In Part 1 of our chat about Gurjinder Basran’s provocative debut novel, Everything Was Good-Bye (to page 96) Lora, Alex and I discuss Basran’s writing, our perceptions of her characters and how they were presented, as well as the larger theme of the clash of cultures and traditions.
Laurie: So, the first part of Gurjinder Basran’s Everything Was Good-Bye. I think this book is an interesting debut in that it will provoke discussion with Basran’s perspective of being the outsider and its clash of cultures. The writing has promise, too — there are poetic moments — and it will be interesting to see where Basran goes with her prose in future.
Alex: There was a huge contrast between what the author chose to elaborate on and what she didn’t. And I, predictably perhaps, didn’t always agree with what she chose to go into detail on. I wasn’t always a huge fan of her pacing. But it was certainly interesting and insightful to see life from Meena’s perspective, the struggles and limitations she faces.
Lora: I find Basran’s voice refreshing. And having grown up in a mostly white suburb, I could understand how Meena would feel.
Alex: I certainly felt like I was with Meena in that tiny house: feeling repressed by her mother, and even when she was working, having to make excuses as to why she couldn’t go out with her colleagues.
Lora: It’s something that so many Canadian families experience today. Being caught between two cultures. Meena wants to live up to expectations and at the same time, is trying to be respected among her peers.
Laurie: Growing up amongst immigrants, I knew people who had very traditional families, whose daughters couldn’t go out without their brothers chaperoning them, and who nonetheless were exposed to a more permissive Canadian culture, and to see that portrayed here, and still continuing with a new wave of immigrants is interesting and difficult, in many ways — it seems so old-fashioned to me now, even though I’m fully aware that it is something that continues.
Alex: I think it is something people face regardless of their culture, too. That realization that, at some point, part of being yourself is disappointing your parents — you can’t be 100% who you are if you are making decisions based on what someone else thinks.
Laurie: But it must be doubly difficult dealing with that and then having those cultural norms on top of that as well, I would think.
Alex: Of course. It felt like Meena was defeated. She described her sister as absent and hollow, but it seemed she was that way, too.
Laurie: Children are usually taught and have to learn to be independent, but in Meena’s case, that doesn’t seem to be the way. Her path in life is entirely pre-determined as far as her family and community are concerned.
Lora: My heart broke for her every time she was told it didn’t matter what she wanted.
Alex: Maybe that’s why there was no life in certain descriptions.
Laurie: Do you think that was deliberate or just the workings of a debut novelist?
Alex: I don’t know. Initially I thought it was that Basran is a new writer, but also there could be a part of it that’s about being respectful of her culture, like it’s so forbidden to write about certain things that she’s still affected by it. The shower scene with Liam, for example: There were no feelings explained, no talk of butterflies or anything. Meena just hopped in there and then it was over. C’mon!
Laurie: You want more details — haha! Certainly life is flat for Meena in many ways, but there is a way of describing that without the writing itself being flat.
Lora: I felt the butterflies for her, though.
Alex: I don’t think the writing was flat; it was just missing bits for me. I would have just liked to know how Meena was feeling.
Laurie: So more interior dialogue.
Alex: Yes. I’m curious about her. Again, it could be a writer’s technique. Everyone in the book wants to know what’s going on in this girl’s head.
Laurie: There was some of that at times. For instance when the family has visitors and Meena tries on the pair of sandals. But not enough perhaps. Maybe it was a case of the old telling versus showing coming into play.
Lora: I see it a bit differently. I think Meena is so confused about who she is that she’s always torn and doesn’t know how to feel.
Alex: Well, then she has that passionate embrace with Liam outside the beach house, and it’s not like, “Woo, I had this amazing moment with Liam,” it’s like, “the last time I saw him had been at that party when we had this hot make-out session,” kind of in passing….
Laurie: She always has to hide her feeling from everyone.
Alex: Exactly. So is she hiding them from us?! It made me feel like I couldn’t relate to her for letting Liam go and never talking about him again.
Lora: I think she’s hiding them from herself (if that makes sense). Meena’s revelations were all in the dialogue for me.
Laurie: So that hiding is perhaps that’s why then there isn’t more. Although you think that someone like Meena, a wannabe writer, with a creative bent, if suppressed like that, would have a much more rich interior life. Is that what you’re getting at?
Alex: Yeah. She feels numb to me. And then all of a sudden it comes up that she has slept with Kal?
Laurie: But I could see it would be hard to leave with Liam at that age. To abandon everything she knows. She’s rebellious, but not that rebellious.
Alex: I know. I guess a part of her has shut down.
Lora: I can relate to her. At that age, you think you want all these things, but when it comes down to it, you’re still a kid — still vulnerable and naïve.
Laurie: And part of you doesn’t even really know what you want.
Alex: That’s true — you want the independence but you don’t want the independence.
Lora: And despite how her mother treats her most of the time, she’s seen how affected her mother was by her sister leaving.
Laurie: What a life though: so monitored, all those aunties keeping an eye on things.
Alex: I love that description. And when there’s mention of the overly made-up girls and the uncles that hug too tight — Basran had moments of brilliance, I thought.
Laurie: Yes, there are those moments of brilliance, which is why, along with the subject matter, I chose this book. Plus I think the subject is very timely.
Alex: I am so curious to see if more is revealed about Meena in terms of emotion as we go.
Lora: So am I.
Laurie: Basran is trying to cover a lot: Meena as a fully realized character, a culture and that culture’s place in a new world, how one survives, adapts and adjusts to isolation and torment and yet somehow remains true to oneself and one’s traditions. Or can one?
Alex: It’s definitely a page turner, and I like how the different plots come together.
Lora: Again, I’m really enjoying the dialogue, especially between Meena and her family.
Laurie: I’ll be curious to see what you think of how it all plays out. I think Basran is quite good at not making things stereotypical.
Lora: I think so, too; it’s refreshing. It’s a most revealing look at their lives (without knowing the interior thoughts).
Alex: And there’s the symbolism that I think might reflect how they communicate within the family and culture. (I’m thinking of the perfume bottle.)
Lora: Even that scene where Meena’s mom brings her brother a milkshake. He just takes it and gulps it down, but her mom is so pleased by that.
Laurie: Yes, and the fur coat, and how her mother never wears it. And how the past and tradition are everything. In some ways, almost all of them are playing out parts that have been laid out without question.
Lora: That’s such a huge theme in this story — the idea of having this plan laid out. Everyone is just supposed to do what everyone before them has done. And how sad is it that Meena’s grandmother believes that the past is the only thing that matters?? What a depressing way of thinking.
Alex: They are so afraid of change.
Laurie: And that neighbour woman, who’s so snide about Meena not being married. But there’s no recognition of the fact that she’s gone to university and has a career.
Alex: That’s the hard part — Meena lives some kind of hybrid life.
Lora: She’s always torn between others’ expectations and what she wants.
Laurie: But when you look at her sister Serena, you have to think, What’s so great about being married? Yet nobody ever says that. Not even the women, which is what I find so hard to fathom.
Alex: Yet even Serena can’t lie to her but can’t tell her to fight. That was such a tragic moment between them.
Laurie: It was awful, really. Poor Serena with her little pins on the map — a life never lived.
Lora: That scene made me get a bit teary. I also find it interesting that Meena keeps saying she’s undecided about Sunny, but she’s clearly not interested. I wonder if she’ll give in to the pressure and go through with it. (I really hope not.)
Laurie: But it’s not really her choice…
Alex: It’s funny, Sunny is painted as such a bad boy, but just because he’s Indian and wealthy, her family look past that.
Laurie: He’s rich, wealthy and good-looking and has such a cheerful name, so let’s take him! Who cares about anything else! It’s crap! Well, we’ll see in Part 2 of Everything Was Good-Bye if Meena succumbs to family pressure and takes on Sunny. Until then!
Alex: I’m looking forward to it!
Lora: Till next time!