Calgary-based child psychologist Soraya Lakhani is a storyteller at heart. She wrote her second book in just over four months during the first COVID-19 lockdown. PHOTO: SHANE KELLER

As far back as she can remember, Soraya Lakhani has always been passionate about storytelling. 

“When I was really little, my dad and I would go for walks and he would give me three or four words and be like, ‘Tell me a story using those words.’”

The words were often simple, made up mostly of nouns, “dog, school, tree, kitchen.” Although it’s been long enough that Lakhani can’t remember the stories, she can picture the snow in the winter time and going around the block where they lived when she was growing up. She grew up surrounded by books, her father loves to read and the walks that turned into storytime were a result of this.

“I enjoyed it and I think it was a nice way of feeling that connection to a parent,” Lakhani recalls. 

Despite that early passion for storytelling, Lakhani went on to become a child psychologist instead, using her storytelling skills to help her clients. But, thanks to the pandemic, she now has the time to pursue writing in a new way. 

A natural storyteller

Writing stories was something she was doing even when she was in grade school.

Back then, Lakhani remembers writing “this story about this bunch of garden gnomes who come to life and then there’s this whole battle that’s waged between all of these sort of pseudo-like fantastical creatures.” 

(L-R) Lakhani’s mother Salma Lakhani, her older sister Safia Lakhani, Soraya Lakhani and her father Zaheer Lakhani in Tanzania during a family trip in December 2019. Just months before the pandemic shut down international travel. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SORAYA LAKHANI

She said it was a “really bizarre” story but when she typed it out, her father read it and became enthralled and still asks about it to this day.

“There wasn’t a definitive moment where I was like ‘I love doing this’ it was just always this sense I had that I enjoyed telling stories,” Lakani says.

Even with her love of storytelling, by the time she got to university, she says she was “drawn to research projects or practicum opportunities that were focused on children.”

In 2005, Lakhani pursued a bachelor’s degree in psychology and English literature at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. Then in 2010 she completed her master’s degree in counseling psychology at the University of Alberta.

“My research at that time was focused very much on looking at the parent child relationship in refugee communities, and understanding how that relationship can function as a source of hope and resilience building for kids.”

Professional practice

After her master’s, Lakhani got a job with a child psychology practice and then in 2014, she started her own private practice called Yellow Kite Child Psychology. She focuses on two streams, counselling and working with kids to provide psychoeducational assessments. 

But even now, in her career as a child psychologist, Lakhani has found that the art of storytelling intersects with her role of helping children.

Soraya Lakhani hugging the manuscript from her first book in November 2019. It’s a “coming of age” story and a hard earned accomplishment for this young writer. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SORAYA LAKHANI

“When you’re writing assessment reports, in some ways you’re still trying to craft a narrative and bring a child to life and make a case,” Lakhani explains.

“I think so much of reading and writing is seeking to understand how others experience the world. Obviously that’s a huge part of psychology as well, whether it’s through counselling or assessment work – a lot of it is trying to sort of render someone else’s experience of the world and try to support them based on how they experience the world.”

But in March 2020, this all changed. Helping her clients “based on their experience of the world” unexpectedly switched to helping her clients make sense of the novel coronavirus.

Lockdown

On Mar.15, Premier Jason Kenney declared that all kindergarten to Grade 12 classes would be cancelled in response to an increase in COVID-19 cases. For many, this was the first indication that the novel coronavirus was going to have such a significant impact. 

“The schools closed and because I work with kids that was kind of a big thing,” Lakhani says.

This put a stop to her in-person psychoeducational assessments, and she transitioned all of her counselling clients to virtual methods where possible. 

“Some kids responded really well and for others kids there was a degree of fatigue around talking to someone on a screen, so it was generally slower for that period of time.”

Like many, this left Lakhani with time in her schedule that hadn’t existed before the pandemic.

“It made me more productive as a writer just because I had the additional time on my hands, it opened up spaces for me.”

Time to create

Capitalizing on this, she sat down in front of her computer to write her second contemporary young adult novel. Unlike her first book, which she started in 2018 and took over a year to write, Lakhani finished her second book in just over four months.

“The first one is a sort of coming of age story about a boy during his senior year of high school,” Lakhani explains.

“The second is more of a story about friendship and things that kind of get quite complicated along the way.”

Lakhani has focused on the contemporary young adult genre. Both books are “coming of age” stories that resonate with a larger audience than just young adults.

Soraya Lakhani’s personal copy of Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta, the first contemporary young adult novel that she read as a young girl. Many years later Lakhani is writing her own novels in the same genre. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SORAYA LAKHANI

It’s a genre she discovered in her early teens when she read Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta. Her sister, three years older in age, had received the book as a gift and read it incessantly. 

“She would keep it in my mom’s car and everytime we drove anywhere she would be reading it,” Lakhani recalls. 

“I think I was in the sixth grade maybe when I read it. It was the first book that I’d ever read like that. A young adult contemporary book that’s in the voice of a teenager that’s living here and now.”

That’s one reason why she is now contributing to that genre herself. Lakhani is drawn to multidimensional characters navigating the puzzling time of young adulthood.

“I think it’s just such a fascinating time: really becoming aware of your own identity and experiencing a lot of things for the first time as you’re sort of standing on the brink of this next chapter of your life.”

Soraya Lakhani in November 2020, the next step in the writing process, signing the agency agreement with Triada US Literary Agency. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SORAYA LAKHANI

Lakhani’s writing critique partner and fellow writer Emily Pryce-Boese says that Lakhani’s characters also “shatter stereotypes and preconceived notions.”

She compared her writing to Rainbow Rowell, a well known contemporary fiction author that wrote the young adult books Fangirl and Eleanor & Park, just to name a few. 

“I think it’s going to make a lot of young adults feel like they have a place in the world – that there’s some place where they belong and it’s ok for them to be who they are,” Pryce-Boese explains.

Still evolving

Not unlike a young adult navigating who they are in the world, Lakhani is still finding her place in the literary world and it hasn’t come without its own fears and insecurities.

“When you claim something as part of your identity, then the thought of actually trying and failing is so much scarier,” Lakhani says.

“Because now it’s like, you’ve already incorporated it into who you are.”

Lakhani is in the querying process with her first book and will soon follow with her second. She recently signed with a literary agent and despite the rejection that often comes with seeking a publisher, Lakhani has stayed positive.

“Writing a second book was very much about proving to myself that I could,” Lakhani explains.

“In the midst of a pandemic and everything feeling so stuck, to just be able to remind myself that I could still produce and be creative and have this sense of positive motion and momentum in my life.”