Anita Rau Badami was AU’s Writer-in-Residence for 2014-2015. She has written several books, received numerous awards, and most recently was featured on CBC’s “Canada Reads”, a discussion of books that Canadians should read. She was kind enough to allow AU student Scott Jacobsen to interview her for The Voice Magazine.
You were the 2014-15 Writer-in-Residence at AU. In reflection, how was the time at AU?
Anita: My time at AU was wonderful, both as an instructor and as a practising writer. I had the pleasure of working with interesting writers, both beginners and more experienced ones. My relationship was primarily with the written work since this is a distance education programme, and so I could devote a lot of time and thought to each submission. Hopefully this proved useful to the writers concerned. I also finished a draft of my own book in that time.
What major lessons emerged from the interaction with students, faculty, administrators, and the general AU community?
Anita: Working with students always allows me to think about writing anew, to learn even as I am providing instruction. Because of the nature of the position, I did not need to interact much with faculty and administration, but the little contact that I did have gave me a sense of a strong, supportive and caring community of people. I am so glad I had the opportunity to be a part of the AU family.
Your father worked with the Indian Railways and your family moved from one place to another frequently as a result of his job. How did this affect you as a child? What did you learn from the experience?
Anita: As a result of our gypsy existence I learned to adjust to new places and people as a result. I enjoyed change and the excitement of new discoveries — whether it was people, nature, buildings, or cultures — in each new location. However, because of these frequent moves, I did not have any long term friendships and either entertained myself by reading or engaging in creative activities that involved using my imagination such as writing stories or making art?something my parents encouraged me and my siblings to do. I suppose the combination of a restless imagination and a willingness to combine that with words and make something new was what came of the wandering life.
With respect to developing in your early childhood years in India with talent?perhaps even giftedness?in writing, and becoming a professional writer in the present, where did this love of writing come from?
Anita: I loved reading and always imagined writing like my favourite authors. So I guess that’s where it all started.
Upon completion of your master’s degree, you transformed your graduate-level thesis into Tamarind Mem (1996), your first book (Badami, 2016). How did this come to fruition? Or what was the inspiration and timeline for your graduate work being turned into an international publication?
Anita: I wanted to write a story about the labile, shifting nature of memory in a family, and how a mother and her daughter recall their stories and histories differently. I was also thinking about train tracks which go the same direction, are parallel, and yet, the view on either side can be very, very different. The book took me about two years to write. It was accepted for publication a month after I submitted it and another six months or so to edit before it was ready to face the world.
You came to Canada in 1991. As noted in the January Magazine interview, you said, “I just followed that husband of mine. He moved to Canada to do a course in environmental science” (Richards, 2000). And that was in Vancouver where you lived with your husband and 13-year old son. So how did the love story begin and develop into the present?
Anita: We were introduced to each other by my great aunt who also happened to be my husband’s grade school English teacher, and were married a year later. The love story, as you call it, continues today, 32 years later, our son is 29, and we live in Montreal now.
What perspective does a child give on life for you?
Anita: If you mean, does being a mother give me a new perspective on life, then I’d say certainly. But this is true for practically every change that one undergoes from childhood, through youth, adulthood, and old age. It would take several books to outline all these perspectives, so I think it would suffice to say that I have drawn on all of my experiences to create my fictions.
What differentiates the style of writing in the Indian context compared to the Canadian context?
Anita: I think an author’s style is an individual thing rather than something associated with the place in which one lives or has lived.
Your own writing process, seems complex. I’ve read you start with notebooks and a pen, with about 100 rewrites of the first page of the book. Then you take the best page from those rewrites to the computer, where you complete the work with the notebook as a backup ? for if you get stuck (Richards, 2000). This seems like a common trend in the written word?that after sufficient practice and work with writing for oneself, an individuation of style and process occurs for the individual writer. Of course, Margaret Atwood noted, in a BigThink video on the creative process, that “if you’re not finding this happening somewhat spontaneously, you probably shouldn’t be doing this activity” (BigThink, 2011). How does the writing process seem to emerge to you?
Spontaneously, I’d say, echoing Margaret Atwood, otherwise I would not still be writing! The ideas are always there, the rewriting is what I do in order to refine the language, story, characters, plot.
The current Writer-in-Residence at AU, Esi Edugyan, of Half-Blood Blues acclaim, has said, “I have my own office. A space of one’s own is crucial. I write longhand and on a laptop, depending on the day. But then sometimes I’ll write in cafes, too. I’ve learned to trust anything that works, and not to push a single place or method” (Well, 2016). And you told Professor Tracy Lindberg of AU that your favorite place to write was “On my couch. On my couch.” (CBC Books, 2016a). In terms of assistance to writing, what does the couch provide for you ? other than comfort? In other words, why that space?
Yes, a room of one’s own or a private space where one can disappear for the writing of a book is ideal, but it isn’t always what I need so long as I am at home. My concentration is absolute, so I can work regardless of what is going on around me. I cannot work in public places or hotels and cafes. I have had an office for years now, but most of my home functions as my office as there is nobody at home most of the day. The couch in my living room is a favourite spot when I am working on early drafts of a novel or reading other people’s books. When I am in the final stages of the writing process, I move to my office and hole up there and woe betide anyone who disturbs me.
How do these distinct experiences, in India and Canada, in life, merge in your personal writing?if at all?
As I said in response to an earlier question, all my life experiences feed my writing in one way or another.
You’ve won many awards, your book The Hero’s Walk, for instance, won the Regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, Premio berto, Washington Post Best Book (2001), International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize longlisting, Orange Prize for Fiction, and received a Kiriyama Prize shortlisting (Badami, 2016). And personally you won the Marian Engle Award for a mid-career woman writer (Badami, 2016). What do these awards mean to you?
I am glad my book received some recognition, but I am also aware that I was lucky. A different jury might have chosen differently. On the one hand a prize is a validation or celebration of one’s work by one’s peers which is wonderful and gratifying. Prizes also create an excitement around books and writing and get readers and people who might not otherwise have read a certain kind of book to give it a shot. On the other hand, only one book can win a prize, and as a result becomes far more noticed than dozens of other books which are as good if not better.
What responsibilities to the public come with this extensive recognition of excellence?
I suppose the challenge is to maintain a high degree of artistry and craftsmanship, to write the best book I can.
You recently earned placement on the Canada Reads 2016 shortlist for The Hero’s Walk (AU News, 2016) along with Birdie by Tracey Lindberg, Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz, Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter, and The Illegal by Lawrence Hill. What does this earned shortlisting feel like or mean to you ? especially with these prominent authors earning positions alongside you?
I am delighted and feel very fortunate to have my book on the shortlist with four other very good books.
Now, you described the nature of The Hero’s Walk, as “About heroism at many different levels. I find it touchingly heroic to just see people living from the day they’re born until the day they die, so full of hope. You just wake up every morning and expect the next day to go well. And I find that touching. I wanted to work with that idea: that notion of heroism. And I think that’s basically what the book is about” (Richards, 2000). Since the foundation for the novel, lies in the idea of heroism, why heroism in the context of daily living from birth to death?
So many words have been devoted to grand acts of heroism in epic poems, folk lore and mythology. I wanted to tell the story of an ordinary person who, like so many of us, becomes the hero of his own quiet story of loss and tragedy.
What advice made the most impact for you as a young writer?
Write, stand back, look at your writing objectively, rewrite until it is as perfect as you can make it.
Any advice for novice writers?
Try to write every day. Keep a notepad and pen or something to take down your thoughts with you at all times so you don’t forget that brilliant idea. Read all the other wonderful books out there and learn from them.
Any closing thoughts?
Writing is not always easy, it can be enormously frustrating sometimes. But there are those moments of pure magic when everything falls into place and life becomes rosy again. That’s why I keep writing — to find that magic again and again.
AU News. (2016, March 1). Canada Reads: The AU Connection.
Retrieved from http://news.athabascau.ca/news/canada-reads-the-au-connection/. Badami, R. (2016). About Anita.
Retrieved from http://www.anitaraubadami.ca/. BigThink. (2011). Margaret Atwood’s Creative Process.
Retrieved from http://bigthink.com/videos/margaret-atwoods-creative-process. CBC Books. (2016a, February 10). Anita Rau Badami on talking to Oscar Wilde… and her houseplants.
Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/books/2016/02/anita-rau-badami-magic-8.html. CBC Books. (2016b, March 8). Anita Rau Badami: How I wrote The Hero’s Walk.
Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/books/2016/03/anita-rau-badami-hiwi.html. Richards, L. (2000, August). Anita Rau Badami.
Retrieved from http://www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/raubadami.html. Well, M. (2016, February 26). Meeting the Minds Talking with Esi Edugyan.
Retrieved from https://www.voicemagazine.org/search/searchdisplay.php?ART=11228.
A native British Columbian, Scott Douglas Jacobsen is an AU undergrad and AUSU Councillor. He researches in the Learning Analytics Research Group, Lifespan Cognition Psychology Lab, and IMAGe Psychology Lab, and with the UCI Ethics Center, and runs In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal, and In-Sight Publishing.