The Next Chapter

Shashi Bhat's The Most Precious Substance on Earth is a coming-of-age novel about the pain & silence of trauma

The B.C.-based author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing a pop culture-filled look at how silence can shape a life.
The Most Precious Substance on Earth is a novel by Shashi Bhat. (Olivia Ali, McClelland & Stewart)

Shashi Bhat is a writer who lives in New Westminster, B.C. Her short story Mute won the Writers' Trust McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. She has been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award and the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award. She is also the author of the novel The Family Took Shape. 

She holds a MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University and currently teaches creative writing at Douglas College.

Bhat's newest novel, The Most Precious Substance on Earth, is a coming-of-age story about Nina, a present-day high school teacher. When she was 14, she preferred to keep quiet about quite a few things, such as her crush on her English teacher, her mother's attempts to match her up with local Halifax Indian boys, her best friend pulling away and her worried father reciting Hindu prayers outside her bedroom door. And she also won't talk about a life-changing incident in high school. Over the years, through struggling through a MFA, online dating and how best to guide her students, she discovers that the past is never far behind her. 

'Silence is a woman's best garment'

"I wanted to write a story about a woman who has a voice that's funny and one that had a lot of pop culture references in it. But she's also experienced this trauma early in the book, and it pushes her into silence. 

It takes remarkable strength to go your whole life keeping a secret like that.

"There are readers who might perceive Nina as being passive or even weak and wonder, 'Why does she act this way? Why doesn't she speak up?' This is especially so because we hear so much now about strong female characters. But we also know that more than two-thirds of sexual assaults go unreported, and many survivors of abuse go decades without telling anyone.

"It takes remarkable strength to go your whole life keeping a secret like that. Nina doesn't always persevere. She sometimes gives things up or quits, but she does so because of her humanity — and I wanted to write a book for those women."

Emotionally distant

"Nina doesn't even see what happens to her as abuse — it takes her years, and even decades, to recognize it for what it is. At the time when it happened, she thought about telling her closest friend. But they're at a point when they're growing apart from each other, and that moment never presents itself. 

The longer Nina goes without telling anyone, the more that silence becomes a part of who she is.

"There are so many moments in the book when Nina wants to say something and doesn't, and that was what I focused on with many of the chapters.

"Nina thinks about telling her parents, but imagines that their reaction will just be forever sadness and shame. The longer Nina goes without telling anyone, the more that silence becomes a part of who she is."

Pop life

"When I started writing, I was resistant to using pop culture references. It seemed like they were frowned upon for not being literary enough, or they would date your story.

"I've come to love pop culture references for the way they can capture an era. I wanted the first half of this book to feel almost like a snow globe of 1990s Halifax. There's all these parallels that you can draw and there are a lot of emotional and thematic resonance and characterization possibilities.

I've come to love pop culture references for the way they can capture an era.

"In the first chapter of this book, for example, Nina is chatting with an internet predator — while also watching the TV show To Catch a Predator. I think there is that possibility for dark humour. But I also think it illustrates how Nina is so naive to the potential consequences of what she's doing."

Shashi Bhat's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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