MediaDevyani Saltzman Discusses Family, Self-Identity & Writing - Raj Girn

March 1, 2008by OC Team0


The New York Times called her internationally published, freshman offering, Shooting Water, ‘a poignant memoir’. Devyani Saltzman first came on the scene known to most as the daughter of acclaimed film director, Deepa Mehta, but in a short span of only a few years, this self-professed ‘Hinju’ has become a force to be reckoned with in her own right.

At only twenty-eight young years, this formidable writer has completed a degree in human sciences and anthropology at Oxford University and penned for The Globe and Mail, Marie Claire and Tehelka (India’s weekly known for arts & investigative  journalism). She is currently working feverishly on completing her first fiction novel while curating the literary program for this year’s multi-disciplinary arts festival, Luminato, scheduled to come alive in early June.

It’s no surprise then that given the opportunity to interview Saltzman, a talent I predict will be one of tomorrow’s most influential literary minds, I jumped at the chance of having a candid conversation with her about her childhood years and her coming to terms with her parents’ divorce, the much talked about estrangement between her and her mother, her journey to self-identity as a woman who grew up amidst the influences of two strong, religious backgrounds — Hinduism and Judaism, and her life’s muse, her writing.

Read On…


One of ANOKHI’s mandates is to recognize where and how the South Asian community overlaps and where it fuses with what is deemed mainstream society. Over the years, we have recognised that quite often, those of us who are born of and brought up in more than one culture and belief system, seem to deal with self-understanding a lot better or a lot quicker than those of us born of one culture/ideology even though you’d think that it would be the other way around. Seeing that you are a self-professed ‘Hinju’ (Indian and Jewish), what’s your take on this based on your own personal experiences?

I do think you understand yourself more or quicker because you’re forced to. Any kind of uncomfortable juxtaposition whether it s cultural or religious or class-based does force you to never quite fit in, and therefore, you have to examine yourself more closely. In my case, it wasn’t just being an Indian born in Canada but it was also being a mixed-race woman. My father is Jewish and my mother is Punjabi. I think the fact that I never really fit into either the Punjabi community or the Jewish community forced me to develop my own sense of space.

Finding self is quite the challenge for most of us, but when you factor in the influences of two very strong and ancient cultures — Judaism and Hinduism — and then you add in the pressures of today’s modern world as well as the fact that you are a woman, how did you make sense of it all in order to create your own identity or your own sense of self?

I had to escape my world to be able to see myself in any clear light and I ended up going to university in England and doing a degree in anthropology. It was quite radical for a seventeen year old to move away from any family and friends and live for three years in a country I didn’t know, but in a way, that gave me perspective to see myself more clearly. One of my favourite writers is Pico Iyer, and one of his books has the title The Global Soul. I love that idea that we live across multiple boundaries. It’s that perspective and distance that led to me being able to see myself more clearly.

What was that clarity?

That you don’t need to feel angst about not fitting in. I feel that this is the reason that home became the arts as opposed to a specific culture.

Do you feel that growing up in a bi-cultural family better prepared you for understanding  your internal and external space, or do you feel that it in some ways created more obstacles for you to overcome?

Both. When I was younger, it was a lot more difficult because it was a lot less easy to feel connected to groups of people. After university and going into the working world, it actually became a boon to be able to draw on two cultures. I believe that my bi-cultural heritage is what drove me into anthropology and then into writing because I never had one world to work from.

You have these two cultures that are a part of who you are on some level. How have you made sense if at all, of how they relate to your journey in life? Do you look for common denominators or do you look for positive differences to pool from and learn?

I look more at the positive differences as I’m not looking for a bottom line, I’m just existing and hopefully doing good work out of that. Also, I tend to just draw from and follow my interests in both worlds.

For those of us who are still battling to discover self in the midst of a multitude of cultural influences, what advice would you give in hindsight that you feel is the one key factor that should be known in order to see the trees through the fog, so to speak?
I think it always comes back to your own acceptance of who you are. I think beyond all the influences that may be pressuring you or pulling at you, it’s coming to your own sense of balance within the reality of how you’ve been raised and the subsequent experiences that have transpired. I think that it’s all about finding that inner sense of peace however which way you come to it.

With technological advancements pushing globalization forward so rapidly, how would you propose society should prepare for the obvious barrage of influences, often contrasting and sometimes conflicting, to help guide us all into a modern world that understands that people need a balance of historical culture as well as pop culture in order to find who they are in the midst of such a rapidly changing world?

Wow! That’s a very big question. I’ll have to draw it down to an individual level. The only thing I can suggest is what I try to do myself, which is actually to find silence. With all the influences that come to us from a multitude of sources whether it’s television, books, film or the internet, it’s about finding a space in the day that’s about quiet time. I feel this allows me to filter information. I believe that rather than being overwhelmed by all the information that is available to us, we should be selective about what we allow in.

Define this silence you speak of. Is it physical or mental?

It’s physical silence that translates into mental, which translates into a blank page, which translates into the room for me to write. When I don’t have that, I feel very tired.

So it’s that space to filter out all the noise we accumulate as beings, which can have quite a cathartic effect on us.

Yes, and it’s a way to reflect on life. Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, always talked about needing to carve out this space where you work from, and that’s exactly what I do, and I feel it is what everyone should do when faced with the inevitable barrage of information we encounter on a daily basis.


I often wonder what it is like to grow up as an only child, as I grew up in a family where there are four other siblings. But my son is an only child, and I wonder what it is like for him to not have someone of his age to share the various aspects of childhood. What was it like for you?

Growing up, I was never really consciously aware of the difference. But looking at it now — my partner has four siblings — I’m very jealous of people with siblings. I do think it’s very lonely for only children. We talk about it being that you’re the privileged one or the one that is doted on but in reality, I always craved sharing experiences with someone who was going through similar things. Even though I had best friends, they never come home and live with you so they’re not fully privy to what you’re going through — the emotional ups and downs that I was going through or that families go through behind closed doors.

Do you feel that what you had to go through when your parents went their separate ways would have been easier if you had siblings to share your experiences with?

In my mind I always think so. Any child who has come through divorce, unless the parents are very enlightened, has a very challenging path to walk. What happened to me was that instead of sharing with friends and the fact that I had no siblings, I went into my own imaginative world to deal with things. You kind of create this other space. A space that’s safe and creative. I think I always wanted siblings because I feel dealing with divorce would have been easier.

If you had the proverbial magic wand, what would you change about your childhood if you could and why?

(Long pause). The fun answer is that there was a fun movie made in the mid or early eighties with Daryl Hannah called Clan of the Cave Bear, and they wanted to cast me as the child lead. I was the top choice for this film. I was probably six-years-old at the time and my mum took me to the casting session where I said ‘No!’ to being in the movie. So in hindsight, I should probably have taken the road leading to Hollywood celebrity but I didn’t. The serious answer would be that my way of dealing with divorce was to become a super student. Because of this, I probably didn’t spend enough time being stupid and just being a kid.

I believe that all families have a love-hate-love relationship because each member has his/her own idea of what should and should not be. You were eleven years-old when your parents split up. How did you feel when you found out that you would no longer be living under one roof with both of them?

Terrible. I think every kid wants his/her family to be a family. It makes it all the more desiring for me to have a successful marriage and a strong family. On the other hand it has led to all of us pursuing really good individual lives, and we’re all happy for it, but at the time it was challenging.


Because you’re breaking up. My parents were married for almost 20 years and you have an existing structure and when you change that structure, there’s inevitably going to be rupture especially when you’re a child.

Did you ever feel that it was your fault?

Sure. I think that’s the first thing one does as you seek to find answers. For me, as I said before, it led me into looking into an internal world and seeking expression in that through Shooting Water and the novel I’m currently writing. I think the exploration is going to be a life long process for me. You need that roughage in a way, to move forward.

You chose to live with your father when most children, especially girls at that age, would want to live with their mother. Why was this a better decision for you at that time?

Children are close to their parents at different stages in their lives and at that stage, my dad and I shared a relationship that was very active in that we were both into sports and being outside. My mum and I didn’t share that aspect of my life and since at that time it was an important aspect of who I was, I went for what was easier for me–holding onto what I love, as holding onto who I loved would have torn me apart as I loved and love, both. (Pause) In the last ten years, however, my mum and I have become incredibly close and we have a very strong bond around creativity and storytelling.

So that’s your common thread?

Yes it is. I’ve seen a wave of change from being very close to my father in my younger years to being very close to my mother now. I think it’s just how we evolve as people.

Your much publicized estrangement with your mother has been documented in the media for a number of years now, but did not receive notoriety until you both found your way back to each other during the shooting of Water and the experiences that led you during this time to write your memoirs in the book Shooting Water.  First of all, what was the disconnect between the two of you that resulted in the estrangement?

Shooting Water was and is not a Mommy Dearest cathartic memoir. It was balancing the politics around Hindu nationalism with the making of a film and the relationship between a mother and daughter. Obviously the piece that is going to attract the most attention is the relationship between mum and me because it involves a well-known director and her daughter. The disconnect was not estrangement or pain or ugliness. It was just dealing with a choice and guilt around a choice as a child and that for me is a universal story of divorce. It’s not about Deepa Mehta and Devyani Saltzman. It’s about children and parents and that’s important for me to say. The disconnect was that you have to choose between two people you love. You choose one and then you have to deal with the guilt of why you didn’t choose the other.  Then you have to come to a place where you realize that you were a child and that these two people still love you even though they cannot live under the same roof together. We did discover that as a family. Another disconnect for me was not being able to see my mother everyday when I was used to having her around. It took about six years to come to terms with this and when I was about 16, my mum and I started to bond over, surprise surprise, movies. Then she started to give me her scripts to read and as I started to write, I started to give her my work to read and we developed a really nice, mutual relationship around the passion of two different mediums that were related. But we weren’t and aren’t competing. We work as a writer and a filmmaker. The real reconnection happened during the making of Water because it was then that we really got to work together and experience each other’s space with me as a grown-up.

So it was never about you falling out with your mum but about circumstances that demanded a decision from you?

Absolutely! And that decision was not based on personalities but as you said, on circumstances. I was eleven, how could I even know to say that I didn’t like this parent’s personality or that I liked this parent. It’s ridiculous to even assume that.

What was life like for you in those hiatus years?

Life was high school. I did a lot of reading during that time also. If I was to look back, I wish, as I said earlier, it could have involved a bit more fun.


A lot more beer! (Laughs)

When your mum invited you to join her in the making of Water, what were your initial thoughts?

I thought it would be fun. She gave me the script to read. It touched me because it was about women in search of internal freedom within some really tight constraints. I was excited because the common passion was the project. I joined the project because I believed in it.

Why did you decide to record your experiences as a memoir during shooting?

I never set out to write a memoir as I wanted to write non-fiction from the get-go. The reason I wrote Shooting Water as a memoir was not because of diary keeping during the film, but because it naturally unfolded that way.

What did you learn when writing your memoirs?

I learned discipline because that’s what writing is all about. This was an exercise on writing and that’s all.

Writing clearly teaches us more about life because it allows us to consciously explore different facets. Has it taught you more

I’m still discovering if that’s true. For me there’s a certain detachment but maybe that’s because I’m currently working on my first novel as a piece of fiction. I don’t delve into writing to look for answers about myself. I do that when I talk to my friends and family.

What other relationships do you cherish?


You’re other half?


How did you meet?

We met on a train. He’s an architect, and he’s from Ottawa. He’s a very grounded person.

What’s the magic between you?

The way we work together. We’re good for each other. It’s simpatico.


From a professional perspective, how would you define yourself?

I like to have a balance between my writing world when I am shut off from the outside physical world as well as remaining connected with the outside physical world through other things that I do. Right now, I’m writing my first novel but at the same time I’m curating at Luminato.

Let’s talk about the novel first. What can you divulge about it?

All I can tell you right now is that it is a story about a reality that has nothing to do with my own. The only real piece of information about the story I can tell you is that it is based on Gandhi’s idea of the ‘army of peace’ and the idea of non-violence. The protagonist is a female peace keeper. It’s a story in essence, about moral responsibility.

When should we look out for it being in print?

There’s nothing firm on that yet as it’s just going into its second draft, but hopefully soon.

You’re the literary curator for this year’s Luminato festival taking place in June. First of all, tell me how this came about?

Well, first of all, I would like to say that Luminato is happening from June 6th to the 15th. Chris Lorway, the vice president of programming, called me in for a meeting because Luminato wanted to build an in-house literary program so I was brought in for that purpose. He thought that this would be a great opportunity because I am a working writer, so I know what it’s like to be on the other side. At this time, I was also looking for something to get me active in the community. It was just a natural fit.

What does your role entail?

The programming is anchored around key pieces. From a South Asian perspective, that key piece is the play, A Midsummer’s Night Dream by Shakespeare, but the unique factor in this particular version is that it is performed in eight different Indian languages. Around this anchor piece, the rest of the South Asian component of the programming is built. From a literary perspective, it’s my job to build literature around this. The basic theme I am working towards platforming is what is happening in new South Asian writing.

How have you picked what to include?

The beauty of it is that it is a very creative process because I want to showcase from the entire diaspora. What I’ve done is cast a net to find and bring together new collaborations. For me it’s about how to create unique collaborations.

There’s a substantial South Asian component to the festival this year and as you mentioned, it is anchored around a new take of Shakespeare’s work, A Midsummer’s Night Dream. What else can we look forward to that is indicative of our culture?

Nitin Sawhney’s music, A Throw Of The Dice, with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Sanctuary Song about the journey of an elephant that goes from a Sri Lankan sanctuary to one in Tennessee; the spotlight on new South Asian writing; and, the Bollywood dance night are the highlights.

How is Luminato different from other cultural and art-defined festivals?

The mandates of Luminato is collaboration, accessibility and diversity. It’s a multi-arts festival and in that sense, it’s probably one of North America’s largest–theatre, dance, music, literature and some film. The key difference with Luminato versus other such festivals, as well as what makes it stand out over the others, is two-fold; showcasing existing works as well as creating new collaborations. It is a great balance of local, national and international content across all genres of each art form that is being showcased.

What does the public need to know about attending the various offerings during the ten-day festival?

Go right to the website,, pick your program, click on the prompted link that takes you either to purchasing your tickets through Ticketmaster or lets you know that the program is free. Venues, dates and times are also listed.


Do you feel successful?

Depends on the day you ask me.



What’s on your checklist of things yet to do in this lifetime?

Live well, not be afraid and to continue to do what I love.


What is utopia for you?

Feeling like it’s a successful day, having a glass of wine with someone I love and reading a good book.

First published in the Spring 2008 issue,

Photos provided by Devyani Saltzman

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