Wednesdays with Writers: Sheena Kamal talks about her fierce, ‘difficult woman’ character, Nora Watts, gender violence, the ‘red market,’ how this is a different kind of missing girl thriller, mining in Vancouver, and so much more in her debut, THE LOST ONES

By Leslie Lindsay 

Dark, Edgy, psychological suspense debut, the first in a series featuring a brilliant, fearless, slightly chaotic and deeply flawed heroine much like Lisbeth Salander.

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Nora Watts: deeply troubled, edgy and dark yet clear and distinct; she’s complex, disturbed, and not one you’ll easily forget. Residing somewhere between DEAR DAUGHTER (Elizabeth Little) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Stieg Larsson) meets THE GATES OF EVANGELINE (Hester Young), Sheena Kamal’s debut, THE LOST ONES (William Morrow, July 25 2017) will toss your into a tailspin of controversy, conflict, and a good amount of action intermingling with psychological suspense.

Nora Watts receives a phone call early in the morning. A girl has gone missing. She’s a P.I. assistant and so this isn’t entirely out of the realm. But the girl is also happens to be the baby she gave up for adoption fifteen years ago. She never wanted that baby; and now the police are labeling the girl a chronic runaway. Her adoptive parents are desperate and so they’ve hired Ms. Watts. Do they realize she is also the girl’s birth mother? Wasn’t it a sealed adoption? Nora discovers a dangerous conspiracy and embarks on a journey of deception and violence that takes her from the rainy streets of Vancouver to the snow-capped mountains of the Canadian Rockies to the island where she will once again face her past and the daughter she wished had never been born.

I was stunned by the twists and turns, the lucid writing from Sheena and also the ‘why’s’ behind Bronwyn (Bonnie’s) disappearance.

Please join me in welcoming Sheena Kamal to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Sheena, wow! What a tale. I have heard that writers ‘ought’ to write about something they obsess about, but rarely talk about, or rather, is not ‘polite’ conversation. There are so many controversial themes in THE LOST ONES: foster care, adoption, multicultural race, immigration, the ‘red market,’ runaways, rape, alcoholism, and so much more. What was haunting you when you set out to write this?

Sheena Kamal: Thank you, Leslie. It’s lovely to be on the blog couch with you. Haunting is a good word for what got me started, actually. Gender violence was the primary motivator for this story, and I couldn’t ignore how it intersects with class and race. I wanted to write about a difficult woman, one whom it is easy to dislike and dismiss. I wanted to show her humanity and guide her through her own complicated feelings toward motherhood in a different kind of ‘missing girl’ thriller. Nora’s character compelled me, first and foremost. All the other issues came about in the writing.

L.L.: So I have to ask about the title, THE LOST ONES. Bronwyn (Bonnie) is obviously missing, but she’s not the only one who is lost. Can you elaborate on that, please? Also, the U.K. title is EYES LIKE MINE and there’s definitely a reason for that. Can you elaborate? 

Sheena Kamal: Ah, the title drama. The reason there are two titles is because different publishers had their individual preferences. Neither liked DEEP CURRENT, which was the original title of my manuscript. EYES LIKE MINE (the UK title) was lifted from the text and THE LOST ONES (US) spoke to Nora’s character, as well as the situation faced by her missing daughter, Bonnie. I love both titles and I can see how they both fit the book.

L.L.: Backing up a bit: can you tell us more about the ‘red market’ and what that research you did to get that piece ‘just so?

Sheena Kamal: The red market is the underground market for blood, organs, human parts and human bodies. This book is about family, so I thought it was fitting to bring the corporeal elements of blood connections to the forefront. I spent most of my research time looking into the shady world of blood and organ harvesting, and how the wealthy benefit at the expense of the poor. It’s quite chilling what money can buy. It can buy life. There’s a fantastic book called The Red Market by Scott Carney that was my jumping off point to this research, which also introduced me to the term ‘red market’.

“Sheena Kamal has created a fresh and original character who grips the reader with her grit and courage. We’re rooting for Nora Watts from the outset and I can’t wait to read more of her story.” ~Sarah Ward, CRIMEPIECES

L.L.: I’m also curious about your touches of eco-fiction in THE LOST ONES. There’s a good amount of mines and the environment. What inspired that? And do you consider this to be a work of eco-fiction?

Sheena Kamal: I personally don’t consider it to be eco-fiction, but I understand why people would think that. I didn’t set out to write with any kind of agenda other than to tell a good story, but I wanted to write place authentically. Give a snapshot of the concerns of the region. The mining angle, as well as the focus on the environment both came about because these are topics that shape Vancouver, and the west coast at large. Canada as a country has an interesting relationship to the global mining community, one that continues to interest me.

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L.L.:  THE LOST ONES is the first in a series. How long is the series predicted to be? Can you give us a little glimpse of what’s coming up?

Sheena Kamal: The second book in the series is called IT ALL FALLS DOWN and will take Nora to Detroit, to look into the mystery of her father’s past. I’ve long found
Detroit
to be a fascinating place and every time I go there I like it even more. It’s very different from Vancouver, but I chose it because I wanted to take Nora out of her comfort zone and have her get into some trouble in a place where she doesn’t know the rules and still, somehow, has to survive. IT ALL FALLS DOWN will be out summer 2018. I’d originally planned a trilogy, but I have a feeling I won’t be done with Nora after the third book. Just a little inkling.36341212

L.L.: What are you excited about reading this year?

Sheena Kamal: Poetry. I’ve left this literary landscape unexplored, mostly out of fear and confusion, but I have vowed to be moved by some poetry this year, damn it. What kind of poetry, I have yet to decide.

L.L.: Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have?

Sheena Kamal: You forgot to ask me to give writing advice and I, for one, am thankful for it because now I don’t have to come up with any.

L.L.: Sheena, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you for chatting with us and all the best in 2018!

Sheena Kamal: Thank you! Wishing you a wonderful 2018 as well.

For more information, to connect with the author, or to purchase a copy of THE LOST ONES, please see:

S. H. Kamal ap (c) Malcolm TweedyABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sheena Kamal was born in the Caribbean and immigrated to Canada as a child. She 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. Kamal has also worked as a crime and investigative journalism researcher for the film and television industry. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, and enjoys beaches and Dark ‘n’ Stormys.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Harper Collins and used with permission. IT ALL FALLS DOWN cover image retrieved from GoodReads, Vancouver image from]WP_20171208_11_32_26_Rich_LI (5)

 

Wednesdays with Writers: Lisa Ko talks about her stunning debut, THE LEAVERS, what it means to be restless & stubborn & independent, how music provides a sense of identity, cultures, reinvention and so much more

By Leslie Lindsay 

THE LEAVERS is at first a story of immigration/deportation, social justice, adoption, but it is so much more: it’s about heart, family, culture, and dare I say: required reading. 
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It’s hard to believe Lisa Ko’s THE LEAVERS (May 2, Algonquin Books) is a debut.
It’s eloquently crafted, well-researched, and absolutely beautifully executed. In fact, Lisa is the latest winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver to a novel that addresses contemporary issues of social justice.

Timely, topical…and oh, so emotionally rich, it’s really hard to categorize THE LEAVERS–but ultimately, it’s darn good fiction with well-developed, fully dimensional characters; I loved every one of them and for different reasons.

Deming Guo’s mother, Polly (Peilan), an undocumented Chinese immigrant, fails to come home from work (a nail salon) one day, and he’s left on his own. He’s eleven. (On a personal note, I have 10 and 12 year old daughters–I couldn’t imagine!). He’s in limbo for awhile while family friends decide what’s best for him. Deming is eventually adopted by ‘older’ American (white) professors at a local college, Kay and Peter Wilkinson. They change his name to Daniel. They give him an all-American life. They love him. But Deming/Daniel struggles to accept his new life. What happened to his mother? And why does he feel so out-of-place?

Told in sections, traversing NYC and China, from the POV of both Deming/Daniel and Peilan/Polly, we learn just what happened to his mother and a bit about why (though it’s still pretty unfair and ambiguous).

THE LEAVERS was inspired by recent, real-life stories of undocumented immigrant women whose U.S.-born children were taken away from them and adopted by an American family.  This story is fiction…but there are so many truths within these pages.holidayinn

THE LEAVERS is truly a book for everyone: mothers, children, adoptive parents…and most of all, the human spirit. It’s about finding oneself, reinvention, doing what’s right and adhering to expectations.

I am so honored and touched to chat with Lisa Ko, author of THE LEAVERS. Please join us.

Leslie Lindsay: Lisa—welcome and oh—what a story! The cultural and emotional challenges of the scope of THE LEAVERS is huge. There’s immigration, deportation, adoption…poverty. This is tough stuff. What propelled you to delve into such prickly subjects?

Lisa Ko: Thanks! When I first read real-life stories about immigrant mothers being separated from their children, I was furious that this was happening, and that our government has and continues to criminalize immigrants for profit. But to me, the novel is less about tackling prickly subjects and more about simply wanting to write about the world we live in. We can’t separate ourselves from class, race, gender, and politics. The issues that surround Polly and Deming are part of this, but the novel is more about themes like assimilation and culture, identities and survival, and definitions of home and family.

L.L.: I loved all the characters in THE LEAVERS. But I really connected with Polly/Peilan. What a strong, independent woman! She’s funny, snarky, deep…there’s a lot to her. I guess my question is two-fold: one, in China, women/girls are sort of disregarded and not brought up to be…independent. What do you think might have happened to Peilan/Polly had she stayed in China the entire course of the novel? And how did you connect with her character?

Lisa Ko: I’d hesitate to generalize about the treatment of girls and women in China—sexism in America is certainly going strong! For Polly, moving to the U.S. allows her to live a life far from her small hometown. In New York City, she can be anonymous, away from the expectations of her family and neighbors, though this comes with a literal and emotional price. I’d like to say that if Polly had stayed in China, she would have found a way to get out of her hometown and still retain her independence. Maybe she’d move to a big city with her son and create a new life there. She’s too stubborn, too restless—and these traits easy for me to connect with her character—to stay in one place for long.

L.L.: My read of THE LEAVERS is that it is not just a novel about immigration, deportation, adoption…but at the heart, it’s about reinvention. It’s about identity as culture and family and fitting in while also standing out. Did you learn anything new about yourself, or our world as you wrote this story?

Lisa Ko: Through my research, I learned a lot about immigration, deportation, and adoption—both about individual stories and about larger policies. Questions of belonging and reinvention were things I was exploring throughout. Writing the novel raised more questions than answers, which is why I write fiction.

L.L.: I’m a bit intrigued about your research into the factory life—not just here in the U.S., but also in China. It sounds positively grueling and of another world. In your acknowledgements, you mention a few books you referenced: FACTORY GIRLS by Leslie T. Chang and SMUGGLED CHINESE by Ko-lin Chin. Can you give a little more insight, however harrowing, into that life?

Lisa Ko: One thing that stood out for me was how factory work can be both economically and socially empowering for young women, despite of, or in addition to, the grueling conditions. It’s done out of choice as well as out of necessity, and provides a way for rural residents to migrate to urban areas and reinvent themselves. That was something Polly experiences in the book.

L.L.: There’s this lovely section in THE LEAVERS in which Peilan/Polly is recounting her time away from her son. It’s told in fragments, vignettes with deep imagery: ‘Starry night. Grassy field. Cricket chorus. Clucking chicken. You. […] Glass of water. Cup of tea. Wet kisses. Leon. I tried to relax, hoping for a few hours of sleep before the first bed check. Warm hands. Loud music. You.’ Can you tell, us, in a similar style what was going on in your life as you wrote THE LEAVERS (which I realize spans 8 years)?

Lisa Ko: Binge writing. Deleting drafts. Binge writing. Deleting drafts. Many jobs and many daydreams.

L.L.: I have to touch on music. Deming/Daniel strongly connects with the musical world. It’s a place he can let down, express emotion, and sort of lose himself. Can you speak to that, please? How did this aspect of his character develop?

Lisa Ko: Music has always influenced my writing. I gave Deming music because I needed to bring some joy into his life and give him something that he could hold onto for himself, even in times of chaos. It’s a way that he’s able to form an identity for himself that goes beyond the expectations of his adoptive parents. Language is also a central part of the novel, and music is Deming’s third language, a language of his very own.

L.L.: It was a pleasure. Thank you, Lisa.

Lisa Ko: Thank you, Leslie!

For more information about THE LEAVERS, to connect with Lisa Ko via social media, or to purchase a copy, please see: 

Lisa-Ko-Bartosz-Potocki_2MBABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lisa Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Apogee Journal, Narrative, O. Magazine, Copper Nickel, Storychord, One Teen Story, Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere. Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthornden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

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[Cover and author image courtesy of Algonquin Books and used with permission. Young Lisa with parents retrieved from author’s website . ‘Factory Girls ‘and ‘Smuggled Chinese’ cover images retrieved from Amazon, all on 7.17.19]