Author Tags: Fiction, Punjabi

Born in Ottawa in 1956, Paul Sunga is the son of the first Punjabi to become a federal civil servant. His mother's Punjabi forebearers immigrated to Canada in 1908. The Sungas were featured in a 1980 NFB/TV Ontario documentary, 'A Sense of Family'. With degrees in biology and philosophy, he is a biomedical researcher in Vancouver with a doctorate in experimental medicine. He has also served as Director of International Development at Langara College and a consultant to the Canadian International Development Agency for bilateral programs in Bangladesh and Ethiopia.

Paul Sunga's first novel, The Lions (Orca, 1992), is about a Punjabi named Jaswant Sijjer and an abused Native Indian named Conrad Grey who separately struggle to find sanctuary without any spiritual guidance or home. The story ranges from Vancouver's Lower Eastside to a mine in Thompson, Manitoba, to a tenement in Toronto. [See review below]

Red Dust, Red Sky (Coteau, 2008) was written after Sunga's period of residence in the tiny independent kingdom of Lesotho, surrounded on all sides by South Africa. In it he explores multiculturalism and family history within the context of political upheaval in the aftermath of the murder of a student activist, killed by the South African police. Recalling the period when apartheid is coming to an end, Red Dust, Red Sky is narrated by Kokoanyana, a young girl in rural Lesotho, whose family is originally from India. As she seeks to learn more details about her absent father, she becomes increasingly aware of the extent to which the truth is being repressed. Just as the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho is encircled and stifled by South Africa, she is surrounded by lies and delusions.


The Lions (Orca, 1992)

Red Dust, Red Sky (Coteau, 2008) $21.00 978-1-55050-370-8

[BCBW 2008] "Fiction" "Punjabi" "Africa"

The Lions (Orca $16.95)

Paul Sunga's first novel The Lions (Orca $16.95) is a tale of two Indians, B.C.-born Conrad Grey and Jaswant Sijjer. Jaswant Sijjer, fortified by Punjabi folktales, is desperately coping with estrangement from his white wife, Karla, and the loss of his only child. Sexually involved with Karla, Grey is a streetwise Native miner who has survived brutal abuse in foster homes. Together both Indians climb The Lions overlooking Vancouver in a potentially murderous climax reminiscent of Earle Birney's most famous poem, David, to confront their mixed feelings of distrust and mutual understanding. Sunga based his Aboriginal character in The Lions on someone he met while working in a nickel mine in Thompson, Manitoba. While "writers of colour" are increasingly citing appropriation of voice as the burning literary issue of the day, Sunga prefers to look beyond his own cultural bias. "I had no problem writing about a Native man," he says. ”Novels address human nature. I don't feel you should have to apologise for portraying people of different backgrounds. If you took the appropriation argument to its logical conclusion, you would censor yourself and narrow your choices of character until you wrote about no one but yourself."

Sunga, at 38, said he didn't consciously set out to juxtapose the two definitions of Indian. "Some subterranean currents must have been there," he says, "but it started off with me trying to explore the whole idea of weakness of will, of not doing what, you know you should be doing. How do people end up with weakness of will, not having moral signposts? It has to go back to family upbringing."

One of Paul Sunga's grandfathers came to Canada from India in 1906 and became part of the work crew which cleared the PNE grounds. Sunga's father worked as a logger to save money to attend UBC. "My father would work for two years, saving enough money to study full-time for one year, then he'd return to the bush for another two years," Sunga says. "He kept doing that until he graduated as an economist. But when he applied to the civil service, he discovered that all Asians, even British subjects, weren’t allowed to work for the federal government." Punjabi Canadians were, however, allowed to die for their country. Sunga's father was drafted into the Army Reserves. "My grandfather was so angry that they would draft his son but not give him the vote," Sunga recalls, "that he kicked down a door in the house." In 1948 Asians received the right to vote; Sunga's father joined the civil service. In 1980 the National Film Board and TV Ontario selected the Sunga family to be featured in a documentary film, A Sense of Family, about the varying experiences of Canadian immigrants.

"I faced some problems as a kid,” he says, "but no more than most other kids. Some kids were teased because they were fat. Some were short. Overall I had a pleasant childhood with friends from all kinds of backgrounds." He obtained degrees in cell biology and philosophy, an unprecedented combination at the University of Ottawa, then travelled to India and Europe. Back in Canada he worked as a miner, forklift operator and construction labourer; he attended UBC; then went to Lesotho, Africa to teach biology. When asked to chair an anti-apartheid conference for miners and migrant workers, Sunga had little notion of the risks. "Lesotho is surrounded by South Africa," he recalls, "and I had to go on South African roads to get to the conference. The border police held me for a half a day. It turned out they knew everything about this supposedly secret meeting. They knew everything that went on inside Lesotho."

When he published Lions, Sunga was completing his doctorate in medicine at UBC and teaching biology at Langara. He now plans a follow-up novel to be set in South Africa, partly based on his experiences as a volunteer with World University Services. "I don't buy that Canadians are racist," he says. "We can talk about the history of my family and other groups here, and sure there are problems, but put in the context of what else is going on in the world, especially in South Africa, the problems here are manageable. We don't have legislated hatred toward any other group."


[BCBW, Autumn, 1992] "First Nations"