Fighting a war with a pen

One critic called his writing an “exciting collision–like poetry and technology smashing into each other.” Another called the drama that unfurled over the pages “raw and savage.”

They’re talking about 17 Tomatoes, a thin little book that helped land Jaspreet Singh this years’ University of Calgary Markin-Flanagan residency. The writer will bring something very unique to this program.

Singh lived most of his childhood in Kashmir, a territory that India and Pakistan continue to fight over after more than fifty years. A child who never liked reading war comics, decades later he reflects on the irony of setting his book in the army camps, concentrating its stories around war.

While 17 Tomatoes is a collection of connected short stories set in Kashmir, Singh said Canada provides the beginnings for his stories. Montreal lurks in the background of one, the sound of ambulance sirens that wailed past Singh’s apartment every morning fill the story’s opening. The sounds parallel the “agony of elephants.” They bring alive their “trumpet like shrieks.”

Even Banff peaks through his stories in 17 Tomatoes. Though this is his first time in Calgary, he used to visit Banff while writing his collection.

“Banff restored my memory of Kashmir, but really, Canada made me a writer,” Singh says. “It provided the right kind of distance. I was able to see Kashmir from outside the frame.”

On top of his writing, Singh holds a PhD in chemical engineering from McGill University. When he decided to write full-time, he had been teaching and working as a senior researcher for a large corporation. He gave up his house by the lake, and while his parents were leary of this career move, Singh still manages to eat every day.

“At some point, one finds that there are stories that need to be told, stories that shouldn’t be lost to time,” Singh says. “All my stories have one very deeply felt moment from my own life.”

He committed his stories to paper, but it is apparent while he talks that his science background hasn’t been lost with the shift. Interaction between the two “cultures” of science and the humanities peppers his life and his language. It is there in the writing, in some of the characters that grow through the book, in the formula that appears suddenly across a page. It’s in the analogies he offers about his decision to write full-time, describing atoms, describing the phase transitions of superabsorbent polymers. It’s there in the words and lives of those he admires.

“To write with the precision of a poet and the passion of a scientist,” he recites from memory, quoting Vladimir Nabokov. As writer-in-residence, Singh says he wants to explore novel ways to bring together writers and scientists.

“Because I have experience in both cultures, what I have figured is you can’t always reconcile these differences,” he says. But for Singh, there’s a common denominator to all those cultures: storytelling. “Storytelling is so essential. It makes us human.”

According to Singh, storytelling is not the property of a particular medium or discipline. He noted that most of his stories start with a film he’d like to shoot or a poem.

“But I write very bad poems,” he laughs. “And I’d be a disaster as a filmmaker.”

Singh acted in street theatre in Chandigarh, India, while studying engineering in his late teens. After moving to Canada in 1990, he acted on-stage in Montreal, once playing a character who had to die and be resurrected every night.

“I was drifting more and more toward writing,” Singh says. “Writing provides a huge laboratory with an unlimited budget.”

Janice Lee, coordinator of the Markin-Flanagan program, says Singh was chosen by a collection of local writers, business people, professors and students. The commission looks for writers that compliment the interests of the program, including a commitment to community activities. Singh is the 14th writer-in-residence since it was created by two local philanthropists in 1993.

Singh will be working on his new novel, titled The Book of Hanging Gardens, during his ten month residency at the U of C. The Markin-Flanagan program not only provides him the opportunity to focus on his writing and not to have to think about finances, it also situates him in a rapidly-changing city, which he holds is a very good thing for a writer.

“Any city going through transition produces the most exciting writing,” he says. “I will be observing Calgary very closely–who knows? This place, too, might become a book.”

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