Originally published on The Phoenix News on March 2, 2017.
“She is such a funny and sweet lady.”—That is the impression I have of Renee Saklikar; she has a lovely smile with an amazing personality to go with it. We introduce ourselves in the local Bean Scene downtown. She asks me some questions, and I ask her some of mine. We sit down. She sips from a mug of peppermint tea and I drink from a giant cup of coffee. Even though it is cold and snowy outside, the coffee shop is warm, lively, and inviting.
Renee Saklikar is UBC Okanagan’s tenth Writer- in-Residence and will be staying in Kelowna for two weeks. She is an Indian- born Canadian lawyer, poet, and author and serves as Surrey’s Poet Laureate. She writes thecanadaproject, a life-long poem chronicle whose work has been published in many journals, anthologies, and chapbooks. Thecanadaproject includes many poems and essays that describe Renee’s experiences living in many Canadian provinces and the transition in her life from India to Canada. Her book, Children of Air India, is a series of poems that talks about the Canada/Air India event and delves into public trauma, highlighting the aftermath and the under-representation of the event in Canadian history and identity. Renee also dives into what she calls “Canada’s worst mass murder,” and named her book after the 82 children who died in Air India Flight 182.
“How would you describe yourself in one sentence?” I ask her.
Renee pauses and thinks for a minute. “I am passionate about connecting people through poetry.”
To her, poetry just comes naturally and writing poems is just a natural thing to do. She sees the world with visuals and sounds, which are the “essence” to her as a person. She can write in all genres, Renee says her brain is “hardwired” to write poetry.
Thecanadaproject describes the journey of an immigrant settler, and is a memoir of sorts for Renee. She was born in India and came to Canada as child, and the blog documents her life in many Canadian provinces which include British Columbia, Quebec, and New Brunswick, to name a few. Since then, she has always been interested in place, location, and setting, and how they can influence our own identities, personalities, and language. She questions the notion of citizenship and what it means to be Canadian. What is the nature of citizenship? Who is Canadian? These are some of the questions Renee asks everyday.
I mention her book, Children of Air India, and ask why she decided to write about the Canada/Air India event and the challenges she faced during the writing process. Renee tells me that the book was the last thing she ever wanted to write. It wasn’t just because the topic was so controversial and painful, it was also because Renee was too scared to write about the mass murder. However, the desire to write overpowered the fear of not writing, and she eventually started the demanding writing process. The whole process took about five years to complete from start to finish. Renee spent countless times in the archives and libraries, which became her muse. She became sick from the voices of the dead and the murdered, especially from the 82 children that were on board the doomed flight. Eventually, the book was finished, published, and sold widely in North America. Renee says that the book “terrifies [her], and [she] wouldn’t write the book now.
As a person and woman of colour, Renee says that she had many opportunities, despite how ironic it may sound. The “othering” that she faces on a daily basis helps her stand out amongst her peers in the literary community. She still recognizes that race and class issues still exist. Even the most well-meaning people may let slip some micro- aggressions.
I ask her about her job as Surrey’s inaugural Poet Laureate, and Renee says that she loves Surrey. It is a multicultural place and a “yes” place. She describes her position is similar to a Writer-in-Residence, but she is on a two-year term, and she does consultations along with her teaching career. She attends many cultural events and is Surrey’s literary ambassador. Renee says she meets many people from different walks of life and of different ages because of her position, and because of that she is able to do “really cool things with different people.”
The number one piece of advice Renee would give to aspiring writers and poets is “don’t give up, read, and keep going.” She tells her students and writers everywhere to write and read everyday. The greatest inspiration, she says, is from people of different faculties and who use different art mediums as their way of expression.