Growing up, Taslim Burkowicz says she could relate to both Gia and Serena – the protagonists in her latest novel, The Desirable Sister.
“I experienced — in some circles — I experienced feeling darker than people. In others, I experienced the light aspect of it. I divided my own (experiences) into two different characters and it’s completely fictional,” said Burkowicz.
The Desirable Sister is Burkowicz’s second book and follows two sisters, Gia and Serena Pirji, first-generation Canadians born to immigrant parents and how their lives play out in different ways because of their skin tone.
“Gia’s fair skin grants her membership to cliques of white kids as a teen, while Serena’s dark skin means she is labelled as Indian and treated as inferior,” reads a synopsis of the book. “This superficial difference, imposed by a society obsessed with skin colour and hierarchy, sets the sisters into a dynamic that plays out throughout their lives.”
Burkowicz said through the book, she tried to bring awareness to colourism.
“Using the characters, I tried to show how colourism affected the way the girls looked at themselves, how society looked at them and how they perceived each other,” said Burkowicz, who lives in Guildford.
“I wanted Serena to be hyper-aware and Gia to be more unaware. I wanted to create that contrast between the two and later in the book, Gia has more of an awareness of colourism, so I wanted that awareness to evolve over time.
“I think sometimes we don’t see light skin as a privilege, or even whiteness. Not just light skin, but just whiteness. The privilege that that assumes, we don’t realize it when we’re in that position of whiteness, we don’t realize how colourism affects. It’s little micro-aggressions that women of colour face, like going into a drug store and seeing all the lipstick samples. They don’t work on people of colour.”
When it came to writing the book, Burkowicz said she took experiences from her own life.
“I could almost see the middle line so perfectly… I’m south Asian,” she said. “I could see the flip side of both those experiences. Just because of the pigment of my skin, some people know what I am immediately and what culture I am. Others will struggle and grapple and so that really helped me take them and almost exaggerate each experience so that I could see them both clearly.
“I’ve heard those words said to me, like, ‘Oh, you don’t look Indian.’ So I took those words and accentuated them for Gia and tweaked them.”
While research for her first book Chocolate Cherry Chai took much longer, Burkowicz said writing and researching this novel went much faster.
“I’ve had so many experiences built up and I’ve heard so many stories… because it’s based on experience, it’s easier to write. You can’t negate experience. It’s part of your essence.”
The goal of The Desirable Sister, Burkowicz said, isn’t to find a solution to colourism.
“I think that’s a huge… It’ll take many years for that to happen, but moreso to create awareness that it exists. I think that’s the first step before solution because I think that a lot of people don’t even realize the way it impacts us because it’s undercurrent. We feel it but we don’t name it. I think the people that (it affects), it impacts their silence a lot of the time.”
For more info on the book, or to buy it, visit fernwoodpublishing.ca/authors/view/taslim-burkowicz.
There is also a book launch planned for Nov. 27 from 7 to 9 p.m. at SFU Harbour Centre in the Segal Centre (1400-1410 515 W. Hastings St., Vancouver).