Anita Kushwaha grew up in Aylmer, Quebec. Her road to publication included a fulfilling career in academia, where she studied human geography at Carleton University and earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers creative writing program, her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire, The 49th Shelf, Open Book, Word on the Street, and Canadian Living among others. Her first novel, Side by Side, won an Independent Publisher Book Awards’ Silver Medal for Multicultural Fiction in 2019. She is also the author of a novella, The Escape Artist. Her latest novel, Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters, released in January 2020 by HarperCollins Canada, was named a “Books With Buzz” by Canadian Living, chosen as Word on the Street’s March Book of the Month, a Most-Anticipated Spring Fiction selection by The 49th Shelf and Savvymomdotca, and a recommended read by The Girly Book Club. She lives in Ottawa.
Q: What inspired you to write Secret Lives of Mothers and Daughters?
A: Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters is a mother-daughter story told in alternating timelines. First, we meet Asha, a young woman of eighteen who is about to start university and is excited about the future, when her parents reveal to her a long-kept family secret – that she is adopted, her birth mother died shortly after she was born, and her father was unable to raise her on his own. Her birth mother leaves behind a letter for Asha that raises more questions than it answers. This thrusts Asha on a fraught journey of self-discovery as she confronts the big questions: Who am I? What happened to my birth parents? Why didn’t they keep me? Am I loveable? Can I ever trust my parents again? Asha discovers that the answers to her questions are far more complicated than she could have imagined.
Next, we have Mala, a bright young scholar who is returning to her doctoral studies after being on leave following the sudden and tragic death of her father. Her plans are interrupted when her mother, who is increasingly worried about securing her future in the wake of her father’s death, asks something of Mala that places her in a difficult position. From that point onward, Mala feels torn between duty and desire, struggling to meet her mother’s expectations while also being true to herself.
As the story unfolds, we see how these two timelines intertwine. More broadly, the book is about the ties that bind mothers and daughters together, and the secrets that tear them apart, and the particular social and cultural pressures faced by the South Asian characters in the novel.
In terms of inspiration, I knew I would write a book having to do with arranged marriage someday because growing up in a small town, it was one of the characteristics that distinguished the origins of my family from that of those around me, and was often misunderstood, which at times became a source of shame for me and made me feel like our family was somehow less authentic than those around us. In writing the book, I wanted to explore the idea that all relationships, regardless of their origins, are arrangements of one sort or another, with their own particular advantages and disadvantages, freedoms and constraints.
The other themes that I wanted to explore in the book are those that seem to make their way into my writing—immigrant experiences, intergenerational conflict, the consequences of silence, identity, belonging, and mental health examined through a cultural lens.
I also knew I’d write a tragic love story someday, and wanted to give a nod to my love of Victorian novels, especially the works of the Brontes, hence the influence of Jane Eyre in the book, which also speaks to another subtle theme, that is, the ability of fiction to connect people through time.
Q: Did you have to do any particular research for this book?
A: This book wasn’t research-heavy at all. It was more about mining my life and background to get to the heart of the issues like cultural expectations, authenticity, the costs of not living one’s truth.
Q: When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
A: When I’m not writing, I often find myself engaging with activities that help fill my creative well. I love to run, listen to music, practice yoga, spend time outdoors with my husband, bake, nap with my cat Noodles, binge on Netflix, and of course READ!
Q: What does your writing routine look like?
A: I’m the type of person who likes to feel productive every day and who also loves structure. I suppose my approach to the day is my habit. A typical writing day starts early with a cup of tea. I try my best to stay away from social media until I’ve gotten a couple of solid hours done. Then I usually like to go for a run or a walk. After lunch, I’ll either write for a couple more hours or review what I wrote earlier in the day. Not glamorous, but it gets things done. In terms of where I write, I like to give myself the ability to wander, but having said that, I do most of my writing at our beautiful handmade dining room table, most likely in the company of our cat, Noodles.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to publication?
A: The short answer is LONG! I knew I wanted to be writer from a young age, but growing up in an immigrant household, pursuing the arts wasn’t an option. So, it took me a long time to play catch-up and find the self-belief to pursue my dream. Meeting my husband really changed things for me. He’s always had this unwavering faith that I could do it and he’s been such a tremendous support. He also works in a creative field, so we’re able to bounce ideas off each other. In the acknowledgements, I thank him for being my first reader, plotting partner, therapist, and cheerleader. Before committing to writing full-time, I had a career in academia, which was actually great training for my life as a writer, for instance, the collaborative process of writing and defending a dissertation has quite a few things in common with some of the editorial experiences I’ve had.
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From the publisher, Harper Collins
For readers of Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s “Secret Daughter” and Nancy Richler’s “The Imposter Bride,” a breathtaking novel from Anita Kushwaha about the ties that bind mothers and daughters together and the secrets that tear them apart.
Veena, Mala and Nandini are three very different women with something in common. Out of love, each bears a secret that will haunt her life—and that of her daughter—when the risk of telling the truth is too great. But secrets have consequences. Particularly to Asha, the young woman on the cusp of adulthood who links them together.
On the day after her eighteenth birthday, Asha is devastated to learn that she was adopted as a baby. What’s more, her birth mother died of a mysterious illness, leaving Asha with only a letter.
Nandini, Asha’s adoptive mother, has always feared the truth would come between them.
Veena, a recent widow, worries about her daughter Mala’s future. The shock of her husband’s sudden death leaves her shaken and convinces her that the only way to keep her daughter safe is to secure her future.
Mala struggles to balance her dreams and ambition with her mother’s expectations. She must bear a secret, the burden of which threatens her very life. Three mothers, bound by love, deceit and a young woman who connects them all.
Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters is an intergenerational novel about family, duty and the choices we make in the name of love.
Release date: Out now in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.