After being called to the bar in 1991, Renée practiced law for a number of years before realizing that a poet’s life was for her. She describes the transition from lawyer to poet as both “difficult and marvelous” at the same time. In 2010, Renée graduated from the Writers Studio of the Continuing Studies Department at Simon Fraser University, which served as the beginning of what proved to be a successful career as a writer.
Renée is the author of Children of Air India, Un/authorized Exhibits and Interjections, which won the 2014 Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. It was also a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Renée currently serves as the Poet Laureate for the City of Surrey. In her role as Poet Laureate, she will work to create a legacy program of poetry-outreach that is multilingual and inter-cultural, in partnership with organizations in Surrey.
What inspired you to go to law school?
A great desire to learn more about how things work, legislatively, historically. Certainly, my parents wanted me to enter the profession as my paternal grandfather had been a high court judge in Bombay. I had this idea, still have it, despite all the cynical comments about lawyers, that in a democracy, the rule of law means something, however one might deconstruct it. In 1985, my aunt and uncle died in the Air India bombing. In 1987, I entered law school. It took me a long time to understand how much those two events connected.
Any particular moments in law school that stood out for you?
Many! In terms of my studies, the opportunity to write a long paper for Professor Lynn Smith on the history of marriage: that was fascinating. In terms of the social life of law school, there’s no question I enjoyed myself, particularly doing things I’d never dreamed of doing, such as trying out for the Law Women’s Ice Hockey Team. I was so awful: I remember a coach taking time to show me how to skate backwards. Don’t think I ever laced up again, though.
Were there any professors that were especially inspiring?
As mentioned, Lynn Smith. And, a professor I’ll never forget, Professor J.C. Smith, and his textbook, The Western Idea of Law. I still have that book...
When did you first develop an interest in poetry?
I’d always been a scribbler, words always fascinated me. I’ve kept all my journals from my law school days. I lived in student housing that’s all gone now - Canterbury House. We were steps away from the old law school and got into all sorts of, er, trouble...looking back on those journals, interspersed with class notes on torts and constitutional history, there are many fragments of poetry. Lots of angst, too, about, well, the aforementioned, er, “extra-curricular events.” Is there still the March law school Trike Races? Here’s to the Class of 1990. Always, I’m writing things down...
Do you remember the first poem you wrote that you were particularly proud of?
The first poem that I remember having some kind of impact on another reader, was when I was in Grade 12: I wrote a sonnet, imagining the inner life of a character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Queen Titiana writes of an Indian princess. My boyfriend at the time loved the poem and kept it and decades later, when my first book was published, sent me a scanned copy. Yes, I’m an incurable romantic.
How was the transition from lawyer to poet?
Difficult and marvellous, all at the same time, of course. As I ruefully say to relatives and friends: no corner office with the partners! The study of the law, the membership in the profession, I take seriously. I’ve never let my membership in good standing in the Law Society of British Columbia lapse, since my call in ’91. However, as I went deeper into poetry, of course, I had to give up being a full time practicing member. I’m now a non-practising member and share my experiences about being a lawyer and author with students in the department of continuing studies at SFU. I also serve as a member at large (National Advocate) for the Writers’ Union of Canada.
How did the book "Children of Air India, un/authorized exhibits and interjections" come about?
In 2009, I enrolled in the Writers’ Studio at SFU and it changed my life. In the studio, I had the great fortune of being mentored by three exceptional writers: Wayde Compton, (he’s now the director of the Studio and he and I recently released an anthology together, which features several UBC poets: The Revolving City : 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them, Anvil Press/SFU Public Square, 2015); Rachel Rose, the current poet laureate of Vancouver, and acclaimed author, Betsy Warland. From these three, I discovered I had a story to tell: difficult, controversial, painful. I was writing a kind of memoir, about being born in India, immigrating to Canada when very young, living all across Canada, and when I got to June 23, 1985, I just shut down. I didn’t want to write about the bombing of Air India Flight 182. The more I resisted, the more I couldn’t write at all. Finally, the desire to write over-powered anxiety, at least enough to embark on a journey: I delved into the archive of the saga of the bombing and its after-math, and the more I read documents, court transcripts, newspaper clippings, personal diaries, the voices of the dead just sort of claimed me.
None of this would have come together, however, without my publisher, Nightwood Editions, a very fine independent literary press in B.C., and my editor, Silas White: he encouraged me to go even deeper with the work.
As an aside, when I look at the book now, or when I hear from readers, (and I’m grateful for the profound response, from Canada/Ireland/India, that the book’s received), I see how much I used my legal background to create a language, a discourse for the poetry: how to speak the unspeakable...for instance, in the use of the idea of [redactions]....when I’m at festivals and reading events, audience members who happen to be lawyers, are always very interested...
It took me five years to write that book, and many manuscripts later, the work went on to win the 2014 Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry and was short listed for the 2014 Dorothy Livesay award; an opera based on the book, air india [redacted], premiered this past November at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, and was the culmination of a two year collaboration with Irish artists, and Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble.
What do you feel are your biggest accomplishments to date?
That my cousin Irfan, orphaned by the Air India bombing, supports and encourages my poetry; and that, I’ve been given this opportunity to be a creative: I’ve a very supportive husband without whom I could not give so much time to writing; and the support of readers, friends, family and other poets: that’s the biggest accomplishment: staying on the path of a writing practice, despite obstacles or obscurity (writing long poems!). Doing the work.
What are you currently reading?
Beautiful Lies by Ted Byrne. Stunningly good, published by CUE Books in 2008. Also, the scientific papers of Dr. Mark Winston, the “bee guy” whose book, Bee Time recently won the Governor General’s award for non-fiction. Mark and I are collaborating on a series of poems/prose about bees.
Learn more about Renée and her current project by visiting https://thecanadaproject.wordpress.com/
Photo credit: A.Tsabari