The Human Protest

Mother Superior

By Aparna Sanyal

Published on October 1, 2008

Mother Superior
Saleema Nawaz

Freehand Books
$23.95
paper
290pp
978-1-55111-927-4

The wounded characters in Mother Superior, Saleema Nawaz’s debut short fiction collection, wander the author’s smooth narrative landscapes like so many potential talk show guests. They include a nun-like lesbian devoted to her straight, Baby Duck swilling, pregnant roommate; a mother of three, tormented by marital jealousy and guilt-stricken over a kitchen fire that badly scars one child; a group of anarchists who shelter an obese young prostitute; a stained-glass artist searching for a missing sibling; and two orphaned sisters, one pregnant and the other dying of anorexia, whose parents died in separate freak accidents. The sheer range of circumstance and perspective is breathtaking.

The author herself projects neither a chameleon-like quality, nor a flair for the outré. Raised in Ottawa, Nawaz holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba. When I meet her, she is polite, dressed quietly, and disarmingly youthful. Her speech is sprinkled with “totally”s and “like”s and she breaks readily into lighthearted laughter. Asked about the wildly distinct and often dark realities she presents to the reader, she remarks, “That, for me, is the real allure of fiction. Imagining yourself as someone else, coming to terms with the fact that other people are just as real as you are, and imagining how they would react in that situation. And obviously it’s very freeing to write in another persona.”

The skill with which Nawaz does this redeems the occasionally melodramatic scenarios she sets up. She is at her most effective when she reveals the depths of tragedy in a simple conflict between desire and reality. In the novella “The White Dress,” for instance, Nawaz relates the story of an Aboriginal child adopted during the residential-school era by a liberal white couple in a small Manitoba town. The child, like the reader, is initially unaware of her “otherness.” Nawaz masterfully captures her precocious individuality and longing for love:

Before I was adopted, Linnie and Garek, but Linnie especially, were very sad because they weren’t able to have any children. I liked to think of her like this, going to the park or the store and seeing other parents with their little children, and filled with a sad, desperate wish.

Using subtle detail and shaded dialogue, Nawaz unveils the secrets of the adult world which drive the child into a chasm of uncertainty and loneliness. From the opening line (“Our house was always cold”), to the symbolism of the second-hand white dress, to the casual remarks that slowly betray the narrator’s origins to herself and to us (“I’m not one of those that say what’s bred in the bone can’t be worked out by the Lord,” offers one well-meaning neighbour), every stroke rings true and propels the conflict to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

In a scene near the end, the narrator is briefly addressed by a paramedic who has come to take her depressed adoptive mother, whom she loves deeply, to the hospital:

“Who are you?” he said. “Get on home.” His curt glance fell across my face toward the ground, and he gave a nod back toward the street that made me turn to see if there was someone yet smaller and more insignificant standing behind me […] I tried to move or speak, but I felt fixed and yet absent within his look, like a small stain first observed but then quickly forgotten.

As the child gradually grasps the extent of her social and emotional isolation, the reader longs to scoop her out of the tentacles of a flawed history. But Nawaz makes it clear that neither the parents nor the townspeople can escape their time and circumstances. The tension is thereby deepened, and the ache it leaves, beyond the reading, reminds one forcibly of Nawaz’s abilities.

How does the author step so effortlessly into the shoes of a character clearly not herself? “Actually, with that story I was drawing on a lot of my experience,” replies Nawaz, the daughter of a Nova Scotian mother and an absent Indian father. “Obviously I’m not Aboriginal, but I was the only brown child in a white family.” The same insight, however, is evident in stories that seem removed from Nawaz’s own experiences. Though single and childless, she deftly portrays a married mother’s feelings of insecurity and entrapment in “Scar Tissue.” An only child, she writes with remarkable authenticity in “Look But Don’t Touch” of a sister’s sympathy for her teenage brother, who has Down syndrome and irrepressible sexual longings. Nawaz explains: “I guess I sort of think of it as a logical puzzle: ‘What would so-and-so do?'” Asked whether she considers writing to be an act of compassion, Nawaz responds with sudden enthusiasm: “Oh completely, completely. That’s the number one aspect of writing. Most of the world’s problems seem to stem from not being able to imagine yourself as somebody else.”

Nawaz even makes writerly compassion the subject, obliquely, of the story entitled “Sandy.” The narrator, a sheltered young anarchist, weaves stories around a streetwalker whom she and her friends, with bourgeois unease, have temporarily taken in. The narrator notes, “I’ve read that compassion is different from mere pity, and I believe that to be true, but I’m not sure how it feels to inhabit it […] free of complacency and smugness.” As the prostitute sleeps, the narrator speculates in somewhat hackneyed terms on the former’s origins, childhood, and working life. The prostitute awakens and the narrator’s stories “slide off her, fall down her broad back onto the floor.” The narrator concludes with the sturdier supposition that “like anyone, she fights the pull between facelessness and notoriety, between meaningfulness and death.” Thus, it seems, the author reminds us that there is only ever one story.

Indeed, while many of Nawaz’s characters are misfits, their true outsider status springs from an isolation so primordial as to be universal. The Aboriginal child’s desire to belong, the Down syndrome boy’s frustrated lust, and the prostitute’s desire for an untroubled nap are our own. They are made so through Nawaz’s ability to inhabit these characters’ realities without “complacency and smugness.” If they are outsiders, so are we. Many writers are capable of describing “other” realities, but Nawaz gives expression, over and over again, to the fundamental human protest.

In spite of her politeness, Nawaz seems neither used to nor interested in offering insights into her own work. “I would say most of what I’m doing as a writer is totally unconscious. I write whatever comes to mind,” she states with characteristic simplicity, in response to a comment about the profusion of sibling relationships and babies in her stories. One guesses that, like the siblings and the babies, the sensationalism in Nawaz’s fiction – the battered women, anorexia, deaths, accidents, fires, disappearances, and ubiquitous pregnancies – is a red herring. Behind the sometimes surreal drama, under the often unexceptional voice, the reader mines the gold of an instinctive empathy which is rare in its breadth and power. mRb

Aparna Sanyal is editor of the mRb.

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