Monika Dutt finds motivation in relationships, community, and being outdoors. Her work is focused on improving the health of communities in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland & Labrador. She volunteers with groups focused on labour and racial justice. Her ten-year-old son brings her joy.
“Foundations,” your winning entry for the 2022 H.R. (Bill) Percy Short Creative Non-Fiction Prize, involves a common misfortune many of us have faced: a flat tire. What was it about this particular instance of car trouble that made you want to write about it?
Partly because my flat tires seem to always involve epic journeys; I’m known for that. Mostly because this particular journey seemed to draw out so many emotions, memories and relationships. It also happened during the first year of the pandemic and I was struck by the contrast of being so alone yet also still part of a network with so many people, living and past. My mother died one month before my son was born so she is intimately connected to his life. My experiences of being both the caregiver and needing care felt intrinsic to this road trip. Lastly, a significant pull to Atlantic Canada for me has been the geography, the land. The vastness, ocean, and forests can be both grounding, and, sometimes, intimidating, as they were in this story.
What inspired you to submit “Foundations” to Nova Writes this year?
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been taking virtual writing classes through Toronto-based Firefly Creative Writing and although I typically don’t share my writing, I found the classes motivating. Additionally, as someone who works in public health, writing has been an outlet for me when dealing with some of the most challenging times in my career over the past two years. I have never submitted a story to a competition before, but both the desire to tell stories from the pandemic (this story happened during the pandemic, but I tried not to write the word “pandemic”!), as well as encouragement from writing classmates, gave me confidence.
Your son plays a heartwarming role in this piece. What was his reaction when you told him you’d won Nova Writes?
He was happy for me! It helped him to see something concrete come out of all the writing he sees me do. At the same time, he is fully into tweenhood so after saying congratulations he went back to doing his hair and picking the right shoes for the day.
You’re a physician as well as a writer. Is there anything you have learned from working in healthcare that has informed your creative pursuits, or vice versa?
My degree before medicine was liberal arts which fit perfectly with my interests. A background in humanities was also a perfect framing for medicine, which can often be reductive. As a public health physician I try to understand the stories that create communities, and as a family doctor, it is a privilege to hear so many personal stories and see how health is shaped by each person’s context. Writing has helped me process the challenges and surrealness of the past few pandemic years.
As a reader, are there any memoirists or creative non-fiction writers whose work you particularly connect with?
Mira Jacob is a wonderful author, and I love her book Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations. She is also the daughter of parents who immigrated from India around when my parents did and many cultural nuances of her writing resonate with me. There are so many books I’ve loved; I’ll pick a few that I’ve read recently. Tomson Highway’s Permanent Astonishment is magical. Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power is necessary reading; I just finished His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa which has many similar themes. I’ve also immersed myself in Newfoundland and Labrador stories/authors lately, and Cassie Brown’s Death on the Ice: The Great Newfoundland Sealing Disaster of 1914 is haunting.