Photo credit: @doubledayca via Instagram

BOOKS

Boreal Book Club: A Great Country by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Welcome to STYLE Canada‘s Boreal Book Club: a monthly meeting narrated by Girl Well Read, for bookworms who’re looking to scour new pages. Since we aim to shine a spotlight on all things Canadian in life and style, beauty, and health and wellness, it goes without saying that every instalment of the Boreal Book Club will feature a Canadian author and their latest title. Be sure to use the hashtag #BorealBookClub to share with us on social

Photo credit: @doubledayca via Instagram

Pacific Hills, California: Gated communities, ocean views, well-tended lawns, serene pools, and now the new home of the Shah family. For the Shah parents, who came to America twenty years earlier with little more than an education and their new marriage, this move represents the culmination of years of hard work and dreaming. For their children, born and raised in America, success is not so simple.

For the most part, these differences among the five members of the Shah family are minor irritants, arguments between parents and children, older and younger siblings. But one Saturday night, the twelve-year-old son is arrested. The fallout from that event will shake each family member’s perception of themselves as individuals, as community members, as Americans, and will lead each to consider: how do we define success? At what cost comes ambition? And what is our role and responsibility in the cultural mosaic of modern America?

Photo: Shilpi Somaya Gowda (Alissa Rose Photography)

Gowda’s scorching new novel follows an Indian-American family struggling to climb the social ladder and how an incident with the police highlights the systems of prejudice that are still at work. The Shahs are victims of the systemic racism that they thought the gates of their community protected them from. Their differing views further illustrate the generational and cultural divide.

Told through multiple perspectives, this timely novel represents the separation that immigrant families feel from their adolescent children who were raised in a country different from their own. Gowda wades into the divided climate we live in, deftly handling polarizing views while still leaving much to be discussed—this book would make an excellent book club choice.

A Great Country explores themes of immigration, generational conflict, social class and privilege, the myth of the model minority and the price of the American dream.

SHILPI SOMAYA GOWDA is the New York Times bestselling, award-winning author of four novels: The Golden Son (a Target Book Club Pick, a Costco Buyer’s Pick, and was awarded the French literary prize, Prix des Lyceens Folio), The Shape of Family (an international and American bestseller), A Great Country and Secret Daughter (an IndieNext Great Read, a Target Book Club Pick, a ChaptersIndigo Heather’s Pick, an Amnesty International Book Club Pick, and a finalist for the South African Boeke Literary Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award).
Shilpi was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and now lives in California.
Scroll to read Girl Well Read’s exclusive interview with Shilpi Somaya Gowda about A Great Country.

Photo credit: @shilpigowda via Instagram

GWR: How did you start writing/become a writer?    

SSG: I began writing in 2006, during a transitional period in my business career. I took some university night classes in creative writing after moving to a new city, and slowly began learning how to structure and write a novel. It provided a great framework for someone like me, with little creative writing experience. In that program, I wrote the first draft of my first novel, Secret Daughter. I spent the next two years revising the manuscript, finding a literary agent, and selling it to a publisher. It’s a great lesson that unexpected life changes can lead to exciting new things.
GWR: Are you a pantser/gardener or a plotter/architect? What does your writing process look like and does it differ from book-to-book? 
SSG: My process is a combination of planning and organic exploration. I start with a central character and story premise, and try to roughly outline the plot, but there are invariably large gaps. I often have a sense of the climax or central conflict, but almost never know the ending. I start by writing the pieces I know, which means I don’t write chronologically. As I develop the characters along the way, I find more details, including the secondary characters and sub-plots. The process does vary a bit with each book, since each story presents a new challenge. It seems like it should get easier over time, but not yet!
GWR: What was the genesis of A Great Country?
SSG: I began writing this novel in 2021, to try to make sense of the world around me. It was one year into the worldwide pandemic, in the wake of the George Floyd video, and amidst a rise in violence against Asian-Americans. The discussions I witnessed were fraught and often extreme, and there was a distressing decline in civil discourse. A new conversation was starting to emerge. The minority group often deemed to be “model” in the U.S. was being forced to reconsider its role and comfort level in this country. Should we be seeking common cause with other communities of color? Or protecting ourselves in dangerous times? What did it mean to be American, hyphenated or otherwise? These were the ideas—the social, cultural, political forces in America today—I wanted to explore in A Great Country.

Photo credit: @shilpigowda via Instagram

GWR: What character did you sympathize with the most and did that change while writing the book?
SSG: One of the keys of writing for me is to find a way to empathize with each of the characters. If I can’t put myself in their shoes, I can’t write them with any conviction. I can always find a connection with mothers, because of the universality of that experience. I also find myself rooting for those characters that have a hard time expressing themselves, like Ajay, and I end up working harder to show their perspective.
GWR: Did any minor characters become major characters over the course of the novel?
SSG: I always knew the main character (Priya) would have a good friend throughout the story, but Archana (Archie) grew to have a significant role in the novel. She’s there to provide support, but also to remind Priya who she is/was, to show a contrast with how other friends and acquaintances react, and to offer to her professional guidance as a psychologist. Readers often tell me Archie is their favorite character, and don’t we all deserve a friend like her in our lives? I’m fortunate to have several of them.
GWR: What was the hardest scene to write?
SSG: The hardest scenes for me to write are always the ones where the characters go through a gruelling emotional experience. I have to feel what they’re feeling in order to write it. There were several of those scenes in this novel, but one of the toughest was an argument between Ashok and his eldest daughter, Deepa. There is a wide gulf between their views. They both have legitimate perspectives and are desperate to have the other understand; in that process, they say hurtful things to each other and are each left terribly, perhaps irrevocably, wounded.

Photo credit: @shilpigowda via Instagram

GWR: You have many points of view that illustrate the cultural and generational differences—why did you choose to write the novel this way?
SSG: I conceived of this novel as a community story. While it’s centered on the Shah family, it also zooms out to a wider perspective to include four other families, each with a differing background, race, class, immigration status. I thought it was important to show where some of our political differences come from, how each family’s life experience drives how they see the American dream a bit differently. Within each family, generational conflicts arise between parents and children, and these further complicate the community dynamic.
GWR: What do you hope readers will take away from A Great Country?
SSG: I’ve learned that many people long for more civil dialogue as a way to face our society’s problems. It can be hard to approach these hot-button topics, but fiction can offer us a way to step into another person’s shoes. I hope that readers come away with a willingness to spark reflection and to perhaps understand a different perspective. Even better, they could use that as a basis to open respectful dialogue with their book club, neighbour or colleague.
GWR: If your book was a beverage, what would it be? 
SSG: Masala chai, of course!
GWR: What are you working on now?

SSG: I have a couple of ideas I’ve been simmering on, but haven’t started writing. I’ve been reading, researching and jotting down notes. When an idea really begins to gather steam in my mind, that’s when I know it’s time to start writing.

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