Caribbean-born writer Sheena Kamal went on a journey from acting to stuntwoman before she decided to write. She talks to Sue Leonard.
THE first time Sheena Kamal lived in Vancouver she hated the city. Wanting the cheapest possible rent, she lived in the wrong part of town, an area she describes as the heroin capital of Canada, and the gloomy weather got her down.
She’d planned to live there for three months, but ended up staying just three weeks.
So why did she move there from Toronto to write her first book, and why does she live there still?
“It suited Nora,” she says, referring to the feisty but mixed-up protagonist of her debut novel, Eyes Like Mine. And yes, when you’re an outsider of mixed race carrying a ton of issues, who is set on solving crimes, an atmospheric city is a pretty good place to be. And Nora is all of that.
Born in the Caribbean, Sheena has lived in Toronto since she was small, but says she feels an outsider wherever she is. And her opinion of Vancouver has changed somewhat.
“I don’t love the city, but it is a gorgeous place. I write there, and it is very important to me to write from a sense of place. The second book takes place in Detroit, but over a limited time so I didn’t have to stay there so long; the third is set back in Vancouver.”
As well as lacking roots, it took Sheena a long time to find the right route to take in life. Yet each step she has taken has informed her debut. So what is it all about?
It starts when Nora gets a call telling her that her daughter is missing. Haunted by the photo of the teenager with eyes like her own, she sets out on a journey that will force her to confront her troubled past.
A taut, compulsive thriller, the novel comes to a climax on Vancouver Island, and makes full use of the ethnicity of the area. Beautifully imagined, it has been praised by the likes of Jeffrey Deaver and Lee Charles. How did she come up with Nora?
“I was reading a great deal about violence against women. My job as a TV researcher involved a lot about the criminal justice system and lawyers and journalists.
"I had to pay attention to what was happening in the news, and was appalled by the way girls and women were described. Men tend to victim blame somebody for their appearance, their status and their life choices as opposed to something bad happening.
“Over 5,000 sexual cases a year have been dismissed by police as unfounded: much higher than for other kinds of crime. Why is this? Recently a woman brought a case of sexual assault against somebody and the judge said, ‘Why didn’t you just keep your knees together.’ If you’re getting those comments on a judiciary level, then imagine how much trickles down to basic policing level. Nora just came into my head. And she came pretty much fully formed.”
Sheena came to that job by a kind of circuitous route.
“As a teenager I was an activist,” she says.
“I got involved with a youth organisation and became very plugged in, both working with the homeless and with child poverty and speaking at conferences. It changed my life.
“I won a scholarship to read Political Science at the University of Toronto, but I felt lost in my final year and didn’t know what to do.
"Political science usually leads to a law degree, but I wasn’t tapping into my creativity. I finished it then thought I’d find my creative outlet. I decided to try acting.
"I got a commercial for Tim Horton straight off; that gave me my actor’s union card before I knew how to be an actor. It was a steep learning curve.”
In order to keep working, Sheena got parts as a stunt double. It was twice the normal money, but could be harrowing at times.
“I had to do a sequence on a boat, on Lake Ontario in the middle of winter. It involved jumping over the railings to do a drowning sequence. I had to do it over and over.
"I didn’t have to pretend I was drowning because I felt that I was. It was shocking for me. After a few episodes like that, I hit 30, and thought, I can’t go on doing this.”
Sheena then tried writing screenplays, but found the budgetary obsessed restrictions imposed on her stunted her creativity. And that’s when, hoping to climb the ladder, she became a researcher on a TV show, the job that ignited her obsession with justice once more.
Giving up that job to write the book, Sheena had to work out Nora’s ethnicity and who she was as a person.
“That came to me as I wrote. I noted early on that she was a singer. It wasn’t planned. It just happened, but it was a good way into her character for me. And that’s where the Irish connection comes in,” she says with a smile.
“Nora was a blues singer and I didn’t know anything about the blues. Around that time Hozier came out with these covers of blues songs. I wrote the book, almost exclusively to the sound of his albums, and especially to his song, To Be Alone. It’s just brilliant. And chilling.”
This publicity trip is not Sheena’s first visit to Ireland. She came, alone, on a cheap Ryanair ticket from Paris, some years ago. She remembers taking a train to the coast somewhere, and communing with a seal.
“It was beautiful. And people had said, ‘You must have a Guinness.’ So on the last day I went into a neighbourhood bar, and everyone turned and looked at me.
"Walking to the bar I lost my nerve and said, ‘can I have a whiskey please.’ He said, ‘Which whiskey?’ and I felt deflated. I said, ‘A good one?’ Then I knocked it back like an outlaw.”
With the second of the series now completed, Sheena is getting back to Hozier to put her in the mood for writing the third. And it’s clear she will go to any length in her quest to make her character, and storyline authentic.
For her first sequel, anxious to experience crime first hand, she went to Detroit and hired a Private Investigator.
“He turned out to be an active police investigator, and was part of the violent crime task force with the FBI and Homicide State Departments. I got to go out with these people. It was wild.”
She reckons it will take the third book for her to be done with Nora; after that she’s contemplating a children’s series, set in the Caribbean. So, after all these years searching out her creativity, does she feel she’s reached her goal?
“I’m a full-time writer,” she says, “but I would like to do some acting too.”
Indeed, last summer she had two scenes in the movie, Okja; one with Tilda Swinton, and the other with Shirley Henderson of Trainspotting and ‘Harry Potter’ fame.
“But I haven’t been auditioning since. I moved away from being on screen because I found it too stressful.
“In my last audition I had to speak in broken English and end with a growl. The whole thing was insulting. Maybe I’ll take some acting classes and do some theatre.”
Meanwhile, what does she hope the reaction to her book will be?
“Someone said, ‘I didn’t love Nora, but I felt great compassion for her and was with her every step of the way.’
“That’s what I want. For people to look at someone they would not look at normally, and think, their story is important and I am with them.”
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