A night on the town ends with a young woman channeling a Hindu goddess of war to save a friend from attackers. This moment is the turning point in a short story by author Serah Louis, a U of T Mississauga student who is channeling her own South Asian heritage as a notable new voice in Canada’s literary scene.
Louis is among 15 authors—and the sole South Asian writer—featured in a new anthology of speculative fiction by Asian writers in Canada. Her story, “Unveiling the Night” appears in Immersion: An Asian Anthology of Love, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction published by Ricepaper Magazine and Dark Helix Press.
Louis, who is a fourth-year undergraduate studying biology and professional writing, has always written, but put her fiction projects aside temporarily to focus on her studies. She was inspired to get back to the keyboard when she took an English course on fantasy literature (ENG238) led by sessional lecturer Chris Koenig-Woodyard.
Readings for the course included works like Monstress, an acclaimed Asian horror fantasy comic book series by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, which introduced Louis to the possibilities of interweaving culture with the traditional themes of fantasy fiction. Her final project, which took the form of a short story, focused on a Indian heroine who discovers she is the reincarnation of Kali, the Hindu goddess of war. That assignment would become the draft of “Unveiling the Night” which explores issues of cultural identity, sexuality and stigma, alongside fantasy themes of heroism and rejection of the fantastic.
“Unveiling” features Arya, a heroine caught between her North American life and her Indian heritage, who chafes at gendered expectations for South Asian daughters. “Arya is a rebel,” Louis says. “Her parents are strict, but she’s close to her grandmother who tells her stories and imparts culture and religion.”
Louis, who was raised in Toronto and Mississauga, has roots in Mumbai and Tamilnadu in India’s southern region where her parents were born. She grew up watching Tamil and Malayalam movies, and wanted her own work to explore those elements of Indian culture that are sometimes overlooked. “A lot of popular Indian movies and books are in Hindi, but there are so many other different languages and religions,” she says.
Louis incorporates personally significant details into “Unveiling,” such as Arya’s dark skin and Malayalam language. “Kali is revered as a goddess, but she has dark skin which is not considered the cultural beauty norm,” Louis says. She uses the story to challenge stereotypes about gender. “South Asian women are often depicted as intellectual and emotionally contained, but Arya is not that, at all.”
“Seeing my culture in print is really important,” she says. “Even my favourite Disney princess—Jasmine—was the only one with brown skin, but she wasn’t Indian. I didn’t see myself in books, either. Literature can give you an idea of who you’re supposed to be, but I didn’t have that.”
In November, Louis gave her first author’s reading to launch the anthology at the LiterASIAN Toronto 2019 festival of Canadian writing, hosted at U of T’s Chen Yu Tung East Asian Library. She is an editor and contributor to two UTM-based publications: Compass, a non-fiction journal published by students in the Professional Writing and Communication program, and Caffeine and Careful Thought, an online journal of critical writing produced by students in the English & Drama program. Her next short story, about a South Asian superhero in another dimension, will be published in Caffeine and Careful Thought in Spring 2020.