really account for it. It makes me a little bit nervous. Because when you’re working on stuff you don’t really think about people reading it—or I don’t, anyway. Anyway, it’s amazing. And hopefully if it means that it will find its way into the hands of people who will like it.
MB: I think people will like it. And it’s got a very cinematic quality. I could see you getting a call from Sarah Polley …
SN: That would be amazing. I don’t know if you’ve seen that blog meme that’s going around, The Next Big Thing? I did one a while ago. One of the questions on it is who you would cast in the movie version of your book, and I said I want Sarah Polley to play Mama. She’s all ethereal and weirdly wise and I could just age her.
MB: What made you want to set Bone and Bread in Montreal? Not that we can always choose these things.
SN: Yeah! [Laughs.] Thanks for acknowledging that, because I was like, Oh, My God, I don’t choose anything! But I guess part of it was sort of a love letter to Montreal because I was infatuated—and still am—with Mile End.
MB: So à propos of Mile End, and your book, which are your favourite bagels? Fairmount? Or St. Viateur?
SN: Well, I have to say Fairmount, purely out of the allegiance that the store I lived next to and which gave rise to the story in the novel.
MB: Bone and Bread began as a short story called “Bloodlines” that was published in your first book, Mother Superior. You felt the characters from “Bloodlines” were still present for you after you’d written the story? How did that work?
SN: Yeah, I actually started working on the Bone and Bread when I just had finished revising [“Bloodlines”] to send it out. Before it was published, I just kept having a hard time trying to trim it down to five thousand words. I wanted to start a novel because I could clearly keep writing about [the characters] indefinitely.
MB: I feel like Bone and Bread a very plot-driven novel—so much ground is covered over a fairly vast amount of time. Did you have some sort of map to guide you through the series of events, the tragedies, and to navigate the sisters’ evolving personalities?
SN: No, I didn’t really have a plan. I wish that I had had a plan! Because if I had, I probably would have saved years of time. And hundreds of pages! [Laughs.] No, I had a plan but the plan just wasn’t terribly detailed.
MB: So you were tracking the movements of your characters more sweepingly? Milestones? Births, deaths, etc?
SN: Yeah, those things were already set up at the beginning. I had twenty pages, say, when I first started. There were certain things that I guess were set in motion by that. And so I kind of followed them from there. Like Beena trying to uncover what happened to her sister, Sadhana, and Quinn trying to find his father. Those were seeds that were already planted.
MB: The characters of Bone and Bread endure a lot of tragedy, and while I think there are consequences to their losses, the consequences don’t really turn them into victims. I feel this must have been a conscious choice.
SN: It wasn’t, actually, but I guess one concern was that the novel would just be too depressing. I was and am worried that it’s too dark. But I’ve talked to a couple of people I know who’ve read it, and they’re like, Oh no, it’s not. There’s something there, an element of hope, I guess.
MB: For sure. I also think that tragedy just happens. It happens to everybody.
SN: Yes, I agree. I do think it happens to everybody. I mean, [Beena and Sadhana] do seem particularly unlucky, but they’re certainly not the most unlucky people who ever lived. They’re not so unusual in many of their struggles. I think the key was the characters themselves resisted being victims.
MB: Sadhana and Beena’s mother, Mama, is written with such compassion. Given her neo-pagan, yogi, moon-watching proclivities, she could have come across as a flake. But she’s really not. Mama’s search for spirituality, her connection to different cultures, the way she embraces the world and opens it up for her daughters is genuine. I felt, reading about Mama, as though you must really love her, as though you enjoyed writing her.
SN: Yeah, I do really love her. She is probably my favourite character. When I was first writing the short story, she was the one that I was the most entranced with because she seems to embody this kind of paradox in which she does seem like potentially the most flaky woman alive, but she is actually wise and earnest. I sort of feel like she’s the character I wish I could be but I’m not, because I’m too cynical.
MB: How did the characters become, or turn out, Sikh?
SN: It came from the character of Mama, and the way in which her journey mirrored some of my own experience. When I was around twenty I did an intensive, year-long yoga teacher training. [I studied] Kundalini yoga with Yogi Bhajan, who brought Kundalini yoga to North America back in the sixties. His background is Sikh, so I was exposed to some of those ideas and teachings through the course of that training. I never decided to go on and actually use it, but I attached a lot of that stuff that to Mama.
MB: How do you feel about telling the story of two girls who are culturally mixed—half Irish born-again Sikh, half Indian? I come from a culturally mixed family, so it could be that I was particularly attracted to that aspect of the novel.
SN: Yeah, I’m definitely really interested in these families that resist explanation.So many of us have these really complicated backgrounds, and maybe ultimately they’re not that complicated. It’s just not obvious [what someone’s cultural background is] when you look at them, which is a really old lesson: you can’t tell everything about someone by looking at them. Even though it’s probably more the rule than the exception now, there’s still this assumption that people’s families are simple.
But there’s a difference between what I set up in the short story and what I set up in the novel. In the short story, Papa lives longer. He lives until the girls are teenagers. When I was writing the novel I realized that I didn’t want [Beena and Sadhana] to have grown up going to temple and stuff. I wanted them to be more mixed than if they had been raised by-the-book Sikh until they were teenagers. I wanted their background to be informed purely by Mama’s eclecticism.
MB: Beena and Sadhana seem to have a strong sense of responsibility for each other. On first glance it might seem as though the eldest sister, Beena, is the one who looks out for her anorexic sister Sadhana. And she does, and certainly Sadhana’s illness takes up space in the in the very particular way that illness can. But ultimately, it’s a shared thing, I think. They’re looking out for each other. Tell me about the appeal of writing about the closeness of these two women, and what it was like to explore the ways in which they trespass each others’ limits all the while remaining loyal to one another.
SN: Beeha is so repressed, and she’s worried that if she lets things in it’ll just be too much. So in some ways Sadhana has this kind of wisdom that Beena doesn’t have. They do look after each other. And then when they move out with [Beena’s son] Quinn it’s almost like a marriage, because they are co-parenting.
I don’t actually really have siblings, so I don’t know for sure if this is true, but I get the sense that siblings know you well, but it’s different [from the way that parents do] because parents have all these expectations and hopes—a romantic partner can, too—and they can idealize you. I think siblings can be much more clear-eyed about each other. There’s a lot going on here between Beena and Sadhana. They have this history of guilt, and everything becomes quite fraught.
MB: Tell me a bit about the time period you set the novel in: Montreal in the eighties, nineties, early two-thousands. There’s a lot of ground covered there, from the 1995 Referendum to the scandals of Hérouxville to general street rioting.
SN: When I started writing it, I decided Beena was going to be thirty-four, somewhat arbitrarily, because I wanted her to be a little bit older than I am now. Of course, I am thirty-four now, but that was five or six years older than I was at the time I started writing the book. I didn’t really think of the politics of the time, it was just more like thinking about what year things were happening. Some of the Quebec stuff just pushed its way into the novel. I hadn’t really planned to write about any of that stuff. But it’s hard to not write about it.
MB: Being aware of Quebec’s political climate is also pretty central to living in Montreal. Do you think the protests are as much a part of the Montreal landscape as the bagels?
SN: Yeah. Montreal seems like it’s always ready to riot or march.
Maisonneuve, House of Anansi and Drawn & Quaterly present the launch of Bone and Bread tonight at 7:30 pm at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly (211 Bernard Ouest), where Nawaz will chat with Maisonneuve editor-in-chief Drew Nelles about Bone and Bread, writing and life in Montreal. (Check out the event on Facebook.)
Bone and Bread will be available for sale, as will Maisonneuve's new Spring 2013 issue. Wine and refreshments will be served. See you there!