Padma Viswanathan (’89 BA, Sociology) has been an activist, a community outreach worker, an alcohol and drug abuse researcher, a teacher, and finally, a celebrated author. Her most recent novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, was shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize, one of Canada’s pre-eminent awards for fiction.
Viswanathan took up writing in a serious way about five years after finishing her degree at the University of Alberta and learning that activism wasn’t for her. “I came… to understand that I wasn’t willing to commit to my own opinions sufficiently to want to exercise them on the world,” she says of the journey to figure out her place in life.
“I was much more comfortable observing — trying to see patterns and convey them to others.” After joining a playwrights’ circle at Catalyst Theatre in Edmonton and writing the first scene of what would become her first play, she realized that in writing she had found her calling and that nothing else made sense.
That was 20 years ago. Today, Viswanathan has two acclaimed novels to her name, along with several plays, articles, short stories and works of translation. “The greatest responsibility you have as a writer is that you can reconfigure reality so that people can see things a little bit differently,” she explains.
“So you yourself work through hard questions and come out the other side — questions of politics, questions of human interaction. As a writer you have no control over the effect of what you do. But I can improve a few hours of somebody’s life by making them laugh or letting them see a different corner of the world. This feels like something I’m able to do.”
Indeed it is, judging by the critical acclaim for The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Set 20 years after the Air India bombing as the suspects are finally brought to trial, the novel explores the aftermath of the tragedy in the lives of those who lost loved ones in the disaster. A number of real-life family members of the bombing’s victims have expressed appreciation and thanks to Viswanathan for her work. She is grateful for their support.
Viswanathan also expresses gratitude for her experiences at the Faculty of Arts and their influence in her life. “I was exposed to a number of people who were really passionate about what they did at the U of A,” she remembers, citing both past and present members of the Department of Sociology, such as professor emeritus Tim Hartnagel in criminology and Frank Trovato, who helped instill in her a love of statistics. Viswanathan now continues that tradition, conveying her passion to her own students as a professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Arkansas.
In fact, Viswanathan is more than happy to return to this work and to her writing after the whirlwind of travel and promotional appearances that led up to the announcement of the Giller Prize winner in November 2014. Was she disappointed that she did not win? Not terribly, as it turns out. “I’m proud of my book. The Giller experience was all lovely but I’m just glad to get back home. I’m happy to spend my days once more in my pajamas writing and hanging out with my children.”