Sidura Ludwig explores diversity within the Jewish Canadian community with book You Are Not What We Expected

The short story writer and author of the 2007 novel Holding My Breath is back with a collection of linked stories set in a Jewish neighbourhood outside of Toronto.
A smiling woman with a blue shirt and shoulder-length brown hair. A pink and blue book cover featuring a silhouette of a city street.
You Are Not What We Expected is a short story collection by Sidura Ludwig. (Astoria/House of Anansi)

Sidura Ludwig is a fiction writer from Toronto. She is also the author of the 2007 novel Holding My Breath.

Her latest, You Are Not What We Expectedis a linked short story collection that covers a Jewish family and their community in Thornhill, Ont., over 15 years.

When Isaac moves back to Thornhill from Los Angeles, he becomes entangled in more family and neighborhood drama than he could have ever imagined, but also develops relationships that change everything.

Ludwig spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote You Are Not What We Expected.

Drawn to short form

"I actually started writing this book as a novel. Funnily enough, I realized the other day that my 2007 novel, Holding my Breath, I had started writing as a collection of short fiction. They both dovetailed like that.

"When I started writing this book as a novel, it wasn't working. I was at a time in my life where I wasn't in the headspace to write a novel; my kids were quite young and I was having trouble reading novels, so I realized I didn't have any place writing them. 

"I turned back to short fiction which had always been my love, not because it's easier — it's not — but I needed something that I could contain in terms of my own attention span at the time. I started playing around with these characters in different stories. 

I was interested in having a character who comes back to this community and finds himself in this place where he didn't think he would end up.

"I didn't know in the beginning that it was going to be a linked collection until I started having a volume of my written short stories to play with. I realized they were all linked in terms of location and they were all taking place in the Thornhill area. I started to feel like there was this possibility that these stories were happening in tandem to each other.

"If that was the case, what did that mean? As I was revising these stories, I was keeping that in mind: how were these neighbours connected?"

Where I'm from

"Thornhill, Ont., is where I live now and where I'm going to be living for the foreseeable future. It's not where I thought I would end up. But for all kinds of reasons it was the right place for us to settle in and start our family. 

There's a large Jewish community in Thornhill. But it is a varied and diverse Jewish community.

"There's a large Jewish community in Thornhill. But it is a varied and diverse Jewish community. One of the reasons that I wanted to explore this place as the setting is that like outside of Thornhill, people don't necessarily recognise the diversity that exists here. There are a number of different factors and Jewish people that make up what this community is. 

"I'm interested in that. I was interested in having a character who comes back to this community  and finds himself in this place where he didn't think he would end up. How would he respond to this diverse community, one that's very different from what he had experienced?" 

Exploring my identity through fiction

"I've always seen writing as an outlet for me to explore my own identity. Certainly with my first book, that was very much about me looking at my past and my family's past growing up in Winnipeg and being a third generation Winnipegger at that point. I was exploring that kind of area as a better way of understanding me and where I came from. 

"Similarly with this book, I am exploring where we are now, in terms of setting, the kinds of stories that might surround us and what that means for me in terms of who I am. 

I've always seen writing as an outlet for me to explore my own identity.

"We get in and out of this neighbourhood over a span of about 15 years. You're not going to get all the information. But in reading the book, you'll get the opportunity to step into different homes and to sit with those families for a while. They might then be referenced in another story later on. I like that as a reader. I enjoy that kind of challenge, of having to imagine what might have happened.

"With Uncle Issac, I was interested in a character who doesn't compromise. This idea that you have someone — who's been out of his family's life for so long — and then he comes back and becomes an integral part of the family. I wanted to explore what that would mean for somebody who felt that he had total control of his life and then coming back."

Sidura Ludwig's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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