After 12 years living in “danger-pay” locales of Kosovo, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Uzbekistan, Bosnia and Kenya, Ele Pawelski wondered what she should do next.
The LLB ’96 UWindsor grad had made a permanent move back to Toronto in 2009, and was mulling over what that something new might be.
In the meantime, she joined a writing group where she critiqued short stories of others and also shared her own—to write anything longer was just daunting.
And then, in January 2011, she read a very personal news story. A suicide bomber had targeted a convenience store in Kabul, a city where she’d worked in 2007-8. Though seemingly commonplace, this tragic event struck home as it happened in Pawelski’s old neighbourhood.
“I was shocked,” she recalls. “The Finest Supermarket was a place where I’d frequently shopped when I lived in Afghanistan.”
From online photos of the incident, Pawelski recognized ads in the shop windows. She pored over Facebook, looking for names and faces of anyone she knew who might have been there.
“Thankfully, I didn’t know anyone who’d been hurt. But those bleak images stayed with me.”
Eventually, she learned that a commissioner from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission had been killed. “I’d interviewed for a job there the year before. That felt close.”
By then, bombings in Kabul had become more frequent, she says, “although the ones specifically targeting places where ex-pats, including me, eat and drink were still to come.”
A few days later, the story that would become her debut novel, The Finest Supermarket in Kabul, started to percolate. “When a bomb goes off in a place like Kabul, there are many perspectives. I thought it would be compelling to explore what that could look like.”
Once Pawelski developed some basic ideas, the characters took shape and other hooks came together: the story begins with the explosion, it takes place over the day of the bombing, and uses three interlinked but separate first-person viewpoints.
Merza, a freshly-minted Parliamentarian receives ominous threats after he wins his seat. Alec, an American journalist, flies from Kandahar without his editor's permission to chronicle daily life in the capital. Elyssa, a Canadian human rights lawyer in Kabul to train female magistrates, is distracted by unwanted attention from a male judge. On that grey, wintry day in January 2011, all three are embroiled in the dramatic and savage bombing.
The streets of Kabul are a long way from Pickering, Ont., where the alumna grew up. As a teen, she became interested in a law career “because I wanted to tweak and stretch words to the extent they could be.”
She accepted her University of Windsor law admission offer in 1993, because she was “super attracted by the broadness of the questions in the application—including one about community involvement—in comparison to the other law schools I’d applied to.”
She graduated in 1996. Although her highest mark was in Criminal Law, while articling she felt herself drawn to the areas of employment, human rights and discrimination.
After completing her articles, Pawelski stood at a crossroads: finish the Bar Admission course or move to Kenya for a year to take up a position with UN Women. “I opted for the latter's adventure and so began my international development career.”
Overseas, the alumna spent more than a decade designing and managing programs to train and educate participants on human rights obligations and general rule of law principles, so they could do their jobs better.
“My experiences at UWindsor set me up to appreciate the importance of education, but also to understand how important it is to educate and support those willing to advocate for change.”
Together she and her teammates crafted innovative solutions to big picture policy issues but also resolved operational challenges that seemed to arise daily.
“The work was inspiring,” Pawelski says. “So many dedicated local and international colleagues, all keen to make things better.”
“The decision to move back to Toronto was rather spontaneous, made while I was stuck in New Delhi, having missed my connection to Kabul. At 40, I was living out of a suitcase, had no roots to speak of, and only got home once a year. Time for something different,” she relates.
Though living on Canadian soil, Pawelski still felt connected to her previous life, sensing that “I wasn’t quite done with it.” And then the suicide bomber attacked.
Published in November 2017, her novel was officially launched in Toronto in January 2018. “It was a small venue, packed with my mom and other family members, and tons of friends. When it was time to read, I asked the audience to vote for the character from which they wanted to hear.”
Her favourite aspect of writing is, oddly enough, “agonizing over my first sentence. A first sentence needs to grab a reader and make them stick around for the rest of the story.”
Pawelski’s short stories have been published in the Nashwaak Review, the Globe and Mail’s “Fact and Arguments” column and Flash Fiction Magazine.
She currently works for the Ontario government’s Ontario Disability Support Program and teaches international development law at Centennial College. In her spare time, she curls at a local club, plays beach volleyball, and is president of her condo board.
She’s also in the process of writing her next book, which will feature parallel stories about a mother and son trying to find each other after becoming separated in Germany during the Second World War.
Still an avid adventurer, you can find Pawelski packing for trips two or three times a year. In September 2018, she plans to walk more of the Camino de Compostela in northern Spain.
The law grad says she enjoys incorporating subsequent reflections of such adventures into her writing. “And I’m not opposed to eavesdropping to develop a story idea.”
The bomb explodes – the ground jerks and convulses. Everything at the point of impact is decimated.
Half a second later – highly compressed air particles and fragments of bomb casing hurl outward in concentric circles, generating a violent shockwave.
Persons and objects in its path suffer massive internal injuries and structural damage. The surrounding air pressure, usually 15 pounds per square inch, surges to 2,200 and melts steel. A sidewall collapses. Bricks and debris pulverize the pavement outside.
One second later – a terrifying boom. All sound is obliterated.
Two seconds after that – hellish high temperatures engulf the bombsite. A fireball erupts. Smoke shoots up and jets out of the hole where the sidewall once stood. Smells of blood, burnt flesh and metallic gunpowder consume the area.
The final three to four seconds – a vacuum created by the rapidly expanding movement of the blast wrenches nearby objects back to the source of the explosion.
When the bomb explodes, carnage is inflicted in less time than it takes to read this account.
Chapters (also in-store at some Toronto Chapters locations)
You can learn more about Ele Pawelski on her website: elepawelski.com