Peggy Lampotang is a writer, photographer, and an artist. She lives in Toronto. Her most recent book, Island Lovers, is a collection of evocative poems and photographs on the island of Mauritius, where she was born. Her first novel, The Coral Heart, is a historical fiction about a young Chinese boy's journey as a shopkeeper in Mauritius. Her non-fiction writing has been published in Canada in The Globe and Mail and in college textbooks by Nelson Education. For more info on her work, please check her website: peggylampotang.com
Interview by Rebeccah Love
Where did the idea for the Coral Heart come from? Was there a particular image or character that came to you first?
The idea came from letters my father wrote a few years before he passed away. He recounted his childhood and arduous journey when he immigrated from China to Mauritius as a child and followed his father's footsteps as a shopkeeper. These letters opened a world I did not know and I felt I had to explore it further to understand my own roots.
What challenges did you face in writing about your family?
I decided to write the book as fiction as I prefer the creative freedom it gives me. It also resolves any conflict relatives may have in my father's recollection of events, which is bound to be subjective. The most challenging part was extracting the essence of the journey of a young Chinese immigrant whose strong identity faced many cultural challenges, from business to romance. When relatives take some anecdotes too personally, I just guide them to the essence of the story as it's not a story about my family. It's about the cultural conflicts bound to happen when one immigrates and it has a universal appeal for many immigrant families all over the world.
What was the research experience like during your writing process?
Research was exciting. An amazing journey of discovery that allowed me to get into the characters' lives with the uncanny feeling that I was living with them. I went to China first before even starting the book, to the village where my father was born to see how people lived there. Growing up in Mauritius, a westernized island with a British education, and speaking Creole, French and English, I felt little connection to China as my parents did not talk much about it. So, it was extremely important for me to go there for my research even if it was a bit of a culture shock. I also went to Mauritius to check the villages where many Chinese immigrants opened their shops. I also found invaluable photos and information from the Mauritius archives to get a feel for life in the 1900s. Google was also helpful but has its limits.
Both the Coral Heart and Island Lovers are inspired by the island of Mauritius. Do you find there is some thematic overlap between the two books?
It's true that they both happen in Mauritius, but I feel the themes are very different. The Coral Heart is a historical fiction. Island Lovers is a book of photography and poetry. Some poems may express the history and cultural conflicts immigrants face in Mauritius, but in a totally different context.
Can you tell me about any writing communities you engage with here in Toronto?
I've been part of a few writing groups, and I'd recommend them to new writers. It's a great incentive to write regularly and the feedbacks are always helpful, especially when you're in your writing cave and get so immersed in your work that you can't remove yourself enough to catch the mistakes. I also believe it's good to exchange ideas with different groups. That's why I initiated a Sunday authors afternoon meet-up at Stella's Café once a month, to rally our neighbourhood community of writers, readers and thinkers to get together.
What does your writing space look like?
At home, I alternate from the kitchen table to the kitchen counter ... you can imagine the distractions when I'm not inspired. On those days, I go to cafés to write. Currently, Stella's Café is my favourite.
What non-writing art forms do you turn to for inspiration in your writing?
Any art form is inspiring, whether it's music, dance, photography, acting, or painting in all its forms.
On top of your writing practice you also engage in photography and silk painting. Do you see these as three separate practices or do you find the three art forms are very interconnected?
They are both separate and interconnected. Separate in the sense that when I'm painting, taking photos or writing, I'm immersed and focused on one practice only. Interconnected because the creative mind processes experiences subconsciously, and these seep into the way I express myself in my writing, photography or silk painting.
Can you tell me about your photography exhibit Moody Toronto? What does the Toronto skyline mean to you?
I've always loved nature as inspiration, and I've been lucky to live in places where I have an amazing view of the sky, which makes me feel connected to nature while surrounded by buildings. The changing colours of the sky at different times of day and during different weather and seasons were the inspiration for Moody Toronto.
What role does your neighbourhood play in your practice?
My neighbourhood means a lot to me. It's my anchor. I feel it's important for all of us to have a sense of belonging to our community, especially when one works in an isolated environment. The support we provide to each other is conducive to well-being and creativity.
What is your favourite word?
Love. Not because it happens to be your last name, ha ha ha, which I do love, but I believe love is the only hope we have to make our world a better one.
What are you looking forward to?
I'm currently working on the French translation of The Coral Heart as Mauritius and Canada are both bilingual, and many prefer to read in French. I'm also working on a collection of short stories on relationships as I've always been fascinated by the complicated romantic relationships between men and women. Hoping these two books will get published within the next two years.