English Lessons and Other Stories.


216 pages
ISBN 978-0-86492-510-7
DDC C813'.54




Reviewed by Lori A. Dunn

Lori A. Dunn is a ESL teacher, instructional designer, and freelance
writer in New Westminster, B.C.


The two collections of short stories by Shauna Singh Baldwin are wonders of cultural connection. In the first book, English Lessons and Other Stories, many of the pieces were written for the radio, apparent in the rhythms of the language when read aloud. This book is a re-issue of Baldwin’s 1996 award-winning collection, and now includes a reader’s guide. Here, the voices in the stories are mostly women, young and old, from the Indian subcontinent, but all are caught in family tangles or shocks of culture, geography, and generation. One story in particular, entitled “Montreal 1962,” should be required reading by all Canadians, no matter their cultural stripe. It is a love song of a young immigrant wife to her husband, expressed by the act of caring for his turbans, as he struggles to find work in Canada and to maintain his heritage. Another noteworthy story is “Rawalpindi 1919,” in which a Sikh mother makes chapattis in her kitchen, thinking of her son leaving India for an education in England, where the making of the chapatti becomes the metaphor for the changes her son will undergo.


In her new collection, We Are Not In Pakistan, Baldwin has widened her search for voices to narrate the stories. Where her earlier collection was primarily the voices of women from India or Indian descent, in We Are Not in Pakistan Baldwin branches out more, capturing the emotional realities of people from around the world caught in life-changing modern historical events. In “Only a Button,” Olena must contend with her terror of a mother-in-law, who doesn’t think she is worthy of Victor with his high status job at the nuclear power plant in their town of Chernobyl. It is 1986. The story of “Naina” plays with magical realism, as the title character gestates her baby for 14 years, living in Toronto far from her family. In “Rendezvous,” the reader is Jimmy, a patron at a Greek diner, a captive audience for an intriguing cast of characters: Enrico, an arrogant mover and shaker who is “Mexican on the outside, gringo on the inside”; Tula, the daughter of the Greek immigrant owner of the restaurant; and Carlos, the sweet illegal immigrant who works in the kitchen.


Shauna Singh Baldwin has an important voice, one that allows a myriad of other cultures to speak. Her earlier stories focused more on the cultures that are closer to her, but with the later stories, she has found an ability to find the commonalities in the cultures of others. Baldwin’s writing style is clear and free of ornate turns of phrase, but with the occasional well-laced image: one character is “cocooned in a sulk,” and the “heat of a New Delphi morning panted like a waiting dog.” Most importantly, Baldwin respects her audience by not slowing the narrative to explicate points of every day life in a culture that might be unfamiliar to the reader. We are then allowed to immerse ourselves in the story.


Baldwin, Shauna Singh., “English Lessons and Other Stories.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 19, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/27537.