Cultural Spotlight – Sonya Lalli – a writer breaks from conventions

Canadian-born author of Indian heritage Sonya Lalli is this year’s Richmond’s writer-in-residence. She writes novels aimed at diverse groups, and in her novels, she covers topics like interracial couples and the difficulties that women of colour face through adolescence.

Lalli attended university in her hometown of Saskatoon and later Columbia University in New York where she studied law. Later, she completed her MA in creative writing and publishing at City, University of London.

A need for representation

Since childhood, Lalli was enamoured with the art of storytelling and the power of novels. She related most to stories about romance, family dynamics and friendships. Although she loved the art of writing, as someone belonging to a minority culture in Canada, she was saddened by the lack of cultural representation in the novels she read.

Sonya Lalli is this year’s Richmond’s writer-in-residence. | Photo courtesy of Sonya Lalli

“I grew up never seeing myself represented in the books I read and other media,” she says.

When Lalli was gearing up to write her first novel, she decided that she was going to realize her unfulfilled dream of representation. She wanted to make sure that future generations of people of colour were able to find themselves in her novels and relate to the narrative. She wrote The Matchmaker’s List, which helped fill in the hole that was in the market.

“[It is a] romantic comedy about a South Asian woman in Canada who is finding herself and falling in love,” she says.

The novel also represents one of her fondest memories: seeing how proud her family was of her and how their teachings of independence and empowerment came to fruition in her published novel. She says that these teachings influence how she leads her life and how she approaches any part of her career.

When asked, Lalli has a hard time picking a favourite of her four novels. She loves each differently, but, if pressed to choose, she would pick Serena Singh Flips the Script because the main character is the complete opposite to her own personality and anything she has ever written before.

“Serena is a bit of a rebel – confident in her choices about not getting married, having a family and choosing an ambitious career path. In a way, I think I wrote Serena to be my role model – and perhaps for some other women as well,” says Lalli, of her main character.

Challenges

If publishing her first book was the biggest highlight, writing her second novel was the biggest challenge. Many young writers, she says, challenge themselves with writing the second one, since writing the first one takes up so much time.

“[After all the] time writing, revising and thinking, when we have to do it all over again, there is doubt about whether we can and, of course, imposter syndrome. In the end, I got there though,” says Lalli.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lalli was able to find more time and space to write and reflect without the bustle of a commute.

“COVID has changed my mindset – and not just towards writing – in the same way it was for many people around the world: it made me realize what is most important in life and how precious our health, life and our loved ones truly are,” she says.

When asked if she faced discrimination when publishing, Lalli remarked “not overtly, no,” noting that the industry has made great progress in terms of inclusivity, diversity and equality in recent years. However, there is still a long way to go. She acknowledges that authors who belong to minority groups should help others in marginalized communities break into the industry. She added that there are multiple ways to help: mentorship, online support, a friendly conversation and more.

Her advice to young writers is straightforward.

“Read as much as you can. The best way to become a better writer and learn how to tell authentic, engaging stories is to read often and widely across genres,” says Lalli.

For more information, please visit: www.richmond.ca/newsevents/city/writer21sep2021.htm

Details about the program and the workshops being offered through November 2021 are available at www.richmond.ca/writerinresidence.

http://www.sonyalalli.com

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