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Saleema Nawaz

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Family matters

Praised for its emotional complexity, Saleema Nawaz’s debut novel captures the complicated relationship between sisters

Saleema Nawaz’s debut novel, Bone and Bread, has such a raw, emotional tone, readers could be forgiven for assuming the story happened to her. It’s a common misconception about many first-time novelists, especially women who write about personal relationships and body issues. However, any attempts to tease out autobiographical threads woven into her story lead nowhere.

Released in March by House of Anansi Press, Bone and Bread is about orphaned sisters, an unexpected pregnancy, and a young woman with anorexia. Nawaz admits even she doesn’t know what draws her to such issues. “There are subjects that I find myself coming back to, for reasons that may not be 100 per cent transparent even to me,” she says.

We’re meeting at a small café, a hipsterish outpost in a stodgy area of downtown Montreal. Nearby is McGill University, where 33-year-old Nawaz is employed as student affairs coordinator for the microbiology and immunology department. Finding time to write while maintaining a full-time job is a daily struggle, she says: “I’m lucky to have the kind of day job, though, that I don’t have to bring home. Even when I’m there, it doesn’t really colonize my mental space.”

Nawaz radiates thoughtful energy. She listens with alertness, and often seems poised to break into laughter. Perhaps it’s this attentiveness that aids in her understanding of human behaviour, a talent praised by Anansi’s former senior fiction editor Melanie Little, who championed Nawaz’s manuscript.

“It’s incredible to write motherhood, to write sisterhood, without experiencing those things,” Little says.

This is the third time Little has edited Nawaz’s writing. As the founding editor of Calgary’s Freehand Books (the literary imprint of Broadview Press), Little worked on the author’s 2008 short-story collection, Mother Superior. In 2010, she edited the essay collection What My Father Gave Me: Daughters Speak (Annick Press), which included a contribution by Nawaz.

“I had really high expectations with [Bone and Bread], so I was a little bit nervous,” Little admits. “But she just blew me away with what she did with the story, and I found it really emotionally captivating. It’s one of the more emotional books that I’ve ever worked on.”

Bone and Bread follows the lives of two sisters. Beena and Sadhana Singh, born of a mixed marriage, live above a bagel shop run by their Sikh uncle in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood. The girls are yin to the other’s yang, spinning around each other in the vortex left by the sudden and unexpected deaths of their parents – especially that of their strong hippie mother, who held the family together after their father’s fatal heart attack.

Like the Singh sisters, Nawaz was raised by a single mother. An only child, she grew up in Ottawa, graduating with a B.A. from Carleton University in 2001. In 2006, Nawaz obtained a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba, winning the school’s inaugural Robert Kroetsch Award for best creative thesis.

After graduating, Nawaz landed a Banff Centre writing residency and published short stories in literary journals such as The New Quarterly and The Dalhousie Review. “My Three Girls,” a story that first appeared in the Winnipeg journal Prairie Fire, snagged the 2008 Journey Prize, the same year Mother Superior appeared.

Composed of seven stories and two novellas, Mother Superior was well received and named a finalist for the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s McAuslan First Book Prize. One of the stories, “Bloodlines,” introduces the young sisters Beena and Sadhana.

The story’s intertwined narratives hinge on both sisters missing their menstrual periods. “I think I was just reading something or thinking about how when you have anorexia, sometimes you can stop getting your period, and how there was this parallel to that in pregnancy,” Nawaz says. “One is about life, and one is about moving toward the opposite of that. The first line of the short story came to me, and I just started writing.”

Bone and Bread revisits the girls in childhood, but also brings them into adulthood. “When I was working on it, I kept finding that I had more and more of the world in my mind,” says Nawaz. “I felt like I could write about it endlessly.”

After their parents’ deaths, Beena and Sadhana are adrift, with little in the way of close family bonds or guidance. Sadhana’s extroverted perfectionism quickly sharpens into acute anorexia, while Beena’s search for personal connection leads her to become pregnant by a “bagel boy” who works at the family bakery.

Nawaz reveals both Sadhana’s death and the existence of Beena’s son early in the book, while the remainder of the tale illuminates the path that led them there.

“It’s a really complex story, the way it goes back and forth between the past and the present, and so much of the mystery of the novel is a mystery to the reader,” says Little. “It’s a novel that really guards its secrets very carefully, and unravels them very, very slowly.”

Underlying Bone and Bread are Nawaz’s observations of kinship and family ties. She describes the minutiae of daily meals, chores, and rituals, while depicting the fierceness of a mother’s love, the ebb and flow of siblings’ affections, and the thousand petty resentments and jealousies that complicate them.

Although she may not have experienced motherhood or sisterhood first-hand, Nawaz can articulate her fascination: “I think that there is something primal about those first relationships that can set patterns in place for everything that comes afterwards, and for that reason they seem to have a special kind of power.”