Are you Ready to Embrace Your Inner Chicken?
My friend, the wonderful Mahtab Narsimhan, has a new book out this month. I’ve read it, and I can tell you that in addition to the story being lovely… it’s going to make you hungry. I decided to invite Mahtab in for a little chat to talk about that, and a few other things, too. As a bonus, we’re going to give away a couple of copies of the new book at the end. Just look at this great cover!
kc: Okay, let’s get started, shall we? Mahtab! Thank you so much for joining me today. Can you tell me a bit about the spark that lit the fire under this book for you?
Mahtab Narsimhan: Actually — there were three!
Food (I’m a self-proclaimed foodie!)
A fun character, and…
An immigrant’s personal experience of wanting, desperately, to fit into Canada.
I was an adult when I immigrated to Canada, and my son was just four years old. He started his schooling here, so he had no trouble fitting in and within a couple of years had made a friends who stayed with him throughout elementary, secondary, and high school.
But I have seen the very real struggle of teens and tweens, who immigrated later in life, as they try to fit in. Sometimes, they are ashamed of their roots, their culture and background. I knew this, and the ensuing embarrassment, was just their perception of the situation because Canadians, by and large, are amazingly inclusive and diverse. What better way to address this issue than through a compelling story and character?
kc: Well, you totally nailed it, Mahtab. I love this story for its empathy, and for its main character. How fun was writing Shivani? Did you know where you were going with her when you began the story?
MN: It’s always fun to write a character who can learn and change through the process of a story. I’ve always loved coming-of-age stories and this one is close to my heart. Truth be told, all my stories and characters are close to my heart.
kc: What about the other players in the story — do you have a fave?
MN: Ma is my favourite! Such a strong, feisty character despite her shortcomings. Inspired by my own mom who is an incredibly strong woman who faced adversity with courage. Luckily she passed on that strength to her children.
kc: Okay, let’s talk a bit about research. How much of your own life experience do you bring into the story? Did you get to do any interesting research before writing this book?
MN: I’m an immigrant. I’ve always tried to be true to country I left behind and the country I now call home. All this is based on real life experiences as I struggled to fit in, make friends and yet remember my own culture which I’m very proud of.
The first few years were extremely hard. Thankfully, there weren’t any language barriers (like Shivani’s mother faced) but there were many other challenges which I managed to overcome.
Of course, in writing an interesting story, you do need to put your characters through the wringer and so I added the language barrier and located the Das family in a small town where they stood out like a couple of gulab jamuns in a bowl of ras malai.
kc: Have you ever had to ’embrace the chicken’ in your own life?
MN: Yes. When I first came to Canada, I would be extremely wary of wearing Indian clothes except when I was at home. My lunches to work would be sandwiches or salads. I was too afraid to stand out by taking aromatic Indian food.
When I became comfortable with my surroundings and my colleagues I started to embrace my Indian-ness more openly.
These days I’m always giving it a bear-hug. I’m proud to be a Canadian-Indian and happy to share my culture and my food with my friends.
kc: Ha! I have been lucky enough to benefit from that. But can I just say how much I love the food in this story? It leaps off the page and into my mouth, I swear! Now, I happen to know that you love cooking — is it fun to bring that element of your life into your writing?
MN: A resounding YES! I love food. Reading about it, writing about it and above all sampling it. All my books have vivid descriptions of food. After all, taste is one of our five senses. How can we ignore it when trying to immerse a reader into the story setting?
In fact, if I read a story where the characters sit down for a meal, and the author skips over the description of it, I feel cheated. I have Enid Blyton to thank for my love of food descriptions. As a young reader she delighted me with meals of tinned peaches, potted meat, and scones even though, at the time, I was not familiar with these foods.
kc: I remember Enid Blyton’s potted meat from Famous Five picnics! I have to say, the food in your stories is a hundred percent more appealing. Now, ‘Embrace the Chicken’ is a story of mothers and daughters, of trying to fit in, of friendships made and lost, and of course, food! What was your favourite part to write?
MN: The final chapter/scene when Mrs. Das gets up on stage to thank the principal. It’s a poignant moment. I hope the readers can feel her fear (I used to be terrified of public speaking) and Shivani’s concern and pride. And her realization that she should have trusted her mother to do the right thing for her kids.
kc: I felt a little weepy reading that scene, I have to say. She was so brave! Mahtab, when you look at the experience of writing your earlier books, how did writing ‘Embrace the Chicken’ compare? Does it get any easier with each new project?
MN: Each project presents a different challenge. Though this one is a lot shorter in wordcount than my previous books, it’s a hi-lo which means a high interest-low vocabulary for reluctant readers. I have to thank my wonderful editor, Tanya Trafford, who told me to write the way I normally do (longish sentences and slightly high vocabulary is the way I like to go because I love challenging my readers). During the editing process we worked hard to ensure that it would fit into the Orca currents series in every way.
kc: What’s got you excited right now? Can you tell us something about your next project?
MN: A middle-grade novel that has horror and magical realism. And it has rats. Lots of them. That’s all I’ll say for now!
kc: <shivers> Oooo! I can’t wait. In the meantime, where can readers find you online?
MN: My website is www.mahtabnarsimhan.com and I’m on twitter at @MahtabNarsimhan.
Thanks so much for joining me today, Mahtab!
Okay, readers, — here’s a challenge for you. If you’d like to win one of two copies of ‘Embrace the Chicken’ tell us the name of one of Mahtab Narsimhan’s earlier novels, either in the comments below, or on twitter or FB.
We’ll do a draw next week for the winners!
And, as always, more soon…!