At the event, Basran will read passages from the book, address the theme of this new title – the search for meaningful connections in the modern era – and connect with readers in an intimate Q&A session.
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This interview is part of Massy Voices, an ever-evolving collection of book launches, exclusive interviews, and artist talks that celebrate community voices and the stories they carry. Click here to know more.
To celebrate Basran’s new literary work, Rafael Zen interviews the author for Massy Arts, asking how the loss of all of our preconceptions about how life should be may allow us to connect and actually see each other.
Gurjinder Basran / To be connected requires vulnerability
Rafael Zen – Your new book, Help! I’m Alive, addresses the theme of loss from the perspective of a sudden death. How did you come up with this theme – and how do you think loss is portrayed in this recent work? In this universe, what is loss – and what is it for? When reading this book, what can readers expect to learn about it, alongside these four main characters?
Gurjinder Basran – I hadn’t really intended to write about loss in terms of grief. Though the book opens with a sudden death the book is less about that death than it is what the death reveals to each of the four main characters about themselves.
As I explored how lost the characters were, whether it was in their own grief, insecurities, regrets or hopes, I realized what I was really writing about was the loss of deep and meaningful connection with ourselves, others and the natural world.
Now, more than ever I think we’re preserving a curated version of our lives on line and inside that pretending we’ve fallen out of love with the realness of life and almost have forgotten how to live or be who we really are.
Like the characters, we’re spending our lives chasing a version of a successful life that leaves most people trapped and wanting, while neglecting all that we need to have a fulfilled life. I hope readers, like the characters, come to see that real meaning in life comes from connection and that requires a deep vulnerability – a simultaneous letting go and a coming together.
Sometimes it’s the loss of all of our preconceptions about how things should be that allow us to see each other.
RZ – To investigate the feelings behind the death of a teenager, you write about guilt and abandonment, also about personal and maternal anxieties. Do you think writing allows you to investigate what these themes mean to you personally? How do you create boundaries between what these characters believe in – and what you believe yourself?
GB – I did explore a lot of my own feelings as a mother, and also some of the struggles of the young people in my life to better understand the crush of anxiety the characters were feeling. As a mother, I wanted very much for my children to be okay, and of course they were (and are) but what I wasn’t allowing myself to see was that I had a very particular version of okay in mind.
I, like so many others, had ideas of how their lives should be and when they fell short of those arbitrary expectations I felt it as a personal failure and they perceived my need to fix things as a proof that they were somehow broken. Exploring that definitely helped my writing and in fact all of my fiction is informed by my own life to some degree.
When I first started writing, I had difficulty separating myself from the characters, and putting up boundaries between real and not real, but I have come to see that fiction tells the truth of things better than real life does and that it’s best to let the characters go in the directions they need to in order to tell the story. As a writer, I’ve also learned that you can’t judge your characters, nor can you use them to push an agenda or preach your own views and opinions.
Readers will find whatever truth they need in a book when they need it; it’s not my job to tell them what to think or even what I think.
As a writer, I come to the page because I want to learn something, it’s not my job to teach. Coming in with that sense of curiosity keeps me humble and open to new ways of looking at things.
RZ – Why this title – Help! I’m Alive? What do you think it encapsulates from this book’s core message?
GB – The title, comes from a passage in the book where Ash is recalling how his mother asks his brother to send a message saying “I’m alive,” whenever he’s out late, so that she knows that he’s safe and she doesn’t have to worry. He thinks that what he should send her is a text that says “help! I’m alive,” because the world is such a brutal place and it’s amazing we survive at all.
The idea of saying ,“Help! I’m alive” reminded me that we need to be rescued from the daily cruelties of life and that at times the existential dread of being alive in the face of so much suffering, makes us feel guilty and helpless. In this book four people are facing their own fears and insecurities about being alive, yet they’ve never asked for help, never sought out connection. Help from one another is what they need so they can really live instead of just merely surviving.
While writing the final draft of the novel I had the following James Baldwin quote on my desk and I think it encapsulates so much of what I was trying to say. “I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”
RZ – Why writing about loneliness and connection? Do you think writing a book can be a way to establish dialogues within your communities? Is literature a way to reach connection and dialogue?
GB – I’m the youngest of six children so the experience of being lonely and connected are deeply rooted in my nature. I was always aware that I was part of a large family unit, but also felt that life was larger than the visible day to day; I sought out meaning and connection that others didn’t and at times that made me feel different and lonely.
Writing is one way that I reflect on the meaning of things and I think for readers it can do the same. Life is so busy that sitting still with a book seems like a radical act now! We are so used to having our feelings validated, our opinions liked that if we don’t expose ourselves to new stories, and perspectives we risk our own growth and development.
Reading fiction is such a great way to have our beliefs challenged and our perspectives broadened. Whether you like a book or not isn’t as important as whether it had an impact on you. In fact, sometimes it’s the books that are well written that I don’t “like” that teach me the most about myself.
As a writer, all I hope for is that after having read one of my books, the reader can see something they didn’t before.
As a reader myself, I can pick up a book at different times in my life and see something different in it each time; the book didn’t change, I did and noticing that is so important because it opens a dialogue that many things can be true at one time. It’s all a matter of perspective. I think literature is a great way to create connections.
Books force you to be quiet. The act of reading in and of itself requires solitude, and when we’re lucky the solitude makes space for reflection and understanding. I recently learned that our compassion and empathy is most strengthened when we share stories of hardship and sadness, so it makes sense that it’s the sad, sometimes unsettling stories that open the most space for conversation, because it’s in our grief that we are the most similar.
RZ – Could you choose a passage from the book to share with our readers? Why did you choose this passage?
At school, the halls are crammed with backpacked bodies like always, but there’s this extra feeling, like the heaviness you get in your chest when you’re keeping a secret or telling a lie, only it’s not contained, it’s alive with a virus-like spread. The popular girls are crying in huddled masses, mascara runs down their cheeks as they work at mastering sentiment, sullen expressions, and the not-too-ugly cry — they don’t know how to do anything but pose and pretend. And the boys, they just nod and look away, never quite making eye contact. Head down, hands tucked in pockets, he avoids them all, weaving and maneuvering his way through the day as if he were a rat in a maze.
An announcement is made after first bell. “We are shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of Jacob McAlister. Our hearts and prayers are with his family and friends.” No mention of the details, only that there will be counselors on hand for the next few weeks. People who didn’t know him act sad. People who did know him are legit stunned. Teachers whisper out one side of their two faces, gossiping about Jay’s mom and how she must be feeling. Ash wants to tell them to stop talking about Jay like he’s an event, like some epic winter storm that they’ll recall when they’re old. And his mom? How she’s feeling is fucked, not in her usual too-many-night-shifts, cash-strapped, chain-smoking way, but in the life is never going to be good again way. Ash feels bad for her; Lisa tries hard, like most moms do. He can still hear her calling down the street as Jay skated away. “You come back here, Jacob McAlister,” his name caught in the whirring of the wheels, syllables eaten by asphalt.
No one saw this coming. He was a happy kid; he had a girlfriend. Sure, Winona was a bit weird but still he had someone. Jay wasn’t like the cutters who carve at their arms in the girls’ bathroom stalls or like the bullied kid who hung himself in the art room. That’s what everyone’s saying at least. Now that he’s gone, everyone wants to know him, to know why, to insert themselves into the story and make it mean something.
But there’s no making sense of it.
Jay jumped off the Lions Gate Bridge.
And even though Ash saw it, he doesn’t want to believe it. The sky was too blue that day.
This passage is from the first chapter and you can start to see Ash’s conflicted thoughts on the loss of his friend. He is experiencing his own feelings of sadness but also observing the performative grief of others. This is the beginning of his own internal conflict in understanding what is real and what is not and whether there is meaning in actions and relationships.
The book is full of small and large moments like this – judgments of self and others, confusion of what was and is, and a deep-seated wish that things should be different.