The Georgia Straight - - Front Page - > BY DAVID CHAU

Adoc­u­men­tary on past lives sparked Gurjinder Basran’s lat­est novel. Trac­ing the sto­ries of chil­dren who re­called for­mer ex­is­tences, the pro­gram led Basran to re­flect on the value of ex­pe­ri­ence. If you know that you’re go­ing to live again, she won­dered, does this life mean less?

“I re­mem­ber think­ing how strange it must be for them to grow up and know—100 per­cent know—that they were some­body else,” Basran says to the Straight, over cof­fee at a down­town res­tau­rant. “And for their fam­i­lies to know that, and how it might change—if they were not par­tic­u­larly re­li­gious—their views on life.”

Around this time, in 2012, Basran was deal­ing with her mother’s de­clin­ing health and be­gin­ning to con­sider the rip­ple ef­fect that choices and ac­tions carry over gen­er­a­tions. “I think we take it for granted,” she con­tin­ues, “that we’re all self-made and our lives are a prod­uct of our choices, when re­ally our lives are a prod­uct of ev­ery­one’s choices.”

These in­vis­i­ble in­her­i­tances are the frame­work for her sopho­more novel, Some­one You Love Is Gone. Fol­low­ing Sim­ran, a 40-some­thing mourn­ing the death of her mother, the novel binds three nar­ra­tives— “Now”, “Then”, and “Be­fore”—to chart how Sim­ran’s present stems from grow­ing up in a tur­bu­lent home in Canada and from her mother’s days prior to that, as a sin­gle woman in In­dia.

Be­yond the trip-wire dy­namic be­tween Sim­ran and her younger brother and sis­ter, her mis­for­tune is com­pounded by a fail­ing mar­riage and a strained re­la­tion­ship with her daugh­ter. Mid­dle age is “just that ripe time in your life when you do start to ques­tion ‘What does mar­riage mean?’” Basran says. “It’s al­most a per­sonal reckoning. ‘Well, if my chil­dren are raised and we’ve ac­com­plished this, and we own ev­ery­thing we wanted to own, what now?’ ”

Even with this priv­i­lege, “you still can feel empty,” she adds. “Whether peo­ple want to ad­mit it or not, I think most peo­ple feel that way.”

Sim­ran’s for­ma­tive heart­break was the ban­ish­ment of her brother, Diwa, who as a boy ex­hib­ited signs that he was rein­car­nated. (On the sub­ject, Basran re­mains broad­minded: “I think that rein­car­na­tion is prob­a­bly just as plau­si­ble as some of the other op­tions.”) Re­united with him in adult­hood, Sim­ran ad­dresses the ne­ces­si­ties of se­crets and for­get­ting while sift­ing mem­o­ries of their shared early years and decades apart.

Func­tion­ing in the world, any­way, re­quires se­lec­tive am­ne­sia. “If we don’t for­get some of our past ex­pe­ri­ences, we’re not al­low­ing some­thing new to hap­pen,” Basran says. “If we only rely on past in­for­ma­tion to dic­tate our choices in the fu­ture, we’re not ac­tu­ally leav­ing any room for pos­si­bil­ity. We’re just op­er­at­ing in prob­a­bil­ity mode, and I think that that cre­ates dis­sat­is­fac­tion.”

Orig­i­nally, the plot moved be­tween “Now” and “Then”, but “Be­fore” emerged dur­ing a pro­duc­tive two weeks that Basran spent at a writ­ers’ re­treat, which yielded half the book. Dis­till­ing scenes into verse and sub­se­quently ex­pand­ing them al­lowed her to ma­noeu­vre through sev­eral creative road­blocks. “I have mad re­spect for po­ets,” she says. “If I could, I would love to be a poet. Po­ets seem so self-as­sured and earnest about their work, and I am nei­ther.”

Just as Ev­ery­thing Was Good-bye, her Ethel Wil­son Fic­tion Prize– win­ning 2010 de­but, showed she could por­tray char­ac­ters of real vi­tal­ity, Some­one You Love Is Gone proves Basran knows deeply the ways per­sonal his­tory is etched by time and events. “This is what hap­pens,” Sim­ran ob­serves. “The past is al­ways changed by the present. There is no true ac­count, not even the num­ber of years that have gone by. It’s what the years hide, re­veal, and keep se­cret, what they tuck into days and min­utes, what they fold and slip into dreams and night­mares—that is where the real liv­ing is.”

Basran, who came to Bri­tish Columbia from Eng­land as a child, ac­knowl­edges that “there is an ex­pec­ta­tion that as an In­dian writer that I will write In­dian books, what­ever that means. Maybe that’s about cul­tural iden­tity, and this book is less about cul­tural iden­tity, as it is just about iden­tity.…cul­ture shouldn’t be a genre.

“It will be nice when we don’t have to count how many di­verse voices we have,” she says. “And that we don’t have to ex­pect a story from a di­verse voice to be that one rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what di­ver­sity means.”

The de­sire to con­nect and be­long un­der­scores Basran’s fic­tion. Her char­ac­ters reel from ab­sence and grief, plac­ing ap­par­ent suc­cess at risk in search of a sense of home. Rather than the meta­phys­i­cal, Some­one You Love Is Gone broaches a life’s worth and the facets of self—par­ent, child, sib­ling, spouse—that com­pose fam­i­lies and in­di­vid­u­als alike.

“The thing that gives our lives mean­ing is hope that it can be dif­fer­ent,” Basran says. “I know that comes up the­mat­i­cally as well. There’s a need to move on. There’s a hope that things will be bet­ter.”

Gurjinder Basran will dis­cuss Some­one You Love Is Gone at Word Van­cou­ver on Septem­ber 19. She’ll also speak at the Van­cou­ver Writ­ers Fest on Oc­to­ber 20 and 21.

Delta au­thor Gurjinder Basran’s Some­one You Love is Gone delves into why for­get­ting the past can make it eas­ier to live in the present. Karolina Turek photo.

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