Sibling Revelry

Like a beautifully woven sari, this Indo-Canadian author’s second novel brings together a range of strands to create a remarkable final piece.

Indeed, author Taslim Burkowicz uses the sari fabric as a symbol of Indian identity and the complexity of colonialism.

The B.C.-based Burkowicz debuted as a novelist in 2017 with Chocolate Cherry Chai, a story about a young woman learning to accept her Indian heritage.

Her second, relatively compact novel also explores Indo-Canadian identity, this time through the troubled relationship between two very different sisters.

The novel opens with a lengthy prologue set in Burnaby, B.C. in 1977, setting the tone for the story’s grand opening in the mid-1990s (readers of a certain age will enjoy passing references to grunge style and alternative music).

Enter teenage sisters Gia and Serena Pirji. They are first-generation Canadians born to immigrant Indian parents who were expelled from the Indian community in Uganda in 1972 by dictator Idi Amin.

Bubbly, popular older sister Gia was born with such light skin that most people think she’s white. She’s unaware of her privilege and can be casually cruel to her little sister.

Dark-skinned Serena, shy, bookish and one year younger, “looks” Indian and faces discrimination in a way her sister doesn’t.

Though she resents her sister’s easy life, she envies her too: “Serena knew that she would trade her bookish smarts in a minute just to live out one day being Gia Pirji.”

After a disastrous trip to visit their aunt in Kenya, their differences harden into a relationship based on competition and petty revenge. Yet the sisters keep coming back to each other until life forces them into a confrontation.

The novel is told in the third person, mainly from Serena’s or Gia’s points of view. Their personalities are as different as their appearances, and their perspectives enhance the story.

Michelle Koebke photo

Indo-Canadian author Taslim Burkowicz’s sophomore book is a well-paced work of fiction that explores family dynamics, identity and more.

Michelle Koebke photo

Indo-Canadian author Taslim Burkowicz’s sophomore book is a well-paced work of fiction that explores family dynamics, identity and more.

As Gia explains the relationship between she and her sister, “Serena says people have always favoured me over her: strangers, boys, even family members. She resents me and then acts shocked that we aren’t close.”

Other characters briefly take turns contributing interesting snapshots. Readers may be disappointed some of these snapshots aren’t expanded in the text.

Burkowicz wields multiple heavy themes: identity, family relationships, racism, colonialism, sexism and artistic expression. However, she wisely allows the relationship between the sisters to take centre stage, with the other themes supporting the core.

Burkowicz shows that neither sister has it easy. While Serena proudly embraces her heritage, she dislikes being a visible minority: “Serena had never been to India; even her parents were from Uganda. But Serena’s thick charcoal hair and coffee skin were the only requirements for her to be made honorary diplomat of the nation of India.”

Meanwhile, Gia feels disconnected from her heritage and frustrated by those who think she has it easy as a light-skinned person. “In some ways, I cling to my Indian identity more than you do. Maybe that is because I am more desperate to prove to myself and other people that I am in fact Indian,” Gia tells Serena.

Burkowicz paces her story well, although she depends too much on dialogue for background information. Her prose isn’t nearly as beautiful as fellow Indo-Canadian novelist Shilpi Somaya Gowda, whose work also explores Indian identity and family relationships. But Burkowicz’s work is harder-hitting and more direct.

Readers will come away touched and with plenty to think about.

— Winnipeg Free Press, January 2020

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