Professional Profiles

Novelist’s future hinged on three words

Gurjinder Basran. Photo by James Loewen.

By Amy Robertson

Sometimes, life hinges on a few moments.

Five years ago, Gurjinder Basran was a telecom manager, a wife, and a mother of two. Today, she adds award-winning novelist to her list because someone asked her one question:

“What happens next?”

Basran had begun a journaling project with her sisters. They were documenting their growing-up years in Delta, B.C., and one of them asked Basran what came next.

“For me, what had actually happened next wasn’t that interesting,” she says. So she began writing fiction—and ended up telling the story of a young Indo-Canadian girl named Meena.

Basran had never thought about writing before—but as she wrote Meena’s story, she realized she’d always loved storytelling.

There were no books in her house growing up, and she never liked English class in high school. But at night, before going to sleep, she would tell herself long, elaborate stories, adding a little every night.

“Like a soap opera!” she says with a smile.

So Basran felt compelled to keep writing—compelled to keep telling Meena’s story so there would be some representation of an Indo-Canadian woman for others to see. Basran had seen so few faces like hers in the media growing up.

A story becomes a novel

Several months later, with the idea of turning Meena’s story into a novel, Basran enrolled at The Writer’s Studio, a creative writing program at Simon Fraser University.

Through courses, workshop groups, and a mentor, the snippets of Meena’s life came together as Basran learned about form, structure, point of view, and depth of character.

Before The Writer’s Studio, Basran says, many of her characters were “like furniture.”

“My concern was so much with Meena that I wasn’t necessarily looking at all the characters on their own … So I had to learn how to show the reader more about other people without ever actually having access to their point of view.”

Basran would submit chapters to her workshop group and use their feedback as she crafted the next one.

Everything Was Goodbye hit bookstore shelves in 2010 after winning The Great B.C. Novel Contest. In April 2011, it won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize—and Basran believes none of it would have happened without The Writer’s Studio.

“Being around other people that are doing the same thing, and being in a space where you can believe that you’re a writer and you’re not just playing at it—it makes it very real,” she said. “It makes you take yourself seriously.”

Basran finds a place of complete honesty

The studio and Meena’s story have given Basran more than a new profession. They’ve changed her.

Her characters “very much feel like my very good friends,” Basran says. “Even though I’m not writing about them anymore, I still think, gee, what would Liam think, what would Meena think? …

“It sounds kind of crazy—but as you write about them, they just come to life. And they really write their own story. You don’t really get to write what you want to write …

“I wanted Meena to be better, she explains. “I wanted her to be smarter. And catch on a lot quicker. But any time I forced my current value set on the characters, it wasn’t authentic … You just have to kind of surrender to the page and let the characters come forward …

“Even at home, my husband and I talk about them like they’re real. Because for us, they are—I mean, we lived with them for so many years.”

Because of them, Basran isn’t afraid to be real with people.

When she first started writing, “everything was very appropriate. And everybody was very perfect. Everyone was very clever, everyone was very smart … When you’re writing, if you’re writing that way, we all know that that’s not authentic,” she says.

“It allowed me to … acknowledge the good and the bad in things, as opposed to being concerned with how things appear.”

Writing “is one of the only places where I am completely honest.”

Basran’s characters have also allowed her to experience things she once thought she understood.

Alongside Meena, Basran grieved the loss of Harj, Meena’s sister, who left her family in search of freedom from the cultural expectations she found so oppressive. Basran also sympathized with Meena as she resisted the urge to run away herself, and looked into the darkened eyes of Serena, Meena’s oldest sister, as Serena chose to stay in an abusive relationship.

“Prior to writing this,” Basran says, “I would have had judgements about a person running away, taking off, not dealing with their problems, and I would have had judgements about someone who stayed in a relationship that’s not healthy …

“Now I appreciate that I’m really not in a position to even have a judgement … People make decisions for all kinds of reasons.”

Basran says she initially wanted to make a statement about repression with the book—but that changed as she wrote.

“I realized that really … I couldn’t blanket an entire community and say, ‘This is a problem.’”

So she told one person’s story—gave one representation of her world.

“The message in the narrative is like any book,” Basran says. “Every book has a message … What that message is is really going to depend on where you are in your life.”

That’s why Basran won’t tell readers what happens next with Meena.

“The reader brings so much of their own experience to the reading that it would be unfair for me to divulge all the things that happen next.”

The Writer’s Studio and her characters have given Basran so much—but the best thing may be a new realization of who she is:

A writer.

“I feel most myself when I am writing,” she told an online book club last year.

“It feels like home to me.”