Trauma of Air India crash led Surrey’s first Poet Laureate to award-winning career

Renée Sarojini Saklikar embraces 'amazing opportunity' of new position

Renee Sarojini Saklikar

Surrey’s inaugural Poet Laureate doesn’t live in Surrey, but she has some roots in the community.

“I have so many connections to Surrey, having grown up in New Westminster, just across the river,” said Renée Sarojini Saklikar, who now lives in East Vancouver with her husband, former provincial NDP leader Adrian Dix.

On Tuesday (Oct. 20), Saklikar was introduced to Surrey city council as the city’s first poet laureate, the search for which began last spring.

Saklikar’s task will be to serve as an ambassador for the City of Surrey and its people while “advocating for literacy and the literary arts and helping to raise the status of poetry, language and the arts in the everyday consciousness of Surrey residents,” according to the job description.

The position comes with an annual honorarium of $5,000, plus $1,000 for travel costs. Ten people applied for the job, according to Meghan Savage, a Surrey librarian and co-ordinator of the Surrey Poet Laureate project.

Preference was given to “enthusiastic, creative” individuals – words that certainly describe Saklikar in conversation with the Now on Tuesday.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” she said. “I think we can do very interesting things in Surrey, a city I feel, the way it is now, kind of embodies Canada, the essence of Canada. There are so many interesting things happening there. There are all kinds of things percolating, and of course Surrey is doing some cool things.”

The lawyer-turned-writer found poetry through trauma. Her aunt and uncle, both doctors who lived in India, were killed along with everyone else aboard the infamous Air India flight 182.

“I didn’t know them as well as I’d have liked,” Saklikar explained. “They came to Canada for the first time and, sadly, it was their last time.

“They were in the States for a conference, and they came to visit,” she continued. “My aunt was extremely close to my mom, and because of the distance and all kinds of family stories, we hadn’t seen a lot of them. They had a young son, my cousin, and they were anxious to get back to him in India. He survived them, and he became an orphan. It was all so, so sad…. They weren’t in North America for very long, and they stayed with us for awhile, more than a few weeks, because they wanted to be part of the family here, and then they left and we never saw them again, of course.”

The act of terrorism eventually led Saklikar to write a book of poetry, called “children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections,” which was published in 2013 and has since won several awards and nominations.

Early next month, from Nov. 6 to 11, a Canadian-Irish musical collaboration called “Air India [redacted],” which is based on the book, will be performed at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts in Vancouver, featuring Turning Point Ensemble.

“I’ve had some terrible things happen in my life, some traumatic things,” Saklikar started, “but I’ve also been very privileged in my life, too. I’ve had the luck and grace to have connections with many people, and those supports are certainly in Surrey. I can tell you that I wrote my first book on the kitchen table of a dear, dear friend of mine in South Surrey.”

Saklikar, who teaches creative writing at SFU Surrey, once worked for the McQuarrie Hunter law firm when it was located on 104th Avenue.

Today, she is excited to be part of a poetry project in Surrey that involves several partners, including the City of Surrey, Surrey Libraries, Surrey International Writers’ Conference, Semiahmoo Arts, SFU, KPU, Surrey Muse and others.

“One of the things I’m really excited to do first is what I call a listening tour, going around to all the different partners and hear their hopes and dreams and challenges about what this position can be,” she said. “And then we’re also going to have to manage expectations, right? This is the great thing about inaugural, being the first one; you get to kind of build something.”

Other cities also employ poet laureates, including New West and Vancouver, and Saklikar calls them friends on whom she can count for some guidance.

“With this job, I have to build, promote, intersect, encourage,” she declared.

“The challenge of poetry, and I hope to share this with people in manuscript consultations and meeting with people, (is) how to get beyond your own sentiment about your loss and open up your story so that readers can relate, and I think any writer aims to do that. How do we invite the reader in, how do we get beyond the self? And that was a big challenge with my first book, and I’m very gratified that it’s been so well received.”

One of Saklikar’s first tasks as Poet Laureate involves an appearance at this weekend’s Surrey International Writers’ Conference. The 23rd annual event returns to Sheraton Vancouver Guildford Hotel from Friday to Sunday (Oct. 23-25).

“This conference helped launch my poetry writing path, and I’m excited about being there again,” Saklikar said. “I was privileged in 2003 to win what was then one of the most well endowed poetry prizes, which I think was $500 back then. So now to come back, and I’ve been volunteering with them over the years, for this particular conference, I’m really excited, because they have some great speakers coming.”

Saklikar will host a poetry open mic and will also be doing “blue pencil” sessions in which she’ll “meet with people who want to share their writing, give them feedback, and this will be very much part of my practice as an instructor.”

As Poet Laureate, she aims to be connected with the people of Surrey, and that includes correspondence by a new email address, poetlaureate@surrey.ca, and website, Surreylibraries.ca/poetlaureate.

“I always wanted to be a writer but I didn’t have that consciousness until I entered the Writers Studio (a program at SFU) in 2010,” Saklikar said. “Like many of us, it’s not an unusual thing to come to poetry because something happened to us, to take us there, right, and that was certainly the case for me. And finding my voice through poetry is something I feel I was called to share with others. It’s not really about me, it’s about how to share a story that helps others.”

tom.zillich@thenownewspaper.com

 

 

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