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Written by Andrea GunrajAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Andrea Gunraj

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On Sale: June 22, 2010
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-37408-0
Published by : Vintage Canada Knopf Canadian Publishing
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Neela Keetham and her brother Navi yearn to escape their hometown of Marasaw. Living with their grandmother after their mother had left years before to find work abroad, they struggle against the poverty and limited opportunities available in Marasaw. Navi hopes to prosper from his talent as a math prodigy, while Neela constantly battles to find some talent to rival her brother’s.
 
Despite the support of their grandmother and friends, both Navi and Neela find that escaping their circumstances, much less their past, is no easy task. The siblings make their separate ways out of Marasaw, but each must make sacrifices and damaging compromises along the way. They also learn dark and dangerous truths about each other, driving them apart in fear and anger.  
 
As Navi and Neela work tirelessly to create new lives for themselves, the outside world, far from being a paradise, is revealed as more punishing and unfair than the world they left behind. Navi wins a prestigious government internship, but his success ironically snuffs out the opportunity for a lasting, loving relationship with a fellow intern. On the strength of rumours and the word of her boyfriend Jaroon, Neela daringly makes her way to a resort town hidden in the rainforest to work as a teacher, only to find that this “Eden,” and Jaroon, are not what they seem.
 
Chastened and wiser for their experiences, Neela and then Navi are both forced by circumstances to return home. The disappearance of Neela’s daughter, Seetha, leads them back to each other and into the complex and mysterious bonds of family. To save Seetha, Neela and Navi must attempt to heal their damaged relationship and along the way they discover that in the cruel and imperfect world in which they live, hope may still prevail.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

One

Neela's abilities had first manifested themselves when she was ten and her brother, Navi, was twelve. Navi was the smart child, known throughout the neighbourhood for his ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide faster and better than any other twelve-year-old, and probably better than anyone else in Marasaw. He would pace around his grandmother's rickety wooden house in grey school shorts and an undershirt, using whatever he came upon to test his mathematical speed and accuracy. Twenty-seven and twelve tin cup is thirty-nine tin cup! A hundred and three by six tea towel is six hundred and eighteen tea towel! Neela's grandmother, only in her early forties when Neela and Navi were near puberty, encouraged her grandson's domestic calculation rampages. She challenged him to problem-solve questions: "If I throw seventy-seven black-eye pea in dis pot and boil it for forty-nine days, and spill two quart-a water straining de peas out, but forget de fire on and almost burn down de town by eleven o'clock, how much peas left?"

In his younger days, Navi would stare at the sandy floorboards and, after some reflection, whisper, Seventy-five? But these days he had learned better. "De same amount you start with, Granny."

"Ah Navi-boy," she sighed, with an artificial old-lady voice, "you too quick for your old granny."

While the whole neighbourhood prophesied about Navi's future as a banker or engineer, thrilled that their modest town should possess a boy of such talent, Neela's prospects were rarely discussed. They were hardly noticed in light of her brother and this manifested itself in bodily form – she grew skinnier, shorter and more awkward than he. She tried to do mathematics like her brother, but she would pass household objects and forget to put them into equations. Even when she made a painful effort to do so, she was never as daring, as acrobatic, as Navi. Nine and four channa is twelve… no, thirteen channa… She was aware of how silly she sounded coming up with those lacklustre sums. "Alright girl, dat's good," was as much of a confirmation as Granny could muster, flipping and oiling roti on the stove. "Must follow your brother's example when he wins de contest."

The famous Children's Mathematical Challenge, or the CMC, as the students had nicknamed it, had been initiated by a foreign diplomat who had come to the country. Dismayed at the lack of competitions between schools, he had originally founded the Student Spelling Challenge. He had laboured to get headmasters from towns all over the country to send their most talented spellers to the competition, but his excitement hadn't ignited the country's imagination. It was only years later that the diplomat's son, convinced that arithmetic, not English, was the world's common language, transformed it into a popular math competition.

Navi was Marasaw Elementary School's natural choice. After the headmaster announced that Navi would attend the CMC in the capital city, adult townsfolk took credit for the boy's brilliance. I taught de boy for four years, his teacher told the other teachers. He takes after my family, you know, his grandmother informed her neighbours. It's his name we raise to heaven in prayer, man, his Sunday school teacher confirmed. But deep down, they knew Navi's uncanny skills didn't come from any of them – it wasn't clear how he achieved his spectacular sums, but they knew full well that he didn't need anything from them to know that three by six hundred and seven papaw is one thousand eight hundred and twenty-one papaw.

Still, Navi was generous in his acceptance of the honour. "It's my family, my neighbours, my school and all de good citizens of Marasaw dat made dis happen. Without them teaching and guiding me, I would not even be able to spell seee-emmm-seee," he declared in a speech to the whole school, for which he received applause made insincere by his classmates' secret jealousy and overly sincere by his teachers' delight. "Will you join me now, fine students and teachers of Marasaw Elementary," he said in conclusion, "to sing our school's most beautiful anthem? For I am going to dis Challenge only for you." More than two hundred children, sweating in uniforms cuffed by green and orange bands, stood up noisily.

But Neela didn't sing. She had no choice in attending the assembly, but she had the choice of whether or not to sing. As the others belted out the school' s anthem in that off-key, half-shouting way they always did, Neela mouthed the words, pretending to take heaving breaths between stanzas. She had started such little feats of rebellion the afternoon her granny and brother sat at the kitchen table to write his acceptance speech. Her anger had begun to seethe against Navi's lofty accomplishments, and she knew that the time had come for her to act. I done with being his copycat, done being his hand-puppet. Her underground revolt might go unnoticed, but she didn' t need anyone's attentions. She would still strive to poison the enthusiasm swirling around Navi and his mathematics. He gon' be sorry, real sorry

"Hey, girl," a classmate with puffy ponytails whispered from behind her, between verses three and four, "you so lucky to have a brother like dat!" Neela pretended to be too absorbed in her singing to hear the compliment.


Neela attempted to throw a tantrum, whining to continue playing outside with her friends, but her grandmother would have none of it. "Get your tail in here and help you brother finish packing de bags!" Granny commanded. So Neela kept silent when the three of them took a taxi to the dock at the edge of town. She sucked in her Look over there! when, as their ferry started across the river, a large orange bird that had captured a squirmy fish in its beak perched on a post and stretched out its wings. She held her tongue and clamped her teeth when they arrived on the other side and descended from the boat along wobbling wood planks, dizzy with noontime sun and confused by shouts of family meeting family, Eh boy, eh girl, we over here! Navi's vocal calculations extended to their surroundings while they awaited a minibus – palm trees and expansive bushes, taxi drivers bullying customers, a girl selling ginger beer, stacks of bleached crates acting as chairs. Passengers packed into a lime green van and held tight as it whipped down crowded city streets, blasting everything in its path with a horn rigged to sound like a siren. But, wedged between old women and their plastic bags, Neela refused to affirm her grandmother' s reflection: "Dis driver a madman, I tell you…"

It was the first time that Neela had visited the capital and stayed as a hotel guest. Even though her Marasaw hometown of aged houses and elderly neighbours was only a mile across the river, it seemed terribly unsophisticated in comparison to the city. Never again would she be as mesmerized as she was this time – all the colourfully dressed ladies, shops constructed with bricks, humming mopeds and taxis, poor children jumping in puddles of brown water. It was so animated, so celebratory, even in its most mundane elements. As they walked by the sprawling outdoor market, Neela envisioned the Big Top described in her Royal English Reader for Students textbook. Mighty lions jump through flaming hoops while seals balance balls and clowns tickle everyone's fancy, she recalled when they passed a crowd cheering a jester; he manoeuvred his homemade marionette to flirt with bashful little girls.

That evening, Navi applied arithmetic to everything in the hotel room, more impressive than ever dividing and multiplying the pillows and sheets. "Neel babylove," Granny said, "whole day you quiet. What happen, ba-ba, you sleepy? Go to sleep."

"Yes, Granny," she answered, too genuinely tired to go through her nightly Ow Granny, a little longer, nah routine.

Granny rubbed her hand over a folded blanket on the bed. "See how nice these hotels does be? Watch how pretty dis blanket is. You must enjoy de place while you here – feel it, nah?" she asked, hoping to engage Neela's interest. "Now hear, children, both-a you," Granny said, over twelve hundred and sixty beds minus four hundred and thirty beds, "must call me ‘Mommy' when we out tomorrow, you understand? Nav? Hear, Neela?"

"Yes, Mommy," they replied with equally distracted voices. As Navi became more lavish in his calculations, Neela sank lower into the despair of her brother's sure victory at the contest. Grudgingly, she acknowledged that her silent campaign had made no impact on his spirits or abilities. He spent the night dreaming of stars and planets and moons to add and subtract – he had the strange gift of calm. Although she had seen no results, Neela was too stubborn to abandon her protest. She brought the soundless demonstration into the bustling hotel auditorium the next morning. Navi and dozens of other uniformed children were lined up on stage in velvet-backed chairs, restlessly awaiting the opening speech.

"Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends, students and educators, thank you for being with us today as we mark our thirty-seventh annual Children's Mathematical Challenge. This is a truly marvellous event of higher learning that I look forward to every year," the diplomat's son said, cloaked in a woollen suit at the polished wood podium. "As you are well aware, the fifty fine boys and girls before you have been selected as your country's most promising young mathematicians."

"Shhh, boy, hear de man, nah?" a man sitting behind Neela and her grandmother whispered to his whimpering toddler son. "Watch your sister up there, she over there, you see? Dat man talking about her when he say ‘mathematician,' eh? Aw, she bright bad, yes? Hummm?"

Neela frowned to herself. She knew that the man's attempt to console the boy on the basis of his sister's overbearing accomplishments would make the child more upset, more impatient in his own ordinariness.

"There is nothing more satisfying than seeing children carry the torch of mathematics into the future," the diplomat's son continued, wiping moisture from his forehead with an embroidered handkerchief. "You should be proud of your sons and daughters. Many of them will take what they discover here and, no doubt, will grow to forge a noteworthy legacy for your country. They will bring their childhood success into adult excellence."

"You hear dat?" a woman a few seats away said in a scathing growl toward her two shrinking daughters. "Y'all play-playing whole time at school, and look where your brother is." One girl stared at her shoes while the other concentrated on smoothing her skirt over her knees. "You hear me, you ungrateful pickney?"

A current of warmth rose through Neela, vicarious anger and shame accumulating under her cheeks and ears.

"Y'all think life is easy but it ain't so. Your brother work hard and if you keep play-playing, he gon' leave you behind. See how quick y'all become nothing." Neela watched the girls avoid eye contact with their mother, knowing that she would interpret it as encouragement to continue.

"It's one thing if y'all was succeeding in your classes. Then you could do all your wicked heart desires. You could run all over de square and I'd let you go along your way. I'd keep my mouth shut. But how you girls carry on, must ready yourself for failure. Don't come to me, ‘Mommy, why you didn't tell us how hard it would be? Why you didn't show us de way?' Because I done tell you, I done show you . . ."

Applause drowned her out, forcing Neela's attention back to the diplomat' s son. "I expect your very best today, boys and girls, as we begin our Challenge. As you know, our rules are simple – contestants who provide correct answers will move forward. The contestant who completes the competition without an error will be declared the winner. I wish you the best of luck, children, we all do." More applause rang through the auditorium. "And good luck in all your future endeavours."

The Children's Mathematical Challenge started with simple arithmetic questions posed to each competitor by a panel of judges. Although instructed to hold their applause until the end of each round, family members of children who answered correctly – De answer is four hundred and eighteen, Honourable Judges – responded with infectious clapping and commentary. Yes! Dat's right, child, correct! But by eleven o'clock, after the first of three rounds had closed and errors had purged more than half of the competitors, the audience was edgy. The judges' questions became more compounded – Contestant, what is four thousand and thirty-seven by sixty-two minus five hundred and nine? Answers no longer snapped out immediately, and delay tactics emerged. Some children asked for questions to be repeated – and other children stopped in the middle of their calculations to fulfill an urgent need to buckle loose shoes. Contenders no longer approached the podium bouncy and self-assured, hoping that humbled steps would translate into more cautious calculations.

Yet Navi didn't share this hesitation. Although his grandmother sat stiffly in her seat, squeezing Neela's hand whenever the words Navi Keetham, please address de Honourable Panel were sounded, Navi himself was just fine.

"Ah, your brother's something else, Neela." Granny sighed as her grandson, the strongest competitor in the CMC, strolled back to his chair after a particularly complex sum. "You hear what he say, love? You hear your brother give de correct answer? And he didn't break a sweat!" Only now aware that Neela had been silent the whole morning, Granny bent her neck so her eyes would meet her granddaughter' s.

"Yes, Mommy, I hear."

"Oh, Neela," Granny said, straightening herself and wrapping an arm around Neela's shoulders, "you nervous for Navi, nah? Ow, don't worry yourself, he gon' do good."

Neela grasped onto the misguided comfort, knowing that it was fleeting. She pressed her ear to her grandmother's chest, into the heavily flowered material of her best and least- worn dress. "Mommy, if all these people praying for they own children to win, but only one is to win, how come everybody think their prayer gon' be answered?"

Her grandmother grinned. "Well, Neela, you asking a hard thing now, girl! Why you want to get trap up in dis kind-a hard question? You mus' -ee need some senna to move your belly and pass it away…"

"No, Granny!" Neela said, having difficulty restraining laughter whenever her grandmother reduced all ills to the need to take laxatives. "I mean, Mommy."

"Looks like I gon' got to get you some good castor oil when we reach home, nah?"

"No! Answer me! Please?"

Granny drew a large, thoughtful breath. "Baby, I can't really tell you," she said, fingering two skinny gold bangles on her wrist, twisting them to reveal their patterned sides. Neela watched how they glided over a well-known streak of dark scars on her arm, scars and gold looking as shiny as each other in the auditorium's lighting. "Maybe it's wrong for them to pray for they own children. Maybe they should pray for de right one to win and be at peace with it. Or maybe it ain't right to pray for dis kind-a thing at all. I don't know, Neela."

"You praying for Navi?" she probed, passing her forefinger over the texture of her grandmother's bangles and watching them slide back down over the scars.

"Well, all dat being said, of course I'm praying for your brother. I can't help but pray with all my heart dat he'll win."

Neela looked to the podium and a lanky, unsteady girl. Her school uniform was similar to Neela's, only it included a white hat with a neat navy blue bow to the side.

"Contestant, what is seventeen hundred and thirty-six by forty-eight plus ninety-three?"

Body motionless, the girl's eyes flickered to her father and little brother, right behind Neela and her grandmother.

"It's okay, girl, take your time and think it through," the father whispered in his daughter's direction. Neela found herself thinking that perhaps this tall girl was the right child to win, even though Granny was praying so earnestly for Navi. You can get it, you can get dis answer, girl, she thought to herself, on an impulse.

The girl shifted her weight from one elongated leg to another. "Can you please repeat de question, Honourable Judge?" she requested.

"What is seventeen hundred and thirty-six by forty-eight plus ninety-three, contestant?"

She scratched the back of her neck, causing her hat's front rim to bob up and down at the audience. "Come on, you know dis!" her father whispered urgently. The girl watched him, fear of elimination distorting her expression into a grimace. Don't worry with your daddy, Neela silently consoled, just think carefully. Think about de numbers, don't worry with anybody else.

The girl opened her mouth rashly but snapped it shut again, letting her sightline pause at her shoes. She straightened her back. "Please answer de question, contestant," a judge instructed unsympathetically. Don't worry with him, either, Neela thought, you gon' be fine.

"Oh no, looks like she gon' lose dis one," Granny murmured, feeling uneasy for the girl's father. Uh-uh, I think you can get dis answer, girl, I know you gon' get it, confirmed Neela. You close, I can see you close….

"Answer de question, please," another judge ordered, irritated, and the girl lifted her head. She squinted. You can do it, girl, you might be de right one to win! The girl opened her eyes wide with knowledge. Yes! You got it!

"De answer is eighty-three thousand, four hundred and twenty-one, Honourable Judges."

"Very good, contestant. You may take your seat."

Everyone cheered for the tall girl, her father most of all; he leaped to his feet and clapped his hands high above his chest – Dat's my child, my daughter! – while she skipped to her seat and enjoyed back-patting from contestants around her. Neela smiled without reservation for the first time that day.

Neela started to encourage every contestant in the same way, save one. She spoke to them with growing confidence as they took their place at the podium, inwardly telling them, You could be de one to win, you can get de correct answer, your family too-too frightened you gon' lose but I believe you can win. And they were thirsty for it, soaking in her bountiful support while struggling through increasingly difficult questions. She prompted the others not in panic of their failures, but in apprehension about her brother's success. Her faith was certain in a way that those children had never known from wishful parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. It was safe, lavished equally upon them all.

But, unbeknownst to him, Navi was at a severe disadvantage at the end of the third and final round, when only he and one contestant remained in the challenge. A sharp scratch of doubt ran through his body as he was called to the front of the stage. He noticed that his grandmother and sister had come forward on their seats and were staring at him. He pushed aside his uncertainty and recomposed himself on the way to the podium, legs straight and eyes fixed on the judges' platform.

You was sure of yourself till now, nah?
He heard himself think. "Contestant, what is twelve thousand and forty-two and eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six hundred and seventy-seven divided by five?" Navi suspended his senses to process the numbers.

Alright, let's see if you can get dis one,
he thought. Twelve thousand and forty-two and eight hundred and sixty five is twelve thousand nine hundred and seven. Subtract six hundred and seventy-seven? Were those de right numbers? Yes. You sure? Yes… I think… You ain't sure. Don't tell me you forgetting de question so fast. Twelve thousand and forty-two, add eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six hundred and seventy-seven. Yes. Dat does sound right. Or is it six thousand and seventy-seven? Or seven thousand and sixty-six? They barely read de thing and it's slipping from you. No, I'm alright, I got de right numbers. Twelve thousand and forty-two. Eight thousand and sixty-five. Six hundred and seventy-seven . . . wait. Something don't seem right. Twelve thousand and forty-two… eight thousand and… or is it eight hundred… It's all starting to get mix up, boy. "Honourable Judge," Navi asked, "would you please repeat de question?"

The judge observed him over spectacles that rested low on the tip of his nose. By this point in the day, he was tired of repeating himself. "What is twelve thousand and forty-two and eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six hundred and seventy-seven divided by five," he replied.

Alright, dat's it – twelve thousand and forty-two, eight hundred and sixty-five, six hundred and seventy-seven. You a-hundred percent sure? Um-hum, de first piece equals twelve thousand nine hundred and seven; dat number minus six hundred and seventy-seven is twelve thousand two hundred and thirty. And dat's divisible by five, so… But dat can't be right. Yes, it is, twelve thousand and forty-two minus eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six thousand and seventy-five… is six thousand eight hundred and thirty. So how did I get twelve thousand two hundred and thirty de first time? Hum. Getting confused again. First I'm to subtract, then add, then divide. Or add, then subtract… or subtract both times and divide? You mean dis simple question's too hard for you to calculate? Come nah, man. What a disappointment you turning out to be.

He looked to the judges with artificial hope that they might speak his question once more, but the judge with the spectacles gave him nothing. "Please answer promptly, contestant," he said flatly when their gazes met. Navi was aware that bewilderment had infested his expression. Amongst the layers of auditorium seats, he located his family again. One of them had predictably anxious eyes and furrowed brows. The other had a face of pure stone.

I thought you was better than dis.
Six thousand eight hundred and thirty… Dat calculation just don't sound right. Is it adding both times and dividing by five? Or adding and subtracting, and then dividing? You can't remember de numbers or what to do. Looks like you ain't as clever as you thought. Twelve thousand and forty-two, eight hundred and seventy-seven… six hundred and sixty-five?

"Answer de question now." You hear de judge, you can't stall no more. Six thousand eight hundred and thirty divided by five is one thousand three-hundred and sixty-six. Time run out. Dat must be de answer. It's all you can offer them now…

"Contestant, answer de question."

"One thousand three-hundred and sixty-six, Honourable Judges," Navi answered, as if his grandmother had tricked him with a math problem about peas in a pot.

"Incorrect. De answer is two thousand four hundred and forty-six. You have been eliminated from de competition."

Granny remained rigid, unable to let go of Neela's hand. Navi returned to his chair robotically, too numb to perceive the audience excitedly applauding the winner – they had fused into a mass of disjointed faces. He could hardly comprehend that he had gotten so far and lost. That's why he didn't expect to tell himself such a thing when he sat down, a thought so contrary to what he had blindly assumed ever since he had been chosen to compete – Maybe I was wrong all along, maybe I wasn't de right one to win.


The tall girl accepted the first place cash prize and a large trophy for her headmaster to display at her school, while Navi accepted a bronze plaque emblazoned with Second Place. Granny proudly positioned the plaque in her rickety cabinet, between the Her Majesty's collector plate and a yellowing regal dolly with a lavender ball gown. She would point to it every time visitors came by – rather than impressing them, it led to a further question. What happen, Sugee, why de boy didn't win first place? Even when visitors fought the temptation to pose such a thing aloud, Navi was guarded against their flash of puzzlement over his second-place status, the very confusion he felt when he glanced at the plaque himself.

He didn't take it with him years later when he left the country, and he certainly didn't reply to the part of his grandmother's letters that read, I polish your award every week, when I open the cabinet to dust the plates… He completely disregarded the plaque when he became the first from his country to fill an impressive overseas government position. But he would never forget that look on his sister's face before he made an inexplicable error at the Children's Mathematical Challenge.
Andrea Gunraj|Author Q&A

About Andrea Gunraj

Andrea Gunraj - The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha
Andrea Gunraj is a community outreach worker for METRAC (www.metrac.org), which promotes the rights of women and children to live free from violence and the threat of violence. Her parents immigrated from Guyana, a region whose culture and politics have infused Gunraj’s writing. She and her husband live in Toronto.

Author Q&A

What was the inspiration for this novel? What was the first idea or spark that you recall?
 
My mother was a key inspiration. She was so quirky and unique. A lot of material had come from her – I remember her telling me stories about growing up back home in Guyana and her elaborate dreams of fruit and fish in the market. 

 
Neela and Navi come from the fictional town of Marasaw and no country is named in the novel. What were your reasons for deliberately obscuring or generalizing the settings?
 
I represented the setting more generally because I thought it could reduce the “othering” dynamic, where a reader might think, “This is about people living in that place, over there. It’s not about my life here.” It’s so easy to read something and externalize it. But the themes in the book, both the interpersonal themes and the social-political themes, are quite common everywhere. I wanted people to be able to read and find themselves in it. 
 

Describe the process of creating the array of characters and voices for The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha  – did you have specific examples or people in your own life to draw on?
 
They’re not based on anyone in particular. I really do believe that the characters have traits common to us all, and as some of the characters change quite a bit in the book, we also can change quite a bit with time and experiences.
 

You’ve said previously that you “don’t understand when people say they have ‘no regrets’ – how someone could live without regrets.” Do you think that regret, or perhaps a fear of regret, is as strong as or even stronger than the driving force of ambition or desire?
 
Regrets can be a hindrance and they can be a strong motivator. I believe they can be the underlying basis for many of our ambitions and desires, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. As I’ve said before, I don’t think regrets themselves are the problem, it’s what we choose to do with them. If we wallow in them, they can become depressive and create self-pity. But if we act on them and try to make things better, I can only see that as something good.
 

You never explain the origins of Neela’s power, but we learn that it has passed from her mother, through Neela and down to Seetha. How would you define Neela’s power?
 
It’s not easy to define, and I didn’t bother to do that because I wanted it to stay a mystery. For me, the most important feature of their power is that these women were special. And they seemed to understand that they were special, at least at some point, but being special and possessing qualities that make you special aren’t really enough. You have to make conscious decisions to use whatever you’ve got in a positive way. And Neela and her mother didn’t, but the hope is that Seetha will.
 

Navi and Neela have a sibling rivalry that could be described as “success at any cost,” yet they end up with a restored, if uneasy, sibling bond by the end of the novel. Would you agree that despite their flaws and complexities, family relationships really do matter most of all?
 
Family relationships are certainly powerful and long lasting, whether we like it or not. They’re not easy to escape. But I don’t want to overemphasize the “blood bonds” here – people do create “intentional families” when their own flesh-and-blood families aren’t around or supportive of them, for whatever reasons. Those bonds can be just as powerful. Families are what we make of them.
 

Racism and the enduring legacy of colonialism are an undercurrent throughout the novel. Is this in any way a reflection of your own family’s experience, either in Guyana or in Canada?
 
We’re all touched by the impacts of racism and colonialism, either the privileges they afford to some or the dire oppressions they entail for everyone else. This holds true for Canada, being a product of colonialism and experiencing ongoing racial inequities. In a Caribbean context, they have led to underdevelopment and single industry economies, not to mention poverty, vulnerability and internalized oppression. Racism and colonialism have also created a “divide and conquer” dynamic, where racialized people war against each other instead of fighting against the real sources of our oppression. It’s something I couldn’t escape in The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha, and it has come out in the other Caribbean storytelling I’ve read.
 

You’ve said that Bible stories and parables influence your writing. Where do you see that influence most strongly at work in your storytelling?
 
I grew up going to church and reading the Bible, and when I began The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha, those Bible stories were with me. I have always been shocked by how honest the stories are; even the “heroes” have huge flaws and words are never minced. It’s no wonder, then, that the characters in my book wrestle with unpleasant tendencies we all deal with but rarely admit – selfishness, jealousy, ego, bitterness against those closest to us. I found myself wanting to write about people maturing beyond those things, even if they did it out of necessity, almost in spite of themselves.
 

In addition to writing, you also have done work on the issue of violence against women and girls. In what ways does it influence your writing?
 
I believe gender-based violence to be one of the biggest social problems and also one of the least recognized. Most people in Canada aren’t aware of the fact that one in two women will experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. So many people are impacted by it. We all know someone who has faced this violence and the gender oppression that is at the root of it. For me, it’s difficult to write about women’s lives and experiences without referring to this reality and challenging it in some way. It may be “the way things are” but it’s still not okay and we don’t need to accept it or buy into it uncritically.
 

What can you tell us about your next project?
 
It’s very different than The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha, but it’s still focused on experiences of Caribbean people – this time, set outside of the Caribbean. There’s just not enough writing like that being published these days, certainly not stories that challenge our assumptions and stereotypes, so that’s what I’m hoping to focus on.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

"The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha announces the arrival of a wonderful storyteller. The dynamics of the relationship between Navi and Neela, a brother and a sister, and how their individual lives play out show that fate is unalterable depending on one’s social standing in life. Andrea Gunraj has written a book that you won’t be able to put down — a thrilling and excellent read."
—Musharraf Ali Farooqi, author of The Story of a Widow

“This is certainly a novel to relish, and I’m sure — I hope — we will see much more of Gunraj in the future.”
The Globe and Mail


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. It could be argued that Navi's life is a success, while his sister Neela could be characterized as less successful. Do you feel this is a fair assessment of them both? Do you think they would describe themselves the same way?

2. Neela's mysterious power is referenced throughout the novel, but she never understands or tries to control it, choosing instead to "bask in its darkness." Do you think this represents a missed opportunity for her? If she had learned more about her power, what changes could it have made in her life?

3. Were Navi's choices in the novel lapses in judgment, or a necessary compromise without which he would never have left Marasaw? Would he have been happier if he had done nothing wrong but never left home?

4. Both Neela and Navi escape Marasaw in different ways, and find that their new lives don't live up to their initial promise. What are the main reasons for this disappointment?

5. Within the novel, it is accepted that politicians, police and soldiers are corrupt or at least, out only for themselves. With so many obstacles to success, can people like Navi and Neela improve their lot in life by themselves, or are they prisoners of a corrupt society? How do you perceive corruption within your own social context?

6. Neela makes impetuous decisions, while Navi is more coldly calculating. Do you think it's better to lead with the heart or the head? How do you lead your own life?

7. Racism and the legacy of colonialism are alluded to on several occasions in the novel. How much of Navi and Neela's behaviour can be attributed to their personalities, and how much to the broader context?

8. After exhausting official channels, Navi must use his influence and government money to pay a bribe and arrange for Seetha's safe return. Discuss Navi's motives for making these choices.

9. Navi and Neela have their flaws, but they end up working together to rescue Seetha, and the novel ends on a hopeful note. What kind of hope is there for Navi and Neela's future - both together and individually?

10. What do you think the future holds for Seetha? How might her life be different from her mother's and uncle's?


  • The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha by Andrea Gunraj
  • June 22, 2010
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage Canada
  • $16.95
  • 9780307396983

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