Books·Magic 8 Q&A

How listening to old Bollywood songs helped Taslim Burkowicz write her debut novel

Taslim Burkowicz, author of Chocolate Cherry Chai, answers eight questions from eight writers.
Taslim Burkowicz, author of Chocolate Cherry Chai, lives in Surrey, B.C. (Fernwood Publishing)

Taslim Burkowicz's debut novel Chocolate Cherry Chai is a narrative mix of various themes, including familial pressures, the immigrant experience, motherhood, love and loss. It follows the life of protagonist Maya Mubeen, a free-spirited young female of South Asian descent who enters a secret world of past lives lived after partaking in an ancient chai-making ritual.

Below, Burkowicz takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A, answering eight random questions from eight writers.

1. Lynn Coady asks, "Is there a poet, philosopher, musician, painter or any other type of artist outside the world of fiction who has inspired your work in a concrete way at some point or another? If so, who?"

An influential artist for me, early on in my writing, was Nina Simone. I listened to her piece The Other Woman repeatedly and felt like the music seeped through me and a story came out. Since then, artists I turn to will often relate directly to the work I am doing.

For example, I listened to a lot of old Bollywood songs and looked at how actresses historically wore their saris to create Sukaina's character in Chocolate Cherry Chai and consulted socialist works (Karl Marx, Emma Goldman) to develop her radical side. 

2. Timothy Taylor asks, "How important have your other work choices — i.e. the things you've done to make money — been to your literary writing?" 

In the past, teaching abroad gave me the currency to experience world travel, which in turn developed my taste for sensory writing. 

3. Pasha Malla asks, "Flannery O'Connor: 'All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.' Where do your 'reaches of reality' extend to?"

In my novel, the "reaches of reality" include the use of magic, in that the main character is transported through time whenever she drinks an age-old chai. The chai is used as a vehicle that allows the reader to experience generations that have passed and slip into other eras.

However, in my work, the "reaches of reality" still remain concrete rather than transcendent, as I use real political events (for example Idi Amin's expulsion of Asians in Africa, or the migration of Indians to Africa by boat). I throw my characters into these situations to see how they fare. To me, the "reaches of reality" also means presenting the reader with a reality they may not previously have experienced, such as the feeling of exclusion in Canadian society as experienced by an older Indian woman.

4. Kate Hilton asks, "Is a talent for writing a blessing or a curse?"

A blessing in the sense that writing helps me process life and transform experience into literary form. When I go running, my mind sorts out plot ideas, dialogues, characters and sometimes this turns into a curse for me, because I am forever looking for that magic mile where my head is soaring with clarity.

5. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "Do you think the portrayal of certain character types are beyond you? Can you name a character in a novel, whose personality/point of view/character traits etc. you know you could never write?" 

I lean heavily on my direct experiences as a minority woman to write. While I strive to write characters that I am not familiar with, a limitation for me would be a character like David Bourne in Ernest Hemingway's The Garden of Eden. Race and gender as a challenge aside, the book is written with a certain lifestyle and period in mind — a limitation for me.

6. Alexi Zentner asks, "Would you want your kids to be writers?" 

I want my boys to find an outlet for creativity. Right now, that can be piano playing, ballet or skateboarding, but, to be honest, it mostly looks like wrestle play choreographed to Megadeth songs.

7. Frances Itani asks, "Describe a walk that would and could feed your imagination and your writing. In what part of the world would this walk take place?"

This question very much depends on the setting of the novel I am writing. In Chocolate Cherry Chai, I could not go to some of the places I described in the novel (e.g. a jungle in Tanganyika) and I relied on photos and books. Today, the destination I would walk would be somewhere along the route of Vancouver to Williams Lake, because my current character is chasing the wild fires raging through B.C. to find a former lover. 

8. Shani Mootoo asks, "Is the writing life a selfish indulgence, a narcissistic quest or a plain crazy way to try and make a living?"

A selfish indulgence. Once you have enough material written, you've made a small world to disappear into and created a portal so that others might visit it later.