341 - Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Shilpi Somaya Gowda is author of the best-selling novel Secret Daughter. It tells the story of an American couple who adopt a baby girl who has been abandoned in India. Shilpi Somaya Gowda is herself the daughter of Indian parents. She was born and raised in Canada but moved to the United States in order to go to university and has lived there ever since. We asked her about the differences between Canadian and American society:

Shilpi Somaya Gowda (Standard American accent)

They are different. I mean, I don’t notice all the differences now that I’ve been in the US for so long but I remember at the age of 17, even going on a trip, I went on a summer trip in Colorado before I started university that fall, and just being with seven or eight Americans on the trip was… felt very foreign to me. I mean, I can’t… I can’t put my finger on all of the things that… that made me feel that way but, you know, in addition to language and politics and accents, there are a lot of subtle differences. I mean, I think there’s a different value system in Canada. It is a country that is more focused on, I think, on equality and on… amongst the population, and a little less focused on individual striving which, you know, has made America the great country it is. So that difference between being… you know, happy to be one of the crowd, versus striving to, you know, be ahead of the crowd, I think, is a sort of a subtle difference. There are all kinds of differences in the educational system and I remember graduating from high school in Canada and I had, you know, won the award in my high school for being the best English student and then I went to my university and had to take the introduction to, you know, English class that all Freshmen take and I almost failed out of the first semester because my writing style was so different than, you know, than… than the way American students had been taught and I thought, “Oh, this is… this is…” There I remember getting my first paper back and it was all marked up in red and I think I got a D and I thought, “Oh, my! I’m not in… I’m not in my home country anymore!” And so there are a lot of small things like that that I think made me feel as if I was, you know, an alien living in a foreign land and over time – you know, I’ve now been in the United States for 20 years – some of those differences have smoothed out and I think I’ve learned to navigate both cultures, but, you know, they’re… they’re different countries!”

Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s novel Secret Daughter was partially inspired by her experiences working as a volunteer in an orphanage in India. We asked her about this:

Shilpi Somaya Gowda

When I was a student in the university I spent a summer as a volunteer at an orphanage in India and I was 19 at the time and I remember when I went, I had to… it was… it was an organisation, orphanage, run by a Canadian charity. And so I remember when I went I had to sign some paperwork saying that I would not engage in religious conversion of the children, and I would not try to adopt any of the children, and I thought, “Well, I’m 19 years old, I’m not adopting anybody!” And I thought it was sort of absurd that I had to sign these pieces of paper which were… regulations the Indian government put on foreign agencies coming in – for good reasons – and, you know, I remember leaving afterwards, you know, a month later and thinking, “OK, I get it, I understand why they make you sign that piece of paper about not… not adopting a child because, you know, these children are incredible!” I just… I couldn’t speak the same language as them, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. I just… I grew very attached to them, we found all kinds of ways of communicating non-verbally, and they really… they were etched in my mind when I left. I mean, I can, to this day, I can see their faces in my mind and I remember their names and… and I thought about them, you know, in the years since then. And I think, after I became a mother, I really started thinking about that experience and those children differently and I… I wondered, you know, what… what… what are the circumstances that could lead a parent to leaving their child in an orphanage because we never knew where these kids came from, they just showed up on the doorstep, we never saw the parents and what would… what would happen to them when they ended up, you know, on the streets of Bombay at the age of 16, with a, you know, the equivalent of a high school education and they had no family and no money. And, you know, what would… what would become of them? And so I became really interested in the idea of trying to construct a story around that circumstance, based on something that… that I’d seen 20 years earlier.

And in conclusion we asked her for her thoughts on the film Slumdog Millionaire:

Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Oh, I loved it! I loved every minute of that. I, especially, I think, the music and the soundtrack were a great part of bringing the energy of that city to life. I know a lot of Indians in India were disturbed by the fact that the slums were shown in such a negative light. I think they were probably shown realistically, but what many Indians objected to was that people outside India would take away the conclusion that this was India. And in fact the slums are not India: the slums are one part of the cities and the cities are a small part of India, but… but, you know, nevertheless it’s a very, you know, rich and colourful part of daily life for millions and millions of Indians. So I loved it!

Shilpi Somaya Gowda was talking to Mark Worden)

To visit Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s official website, click here: http://www.shilpigowda.com/