October 14, 2019

American writer juggles ethnicity and environment in Balance of Fragile Things

An interview by Vinita Kinra (@VinitaKinra)

Olivia Chadha

Olivia Chadha

Olivia Chadha began writing when she was too small to reach the keys of her father’s computer. A first generation American, she is obsessed with history and crafting diverse characters. A devourer of good books, any given day she can be found reading several books at once including probably a pile of comic books, folktales, and novels. She holds a Masters and PhD in creative writing and teaches writing at the University of Colorado. Currently, she lives and writes in Boulder with her husband, son, and rescue dog.


Vinita Kinra: Why did the coming together of a mixed Indian and Latvian family in the face of an ecological disaster form the central theme of your debut novel, Balance of Fragile Things?

Olivia Chadha: I once read that we should write books we want to read. The Singhs in Balance of Fragile Things are a mixed family because in the hundreds of books I’ve read, I’ve rarely encountered characters of mixed ethnicities that I could relate to. Perhaps, that’s a reader’s secret desire: we long to find ourselves in pages of fiction. And while humans toil over their identities, the environment doesn’t discriminate. The land is and will always be the great common denominator. Bringing together nature as a character alongside the Singhs made for a healthy juxtaposition.

Vinita Kinra: Your writing career transitioned from comic book scripts to novels. Was this a conscious change or natural progression?

Olivia Chadha: The change was a coming of age for me. I was very young when Michael Turner gave me the opportunity to write a couple scripts for his Fathom series. I desperately wanted to study the craft of fiction, and I decided to pursue a master’s and doctorate in creative writing. For me, the mentors and peers I connected with in grad school were critical for my growth as a person and a novelist. I am still passionate about graphic fiction and hope to write a graphic novel in the next couple years.


Vinita Kinra: What role does your multiethnic background play in crafting your characters?

Olivia Chadha: Ethnicity is an important ingredient a writer can invoke in their characters, along with other identity markers like gender and class. The characters I enjoy writing are rarely singular and never identified by one element of their persona. For me, it’s important to craft characters that are real, whose diverse identity is multifaceted. But complex ethnicities are fun for me to write because that’s what I know. In the novel I’m revising currently, an urban fantasy, the cast is diverse and the main theme underlying all of the fantastical otherworldly goings-on like magic, daemons, and elementals is an honest inquiry into racial diversity, liminality, and prejudice.

Vinita Kinra:  You grew up with stories of torment experienced by your ancestors during the Holocaust and the Indo-Pak partition. Did these narratives mark your psyche in a way that it reflects in your writings?

Olivia Chadha: Yes, deeply. While both sides of my family experienced different horrors, the central element I borrowed from both is the importance of memorialization. Without remembering we have nothing, which is why I believe my elders were desperate to tell me their stories—stories I was too young to comprehend at the time. The novel is a wonderful place to explore histories, as I did in Balance of Fragile Things. I have a lot in common with many first generation Americans. Many of us carry our ancestors’ memories of war, fragility and temporariness of life, and the great sacrifices made. These are remarkable motivators.

Vinita Kinra:  What does the art of expression do for you on a personal level?

Olivia Chadha: Perhaps it’s through artistic expression that we become meaningful humans. Without it, we are dead. With it, we are alive and connected to one another. So, when I am able to write, although it feels like the most difficult thing to do, yet it’s where I can finally make sense of the insanity that surrounds us and try to connect with others.

Vinita Kinra:  Share with us your publishing journey.

Olivia Chadha: After querying several agents—many of whom said they loved Balance, but did not have the connections to place it with an editor—I was elated that Ashland Creek Press acquired it. Midge Raymond and John Yunker at Ashland are fierce advocates of prose that supports and promotes a deeper conversation about the planet and its inhabitants.

 Vinita Kinra: Aside from fiction, what other genres would you like to explore?

Olivia Chadha: I love graphic fiction and film because I’m a dialogue fanatic. I hear my characters speak long before I can see their faces. It would be wonderful to collaborate again with an artist to craft a graphic novel or series.

 Vinita Kinra:  What are your future projects?

Olivia Chadha: I’m currently seeking representation for an urban fantasy, a young adult novel titled The Oathkeeper. It is a story about a girl of inter-species lineage who fights daemon hordes in the Rocky Mountains. Mixed ethnicity is apparently a theme I can’t seem to get enough of!

Vinita Kinra:  Our readers would like to sample an excerpt from Balance of Fragile Things.

Olivia Chadha: This is a two-paragraph excerpt from the first chapter of the novel.

In this scene, the budding lepidopterist, Vic Singh, is trying to decide how to defend himself and the fragile body of a butterfly in his pocket, as his high school nemesis, Joe, punches him because he can’t understand why Vic wears a patka.

“Vic’s first reaction was worry as he gingerly put his hand in the pocket of his corduroy jacket and felt for something. Then, relieved, he balanced himself against the lockers so he wouldn’t faint. The blow had loosened the patka that enclosed his unshorn hair; it fell like an autumn leaf to the linoleum floor among blackened splotches of gum. His braid tumbled halfway down his back, a precursor to an imminent turban-wearing future. The length of his hair shocked even Vic as he stood with it naked to the world. He could have dodged the punch and prevented a broken nose; he actually thought of this option as he watched Joe’s fist—in slow motion, like a heat-seeking missile—follow the trajectory to his face. But Vic was more concerned with what was in his pocket than with Joe’s simian fist….

…For once Vic was thankful for the robust size of his nose, as he assumed the size allowed a particularly shocking amount of blood to flow. To him, it seemed, his dissimilarity was the cause of his bully magnetism. He’d never cut his hair, because kesh was one of The Five Ks of Sikhism, and he wore a patka to keep his hair neat and clean. Or perhaps it was the language Vic spoke when he’d first entered school, something he called Engjabi that was halfway between English and Punjabi. He uttered words that no teacher could translate when he was in first grade and just beginning to learn that the first letter of the alphabet looked like an apple and the second letter could be turned into a bumblebee if doubled on its side. Or perhaps it was the fact that his father made him follow the traditions of Sikhism when most kids were taking their fashion tips from MTV, not Guru Gobind Singh of the seventeenth century. Every time his parents were called into the school to discuss matters pertaining to Vic, they defended their son passionately with more foreign words like starpība and jhuthá, but the principal would have no idea they were pointing out the finer points of their family’s culture, or that they thought what was being said was mostly untrue. Vic thought they’d set him up for the worst thing any teen could endure—difference.”

Olivia Chadha can be reached via Twitter: @oliviakour and her website: www.oliviachadha.com

Vinita Kinra is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. 


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