In a literary world that often seems dominated by recently graduated creative-writing students writing about their student friends, Shauna Singh Baldwin stands out as an author with a rich personal history at her disposal – sometimes in excess, as she discovered this August while preparing to attend a service at the Sikh temple near her home in Milwaukee.
As Baldwin was dressing, news came over the television that a white supremacist had entered the same temple and begun shooting. He killed six early-comers before police shot him.
Hurrying to the temple, she joined a throng waiting for the survivors to be released. "The saddest part for me was watching my fellow Sikhs and realizing that nobody was that surprised," Baldwin says during a recent interview in Toronto – a city she fled almost 30 years ago after facing widespread, if less virulent, racism. "That was sad."
Not coincidentally, sectarian violence and intolerance run deep in Baldwin's latest novel, The Selector of Souls, which examines the perils and promise of multiculturalism in notably close focus. But it is brown-skinned Indo-Aryan supremacists who figure most prominently in Baldwin's fictional world, along with many of the other warring castes, sects and religions in modern India. Set entirely in the old country, The Selector of Souls neatly inverts the usual pattern of the immigrant novel.
"The fascinating thing about India is that they actually have to deal with the philosophies of the different groups," she says. "There's no place to move. Whereas in Canada, if you don't like it, you can always move somewhere else. In India, you can't do that, so it's a perfect place to examine multiculturalism as different religions bump up against each other."
Although the novel focuses on the specific issue of "daughter aversion" in Indian society, up to and including female infanticide, following that thread led the author into every corner of Indian law, custom and politics. "The problem with writing about sex selection or reproductive issues, in India it affects everything," she says, adding, "I didn't realize what I was getting into, let's put it that way."
Baldwin might well say the same about her own life. Born into one of the first Sikh families in Montreal – her father and two others "the only ones wearing turbans in Montreal" – Baldwin was raised in India, to which her parents returned after the birth of her brother.
"They decided if they were going to keep his hair long they should go back to India," she says. The irony is that, like many other Sikhs, her brother cut his hair for fear of being targeted in the aftermath of the vicious anti-Sikh riots that engulfed India following the 1984 assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi. Those events figure strongly in The Selector of Souls – and, no doubt, in the reaction of her co-religionists to another massacre 30 years later and half a world away.
Growing up in India while attending Catholic schools, Baldwin was "the Canadian kid" with vivid memories of Trudeaumania and Expo 67. "And then when I came over here in the eighties," she says, "I was a damn Paki."
Her experience paralleled that of fellow author Bharati Mukherjee, who left Toronto at the same time after publishing a scorching denunciation of Canadian racism. But Baldwin left for a different reason – marriage to Milwaukee restaurateur David Baldwin, 32 years her senior – and harbors no bitterness.
"You get used to these sorts of things over time," she says, her view modulated by "watching how my white husband has been treated by my community." And also the continuing schisms in her own family, from which she was disowned when she married an outsider – and with whom she has achieved only a partial reconciliation.
Being a perennial outsider is a large part of what turned her from a dissatisfied management consultant to a respected author, according to Baldwin. "I never fit in anywhere," she says. "I've been a minority in three different countries, so I'm quite comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable."
And a successful author: Baldwin's first book, What the Body Remembers, was nominated for the Orange Prize, won a Commonwealth Writers' Prize and has been translated into 14 languages. Her second, The Tiger Claw, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2004 and is currently being adapted for film.
Although her outspokenness has made her controversial in the traditional society that produced her – a trait Baldwin shares, albeit less dramatically, with her friend Salman Rushdie – this author remains fiercely political. The fact that few want to talk about the epidemic of anti-female sex selection that is distorting Indian society is precisely why she does.
"There's no question this is a terrible problem, and it's a very silent problem," she says. "But if you're going to do fiction, I think you focus on the unseen. You focus on the things that are silent in our lives."
After novels like The Selector of Souls, one doubts they will remain so for long.