By Neale McDevitt
For an author who freely admits she has “a troubling predilection for melodrama,” Saleema Nawaz is remarkably quick to smile. Of course, with the year she’s just had, she has every reason to be giddy.
In September, Freehand Books published Nawaz’s first work, a critically acclaimed collection of short stories titled Mother Superior. Then, at a gala ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 17, the 29-year-old Ottawa native sat stunned in the audience as it was announced that her short story “My Three Girls” had won the prestigious $10,000 Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize as the best story written by a new or developing writer.
“It was this weird combination of complete elation and utter disbelief,” said Nawaz, who works as an administrator for the McGill Indonesia Project. [True to melodramatic form, Nawaz broke down in tears at her McGill desk when she first found out her collection was to be published.]
But if the reviews of her fiction are any indication, Nawaz might have to dispense with the disbelief, as hers is a name that may be pulled from more than a few more envelopes in the coming years.
Of her prize-winning story, Journey, judges wrote; “This tightly written piece accomplishes the impressive feat of condensing a novel’s worth of sorrows and joys into a few pages. Saleema Nawaz writes with grace and compassion about family dynamics and the ghosts that linger in the wake of tragedy.”
Ah, tragedy. Nawaz has always loved a good tear-jerker. “When I was little my stories were always about orphans with glass eyes and horrible afflictions and the bad things that kept happening to them,” Nawaz said with her ever-present smile.
“I had this teacher in Grade 4, we did a lot of creative writing and she was my first real editor. She was like ‘This character cannot have a glass eye.’ Even then my dramatic excesses were being addressed,” Nawaz
But while she admitted to consciously reining in those excesses – or at least keeping them within “certain boundaries” – while she worked on the collection, Nawaz isn’t about to be producing fluffy romantic comedies any time soon. Mother Superior is peopled by runaways, anorexics, infant burn victims and a slew of other misfits and castaways.
When asked when she knew she wanted to write fiction, Nawaz shook her head with a grin. “Sadly, I’ve never had any other ambitions – well, sadly from my mother’s perspective, I guess. When I was in Grade 1, I knew that that is what I wanted to do. Always fiction. That has always been the plan.”
That plan had her pursue her MA in English at the University of Manitoba because they offered a creative thesis option. Not only did she earn her MA, that thesis, titled The White Dress, placed second in the Malahat Review novella contest.
When asked why she thinks short story collections get such short shrift in the eyes of purchasers in book stores, Nawaz said it is, in part, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because it is believed short stories don’t sell, few collections are published, even fewer are bought by stores and those that finally make it onto the shelves benefit from almost zero marketing.
“But short stories can also be disruptive to the reader. Every time you start a new one, you have to throw yourself into a whole new world, meet new characters – it takes a lot of energy to navigate these worlds and figure out who everyone is and what their relevance is to the story,” said Nawaz. “To have to do that every 10 pages can be daunting for some people. I’ve also had people tell me that when they finished one of my stories they weren’t ready to let these characters go. They wanted to follow them to see what else happens.”
Which brings us to Nawaz’s newest creative challenge. She’s writing a novel. Approximately halfway through, Nawaz hopes to have it finished in six months (although in the same breath she admitted the goal is “100 per cent unrealistic”).
Like some of her readers, Nawaz wasn’t entirely ready to let go of some of the characters from her collection. Instead, she’s picked up their lives 20 years later to see what has happened in the interim.
The characters? Two sisters from a short story called “Bloodlines.” Orphans, of course.