From inspiration to publication: immigrant authors talk about writing and publishing fiction in Canada

November 25, 2016

By Canadian Immigrant Magazine |

The journey from inspiration to publication requires time, persistence and good mentors, according to two Canadian immigrant authors.

Gugu Hlongwane, who originally hails from South Africa, looked to her homeland for subject matter. “South Africa’s vibrancy, in terms of its culture and politics, has always been a source of inspiration,” says Hlongwane, whose collection of short stories was released in November 2016. Her book Electric Fences depicts the lives of South African black women during and after the Apartheid.

Hlongwane left South Africa in 1989 and lived in New York City for five years before coming to Canada in 1994. She is now associate professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her specialty is postcolonial literature. “My immigration experiences colour everything about me. They are an indelible part of who I am, shaping what I read, write and teach,” she says.

Writer Mayank Bhatt draws inspiration from his immigration experience as well, along with current events. In 2008, he immigrated to Canada from India, where he was a journalist. Released in September 2016, his novel, Belief, is about the immigrant family of a young Muslim man attracted to fundamentalist ideas. However, Bhatt emphasizes his novel is “not just about terrorism. It is about a family and the immigration experience and how the family copes with a system unwilling to accept them.”

How did these authors, who also have busy full-time jobs, find the time to write their books?

Hlongwane had a sabbatical that gave her relief from the interruptions that come in a busy university term. She remembers writing “under jacaranda trees in South Africa — and even while riding the local taxis in Pietermaritzburg and Durban.”

Bhatt first began writing fiction when he worked night shifts as a security guard in Toronto. He now works as an administration and marketing co-ordinator for a law firm.

Both writers are quick to credit Canadian mentors for guidance. English professor Arun Mukherjee, who supervised Hlongwane’s doctoral dissertation, “encouraged me to get the stories out there, in the world.”

Bhatt was selected for mentoring through Diaspora Dialogues, a local arts organization. That connected him with M.G. Vassanji, a renowned Canadian immigrant author. Afterward, Bhatt enrolled in the writing program at Humber College and worked intensively on the “endless process” of drafting his first novel.

“A good mentor does not just say, ‘this is a great job,’” says Bhatt. “A good mentor is someone who will also tell you, ‘this is complete rubbish.’”

Both authors are published through Mawenzi House, which brings out six to eight new titles a year, focused on multicultural works, chiefly pertaining to Asia and Africa. “I was very impressed with their list of authors,” says Hlongwane, noting they publish many immigrants who write about postcolonial issues. “The whole publishing journey was very fulfilling.”

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