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I Am Not Your Sidekick by Sheena Kamal

Sheena Kamal © 13 February 2017.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Crime · Interviews ).

Hello, there, crime fighter! How are you? You feeling good? You feel like solving mysteries because of an innate sense of justice and some deep, dark driving force that will play throughout your storyline?

Awesome. Just wanted to say hi. It’s me, ‘woman of colour’—the brown lady in the background who will do everything I can to help you do your job while you battle your demons. I have no demons because I’m a professional. I’m also attractive, sincere, well-meaning and so very boring I might as well be a houseplant. Every now and then my sassy sense of humour will show through and we’ll have a good laugh to lighten the moment before you go off to do the important work that you do, in whatever mood you happen to be in when you do it. Because you are allowed to be human. I am not. The good, the bad, the ugly—that’s all you.

Does this sound familiar?

I was recently asked on a panel to talk about, hmm, being a woman of colour or writing a woman of colour? One of those two, I can’t quite remember. I was too busy tripping over my tongue to pay much attention to what I was saying. I don’t like to discuss this subject. Who does? It’s uncomfortable and I’m no expert. I’ve thought about being offended by these kinds of questions, but that’s just immature. There is very little racial diversity in the genre I write in, and people have noticed. They want to talk about it with me, but yeah. Discomfort. All around.

I write crime fiction, but I often need a break from reading it. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to love about this genre and I do love it a lot. But while gender is being addressed in a very real way, race is not. I’m not sure that anyone really knows how to do this but some people try. I read these stories and I see the helpful brown woman, or the hard-working Asian assistant and I think: this again? It’s very frustrating to read these same cautious characterizations time and again. You don’t often get a plucky heroine or a flawed one who is not white.

The simple answer is to write more women of colour, but that’s not as easy as you might imagine. Representations of women of colour in fiction are incredibly fraught. It feels as though you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. There is no way to do it right, really, because there are so few examples that whatever you come up with can be torn down as easily as it is lifted up. Inclusion is nice, but meaningful inclusion means sensitivity – and that’s hard when you’re trying to create a fully realized human being.

Let me explain what I mean.

Nora Watts, the main character of my debut novel, Eyes Like Mine, is a mixed-race woman. Her mother was an immigrant and her father was an indigenous man who had been adopted and didn’t know anything about his birth family. Nora is an outsider who has no connection to her cultural heritage on either side. But she looks like an indigenous woman, and that affects how people treat her. This is a minefield. I chose this back story for her because my story is centered on a missing girl and you cannot speak of the disappeared in Canada without talking about the extremely high rates of indigenous girls and women that go missing in my country. To not have it in there would be like erasure, but I don’t want to appropriate culture or play into stereotypes.

This is as easy a trap for me to fall into as anyone else.

I am a woman of colour who wrote a different kind of woman of colour and questioned my intentions consistently throughout the process. I know how much it matters for people who aren’t often represented to be included, but it is important to be included thoughtfully.

I read everything I can on how to do this in a sensitive manner. I asked people I know (and some people I didn’t) for advice on what lines cannot be crossed by an outsider like me. Nora was never going to be plugged into her culture, so that worked for the story, but I still had to be mindful. I kept asking myself if this is why the flip side of representation is erasure. I kept asking myself if I would be okay with erasure. I wasn’t. I wanted to say something about the place that I live and I want my woman of colour to be front and center. To be flawed and human and not exist as someone else’s prop. I don’t want her to be a symbol of anything other than a complicated woman who must make some very difficult choices.

I don’t know if I achieved all this, but I did my best. And Nora? Well, she’s nobody’s sidekick.

(c) Sheena Kamal

Author photo (c) Malcolm Tweedy

About Eyes Like Mine:

It’s late. The phone rings.
The man on the other end says his daughter is missing.
Your daughter.
The baby you gave away over fifteen years ago.
What do you do?
Nora Watts isn’t sure that she wants to get involved. Troubled, messed up, and with more than enough problems of her own, Nora doesn’t want to revisit the past. But then she sees the photograph. A girl, a teenager, with her eyes. How can she turn her back on her?
But going in search of her daughter brings Nora into contact with a past that she would rather forget, a past that she has worked hard to put behind her, but which is always there, waiting for her . . .
In Eyes Like Mine, Sheena Kamal has created a kick-ass protagonist who will give Lisbeth Salander a run for her money. Intuitive, not always likeable, and deeply flawed, Nora Watts is a new heroine for our time.

Sheena Kamal is the author of Eyes Like Mine, published by Zaffre, out now.

Pick up a copy online here.

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— academic knowledge and experience that inspired this debut novel. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.