Shauna Singh Baldwin reads The Tiger Claw

On Nov. 16, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented author Shauna Singh Baldwin. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

I write, not because this story is more important than all the others, but because I have so great a need to understand it. What I say is my truth and lies together, amalgam of memory and explication….But all my languages have been tainted by what we’ve said and done to one another in these years of war.

from The Tiger Claw
-by Shauna Singh Baldwin

Shauna Singh Baldwin recently treated the students of the Canadian Writers in Person reading series to an evening of storytelling. As one student remarked, Baldwin has a beautiful storytelling voice and when she reads from her work, her characters emerge fully-formed and distinct, accents included.

Right: Shauna Singh Baldwin

Baldwin’s most recent novel, The Tiger Claw, traces the story of Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim woman who goes to occupied France as a spy for Britain in WWII. The author brings to fictional life a real person who died over 60 years ago. Noor’s life and its varying facts and mythology have already been much-written about, but the author had a different approach: “I asked myself, what was Noor’s story rather than what do people want to tell about her?”

Her vision of Noor actually began to speak to her before she even knew of the real Noor’s existence. Only after her character began to take shape, did the factual research fall into place. The results were surprising: “Noor is truer in fiction than the non-fiction written about her,” said Baldwin.

When asked how much of the author is in her character, Baldwin quickly replied that she’s not nearly as interesting as Noor. However, she understands the courage of love that propels her character to brave the atrocities of war to be with her loved one: “We become little dragons when it comes to our children and lovers.”

She also understands the various pulls related to a multicultural identity, saying, “I’ve been a minority in three countries.” Like her character, the author makes use of her multinational heritage as a way of having. She describes it as a “double vision or consciousness. It helps you to survive and read the subtext of any situation.” . 

One of the ways her novel subtly handles the tension between Eastern and Western culture is in the use of music. Noor’s father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, sought to unify all religions through Universal Sufism and found a metaphor in music. “The more one studies the harmony of music, and then studies human nature, how people agree and how they disagree, how there is attraction and repulsion, the more one will see that it is all music,” said Baldwing. She describes further the communication across cultures as “trying to play within the cracks of the piano. That’s how we’re trying to speak to one another.”

Despite being set during the Second World War, many students notice echoes of modern day events. In response, Baldwin described a moment in March 2002 as she was writing her novel at the Banff Centre. She remembers elk looking in on her through the window as she wept over events that were unfolding on the news, as if there had not been 60 years of “progress” since the time period of her novel. “We’re going backwards not forwards,” lamented Baldwin.

As a final thought, Baldwin left her audience with a Sufi lesson, saying, “You must love in the face of hate.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Andrew Pyper will read from his debut novel, The Wildfire Season on Jan. 11, 2007.