A cautionary tale about the Canadian dream
Canada may project an image as sweet as maple syprup but it has a lot of skeletons in its closet. Eyes Like Mine is about a complicated woman living on the fringes of society
Sheena Kamal: A decade spent working as a stand-in or stunt double, all the while auditioning for maids and secretaries, had taken its toll on my self-confidence. I discovered that I’m “ethnic”
My muse is a loner, a sex-starved misanthrope, an unapologetic voyeur. She’s also a figment of my imagination and the heroine of my debut suspense novel Eyes Like Mine. I’m not quite sure how this happened, but it seems that Nora Watts has lodged herself underneath my breastbone and refuses to budge.
I came to crime fiction in a roundabout way. I’d spent about a decade in the film and television industry trying to break into acting and screen writing. It’s a journey that began after university when I realised I’d been hiding my light for far too long in a creaky old institution. I thought, Lord save me from strained eyesight! I’ve had enough of these sensible shoes! I’m going to be an actress, darling, and nobody can stop me.
It wasn’t smooth sailing. A tiny brown woman trying to make it as an actor? I was in for a rude awakening. I’m the hero of my story, but I’m not the hero of anyone else’s. Or his hot girlfriend, or his quirky sister. I’m the lab technician that brings the sister her test results, if anything at all.
When I set out to write Eyes Like Mine, a decade spent working as a stand-in or stunt double, all the while auditioning for maids and secretaries, had taken its toll on my self-confidence. I discovered that I’m “ethnic”, which is something that I’d never known before. After a time, I got used to being slapped with labels that I would never choose for myself. If I’d felt empty and alone at university, my foray into the arts pushed me to the point where I felt invisible. I was supposed to be living the Canadian Dream, and this wasn’t it.
The Canadian Dream, if you’re wondering, is a beautiful thing. It speaks of a place drenched in maple syrup, where healthcare is free, opportunities abound and every citizen is a valued part of the country’s cultural mosaic. Everyone has an equal shot, and everyone matters – even the people who are routinely erased from the page and the screen.
This false narrative is one of the country’s greatest exports, despite Canada’s shameful colonial past when it comes to its relationship with indigenous communities and other marginalised groups. Residential schools, forced adoption of indigenous children, the Chinese Head Tax, turning away Jews escaping Nazi Germany, along with the very real practice of racial segregation are just a few of the skeletons in our closet. Canadians don’t want to look too closely at these things because it diminishes the stories we like to tell ourselves. That we are nicer than Americans being the most important one.
These grey areas have always interested me, so it isn’t much of a surprise that my book exists in this space. I got the idea for Eyes Like Mine when I worked as a researcher for a television crime show. Part of my job was to keep abreast of the daily news. This was as depressing as you’d imagine it to be, but doubly so because at the time there were several high-profile headlines that focused on how the criminal justice system deals with violence against girls and women.
Though slut shaming and victim blaming are pervasive across the board, no one would dispute that indigenous girls and women bear the brunt of Canada’s negligence in this department. There are some incredible writers and activists currently tackling this issue and working hard to keep it at the forefront of the national conversation. Because of them, the term “missing and murdered” has become a rallying cry. Regardless of ethnicity, it struck me just how often the girls and women involved in the stories about violence were pushed into little boxes, ones with uglier labels, where they were explained away and shoved into a corner. Dredged out every now and then only to be used as cautionary tales.
That’s when my very own cautionary tale showed up and suggested that I’d been wasting my time. I had a novel in me, one that showed a different side to the Canadian Dream. I began to imagine a high-stakes suspense novel set in the moody and atmospheric city of Vancouver. The choice of location was quite deliberate. I’ve never been to a more beautiful city. I’ve never been any place as lonely. This, I thought, would be somewhere my troubled heroine would live. Nora Watts, one of the unseen.
I’d always envisioned Nora as an outsider, so I made her cultural heritage muddled and largely unknown to her. Though she has no connection to any particular community, she’s an uneasy mix of two very politically charged identities. Not only does this create internal tensions for her, it creates tensions with the way she interacts with the world. I will continue to explore these themes as the series continues but, at its core, Eyes Like Mine is about a complicated woman living on the fringes of society. A woman who must relive the darkest chapter of her life in order to find a missing girl.
To support myself while I wrote the book, I dusted off my old actor’s union card and worked as an extra on film and television sets. You can search through the screen projects that came out of the city back then, but you’ll never find me. I’m often somewhere in the background, just at the edge of the frame. Tucked away in a corner, reading or miming conversation with some other hapless extra. It wasn’t what I’d imagined for myself 10 years earlier – but this time my invisibility didn’t seem to matter. It had a purpose. So what if I wasn’t the hero’s girlfriend or his sister? Honestly, I was too busy building my own hero to even notice.
Sheena Kamal is the author of Eyes Like Mine (Zaffre, £12.99)