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Sheena Kamal writes fiction so she and others can feel seen

The Vancouver thriller and YA writer spoke with Shelagh Rogers about her passion for writing and representation.
Sheena Kamal is a writer from Vancouver. (Malcolm Tweedy)

Sheena Kamal writes crime novels and YA fiction. Her book The Lost Ones, featuring the hard-boiled investigator Nora Watts, won the 2018 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in the mystery category and was praised by judge Linwood Barclay for deftly casting "a critical eye on Vancouver's societal dysfunction, racism and poverty."

Kamal was working as a researcher for a TV crime drama series when her own crime fiction was born — Nora Watts entered her imagination and just wouldn't leave.

Since then, there have been two more Nora Watts books including It All Falls Down and No Going Back, and a new YA novel, Fight Like a Girl.

Kamal, who lives in Vancouver, spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing No Going Back and Fight Like a Girl.

All about Nora

"In 2014, I was working in a research office. I just stared out the window and I had this idea for a book. The character of Nora burst through. She was so powerful that I felt like having this idea changed my direction in life. At the time, I was working in film and TV. I was trying to write scripts. 

"I wanted to be a screenwriter, but that wasn't really working out. With Nora, she was someone that I had to write for myself. So I quit my job, and I moved from Toronto to Vancouver.

"I'm a member of the actors' union. I worked as an extra and a stunt double and an actor sometimes. I spent maybe about eight months bumming around, taking whatever work I could get and, on the side, writing this book and writing this character that was so present and powerful. 

The character of Nora burst through. She was so powerful that I felt like having this idea changed my direction in life.

"I didn't do any backstory or anything like that. Her backstory revealed itself to me as I was writing her. It was a really organic process. 

Fighting for attention

"The same thing happened with my first YA novel, Fight Like a Girl. The character came to me really fully formed. It's in the writing and through the story that I figured her out. Characters like Nora and Tricia take over my imagination completely. 

"I took myself on this romantic work holiday in Rome. I was going to go work on No Going Back, so I had a deadline. I got to Rome, and it was so hot. There was a heat wave. I was delirious with this heat and it was really crowded.

"I couldn't concentrate on Nora and this young teenage girl who was a Muay Thai fighter of Trinidadian heritage burst through the heat wave. She was like, 'Look, I have a story to tell you. It's really messed up. You got to listen to me, because this is important.'

One of the first lines I wrote for the book was, 'Rule number one of being a woman from Trinidad: Be hella fierce.

"One of the first lines I wrote for the book was, 'Rule number one of being a woman from Trinidad: Be hella fierce.' It was like a key that turned. It clicked for me. I have a background in Muay Thai —  I'm not good at it, but I've been trying it for a long time — and the story developed really naturally.

"I had the bones of it in about a week."

Of diversity and voice

"Representation is really important to me. Inclusion is really important to me. I was an actor and there wasn't a lot that was written for me and that was open to me. I felt really, really pigeonholed as a brown woman trying to make her way in a creative field. 

"I also grew up in Scarborough, Ont. Toronto is one of the most multicultural and diverse cities in the world. Scarborough really amplifies that. I grew up with everybody around me. I know that everyone is valuable and everyone's experience is valuable. There's a way to approach writing 'the other.' 

Representation is really important to me. Inclusion is really important to me.

"When you're considered 'the other' your whole life, it's easier to maybe tap into that and to see, 'OK, maybe I can do this sensitively.' If I can't do this sensitively or if I make a mistake, then I have to be open to criticism.

"I would listen. I want to hear where I got it wrong — because that's going to help me grow and it might help other writers grow as well."

Sheena Kamal's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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