University of Calgary

Q&A: Jaspreet Singh

singhJaspreet Singh,
2006/07 Markin-Flanagan Canadian Writer-in-Residence

Montreal writer Jaspreet Singh was born in India and moved to Canada in 1990. Formerly a research scientist and teacher, with a PhD in chemical engineering from McGill University, Singh has won critical acclaim for his short stories, including his collection entitled 17 Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir. OnCampus talks to Singh about his writing and his plans for his time at U of C.

OnCampus: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

Jaspreet Singh: Canada, I think, made me a writer. Moving to Canada provided the right kind of distance. I saw India from outside the frame. It was in Montreal someone first asked me, “So, what was Kashmir like? What has it become?” My book, 17 Tomatoes: Tales from Kashmir, was a long response to these two questions.

So, do you now think of yourself as a writer?

I still hesitate to call myself a writer. I am a scientist-engineer, shall I say, who also writes. I find words fascinating. I grew up speaking three languages—Punjabi, Hindi and English—sometimes mixing them up, at times translating from one language to another. You know, in my mother-tongue, Punjabi, there is only one word—“kal”—for “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” Despite this, no one confuses time in Punjabi. Likewise, there is only one word for “snow” and “ice”: “borough.” The Inuit, on the other hand, have 150 words for snow.

Why did you write about Kashmir?

I wrote 17 Tomatoes when Kashmir was going through a very dark time. There was fear of nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, and I felt there were important stories which needed to be told. It is very ironic, you see—as a child I never liked reading war comics, but I ended up setting my first book around army camps and war.

 You have a PhD in chemical engineering. Does your background in science make its way into your writing?
 
My stories do involve a strand of science. I think my experience as a research scientist has got something to do with it. I am really inspired by Primo Levi, who was both a chemist and a writer. He used the elements in the Periodic Table to organize his memories. I, however, don’t use science so explicitly. I try to follow Nabokov’s dictum: “Write with the precision of a poet, and the passion of a scientist.”

Because of my involvement with both science and the humanities, I am also interested in the interface, the gap between these two cultures. During the residency, I would like to explore new ways to bring writers, artists and scientists together.

During your residency, you’ll be conducting individual manuscript consultations with local writers. What’s the best writing advice you’ve been given? And the worst?

Let me begin with the worst writing advice I ever received: “Do not write about what you do not know.”

The best writing advice I ever received was: (a) Write about what you know, as well as what you do not know. Challenge yourself constantly. One does not know what one knows until one starts writing. And (b) writing equals rewriting.

What are some of your favourite books?

By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolano; The Unswept Room, by Sharon Olds; Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald; The Country without a Post Office, by Agha Shahid Ali; and Planet Earth, by P.K. Page.

What books are you reading right now?

Last Evenings on Earth, by Roberto Bolano; Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag; and Reflections on Exile, by Edward Said.

What are you hoping to experience during the next 10 months as writer-in-residence?

I hope to spend 10 creative, stimulating months in this city working on my novel, The Book of Hanging Gardens, and becoming part of the writing community at the university and in Calgary.
I started my residency—by coincidence—on August 15, a day that haunts most characters in my novel. On this date in 1947, the British left India, and millions of people awoke to a new life. Calgary, too, is a city in flux, trying to wake up to a new life. There are huge conflicts here—big oil and melting of glaciers, new and old migrants, for example, and different ways of seeing—and there are many, many sad and funny stories here. I look forward to participating in the everyday life of this city in the coming months.

Your residency runs until June 2007, but you’ve made the decision to move to Calgary. Why?

I like moving to new places, and I feel at home in the mountains. Banff and Jasper are close by and they always manage to restore memories of my early years in Kashmir.

This move is also special because I have decided to move all my books to Calgary. I have more than 5,000 books and they are right now scattered in three different cities. After a separation of almost six years, my books and I are looking forward to be reunited in Calgary.

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Singh reads with Melanie Little, last year’s writer-in-residence, on Thursday, Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Engineered Air Theatre, EPCOR CENTRE for the Performing Arts, (205 8th Ave. SE). Admission is free; seating is limited. A reception follows the reading.

For more information, or to book a free individual manuscript consultation with Jaspreet Singh, contact Janice Lee at 220.8177 or leej@ucalgary.ca.