Farzana Doctor is the author of Stealing Nasreen, All Inclusive, Six Metres of Pavement, and most recently, Seven. She has won the Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. She lives in Toronto. This interview was conducted in conjunction with the Farzana’s upcoming reading on December 6th at 5:00pm. RSVP today.
Your involvement in Canadian literature and social issues is well-documented and varied, from curating reading series to working with the Writers Union of Canada, mentoring emerging and established writers with Citadel, Diaspora Dialogues, Mentorly, The Writers Union of Canada, and working with WeSpeakOut, a group that works towards the banning of female genital cutting, as well as a career as a social worker. The common thread here is humanity; you are involved with humanity. As a writer, this must impact your creative side (when you find the time!). Could you imagine it any other way, say if you were a dentist or a parking lot attendant, an architect or a crossing guard?
Musician Ani DiFranco is known for her quote, “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” I think most humans have a desire to improve our planet, and I do it through writing and social work and activism. But if I were a dentist or something else, I think I would do it through that labour. My parents modelled this. After I was called “Paki” in the playground, my mother complained to (then MP) Ed Broadbent. My father encouraged critical thinking about religious and state tyranny.
Writers often talk about style and voice, influence and storytelling, but for you, what is the one thing you find yourself comforted by with your writing – that makes it feel like it’s yours?
Every so often, I find myself in a state of flow in my writing, where the words just come, who knows from where (my subconscious, my higher self, spiritual guides?). In those moments, I am outside of my worries–about performance, the publishing industry–and just inside the writing. That’s very comforting.
Your first novel Stealing Nasreen came out in 2007 – how have you seen the Canadian small press publishing world evolve over the last 13 years?
There have been a couple of changes. Social media has helped authors to have a public voice, to find readers, and to make connections with other writers. I also have seen more BIPOC writers get published and win awards, and this feels like the beginning of change.
You likely finished Seven before the world changed forever a year ago with COVID-19. As the news spread, beyond your concern for the world around you, those you love, etc., how did you feel this would impact the release of your novel – I know a lot of authors panicked about releasing their books this past fall.
Yes, I panicked for about a day or so! There was uncertainty about the release date, and I’d already started working on my publicity plans and ARCS had already been sent out to reviewers and influencers. My publicist was laid off for a few months! In the end, the novel came out only one month later, and I’m grateful for that.
Junction Reads, along with a handful of other great reading series in Toronto are adapting to the new format in which Canadians must take in their live readings. Beyond the learning curve, Zoom, mute, barking dogs and children cameos, how has this changed altered your style of reading – has the pandemic made any major changes in the performance side of promoting?
In the spring I “attended” lots of readings, festivals and launches, hoping to pick up tips for my fall launch. By July, I’d accepted that all my events had to be virtual, and planned a variety of events. I still do readings, but generally organizers are limiting events to under an hour and asking authors to limit readings to under five minutes. So everything is shorter. I’ve been participating in more podcast interviews–which is different for me. In those podcasts the focus tends to be 30% on the book and 70% on the issues in the book, which is also different. I’m talking less about craft and more about political issues.
Seven touches on issues that are close to home for you – obviously drawn from your own interest. Was it a challenge to infuse humour into this story – or was that more organic, a necessity or something completely different?
It was pretty organic because humans are funny! My community and family are funny. So it wasn’t hard to find the jokes. But there was some intentionality. I prefer novels about serious subjects to reflect the fullness of life, and that includes the lighter bits.
Family is an endless theme in creativity. From film to television, poetry, memoir and fiction. The fourteen dollar question (this is publishing after all) is what does your family think of your fiction – do they ask you if this is supposed to be so and so, is this really how you see me? How do you deal with those queries – I’m sure aspiring writers would love to know.
My immediate family is supportive of my writing. They attend events, buy books, repost my stuff on Instagram. I think because this is my fourth novel, I no longer get those kinds of questions (with the first novel I did, a bit). I answered those questions in the same way I now answer “is this autobiographical?”–a question that comes way too frequently, given that all my books are fiction. I let people know that all my characters are composites of all the people I’ve ever met or eavesdropped on!
You are an expert of social media and community building. What do you think the best advice to an author struggling with self-promotion burnout?
I actually don’t think that most authors get to burn-out. Rather, they’re too shy to self-promote or too afraid to pitch their ideas to media. I learned a long time ago that authors have to be as or more active than their publicists if they’d like people to take notice of their books. I’ve done over 45 interviews or events in the last 2.5 months–two-thirds of which I pitched myself. I’ve learned to keep asking for help and to take breaks periodically.
Seven is a novel about how the world is changing and how it can also remain stagnant. Early in the story, the narrator explains: “I wouldn’t have imagined I’d marry someone from our community; I’d heard too many stories from my Bohra girlfriends about men who started out as good boyfriends and transformed into fifties husbands after the wedding. Dinner on the table when I get home, keep the baby quiet, all that nonsense.”
Unlike gun, traffic, health and taxes, the inner-workings of a marriage (non-criminal) are not regulated by law (I could be totally wrong here). In your experience, both as a social worker and as a human being on earth, to what degrees are women afraid of marrying the wrong partner?
You know, a few readers have told me that they find Sharifa’s husband, Murtuza, to be “too good to be true”. I intentionally wrote him as a good (and flawed) partner and father. He’s attentive, sometimes anxious and overbearing, but he’s meant to be a counterpoint to Sharifa’s most closed up and avoidant style. I also wanted to point the way to how cis male partners can be allies in sexual trauma healing. I know these kinds of cis male partners exist, and I’d like more cis men to emulate Murtuza.
This reading happens during key Holiday book shopping season. You’re in line at a fantastic indie bookstore like Another Story, Queen Books or Type and a customer points you out to their friend and holds up your new novel. The friend says, “You wrote this? Cool. What’s it about? I have a few people on my list soon.” Her friend turns to their friend and says, “She could sign it for you too!” In the frenzy that is December (social distancing frenzy), how do you explain what your book is about and why it would be perfect for two people you’ve never met in your life?
This book is about women’s relationships. How we move through personal disagreements and conflicts and change. It’s also about how we move those larger societal issues connected to patriarchy, those disagreements and conflict and change. Most people have told me it’s a page-turner, that they read it in two days, and can’t get the story out of their head.
You know that the issues you uncover in Seven are important. Why do you think that readers who are completely in the dark about the treatment of women in India should learn about these inhumane injustices?
Khatna is a form of female genital mutilation/cutting that happens in India. But it also happens in 92 countries (and counting) across the globe. In recent years we’ve heard reports from women in Russia, Colombia, and white Christian women in the USA who are speaking out. FGM/C survivors are having our #MeToo moment. We estimate that over 100,000 women in Canada are survivors. So it’s our issue too, and we need to break the culture of silence that allows it to continue.
For more information on Farzana Doctor and her books, please visit her website.
Interview with Nathaniel Moore. Photo by Tanja Tiziana