Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Shaista Justin

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Ten Questions with Shaista Justin

Open Book: Toronto speaks with Shaista Justin about her book, Winter, the Unwelcome Visitor, reading and writing.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your latest book.

Shaista Justin:

Winter, the Unwelcome Visitor  is a somewhat fictional cornucopia of verse about a decade of my life. What or whom will you encounter in this book? A travel writer who lies about the foreign place, a woman who eschews hamburgers to seduce her skittish vegetarian lover, a mountain flirting like a whore, and a man held hostage by a street. Famous writers whose work makes an appearance in the book: Pablo Neruda, Lucille Clifton, and TS Eliot, amongst others.

I wrote the kind of poetry book I’d like to read. Each poem is different than the last in form and subject, unexpected moments of heartbreak, then joy, and then wonder await the reader.


Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?


I think it’s creative death to try to write for a specific audience when you write literature.

As a writer, you are already in conversation with those in your field, intentionally or not, because you are influenced by the work of others you read and their thoughts and ideas. You are not, and cannot (!), write in a literary vacuum…of course, you must know your genre! But this is different from writing with the intention to please your audience.

I write for myself, but I am joyous when a reader identifies with the words and it gives them meaning. I’ve had many people tell me that certain poems in the book express thoughts they’ve wanted to say, but didn’t have the words, especially the poem I wrote for my father: “My Love is Faithful.” When someone tells you that their father died, but they would have liked to give him that poem…it is a heartbreaking and humbling experience. And, I’m so glad to have written something so meaningful to someone else.
But, if I had tried to manufacture that experience, it probably wouldn’t have resonated with my audience.

If your work is good, it will find its audience…I don’t think writing for an imagined audience’s imagined tastes will invent that audience for you.


What inspired you to become a writer?


When I was 11 years old, I wrote my first poem. It was and still is a perfect children’s poem. You have those rare moments of instant success with writing and that was my first one, where it seems that the words are just hovering in the air waiting for you to pluck them out of sky while they fall into perfect form. What can be more alluring than easy success? It was so easy…yes, it’s true, I wanted to be a writer because I thought it would be easy.

Stage Direction:“laughter”, at first bemused, then with the uncommon hysteria known only to a writer who has discarded so many words like used tissues into the trash.


Describe your ideal writing environment.


Darkness encloses me like the white of an egg surrounds the yolk. An omniscient blue laptop screen sets my unblinking profile alight with inspiration. A non-cancer-causing cigarette (as yet uninvented) hangs from my mouth as Enya weep-sings in the background about our forgotten futures and deeply interrogated pasts. My husband and children are wrapped in warm sleeping on a night both silent and abridged. My fingertips know their way and I follow them without hesitation.


What was your first publication?


Other than publishing in undergraduate journals, my first professional literary publication was the poem, Ben in Tamboerskloof, which was published by The Fiddlehead. To make a long story short, I had had the opportunity of having lunch with the editor Ross Leckie and Jeffery Donaldson (Canadian Poet & Academic) with a handful of graduate students. After lunch, I gave Ross the poem and asked for feedback. Instead of criticism, a month later, I received an email from him saying that the editorial staff wanted to publish it in The Fiddlehead. I was beside myself with joy. When I got the cheque for $25.00, I promised myself that I would frame it and never cash it as a remembrance of my first professional publication…however, as a poor undergraduate student my promise lasted only a day or two.

When I proudly showed my publication to my father, despite his words of praise, I recall his cautioning words advising me not to quit university and run off to try to make a living as a poet. I thought that was pretty funny.


Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.


Canadians are full of ambiguity and subtext in conversations. Perhaps that’s what makes us such good poets. However, the negative is that it’s incredibly easy to offend someone without knowing you’ve done it. Usually, you never find out that you have. This is a quintessential “Canadian cultural experience”: 1) you make a comment which is a personal opinion on an issue; 2) people are quick to take offense without asking for context or challenging the opinion which offended them; 3) they “politely” no longer want to have anything to do with you.  

(By the way, this is the number one complaint of immigrants to Canada. I found this out from many ESL students languishing in confusion about conversations they were having, or rather, not having, whom I taught).

I find this both amusing and frustrating. It’s truly ridiculous. No wonder so many of us are afraid to give voice to our thoughts either in a conversation or in writing. It’s crippling to writing, to relationships, to communities, to societies…to expect everyone to always say the right thing. I love the wrong turns I’ve taken in my life; they have often led to extraordinary places. I’d like to practice “giving offense”. If we aren’t free to speak and to be heard, then what exactly is Canada about? We need to practice listening….to all the voices in our midst, whether we agree with each other or not, can’t we still talk? Engagement is what is at stake here.

Finding out that we disagree shouldn’t be the end of the conversation but the beginning of understanding.

I believe that the voice of the artist is the uncommon voice -- the voice of the margins which hopefully has something of interest to say. I say: Speak!


If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?


1. The Ikea Catalogue: affordable crap to salivate over.
2. The Backwoods of Canada by Catherine Parr-Traill: because, if you can plant an apple orchard while nursing a depressed spouse, fight wild animals off your many children, and despite your hardship and deprivation announce that no one should “sit about in abject terror”, every new immigrant/migrant to Canada will think they have it easy. Oh, if only we all could laugh in the face of hardship by cataloguing the entire plant species of a foreign place! (Susanna Moodie, Parr-Trail makes you sound like a whiner).
3. A highly readable and accessible guide to settlement services and immigration regulations…but this book does not yet exist!


What are you reading right now?


I always read 5 or 6 books at a time. Next to my bed right now is:
1) Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog
2) Grant McCracken’s Chief Culture Officer
3) David Snarch The Passionate Marriage
4)Alyson Schafer Honey, I Wrecked the Kids
5) Carl Sagan The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
6) Ben Oswest The New Suffolk Hymnbook

In addition, I am reading an insane amount of recently published Canadian poetry. Does anyone know how good we are at poetry? I keep saying it!


What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?


Firstly, I would ask potential writers why they want to be writers. Most people don’t know how to answer this question. They tend to tell me that they have a mental suitcase of ideas waiting to be expressed. Which is a good start…and yet, when I ask them how much actual writing they do, very few of them write at all.

Sadly, so many people are attracted to professions which do not suit their temperament or skills. It’s the Idea of being a Writer that attracts them, not the lifestyle. Who wants to be poor, unknown, and spend many hours alone struggling with a cumbersome language which will not yield to your ministrations? For the true writer words are an obsession which will not let you sleep, interrupts a conversation, burns your dinner, trips you on the soap in the shower – good luck trying to get a true writer to Stop writing.

If everyone on the planet were dead, I would still continue to write. Words themselves bring me immeasurable joy. They comfort me, provoke me, engage me, defy me!

The question is not what you should do to get published, but rather, how does one become an excellent writer? Publication is the last step in a long process of professionalization in one’s craft.

To become an excellent writer, you have to: 1) read widely in your genre; 2) write profusely; 3) strive for precise language; 4) be a lover of subtext & metaphor; 5)…and, I cannot stress enough – take courses to test your work and teach you discipline; 6) find a mentor (or two or five) who is already an excellent writer and can provide you with unbiased criticism of your work, take said criticism and apply it to your flaws.
Looking for a publisher should be the end of this process. Have I discouraged you? Good, then go find out what you are truly meant to do. No? Well, then, you will probably achieve publication without any more advice.

(Just in case you don’t know, there are submission guidelines on the websites of every journal, publishing house etc…but you already knew that because you are professionalizing yourself as a writer, right?)


What is your next project? 


I’ve written and am co-producing my short film, Swan Asleep about illicit sexuality and the internet which I hope to submit in time for TIFF; I am putting together a book fair with Irina Yu, The Junc-Lit Book-Fest for June 2010 which will showcase writers from the west-end of Toronto; and I’m close to finishing my novel, The Journal of Yaren Bahareen about a found manuscript. Can’t say anymore yet, I don’t want to give away any secrets until I have a contract with a publisher!

Shaista Justin emigrated to Canada at the age of six and grew up in Toronto where she currently lives with her husband and two children. Extensive travel has contributed to her fascination with colonization and the contemporary manifestations of historical tragedies. Her dominant passions are writing fiction, producing theatre, and academic research in the fields of Post-Colonial Literature & Theory, Eco-criticism, Feminist Theory and the 18th-Century. She has published in The Fiddlehead & New Contrast and works freelance as a writer and editor.

For more information on Winter, The Unwelcome Visitor please visit the Tsar Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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