Sheena Kamal first introduced us to the mercurial and fascinating Nora Watts last year with her novel “The Lost Ones,” a book that was showered with both praise and award nominations. In it, Nora discovers the baby she gave up years ago has vanished and that little is being done to find the troubled teen. Nora is then pushed to confront her past while also diving into the dark side of Canada’s northwest.
In July, Nora Watts’s story continues with the release of “It All Falls Down,” Kamal’s second thriller in the series. Nora is once again forced to look at her family tree and the secrets it contains when she has a disturbing conversation with a veteran about her long-dead father. That talk sends Nora on a journey in which she finally learns the secrets her family had tried to keep buried.
We reached out to Kamal to talk about her new book, discovering family secrets and what draws her to crime fiction.
The Teal Mango: You were born in Trinidad and then moved to Canada with your family as a young child. That must have been quite a culture shock. Can you tell us a little about what that was like?
Kamal: My first memory of Canada was seeing two kids from my new class make out on the playground. Which was definitely a culture shock. What kind of place was this? I thought. Also, I was led to believe there would be igloos here! I still don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the image of two six-year-olds French kissing and the lack of igloos in Toronto. Because of my accent, I wasn’t very well understood and a lot of the classwork seemed remedial so I hardly tried. My personality changed and I became quite shy and introverted. I was put in English as a second language class and I remember my mom being furious when she found out. English is my first language so it upset her a great deal. Looking back on it, I believe moving to Canada and constantly feeling like an outsider gave me the skills I needed to be a writer. I began to crave books and solitude. I lived in my imagination.
TTM: When did you first start reading mysteries and thrillers? Which authors would you say have influenced your style?
Kamal: I read widely even as a child so I’m not sure when I first started reading this genre. I love Daphne Du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith, and Megan Abbott because of the intimacy of their work and the way they pull you in. They’ve definitely had an impact in how I approach narrative.
TTM: Your main character Nora Watts is so intriguing because she’s pretty mysterious herself. It seems like there are many things Nora herself doesn’t know about her own family and background. Why did you decide to write her that way?
Kamal: It came out that way in the writing. But something that I realized after I’d started writing her was the impact that a certain adoptee that I used to know in college had on me. His name was Dan and he looked South Asian from the Caribbean, in that way the diaspora in those parts tends to look. I asked him if he was Trini before I became aware that he’d been adopted. He wanted, very specifically, to know what it was about him that made me think that. That conversation had an unusual intensity and has stuck with me. When he discussed his confusion about his own cultural background, I could see the walls he put up after a while. He was only in his mid-twenties at the time, but he seemed to have accepted that there were things about his personal history that he’d never know. He looked South Asian, but from where, he had no idea. He felt he had no claim to the culture.
I found it interesting, this idea of not identifying with a cultural identity that you present as, of it being a complete mystery. The way that we can conflate culture with self and how difficult that is with people who simply don’t know a lot about their family history. I suppose all these things were in my mind when I created Nora, because I’d made Nora a blues singer and Dan had been a musician. He was my brother’s guitar teacher. Come to think of it, I might owe Dan some money for all this.
TTM: In ‘It All Falls Down’ we discover that Nora’s father was adopted by an American family as part of a Canadian policy in the 1950s that sent First Nations children to (white) American parents. What was it like researching these children’s lives and does it feel like your book is especially timely today?
Kamal: It’s heartbreaking. Stories of children being taken and how this has shattered communities and affected lives… it has challenged my view of the country I live in. How can a place that has been good to me and afforded me opportunities for advancement deny the same level of respect toward children of indigenous heritage?
Right now Canada’s colonial history is discussed seriously in the country, but internationally it’s swept under the rug. Our reputation as your staid peacemaker is very appealing but it’s not the whole truth. We still have communities under boil water advisories. We have suicide crises among children. We’re dealing with the legacy of residential schools and forced adoptions. We’re also seeing a rise in white nationalism.
Now, more immigrants than ever are choosing Canada over America. I don’t blame them, given the current US political climate where you have politicians demeaning immigrants in the most obscene terms. People come to Canada for a chance at a better life, because Canada seems safe and wonderful. And it can be, but we have our issues, too. It’s very important for me to engage with these issues as I continue to write contemporary Canada. If this book is timely, it’s for this reason.
TTM: Before you began writing novels you were a journalistic researcher for film and television shows. What do you think draws you to crime (both real and fictional)?
Kamal: Oooh. I have a dark side, for sure. People interest me. The good, the bad and everything in between. I think crime allows me to examine the complexities of the human experience in a way that makes sense to me.
It All Falls Down is set to be released on July 3. Pre-order your copy here.