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GTA authors on publishing during a pandemic

Hot off the press, meet the writers behind some of the GTA's new and noteworthy fiction

Hot off the press, meet the writers behind some of the GTA's new and noteworthy fiction

(Left to Right: Uzma Jalaluddin, Marlowe Granados, Ashley Audrain, Sheung-King, Valene Campbell, Meera Bala)

It's been a challenging year and for many, reading is a safe escape from uncertain times. April 23rd is Canada Book Day and World Book and Copyright Day (did you know? Now you know!). In that literary spirit, we talked to six GTA writers, established and rising, about their recent books. Some were inspired by the pandemic, others have created a world that they hope will be a welcome distraction.

Get to know the authors below.

Uzma Jalaluddin
author of Hana Khan Carries On

(HarperCollins, Andrea Stenson)

What inspired you to write your latest book? 
I was out for dinner with my husband in the Spring of 2017, at a nice halal restaurant that served American-style fare. I remarked how, growing up in 80's and 90's Toronto, the type of halal food available in restaurants was so limited. Today my kids can get halal pepperoni on their pizza! As a 90's kid, I love the classic romcoms like 'You've Got Mail.' In that moment I had a flash of inspiration - why not explore the evolution of immigrant communities using two rival halal restaurants? That's how HANA KHAN CARRIES ON came to be. 

In these difficult times, why are books more important than ever?
Books are a much-needed escape from lockdowns, outside stress, and from screens (unless you're using an e-reader!). I read to experience life in someone else's shoes, to go on adventures that are, unfortunately, impossible for me right now. I also believe the act of reading makes one a more empathetic, compassionate person. As I tell my high school students: "Reading makes you smarter and better looking." 

How has living in the GTA influenced your work?
As a GTA-based writer, I'm fascinated with my city. Both my first and second novels have been set in Toronto, specifically the wildly diverse suburb of Scarborough, where I grew up. I enjoy capturing the idiosyncrasies and coziness of community, both found and familial, and my writing is a direct result of being born and raised in the wonderful, complicated reality that is Toronto. As a writer, it is my great joy to try to untangle that complicated reality with nuance and humour.

 What advice would you give to aspiring writers... especially while working during COVID-19 and lockdown?
I've found it a struggle to write during the COVID lockdown, and the best advice I can give is to be kind to yourself. We are living through exceptional times, and the world feels completely unbalanced, so it is natural to find it exhausting to create. That being said, I find deadlines are a wonderful thing, and having a writing community you are accountable to can also be helpful. And remember – reading books, imagining, story boarding, plotting, taking walks, and immersing yourself in everyday life, are all part of the writing process as far as I'm concerned!   

Uzma Jalaluddin is a teacher and columnist for the Toronto Star. She lives in Markham.

Marlowe Granados
author of Happy Hour

(Flying Books, Basia Wyszynski)

What inspired you to write your latest book?
I didn't feel like the kinds of women I surround myself with were being reflected in any art. I wanted to write a novel about the resilience of young women and their commitment to fun and lightness.

In these difficult times, why are books more important than ever?
Ultimately I feel like we've had an entire year to reimagine our futures. Books take us out of our present state and give us a respite from our actual lives. I think people have really clung to books recently for that reason.

How has living in the GTA influenced your work?
I grew up in Toronto, so at a very young age I was able to roam around the city and create my own sense of freedom and independence. Without that I don't know who I'd become! 

What advice would you give to aspiring writers... especially while working during COVID-19 and lockdown?
I think it's important to be as gentle as you can with yourself. I think it's rather lofty to expect to come out of a pandemic with a body of work. If you're feeling unproductive, remember that you're definitely not alone. 

Marlowe Granados lives in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood. She is a writer, filmaker and co-host of the Mean Reds podcast.

Ashley Audrain
author of The Push

The Push is a novel by Ashley Audrain. (Penguin Random House Canada, Barbara Stoneham)

What inspired you to write your latest book?
The inspiration, I think, was becoming a mother myself. I thought a lot in the first year of motherhood, especially, about the societal expectations of women to feel a certain way about being a mother, and even to speak a certain way about it. The reality is, of course, that many women have an experience of motherhood that falls outside of these typical narratives. And yet, we don't often talk about this - we aren't often invited to. The novel started with a collection of scenes that explored these feelings through the character of Blythe, who has a daughter she cannot connect with, and a marriage that begins to crack under the weight of this.

In these difficult times, why are books more important than ever?
I think books give us that much-needed sense of connection right now when so many of us are feeling isolated and tired of our day-to-day. Reading is a way to immerse ourselves in the human experience, to feel seen and validated, and to better empathize with our differences. I've heard from readers who hadn't picked up a novel in years until the pandemic, but they've reignited their love for fiction now, and I think this is why. There's no doubt that books are essential for the human spirit.

How has living in the GTA influenced your work?
Before the pandemic, I really liked to write in public places where I could feel the energy of the city, like coffee shops and libraries and hotel lobbies, where I felt immersed in the hum of other people's lives. There's a wonderful creative energy in Toronto that I find incredibly inspiring.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers... especially while working during COVID-19 and lockdown?
I'm very grateful for the privilege of doing my work safely from home. But it's meant productivity during the day is hard to find right now, once the kids are awake and virtual learning begins. So I've found a new love for early mornings. Like many writers, I set my alarm for 5 a.m., and although this was painful at first, I now look forward to a couple of quiet, dark hours alone at my kitchen table before the first tiny footsteps come down the stairs. It's not much, but it's something!

Ashley Audrain is a writer and previously the Publicity Director at Penguin Books Canada. Raised in Newmarket, she now lives in the Queen and Ossington area of Toronto.

author of You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked.

(Book*hug Press, Maari Sugawara)

What inspired you to write your latest book?
You are Eating an Orange. You are Naked. is inspired by transnationals who exist in liminal space. This is why the novel blends folktales from China and Japan, anecdotes from popular media, and contemporary narratives to tell a story about two young lovers. Through this romantic relationship, my characters learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty. They are young. They grew up in between cultures. They do not care about assimilating, quite the opposite. They value, above all, mobility. It was interesting to use these characters to comment on culture, art, film, and politics throughout this novel. 

In these difficult times, why are books more important than ever?
Knowing what you don't know is knowledge in advance (Socrates—I think). When times are uncertain, we are forced to reflect on ourselves as well as the world. Personally, I feel the need to educate myself, not only on matters related to the pandemic, but also, because of all the hate crimes against minorities, it feels all the more urgent that I learn about the long-term effects of colonialism, the history of oppression against people of colour, and the continued acts of neo-colonialism carried out internationally.

How has living in the GTA influenced your work?
Living, studying, and teaching here has been incredibly exciting. I had some of the most wonderful discussions here with students, educators, writers, artists, and academics from around the world.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers... especially while working during COVID-19 and lockdown?
In capitalism, one always feels pressured to produce. I would advise aspiring writers to take the time to do and think about nothing. If you feel safe, turn off your phone and go for a walk. Do some house chores. But try not to listen to music or audiobooks, even when you exercise. Go back to writing.

Sheung-King is a Toronto-based writer and educator. He is a lecturer at The University of Guelph, Sheridan College, and Humber College.

Meera Bala
author of Palm Trees Under Snow

(MB Publishing, Meera Bala)

What inspired you to write your latest book?
Growing up as a minority in Canada, it was hard for me to relate to the books I read because the characters never looked like me. As a teacher, I am always in search of books that represent diversity and inclusion and until recently they were not easy to find. I feel that we need to put more diverse stories into the hands of children, especially stories where they see themselves and stories that represent their backgrounds.Maya, the main character represents many children who have experienced war and have immigrated to other countries for peace and safety. Maya struggled with her identity and sense of belonging and faced many challenges. However, with the support of her family, she persevered through it.

In these difficult times, why are books more important than ever?
"Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are."  This was my favourite quote growing up. I was an avid reader and this quote always resonated with me. During these difficult times, books allow us to travel to magical places without ever having to leave our homes. It enhances our imagination, creativity, and stimulates our curiosity.

During COVID-19, reading gives us many positive psychological and emotional benefits, especially for children. Sitting down with a book gets them away from screen time. We need to decrease screen time by encouraging children to read. There is no app that can replace reading. For younger children, cuddling up with a book creates an intimate bond between the parent and child, opens avenues for discussion of important issues. Book are so important now than ever as it's an escape from reality and into a COVID-free magical world!

How has living in the GTA influenced your work?
Growing up in Scarborough, I was exposed to multiculturalism from day one. I was never ashamed of my roots, yet very proud of where I came from. I went to Midland Avenue Collegiate Institute and there we celebrated our cultures, heritage, ethnicity, and just overall embraced each other's differences. Later on in my life, when I became a teacher with TDSB, my staff and students were always interested in my immigration story.  They were fascinated by the fact that I faced a civil war as a child, and were interested in the struggles I faced upon my arrival to Canada and were inspired by how I preserved through it like many other immigrants in Toronto. Living in Toronto has made me feel a sense of belonging and has given me the comfort to share my story with the world.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers... especially while working during COVID-19 and lockdown?
I would tell aspiring writers to take the step and go for it. Just because you're not 100% ready, it doesn't mean you're not able to do it. Your mind is a fearless place, so use its power wisely. You can accomplish anything you set your mind to. When I started this author journey during COVID-19, I was not ready to be a published author. I had so much to learn and so much to do. I learned as I went. I made mistakes. I learned from my mistakes. There were many days when I wanted to give up, but I pushed through. I believed in myself. Just know that you're not alone! Reach out to other writers/authors. The writers' community on social media is super supportive! The sooner you start believing in yourself, the sooner you'll see results. Go for it!

Meera Bala is an elementary school teacher and children's book author. Originally from Scarborough, she now lives in Markham.

Valene Campbell
author of The Amazing Zoe series

(Zou Zou Media House Inc, MR. KOA)

What inspired you to write your latest book?
The latest book of 'The Amazing Zoe' series is loosely based on my own experience. In general, each theme of my children's books are fiction, yet fused with real-life elements to make the story that much more relatable and impactful. My mother, who is living with dementia, and my daughter, now one-and-a-half-year-old, absolutely adore each other. Short of my daughter's first birthday, it was at that time I observed their growing connection and thought I should write about it. This story also made me realize the importance of capturing a piece of their relationship given my daughter's age and the natural course of this disease. I wanted the book to highlight the special bond between grandparents and grandchildren as they often play an integral role in a child's development. The Alzheimer's association indicates over 50 million adults worldwide are living with dementia/alzheimer's disease. Based on this statistic, the reality is, many children are also affected as they bear witness to the progressive changes of their loved one. Given the prominence of this condition, there are limited resources for children about dementia/Alzheimer's Disease and I wanted to create something to help close the gap.

In these difficult times, why are books more important than ever?
We truly are living in difficult times as the world comes together to battle two pandemics; COVID-19 and racism. Our recurring 'stay in place' orders have prevented the majority of us from travelling, seeing our loved ones and in many cases, it has changed how we earn an income. We have developed a longing for socialization and life as we once knew it and books have the ability to transcend person, place or time; they allow for a safe escape. Books also serve as one of the best tools used to dismantle racism. They share perspectives, ideas, nuances and the various cultures of all groups. They are effective communicators that help educate and dispel incorrect notions often rooted in harmful stereotypes. Many stereotypes are incredibly widespread and long-standing, the only way to unlearn behaviour and decipher truths are through what we read. While history books offer a strong foundation for understanding human coexistence, indulging in different genres, both fiction and nonfiction help provide a well rounded approach to learning about others.

How has living in the GTA influenced your work?
Living in the GTA has influenced my work by assisting me to more accurately reflect, through content and illustrations, the real world in which we live. The richness of The GTA is a culmination of the representation we see from various cultures and ethnicities in our communities at large. When you flip through the pages of my books, you will immediately see multiculturalism in the supporting characters, the town of 'Niceville' in which the stories are based, to the lead character who is a Black little girl. All children deserve to see themselves in the books they read and it is my goal to continue to share those unique stories.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers... especially while working during COVID-19 and lockdown?
My advice to aspiring writers who are working during COVID is to take advantage of this current 'stillness'.There are less distractions now than we've perhaps experienced in our lifetime, lending room for our minds to focus on creating and growing. During the initial phases of writing any piece, pay less attention to perfection. Allow your words to flow from a place of authenticity and spend time on developing your own voice. Lastly, because of lockdown, there has been a spike in online engagement. Join writing groups through social media or otherwise, especially groups that focus on your niche or genre. Whether you are a novice writer, or may require accountability, writing communities are ultra supportive and you will find many solutions to your most pressing questions.

Valene Campbell is the founder of a home health care agency that provides medical support across the Greater Toronto Area. She lives in Mississauga.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


Some interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


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