Sheena Kamal holds an HBA in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and was awarded a TD Canada Trust scholarship for community leadership and activism around the issue of homelessness. Her debut novel The Lost Ones won the 2018 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, a Strand Magazine Critics Award and Macavity Award for Best First Novel. It has been sold in fifteen countries and was a Globe and Mail Bestseller. Sheena presented her sequel, It All Falls Down, at the festival in 2018 – the first thriller VFA had ever featured. Her third book in the series was released this spring.
This year Sheena will be presenting her first YA novel, Fight Like A Girl, at the festival. The book about Trisha, a teenaged Muay Thai artist in Scarborough, was released in March to rave reviews. Toronto Star says: “With a propulsive, assured voice, Trisha’s tale spools out in a compelling, musical rush.”
Sheena is interviewed by Caley Byrne.
Caley Byrne (CB): Is “be hella fierce” a rule you live by? Was it always? How has it informed your writing process?
Sheena Kamal (SK): Maybe it used to be, but I’m trying to soften those hard edges now. I think it came out of the influence of the Trini women I know, especially my mother. They don’t take any crap unless it’s from people they love–and if they love you, they’ll cross oceans for you. My mom taught me to be fearless and bold, and if being fierce has affected my writing process in any way, it has to do with how I approach that blank page.
CB: The book references David Chariandy’s Soucouyant. What is it about his work that resonates with you? Which other authors inspire your work?
SK: It was the first time I read about us, Trini people, living in Canada. Living in Scarborough, where I grew up. It’s heady stuff to see yourself represented. David Chariandy does a brilliant job of showing the nuance of identity in the Trinidadian-Canadian community. And he also writes with a lot of heart, which I always appreciate. As for other authors, I love Roxane Gay, Arundhati Roy, and Marlon James. Sam Wiebe, who is a friend of mine, writes some of the best crime fiction around. His books are set in Vancouver, which is a bonus.
CB: Your story of Trisha is heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting. The reader is acquainted with many characters in her young life, as well as the culture at her gym, families in other countries (New York and Trinidad), college dorm life, and Toronto neighbourhoods. There were a lot of threads woven together! How did you structure the story to contain them all, and why was it important to include all the threads you did?
SK: I didn’t plan it that way. This book came to me rather quickly. I had the bones of it in a week, a feverish week of writing non-stop. Then another month of edits while I worked on another book I was actually contracted to write. For Fight Like A Girl, there wasn’t time to reconcile threads or question them. They were part of the story, and they came through rather organically. I had to eliminate one or two threads in editorial, but only after some strong suggestions by my editor.
CB: Food – Trisha’s restriction and controlling of it, Ma’s at-times obsessive cooking of it, Auntie K’s career involving it – spins a subtle thread throughout the novel. Was this purposeful?
SK: Not for Ma and Aunty K. Maybe I was hungry for Trini food when I was writing it. I wrote that first skeletal draft in Rome, and it’s possible that amidst all this Italian goodness, some part of me wanted a roti. For Trisha, it was very deliberate, as fighters are always aware of what they’re eating. They’re constantly restricting when they have to cut weight to fight, and then bingeing afterward. Food becomes an obsession.
CB: In your acknowledgments you thank your Muay Thai trainer, Sr. Kru Yai Michael Perez, and mention that you are a willful and stubborn student. How does writing compare to fighting? How does your own history with learning the sport colour the pages of the novel?
SK: Ha! I’m still exploring this connection between writing and fighting. I’m the worst student of anything because I don’t listen. If there’s a lesson to be had somewhere, I have to learn it myself. This is exactly how I approach writing. Don’t tell me anything, I’m going to watch and try to figure it out. Training, for me is more a coping mechanism because it helps me clear my head. It’s my escape, and I made it Trisha’s, too. We are escaping different things, though. I’m escaping myself, and she’s escaping her family. She is obviously much better at Muay Thai than I am and, the difference is, she actually does learn when she’s training. She can be taught. I envy that. I often sit at the gym, in the corner, pretending to stretch while I watch other people train and give it their all. I find fighters tremendously interesting, and I put that in the book.
CB: The novel deals with very tough subject matter around the themes of gender-based domestic violence, addiction, and intergenerational trauma, yet you have an ability to balance these difficult topics with some lightness (in particular, Christopher’s teenage antics come to mind). How do you achieve this balance? Was it purposeful that you allow readers feel for and relate to your characters, without getting overwhelmed?
SK: Thanks for saying I achieved that balance because I sometimes question it. This is just the way I write. My writing voice, so to speak, likes to play with darkness tempered by some off-colour humour. I’m not always successful with this technique (which I can’t help), but lately I’ve been trying to let even more of the levity in. Also, I have to say that Trinis are the funniest people in the world and, like my people, I always want to laugh at inappropriate moments, at inappropriate things.