An Interview by Lily Dao
Sujaya graduated from the University of Toronto with an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree. She double majored in the Professional Writing and the Communications, Culture, and Information Technology programs at the Mississauga campus. Sujaya also graduated from Sheridan College with a certificate in digital communications and worked at Sheridan College following her graduation as a teaching assistant for the ICCIT program in design fundamentals. Sujaya later worked for the Faculty of Animation, Arts, and Design at Sheridan College as an Instructor for the Media Fundamentals program. Sujaya is currently in her final year of the Master of Information program at the Faculty of Information. Sujaya is now a Design Research Team Lead at the University of Toronto’s Innovation Hub, where she and her team work on the Student Life Project with the Division of Student Life.
In this interview, Sujaya goes into stories with each question, about her family, her gender, her writing experiences, and how it warps into this unique book she wants to tell the world about. She has on a winter coat, black turtleneck, and faded jeans. The usual tire for Toronto’s winter. One of the highlights Sujaya shared with me was what Professor Guy Allen advised her and her classmates about as she crafted her book. He said, “if you have stories that you’re unsure about putting in your book, I’m going to suggest putting in your book, because years from now, you would have wished you put it in.”
Sujaya grew up as a Trinidadian-Canadian. She experienced a lot of discrimination by the time she was twenty, whether it was from strangers or her family. Her stories don’t shy away from everyday moments where she felt lost or confused about why discrimination happened. She said, “there’s a lot of subtle discrimination against women or people of colour that we don’t realize. I wanted to show that this is still happening, and we need to do something about it, not just post some banners and think it’s resolved.”
The book mixes between light-hearted stories like how her cousins used to mixed oil and milk together for “spidey-senses,” with more serious ones about female empowerment, body image, and questioning the idea that everyone needs “someone.” She’s the oddball in her stories yet, it’s relatable for readers who can understand and follow along with her journey from childhood until now. Sujaya wants to set an example through her work and raise the attention of readers to tell them, “this is still happening.”
I stand by the cashier and spot Sujaya entering the coffee shop. I hand her the cappuccino I ordered for her ten minutes ago. We walk into the “quiet” room that lies at the end of the coffee shop. Tables fill with people jabbering, laughing, and sipping their coffee.
“Shall we?” Sujaya asks.
We sit down at a table by the window, in the corner of the room. The atmosphere warms up. I thank her for agreeing to meet me so last minute. I take a deep breath and begin my interview.
“Was it fun writing the book?” I ask.
“It was all kind of things,” Sujaya replies. “The stories I originally had in the ‘Making A Book,’ course, I hated them with a burning passion. So, I started jotting down everything I could think of, and forced myself to write a biography. I had to ask myself, ‘what can I offer?’ as an author, to distinguish myself from other authors in the world. I scrapped everything I wrote before, except, I kept “Egg” and repositioned it in a different timeline. I didn’t want to show [the full story] or make myself seem fragile. There are fun moments like how to get back at all those creeps that bothered me, or serious ones where I talk about racism and gender inequality.”
She stops, takes a deep breath, and repositions herself.
“There are nights where I miss my grandfather because he isn’t there anymore. I wrote these stories about him and I wanted to tell him, ‘come back and let me show you what I made.’ Maybe he would be proud of me. It’s difficult, it’s funny, it’s scary, and it’s painful, like every emotion in one.”
A question popped up inside my head. I don’t have it in my script.
“I had the sense that your writing style was similar to WRI203. Did you follow the 203 guide when you wrote these stories?”
“I really enjoyed the style and structure I learnt in 203. My original collection of stories, I hated, also, I had stories related to boys in it, and after that course, I made a promise to myself that boys are not worth my words, and my words are worth money, so I ditched those stories. I wrote what I really wanted to share and used the structure of my WRI203 stories as inspiration and my guiding force. You can see a lot of the structure is mimicking Showing the Story.”
“Did you find it hard to remain authentic or reliable since the stories are based on your life?” I ask. “It’s hard not to butcher or downplay something and to find the right balance when writing.” I say.
“It’s difficult to portray people accurately because I think we all have biases,” she says. “As an author, trying to remain objective is impossible, but I want the reader to draw their own conclusions. I don’t want to tell them ‘this person is good/bad,’ but present it like, ‘this person did something weird.’ To know which detail to include or not is hard. Sometimes, I had to take a step back and think if my stories would get me into trouble. Professor Alan actually said, “If you have stories that you’re unsure about putting in your book, I’m going to suggest putting in your book because years from now, you would have wished you put it in,” and that was one of the best pieces of advice. That’s where “Egg” came in. Somebody might relate to it, and if it makes others uncomfortable, YOLO.”
I chuckle. What a brave woman.
“There were stories where things were more serious than another. Like “Wrong Ingredients,” where it’s just you and your cousin drinking a weird dirt drink to get Spidey senses, but you also have “Laundry.” What was the author choice you made to bring this balance to your book?” I play with the straw in my cup.
“One of the main questions for my book came from my editor asking me, “Who are you?” and “What can you bring?” I have lived through things that others have experienced too but not through my perspective, so I just tried to present myself as I am. This is me, always stubborn from kindergarten, growing up knowing I’m different, and I just went along with it. ‘I’m just going to be myself.’ My stories are basically that.”
If you are the same constituent as everybody else out there, then what’s memorable?
“Who did you want to write this book for? (Besides your family and friends) What was your mindset going into this?”
“Young women of colour.” She pauses. “But, in a way, it is for everyone. I want to be a person my kids can look up to someday and I want my work to teach them something. I want to lead by example though my life, and it’s challenging at times. I want to compile everything and go, ‘Here’s a handbook of my life and what I’ve learnt,’ hopefully you can learn from it too.”
“I absolutely adore Chapter 9, “Laundry”, especially the quote, “I’ll relax once queen-sized beds are bigger than king-sized beds.” The chapter shows the argument you had with your parents when they didn’t let you go out with your friend because you’re a girl. As a young Trinidadian woman, how did it make you feel? Did you feel angry (or upset) writing it?”
Sujaya puts down her spoon, her brows furrow.
“I remember writing that chapter. Being angry, sad, frustrated, and it’s the reality for not just me but for so many young girls that I know, so I debated publishing it for such a long time. I put it in, I took it out. I asked myself, ‘am I going to get into trouble?’ But it reached a point where I realized I have to lead by my own values, by my own example. If I want to be a role model, I have to embody those values, even if I do get into trouble for publishing it. Hopefully, by exposing this, people can wake up and realize this is an issue.”
“Were there more [of these instances]?” I laugh. “As I finished the chapter, I went, “tthere must be more.” With “Laundry,” it was just one small fight, and there must be stories that you wanted to add in but couldn’t.”
“That was one of the comedic fights…. But there were so many other fights where doors would be slammed and words would be said, and things could not be unsaid. Even after the book was published, we still had arguments and my family would think I was belittling them with my degrees, but I just wanted to show them that I’m aware of how the world treats me [as a woman].”
I tell Sujaya about my experiences, how I was treated differently because I’m a girl. We jabber about how we’re both too stubborn to accept the gender norms within our homes.
My anatomy doesn’t prevent me from doing certain things.
“There were more instances you had in Write Left where you show how gender discrimination feels, not just in your household but everywhere. For example, in “Hide and Seek,” you show how men in different scenarios were invading your personal space and it made you feel so uncomfortable. You had Day 1, Day 9, to Day 51, what was your purpose when you wrote it?”
She chuckles and munches her Tiramisu.
“It was a progression to show a glimpse of my every day of school, for the whole year. They were arbitrary numbers, but they were points in the semester that really stood out to me. It was written differently originally, without so much descriptive text of the guys in it, but my editor wanted to know more about these characters. Which strengthened the story later on. Yet, I didn’t want to expose too much. I was like, whatever. People needed to know. Every time something good is happening, these boys pop up and ruin it.”
“In your chapter “Paper Flames” where your Caucasian friend Margaret tried to celebrate Diwali in their home when you came over. How was writing these stories and bring in a cultural context?” I laugh mid-sentence, struggling to finish my sentence.
“I think they meant well.” She covers her smile. “I believe they tried to do the cultural thing to be understanding. I just laugh because what happened was so racist, but at that age, you don’t know what racism is. I was sitting there thinking ‘why is she doing this?’ ‘What is going on?’ I would tell my parents when things like that happened and they would laugh. In this one instance, they were trying [to fit in with Sujaya’s culture], and I’ll give them that.”
“Growing up Trinidadian, how has your identity affect you daily life?”
“I’m an only English-speaking person and I was put into ESL in First Grade. I kid you not. I was put in ESL because I had brown skin and a brown name. That was the clearest case of racism that could have happened to a student. Every Christmas and spring, they would pull me aside with 4 other brown students to perform this special performance because they wanted to be ‘culturally inclusive.’ It. Happened. All. The. Time.” Sujaya replies.
We laugh at the stories we tell each other on how race stereotypes force people to act in a weird way.
“In “Scribbles,” you’re just sitting by yourself and do your thing and the other moms were trying to include you. You were hinting at us that because you’re a brown kid, people felt like they needed to include you. Writing these stories with these tensions between ethnicity and races, were you aware of how this is still happening?” I ask.
“I had a lot of fun being sarcastic and exposing these things, but at the same, I’m frustrated because… why is this the reality? Why are we still dealing things that should be common sense. There are still cultural biases, assumptions made in all of these settings. Even in my family, there are things that we knowingly or unknowingly ignore, and I question that. Why are we so passive about these things? It bothers me.”
Sujaya’s Future Plans
“Besides world domination, obviously,” she laughs, “I want to have a second master’s degree in writing, maybe. Possibly a PhD in Education. Who knows? If not, I need a creative break. I’ve always wanted to pursue photography. It gives me so much relief from life and it’s something I really enjoy. I think it may have been fate that I got this new job with the Innovation Hub. I get to hear true student stories and help translate those perspectives into the potential for change.
I’d love to somehow turn this knowledge, my perspectives, and my creative experiences into a syllabus someday. I enjoyed teaching at Sheridan, and it taught me a lot, but I hope to eventually teach at the University. That way I can dive into these social issues even more and learn from students too. It might be years ahead of me, but if it’s something I want to do, I figure I should put it into the universe from now.”
Sounds like one hell of a plan. I think to myself.
I thank her for an amazing evening, and we part ways.
Written by Lily Dao | Instagram: @jiejine