Sandeep Johal's Quarantine Inspirations

Burrard Arts

“Isolation has given me the gift of time, which means revisiting books collecting dust on my shelves. I love books by Indian authors because they are able to write about the most unjust, heart-wrenching things in the most beautiful ways. Many of the people on my list – artists, writers, activists – are pioneers. I’ve always been inspired by the fearlessness of out-of-the-box thinkers and the legacies they leave behind. It inspires me to be more fearless in my own art practice and work towards creating a legacy my son can be proud of.” – Sandeep Johal

Keep reading for a list of things that Sandeep is reading, watching, and listening to to stay inspired as we all spend more time at home.

1. Fine Feathers, Evelyn Lambart (5 min, 1968)

In this short cut-out animation, two duelling birds get the urge to change their plumage. A blue jay wants to be decked out in the green of cedar, and a loon dons the burnished red of oak leaves, but neither bird foresees the consequences of vanity. A strong gust of wind teaches both birds that their natural, well-anchored feathers provided better protection than their costumes.

Evelyn Lambart was a Canadian animator and director, known both for her early collaborations and later, solo films. She was hearing impaired from an early age, which she later credited with focusing her attention on the visual world as a means of communication.

Note from Sandeep: “My friend introduced me to Evelyn Lambart recently, and said her work reminded him of my work. And now I’m obsessed. This is my favourite animation of hers.”

Watch Fine Feathers courtesy of the National Film Board here.

2. The Selector of Souls, Shauna Singh Baldwin (2012)

In this enthralling novel, two fascinating, strong-willed women must deal with the relentless logic forced upon them by survival: Damini, a Hindu midwife, and Anu, who flees an abusive marriage for the sanctuary of the Catholic church. When Sister Anu comes to Damini’s home village to open a clinic, their paths cross, and each are certain they are doing what’s best for women. What do health, justice, education and equality mean for women when India is marching toward prosperity, growth and becoming a nuclear power? If the baby girls and women around them are to survive, Damini and Anu must find creative ways to break with tradition and help this community change from within. (Penguin)

 Note from Sandeep: “This book helped inspire my solo show Rest in Power, which was shown in 2017 at the Gam Gallery!”

Rest in Power wasn’t the only time that Sandeep’s work has been inspired by South Asian literature. Below are a few books that she drew from when creating her 2019 show She Left Only To Come Back. 

3. Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri (2008)

These eight stories by beloved and bestselling author Jhumpa Lahiri take us from Cambridge and Seattle to India and Thailand, as they explore the secrets at the heart of family life. Here they enter the worlds of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, friends and lovers. Rich with the signature gifts that have established Jhumpa Lahiri as one of our most essential writers, Unaccustomed Earth exquisitely renders the most intricate workings of the heart and mind. (Penguin)

4. The Parcel, Anosh Irani (2016)

 Written by a Vancouver author, this powerful work is about a transgender sex worker in the red-light district of Bombay who is given an unexpected task. It is a gripping literary page-turner – difficult and moving, surprising and tender.

 The Parcel’s astonishing heart, soul and unforgettable voice is Madhu–born a boy, but a eunuch by choice–who has spent most of her life in a close-knit clan of transgender sex workers in Kamathipura, the notorious red-light district of Bombay. Madhu identifies herself as a “hijra”–a person belonging to the third sex, neither here nor there, man nor woman. Now, at 40, she has moved away from prostitution, her trade since her teens, and is forced to beg to support the charismatic head of the hijra clan, Gurumai. One day Madhu receives a call from Padma Madam, the most feared brothel owner in the district: a “parcel” has arrived–a young girl from the provinces, betrayed and trafficked by her aunt–and Madhu must prepare it for its fate. Despite Madhu’s reluctance, she is forced to take the job by Gurumai. As Madhu’s emotions spiral out of control, her past comes back to haunt her, threatening to unravel a lifetime’s work and identity.


5. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy (1997)

Likened to the works of Faulkner and Dickens, this extraordinarily accomplished debut novel is a brilliantly plotted story of forbidden love and piercing political drama, centered on an affluent Indian family that is forever changed by a visit from their English relatives.

Set mainly in Kerala, India, in 1969, it is the story of Rahel and her twin brother Estha, who learn that their whole world can change in a single day, that love and life can be lost in a moment. Armed only with the invincible innocence of children, they seek to craft a childhood for themselves amid the wreckage that constitutes their family. Sweet and heartbreaking, ribald and profound, The God of Small Things is written in a voice so powerful and original that it burns itself into the reader’s memory. (Penguin)

6. Tamarind Mem, Anita Rau Badami (1996)

A beautiful and brilliant portrait of two generations of women. Set in India’s railway colonies, this is the story of Kamini and her mother Saroja, nicknamed Tamarind Mem due to her sour tongue. While in Canada beginning her graduate studies, Kamini receives a postcard from her mother saying she has sold their home and is travelling through India. Both are forced into the past to confront their dreams and losses and to explore the love that binds mothers and daughters everywhere. (Penguin)

7. Someone You Love is Gone, Gurjinder Basran (2017)

Another book from a local author, Someone You Love Is Gone is lyrical and heartbreaking, a mesmerizing tale of enduring love and family ties that defy time and space, weaving together the past and present, crossing continents and spanning generations.

The book tells the story of Simran, who is haunted by visions of her recently departed mother. Grappling with the growing estrangement of her sister and daughter as well as the disintegration of her marriage, she wonders how her life has come to this. 

Woven throughout are memories of Simran’s mother as a young woman in 1960s India, when her world had seemed beautiful and full of hope. As the ghosts from the past clamour for attention, the only way to put them to rest may be for Simran to dig deeper into her family history and close the circle that was left open when her family was torn apart. (Penguin)

For all the parents trying to stay sane during this pandemic, Sandeep has children’s books to recommend, too. She describes these titles as “books I’ve bought for Safa, my son, but really for myself!”

8. A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick (2019)

 In these pages, some of today’s most wonderful culture-makers―writers, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and philosophers―reflect on the joys of reading, how books broaden and deepen human experience, and the ways in which the written word has formed their own character. On the page facing each letter, an illustration by a celebrated illustrator or graphic artist presents that artist’s visual response.

Among the diverse contributions are letters from Jane Goodall, Neil Gaiman, Jerome Bruner, Shonda Rhimes, Ursula K. Le Guin, Yo-Yo Ma, Judy Blume, Lena Dunham, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Jacqueline Woodson, as well as a ninety-eight-year-old Holocaust survivor, a pioneering oceanographer, and Italy’s first woman in space. This project is woven entirely of goodwill, generosity of spirit, and a shared love of books. (Amazon)

9. ‘What Do You Do With A Chance?’, ‘What Do You Do With An Idea?’, and ‘What Do You Do With A Problem?’, Kobi Yamada (2013)

 In this trio of whimsically illustrated picture books, Kobi Yamada makes the sometimes uncomfortable creative process come alive so we can examine it from all angles.

In ‘What Do You Do With an Idea?’ we are introduced to a child who has an idea but isn’t sure what to do with it. Initially intimidated, the idea grows on him and, quite literally, becomes his friend. As he cares for it, the idea blossoms and goes on to change the world.

‘What Do You Do With a Problem?’ highlights the fear that arises when we face problems. The story begins in black and white as the child is mentally pursued by his worry. When he decides to face his fear and tackle the problem, he finds a beautiful opportunity inside it. The lesson is that within every problem is a possible opportunity if we are willing to look for it.

‘What Do You Do With a Chance?’ takes the opposite approach to ‘What Do You Do With a Problem?’, as the child is presented with a golden opportunity. Keeping with the arc of the series, he initially rejects it but gains courage as the narrative and images unfold. His fear is replaced by hope; with this expectation of good, the chance presents itself once again. (Read Brightly)

10. Beauty is Embarrassing (2012, dir. Neil Berkely)

Part biography, part live performance, Beauty Is Embarrassing tells the story of Wayne White, a one-of-a-kind visual artist and raconteur. The film traces White’s career from an underground cartoonist in New York’s East Village to his big break as a designer, puppeteer, and voice-over actor on Pee-wee’s Playhouse for which he won three Emmy awards. It follows Wayne’s success designing and animating for other children’s shows like Beakman’s World and music videos for The Smashing Pumpkins  and Peter Gabriel through a dark period of struggle and self-reflection before emerging in his present-day incarnation as a respected painter and performer. The film, like White, embraces the ragged edges and messy contradictions of life, art, and family with rabid humor and honesty.

Wayne White’s trip to the top came relatively early in life but was followed by a fall that felt all too real. Yet, as Wayne explains in the film, there are sometimes second acts in life that take us to new heights — without compromise. At its core, Beauty Is Embarrassing shows what it takes for one uniquely talented, profanely hilarious, and utterly uncompromising artist to make it in America.

Watch a trailer on Youtube, and rent or buy the movie on iTunes or Amazon Prime.

11. Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (2012, dir. Stacy Peralta)

 It’s not a death metal band, an extreme diet club or historic dominoes association— the Bones Brigade was a talented gang of teenage outcasts. Unmotivated by fame or popularity, they completely dedicated their lives to a disrespected art form. For most of the 1980s, this misfit crew headed by a 1970s ex-skateboard champion blasted the industry with a mixture of art and raw talent becoming the most popular skateboarding team in history. The core unit of the Bones Brigade built an empire that covered the world. They dominated contests, made hundreds of thousands of dollars, created the modern skateboard video, reinvented endemic advertising, pushed skate progression into a new era, and set the stage for a totally new form of skating called street style. There’s nothing comparable in today’s skateboarding.

 Note from Sandeep: “I’m not a skater, but this doc gets me every time. Listening to these pro-skaters reflect on the legacy they built, the perseverance and dedication that went into their craft (despite the numerous challenges), and their gratitude for the life this sport has given them, is so incredibly inspiring. Plus, I could listen to Rodney Mullen speak all day.”

 Watch it on Youtube!

12. Tarana Burke and Brené on Being Heard and Seen, Unlocking Us with Brené Brown, (podcast episode, 1 hour 32 minutes)

 Tarana has been working at the intersection of racial justice and gender equity for nearly three decades, and she started the Me Too movement in 2006.  In this episode of Unlocking Us, Tarana and Brené talk about how her theory of “empowerment through empathy” is changing the way the world thinks and talks about sexual violence, consent, and social justice.

 Note from Sandeep: “This is such a great episode, but fast forward past the first 30 minutes, as it’s just them catching up.”

 Listen on

13. Stories for South Asian Supergirls, Raj Kaur Khaira (2019)

 This book shares the inspirational stories of fifty famous, under-celebrated women from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, seeking to redress the imbalance for young girls of colour by empowering them to break new ground for themselves and to inspire others in the process. Illustrated with striking portraits by ten international South Asian female artists, including Sandeep Johal, this is a book for all ages – the perfect gift that will be treasured by parents as much as their children will enjoy reading them. (Chapters)

 Note from Sandeep: “This is the book I wish existed when I was growing up!”

14. Drawing From the City, Teju Behan (2012)

 “Take me to the city,” the young girl whispers to the train, as it passes her dusty village. Her name is Teju. She is now a middle-aged woman, a migrant worker-turned-artist, and in this book, she reflects on her incredible journey from poverty into the rich inner world of art. This book of richly detailed drawings, featuring Teju’s self-taught style of lines and dots celebrates the life of a gentle, spirited woman who continues to paint her way through difficult times. Drawing from the City is silkscreen-printed by hand.

 Drawing From the City is published by Tara Books, an independent Indian publishing house founded by Gita Wolf in 1994. Sandeep Johal recommends checking out other books published by Tara, too. (Tara Books)