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‘Baptized in flaming ink’ – inside a NZ author’s vibrant Indian roots

Author Franciska Soares writes in an attempt to document the loves and lives of communities that have been neglected.

"I like writing about forgotten communities," Soares says.

They have been at the heart of Soares' two novels to date.

Her 2022 debut, They Whisper in My Blood, includes elements of the Portuguese Indian community in Mumbai's Orlem neighbourhood.

Her latest release, A Smatter of Minutes, centres on Orlem's small Roman Catholic community.

India has clearly influenced Soares' world view, with the subcontinent nation's colours and festivals adding "sound and fury" to her writing.

"I grew up in a street similar to the street featured in A Smatter of Minutes," says Soares, who prefers to be called by her pen name instead of the name given to her at birth, June Baptista. "It was a comforting, cozy piece of suburbia, a micro-country as it were, with its own nuanced customs and language, tucked away just 20 miles (32 kilometres) from Mumbai City proper."

Born in Hyderabad before moving to Mumbai as a young child, Soares still has a lot of memories associated with India.

"We played in the street after school till it got dark when the dwindling sun coloured the sky a faded orange and the koels made comforting evening noises in the trees," she recalls.

Soares believes she has always had an urge to write, claiming to have been "baptized in flaming ink".

From Orlem to Queenstown

Soares' relocation to New Zealand two decades ago gave her the inspiration to get back into writing.

"I write seated on a couch drawing inspiration from the view through my bi-fold doors, watching the quicksilver choreography of the clouds draping the Remarkables towering above the whitecaps of Lake Wakatipu," she says. "The juxtaposition of the dramatic with an underlying dispassionate permanence so reflects what life is all about, I feel, and I try to re-create that in my writing."

Soares is captivated by the tangata whenua and its culture.

"The Māori culture with its rich and varied history has fascinated me enough to spend time on a marae and delve into the myths and legends that richly populate it," she says. "You will find all my stories punctuated by what I have gleaned from these experiences."

Soares has been battling hearing loss in recent years.

"My hearing impairment was always in the background … (but) it has gotten worse over the years," she says, adding that it was most likely caused by the "trauma of a very difficult birth".

"If anything, I think my impairment has helped me be a prolific writer," Soares says.

Lachlan Keating is Deaf Aotearoa’s chief executive.

Lachlan Keating is Deaf Aotearoa’s chief executive. Photo: Lachlan Keating

Adjusting to silence

In addition to literary fiction, Soares also writes poetry.

Earlier this year, Soares published a collection of poems titled Quite Enough, which charts her journey from noise to silence.

Soares advises people experiencing hearing loss to embrace technology.

"I have a smart watch that's attached to my hearing aids and that ensures I do not miss a call," she says. "I use a feature on my phone that generates closed captions, so I don't miss the important parts of conversations."

She says she has also acquired a new skill.

"Lip reading," she says. "That came automatically. As did my brain's ability to put together the lip-reading cues, the context in which a conversation is taking place and some keywords in the same conversation."

Soares' struggle is familiar to Lachlan Keating, chief executive of Deaf Aotearoa. He believes that visibility is important for artists like Soares and others who have experienced hearing loss.

"We're using New Zealand sign language to highlight any work that artists are carrying out and it happens in many forms," he says. "We highlight them through bimonthly media stories."

Keating says he's constantly fighting for greater access to members of Aotearoa's creative community who have been diagnosed with hearing loss.

Soares is busy writing her next novel, which she hopes will be published next year.

"My next novel is populated with rusty characters from 18th-century novels - tomes forgotten on a dusty old shelf in a vast university library in Mumbai - who take on a modern-day cannibalistic fanatic and a philandering English Lit professor," she says.

She is also planning to write a collection of short stories based on her experiences travelling on trains in Mumbai.

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