An Interview with Shashi Bhat

Spoiler Alert—The following review contains plot details about The Most Precious Substance on Earth.

What made you want to start writing?

I was always a reader when I was a kid, and the books that impacted me the most were short story collections or anthologies: Budge Wilson’s The Leaving and 21 Great Stories are ones that still stand out in my mind. I read those books over and over. There’s always been something about short stories that grabs me—their compression; how what’s off the page matters as much as what’s on it; how they can end with a kind of suspension or irresolution.

I wrote what I consider my first short story in Grade 8, when we had a unit in English class on “surprise ending stories.” Those surprise endings seemed like such a cool trick to pull off, and so impressive in how they earned it with foreshadowing. My own story was very bizarre and murderous, involving a unreliable narrator who may or not have stabbed his jerk brother with part of his Halloween costume.

The Most Precious Substance on Earth is such an empowering and moving coming-of-age story. I was intrigued by the title, which is also the third chapter title, in which the school band Nina is a part of argues whether platinum, the band’s namesake, is indeed the most precious substance on earth. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that the most precious substance is something far less tangible. When writing this book, did you immediately know The Most Precious Substance on Earth would be its title?

Thank you! I had written that third chapter as a stand-alone short story before I realized it was going to be part of a novel. Originally, I plucked the phrase from that scene and made it the short story title, because I liked its enigmatic quality. I had the sense that it represented what the narrator loses at the end of that story, where there’s a fairly tragic coming-of-age moment. Once I had the full novel written, out of all the chapter titles, that one struck me the most as applying to the whole book. The “most precious substance” is this nebulous mix of all the things a girl loses when she comes of age—innocence, confidence, faith, a feeling of safety and certainty.

The first chapter ends with Nina experiencing something unspeakably traumatic at the hands of her favorite teacher, Mr. Mackenzie. Compared to books like My Dark Vanessa, The Most Precious Substance on Earth doesn’t focus on the continued predation of a teacher upon their student. How important was it for you to portray Nina’s trauma and struggle to come of age through the physical absence yet otherwise looming presence of Mr. Mackenzie?

I don’t think I would have felt comfortable writing a book that was, from start to finish, about a predatory teacher. It was less the abuse itself that interested me than its aftermath. It was important to me that the actual event remain offscreen and not be depicted graphically, but that readers still feel the weight of its impact. I’m a little obsessed with how a single incident or action or moment can cause a permanent shift and lasting trauma. I wanted to explore the subtle but still devastating effects of such an experience and how they follow Nina even when the event is over, the teacher has left, and her life has moved on.

Some readers were confused or disappointed that there wasn’t a big confrontation scene later in the book, or that the abuse didn’t get reported or go to trial and so on. I wanted to write something that felt true to real-life experiences of sexual abuse and assault—a kind of ongoing silencing. But I can certainly also understand the desire for justice and catharsis!

Despite the dark subject matters this book handles, Nina has a memorably humorous voice; there were moments that had me laughing out loud, and then feeling immediately empathetic for her. Was it difficult to strike the right balance between serious and humorous?

I’m so glad this made you laugh! Initially I wrote the first chapter of this book for a reading I gave at a bar in 2007, and I was trying to write something that was accessible, easy to follow while listening, would get an audience reaction, and had tonal range. I wanted to write something that had a breathlessness to it, in the sudden emotional turn of the ending—an ending that aimed to pull the rug out from under the reader. Because the subject matter and emotions of this story are so dark, it needed some lightness to balance it out. A big part of revision was considering and calibrating the tonal balance; I didn’t want people to think I was ever joking about what happens to Nina, but I also didn’t want the book to be joyless.

The bits of pop culture weaved throughout the narrative flavored the text and made Nina’s adolescence feel so relatable and grounded. How did you go about researching or recalling these pop culture factoids?

I was a teenager in the suburbs of Toronto in the ‘90s, so even though the book is set in Halifax, a lot of the pop culture references were just the TV and music I listened to back then. While writing, I listened to music by Our Lady Peace, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Radiohead (my favorite bands in high school), and the soundtracks to The Craft and Romeo + Juliet, both of which came out around that time.

I also had to do a lot of googling to avoid anachronisms. I kept a spreadsheet of the chapters and what years they occurred in, then looked up each reference and tracked it on the spreadsheet. While revising I had to change some of them, like if I had a reference to a TV show that was released in 2006 but the chapter was set in 2002. And it was not for only pop culture, but also things like whether there was a dollar store in a certain mall in Halifax in 1998, what thrift stores were most popular in the city then, or whether my characters would have needed to take a bus to get to Tim Hortons. It was painstaking but also very fun. I enjoyed all the nostalgia.

I appreciated how Nina’s growth continued well into her adulthood. It makes sense that going through something so traumatic would take years to heal from. Part of this is explored through Nina’s decision to become a teacher and the struggles she faced in this line of work. As a professor yourself, did you experience any struggles when you first started teaching that influenced Nina’s story? Can you tell us a little more about the role of a teacher to not only educate students but to protect and inspire them?

I did take inspiration from my teaching experiences, though I imagine teaching high school students requires a more intense level of personal responsibility. A teaching workload can be very high in terms of grading, class prep, and admin work, and there are the many hours of public speaking every week. My first few years teaching full-time were overwhelming, particularly because I was a young female minority teaching mostly white students. My teaching evaluations were full of microaggressions. I felt a lot of pressure to prove myself. I had Nina share those pressures.

Now I teach in a much more diverse environment, but any teaching comes with frequent and unexpected ethical and emotional dilemmas that we’re not always prepared for. I teach creative writing, and it’s not uncommon for students to write about very personal things, like eating disorders, gender identity, relationships, assaults, and abuse. Many students are also dealing with physical and mental health issues and have pressures outside of the classroom. Most instructors I know have had students cry in class or in office hours or have had students become very angry or send cruel or inappropriate emails. That being said, my students are engaged and brilliant and funny; they’re good writers and hard workers and sharp critics; they encourage each other. My creative writing workshops are often really fun, but I’m always aware that I’m only responsible for a small part of that—that I’m a facilitator, that the dynamic is very fragile, and that how a class goes depends so much on the mix of personalities in the room.

Before going into teaching, Nina attends an MFA program for Creative Writing in the U.S. and immediately feels alienated as the only person of color in the program. At the beginning of the narrative, when Nina imagines reading Beowulf by the fireplace with her teacher, she imagines herself with blonde hair, even though she’s Indian. This alienation is, unfortunately, a common experience for so many women of color. Did you set out to portray this heavily when you started writing this novel, or did it organically come up as you continued writing? 

It did come up organically, based on my own experiences. I didn’t put a South Asian character in any of my stories until I was 23 or so, probably because I didn’t encounter any South Asian American characters until I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Even now, in my students’ writing, it’s rare to see someone put their cultural identity in their work, or to identify a character’s race (white still seeming to be the default, even when the writer isn’t white). On the other hand, it’s very common to see them set their stories in a kind of vague American setting (though we’re in Canada). They also love setting stories in New York, which most of them have never been to! I find this last bit very charming and interesting, but I have introduced a “write what you know” assignment, partly to suggest that their own experiences—including the places they live in and the people they know—are valid to explore in fiction.

I loved how central Nina’s cultural identity was to her growing up and her relationship with her family. One example that comes to mind is how normally it’s presented that Nina lives with her parents as an adult. While this is normal in many cultures, it’s still seen as unusual in Western society. During the publishing process, did you ever face resistance or confusion toward your portrayal of Nina’s heritage?

I was very lucky to work with agents and editors who didn’t question the way I depicted Nina’s cultural background. When McClelland & Stewart made an offer, they sent a letter with kind quotes from their editors and staff responding to the manuscript. I remember one editor who referred to a moment when Nina describes having dinner at the house of a white friend as having a hidden choreography she couldn’t follow, and the editor said that, as a Korean-Canadian, that was something he had felt, too. That comment meant a lot to me. I appreciated hearing from people who could understand what those small moments are like.

Silence and power play such important roles in The Most Precious Substance on Earth. We see this clearly when Nina joins a local Toastmasters group to improve her public speaking skills. The intersection of race and gender, and the way silence is imposed on marginalized individuals, is especially present in these sections. How do you think the solidarity between Nina and the women of color in Toastmasters played a role in her growth?

I wanted Nina to find some like-minded people, and her friendship with Jules makes the story a more hopeful ending than it would be otherwise. I wrote Jules as basically Nina’s ideal friend. Like Nina, she struggles with speaking up, but she’s also sharp and funny, and Nina witnesses her stand up for the other woman of color in the Toastmaster’s group. Jules is someone who has goals and works toward achieving them. She’s a good influence on Nina, and there’s no toxicity between them; it’s a much more calm, mature friendship than what Nina has with Amy in high school.

The publishing industry can be difficult for emerging authors to navigate. If you could give your past self one piece of advice about the publishing industry or process, what would it be? 

I would tell myself to write what I wanted to, and not what I was expected to.

Part of our mission here at Brink Literacy Project is to bring the revolutionary magic of storytelling to underserved communities. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors from marginalized communities? 

My advice is the same as it is for my past self, and perhaps for all aspiring writers: write what you can’t stop thinking about.