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Q & A with Sabrina Ramnanan

June 30th, 2015     by Marta Balcewicz     Comments

Image courtesy of Random House of Canada

Toronto writer Sabrina Ramnanan’s debut novel, Nothing Like Love (Random House), follows a cast of Trinidadian villagers through one summer month filled with hijinks and humour. The novel’s protagonist, an eighteen-year-old girl named Vimla, unwittingly finds herself at the centre of attention after being caught frolicking in the mangrove trees with Krishna, the village pundit’s son. Scandal ensues, and, in the process of dealing with the shame-mongers and a broken heart, Vimla ends up discovering what it is she actually wants.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity

Your novel is extremely rich in detail as it paints a picture of the fictional Trinidadian village where the action is set, from the local plant life to the daily household rituals, to the rules that govern the local market and the types of posters that hang on the walls of the local drinking dive. Can you tell us a bit about your connection to Trinidad and how that influenced the portrait of island life in your book?

So I was actually born in Toronto but I’ve been visiting Trinidad, holidaying in Trinidad I guess, all of my life. I guess all of my life I’ve been soaking up all of the images and sounds and tastes and textures of the island not knowing that one day I would need all of these things. So when I did sit down to write, they all kind of tumbled out onto the page because they were in my mind. Also, it wasn’t only things that I had seen and heard about, but what I’d seen had been enriched by stories my dad had told me, and so even when I wasn’t in Trinidad, Trinidad always felt very close to me … I think, like most writers, I’m an observer, I’m a people watcher, and so I’ve been doing that all my life. When you visit places like this as a child, you can be inconspicuous, and you can eavesdrop and pay attention to the details adults don’t know you’re paying attention to, or don’t think are important, and those are all of the things I used when I ended up writing this.

Did you have to make any special trips just for research?

Actually I did. I was about half way through and I did because I needed to hear the dialect. Because what my parents talk is a very watered down version of that. Some of the quirky sayings, my parents don’t say. You only hear them when you’re there. So I needed to hear it for a prolonged period of time to really get it, so that I could be as authentic as possible when writing the dialogue, because I think dialogue really helps move my story. I went mainly to listen, to listen to people talk. I wasn’t walking around with a notebook, I was sort of existing in that space and that’s really all the research I needed to do. So it was fun research.

Also, before my quote-unquote research trip, I hadn’t been to Tobago … It wasn’t a place we vacationed in. I went with my husband and all of the places I talk about in Tobago [in Nothing Like Love] are real places that I visited.

Why 1974 as the setting for your novel?

In the early 70s, a lot of Trinidadians were migrating from Trinidad. That was important to me because, at the end of the novel, Vimla decides to go, so it was important to me that it was kind of believable. I didn’t want to make it 1970 or 1971 because it wasn’t plausible that a girl would go alone that early, I think they needed a few years to get used to the idea of people going over before she could go. To me it was important that it was true. Another reason is that the talent show, Mastana Bahar that figures prominently in my plot, started in the early 70s also. It’s important in the book that the show is a novel thing. I couldn’t have it in the 80s and 90s when people were used to it and it was a tired, every day thing in Trinidad, like it is now.

Your novel is filled with humour. I read in an article about you that, when writing the manuscript, you would often burst into laughter. Does any particular scene stand out in your memory as having cracked you up the most?

I was always really amused whenever Faiza Mohammed was in a scene. I think I’m probably the most fond of him of all my characters. I’m fond of all of them, but there’s just something really quirky about him. It’s almost every scene he’s in that makes me laugh…I liked the chapter when the three men drink the marijuana drink and have hallucinations, and the women have to walk them back. Which also, as a side point, is very important, because I wanted the women to be the strong, smart, sassy characters that really move the book. Really the quirky secondary characters that I used for comic relief made me laugh. The ones I went to when I kind of got stuck in writing the story. I could always write something about one of them, and the story would move.

Your novel tells a story from a community that is well-represented in Canada. Are enough stories from Trinidad and Tobago, or the Caribbean, being told in Can Lit?

Well, we do have a lot of really great writers. We have Rabindranath Maharaj, V.S. Naipaul, and Shani Mootoo. Shani Mootoo and Rabindranath Maharaj, particularly, reside in Canada for at least half of the year, they travel back and forth quite a bit. My style of writing and my angle is very different from them because they are Trinidadian—they were born in Trinidad. And so their perception of the island life and politics is a little different from mine. I’m first generation Canadian—when I go back, I see the beauty of the island and I see things with fresh eyes because I didn’t grow up there. So our angles are different … [M]y [book] is different because I write from the perspective of a first generation Canadian.

Do you think writers continue to have a role to play in changing society? If so, where you conscious of this as you wrote the book?

I’m treating new space. I was conscious as I was writing of writing women that had a voice, were not afraid to use their voice. I don’t have any demure, shy, women. Nobody is that way. They’re bold and sassy, and they kind of break the rules. For Vimla to go to Canada, even if it was on a scholarship, even if it was to go to school, by herself, is a huge deal. It would have been a huge deal then. And so I wanted to show people how powerful women are, and I intentionally wrote all of my male characters as sort of their shadow. Really, the story is about these young women who take their destiny into their own hands, and they get what they want in the end…

In the novel, scandal erupts when it’s discovered that one of the characters participated in Mastana Bahar, a televised talent show. Are you or your family a fan of the show?

I wasn’t because it aired in Trinidad. So I didn’t really follow it. No. It was more that the show was a shock factor. Even though it was a show specifically for the Indo-Caribbean community, I think it would have been a little shocking for a girl to be on it, even though that’s what it was for. It was also treading new ground—to have a young woman be going up there and singing and dancing. Back then, people were all about preserving their sort of traditional Hindu demure kind of girl. So no, I wasn’t a fan, and I’m not a fan now. It still airs in Trinidad, but it’s not something I’m interested in.

It seems you’ve accomplished a long-standing dream in publishing your first novel. What were the most important steps in achieving that goal? What would you recommend to young aspiring writers?

I think when you have a dream you should follow it regardless of what people want you to do. That’s actually really close to my heart—doing what you know is right regardless of what you feel society thinks is right. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a writer, but I always felt like, you know, if you’re a writer how are you going to pay your mortgage, how are you going to live and, you know, you’re not going to be a millionaire being a writer, unless you’re J.K. Rowling. So, maybe it’s not the most practical thing to do.

I’m also a teacher by trade, I’m teaching part-time, so maybe being a teacher full-time would have been the more practical thing to do, but when I did do that, I wasn’t happy. So I had to backtrack and follow my dream. I think the message is, do what you know you love and what you’re supposed to do, and everything else will fall into place. Because when you do what you’re not supposed to do, you’ll struggle. And I know that from my own personal experience.

In terms of being a writer, write every day. Write as much as you can. Read, read, read, that’s probably the number one thing that you should do – expose yourself to all kinds of different writing. I took a creative writing course at [University of Toronto] and that helped me become a part of a writing community, which is really good for encouragement. That was instrumental in helping me get my publishing deal with Random House because I met the right people. I met my publisher through the program—I was that lucky. And I got my [book] deal before I was even finished my manuscript. So, it’s good to connect yourself and be part of the writers’ community, I think. Because it’s a solitary act, writing. You do it because you love to do it. And if it does go anywhere, well then you’re lucky, right?

What’s your next project?

I’m working on something that’s a little bit closer to home, figuratively and physically. I’m writing about Toronto this time. I’m writing from the perspective of a first generation Canadian like myself who was born to Trinidadian parents but who has a very big Trinidadian family—I don’t have a big Trinidadian family here, but this book is going to follow a similar cast to Nothing Like Love’s cast of characters, but they’re all related. It’s going to be that new immigrant story—because I don’t think it’s been done. Well maybe it has, but this is what we were talking about before, about treading new space. It’s going to be about Toronto. It’s going to be about what it’s like to have immigrant parents. So it’s going to be an immigrant story, but a new twist on the immigrant story. It’s going to be filled with the same kind of humour and it’s going to be flavoured with that Trinidadian, Carribean flavour and humour, but a lot of Canadian flavour, too. It’s going to have a wider audience because any child of immigrant parents in Canada or the U.S. is going to be like, yup, that’s my parents, they’ve done that before, or I know that person. Because we’ve all had those experiences and they’re funny. They weren’t always funny when we were kids, but now they’re funny, when we look back on them. So that’s the kind of thing I’m going to pull into the story, it’s going to be something that speaks to everybody.

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