Creative Nonfiction Prize
Mo Srivastava on Planet Earth
There are five names on the shortlist for this year's CBC Creative Nonfiction. Before we announce the winner, we want to introduce you to the finalists and their stories.
Mo Srivastava talks about starting to write at age 50, his work as a geostatistician, and the false assumptions we make about other people.
Tell us about yourself.
If I follow the tradition of explaining oneself through one’s profession, I guess I’m a “geostatistician” (which is a statistician who applies his knowledge to data gathered from Planet Earth). Sometimes, especially in polite company and when I don’t want to scare small children, I describe myself as a “geologist” because that is less intimidating. I rarely describe myself as a statistician because that usually inspires a yawn and brings the conversation to a crashing halt.
If I describe myself in terms of what’s important to me, I’m a dad before I’m a geostatistician: three great kids, two older girls and a young boy.
Are you the same Mo Srivastava that cracked the tic-tac-toe lottery tickets?
One and the same, the guy described as a stutterer in the Wired magazine article.
When did you start writing?
When I was graduating from high school, back when we still used typewriters, my dad asked me what I wanted to do at university, and my first answer was that I thought I might try writing. He advised me to develop a skill that might translate into a paying job, and more than three decades passed before I decided, at 50, that I really did want to write.
In the past few years, I've written a few things, often directed at a particular individual. Last year, I wanted to test the waters and see if my writing might appeal to a wider audience. So I sent in a piece to the 2012 Creative Nonfiction competition. When it didn't get long-listed, I took another look at it, tried to smooth out the rough bits, and decided to submit a different piece this year. My original hope had been to write something around my brother’s death; but I wasn't able to get that piece to work it’s still too raw and chaotic in my mind.
The characters in this story are all from outside of Canada. Do you see this story as typically Canadian?
Yes; we are rich as a nation of immigrants, and this makes the story familiar. But it’s also a story about the false assumptions we make about other people. In that sense, it’s a story about how we’re less different than we might imagine. The story could work well without the superficial differences created by accents and age; those are the mis-directors, the things that create a false sense of difference.
Did you tell the people who are featured in your story that you were writing it?
No. I’m not sure they’re even alive. The last time I saw Mancy, more than 25 years ago, she was well into her 70s. I saw her several times after the first meeting described in “The Gods of Scrabble,” but lost track of her when I left Vancouver.
You deconstruct some of Mancy’s words, the group is playing Scrabble, and there is discussion around the meaning and legitimacy of words: why have you put such an emphasis on language?
In large part because this is what happened. Words and language create the backdrop against which the narrator (me) is worried that the other players will demand a full explanation of his seven-letter word. And I guess that I enjoy the richness of language, the surprises, joy and amusement of language.
The narrator’s injury serves as a tool to connect the different generations. How important is this intergenerational relationship?
I think I have developed some of the cynicism that is typical of age, a belief that younger people are less connected to the world and to others, lost in their iPod shuffle and the falsehood of Facebook friends. But I also realize that this is exactly the kind of presumption that the story challenges; there was a time when it was difficult for me to comprehend that old people are sexual beings. And I've often been delighted, charmed and amazed by the compassion and universal humanity in some of the things my kids have said, wisdom decades beyond their few years on the planet. It’s quite likely that their relationships are richer and deeper than I give them credit for.
Injuries, and disabilities, sometimes are barriers to communication, one more reason to avoid another. My dog recently taught me that it’s fine to go up and communicate with the man in the wheelchair. Relationships always involve bridging difference; none of us is exactly the same as another. We choose whether to focus on the differences or the similarities.
How does it feel to be shortlisted for this prize?
Utterly amazing; I’m beaming with pride. My mother’s side of the family is related to John McCrae of “Flanders Fields”. My grandmother, Elsie Rae, was a playwright and a poet; I carry her maiden name as my first name. My mother was a wonderful storyteller and would have been a great writer had she overcome her reluctance to mess about with some less-than-good writing. Being short-listed for the Creative Nonfiction Prize leaves me feeling like a proud Rae, and gives me hope that I might yet be a “real” writer.