In Conversation With: Farzana Doctor on Queer, South Asian Identity and Being a Psychotherapist
On one of the last summery days of early fall, I met up with Farzana Doctor in Trinity Bellwoods Park to record a short excerpt from her second novel, Six Metres of Pavement, and to eat soft cheeses and drink fermented grape juice. We were visited regularly by dogs and the threat of the odd softball. Enjoy the chat!
Julie Wilson: This past summer, you received the $4,000 Dayne Ogilvie Grant for Emerging LGBT Writer from the Writers' Trust of Canada. While the writing itself doesn't necessarily have to feature LBGT themes, the writer must identify as LGBT to be eligible. LGBT teen suicide has been in the news of late—I'll point to a Globe and Mail editorial by Melissa Carroll and Rick Mercer's recent video address, which calls foul on the It Gets Better campaign, saying it needs to be better now—so I want to ask you how important it is for you to identify openly as a queer woman. And how does it impact your craft as a writer?
Farzana Doctor: It’s always felt important for me to identify as an openly queer woman. Queer identities are still oppressed ones (and this explains why it still hasn’t “gotten better”, or at least not “better enough” for queer youth). I agree with Rick Mercer, that those of us in public life (and I would add any of us who have the power to be visible) need to show the world that we exist. I’m also South Asian and a secular Muslim, and I want to be visible through all of these intersections of culture, race, religion and sexuality.
This filters through to my writing; I’m interested in rendering the invisible, visible. So besides writing about universal themes of loss, redemption, tragedy and love, I write about the multiple communities to which I belong.
For example, I purposely wrote Six Metres of Pavement’s protagonist, Ismail Boxwala, to be a South Asian, Muslim guy. But he’s also a man on the margins of these communities because of the tragedy he’s experienced as well as his personality. Every community has people like these—those who don’t quite fit in. In Ismail’s case, he’s a city dweller who poo-poos his brother’s suburban lifestyle, he eats pork, drinks alcohol and has sex with strangers. He forms an unexpected friendship with a queer student who needs his help, not because he understands queerness, but because he understands what it’s like to be judged.
JW: What are the challenges of writing such characters? I'm thinking in particular about the ways in which writers leave some of the telling of the story up to the reader, those things that writers leave out, the quiet spaces?
FD: I’m not sure if the challenges are all that different than writing about more mainstream characters, frankly. The beauty of writing a novel is that there is ample space and time to draw a character. It’s difficult for readers to cling to stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings when travelling with the characters over three hundred pages.
The quiet spaces that readers enter are about themselves, right? Their own unconscious minds, their experiences, their personal struggles and how they relate to the story? It’s in these spaces that we bridge difference, develop empathy, and meander within the universality of human experience.
I am definitely a political person, and I’m sure that this comes through in the writing. I think artists need to shine a light on social issues, and think carefully about the ways in which we maintain or shift the status quo. I don’t consider myself to be a political writer though. I strive to be literary, creative, artful in my writing. If I had to give myself a label for all this, I’d say that I’m an optimistic, idealistic person who thinks we can all make change in whichever medium we choose to work.
JW: You're a psychotherapist. I'm pulling the below from your Website:
I work from anti-oppression, client-centred and psychodynamic perspectives.
This means that:
- I respect the goals, perspectives and pace that you bring to therapy.
- I work to understand you and your experiences in the context of your relationships (past and present) and the society in which we live.
- Although I will not always stress the political, I do see external systemic oppression (sexism, racism, heterosexism, genderism, classism, ageism, ableism and sizeism) and the ways that we internalize oppression, as important areas of exploration in therapy.
Have you given any thought to how these same principles impact how you construct characters and the pace at which they reveal their stories to you as the writer?
FD: When I’m sitting down to write new pages, I try not to think too much, generally. I relax, and try to be open, curious, wondering. The characters reveal themselves best this way. I find that if I plan and structure things too much, the writing isn’t very good. Of course, you can’t leave behind all of yourself, so the new words that “arrive” will always be filtered through my judgments and perceptions. But I try to limit that, at least in the beginning.
The attunement required for psychotherapy practice is a little like this. When you sit and wait, without judgment or planning what you’re going to say next, you set up a safe space where clients can talk to you, reveal themselves, perhaps surprising you and themselves with their words. Yes, all the theories and modalities I’ve learned come into play, but I try to limit them, at least in the beginning.
This was how Ismail’s experiences of loss emerged for me. I could have done a lot of research about what it’s like to lose a child, but instead I stayed open to what this grief might feel like, and the his words “showed up” for me on the page, both the ridiculous and the heartfelt. The research came after, and I tweaked what I’d written with further details from news stories.
The same thing happened with Celia’s character. I found myself staring out the window, watching widows pass by, chatting with one another, hauling groceries, caring for children. I wondered what their lives might be like, especially the younger women in black. When I sat down at the computer, it was like Celia was telling me her story of becoming a widow, and later, of her baby steps into finding new love. It was only later that I came across Susan James’ psychological research agonias amongst Azorean immigrants, and I was able to weave in her ideas.
JW: You've had a busy fall promoting your latest novel Six Metres of Pavement. What have you been up to? And what role do you think the author tour plays in a career?
FD: The past six months have been really busy with book promotion and touring. I recently booked a six day trip to Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver, all really great stops. In Vancouver, I had the pleasure to read and party with far more accomplished authors at the Vancouver International Literary Festival. There were big audiences, great writer parties and opportunities to informally connect with writers (I shared a ride to the airport with Nino Ricci!). Festivals like these are incredibly helpful to authors.
It’s really difficult to figure out the exact value of touring. On the one hand, travel invariably costs more money than an author can usually generate in book sales and honoraria. On the other hand, touring facilitates a meeting between author and audience, and there is great value in that for both parties. Readers ask questions that make me think deeply about the writing process, and remind me that people are actually reading the books! Touring also allows an author to generate publicity (media stories, facebook posts and tweets) about the activity, which helps to keep the book and author in people’s minds.
For Stealing Nasreen, I did over one hundred readings in fifty cities. Exhausting and fun. With Six Metres of Pavement, I’m trying to be a little wiser with my time and energy. I wrote a blog piece about this recently for Open Book:Toronto, “My 8 Rules for Touring”.
This March, Vivek Shraya and I plan to do a road trip to tour a few US cities and hopefully build audience there. In May, I’ll head to India, where both novels will be published by Rupa. I can’t imagine not touring as an author.
JW: How do you think your novels will be received in India?
FD: I really don’t know how they will be received in India. It’s been 10 years since I was last there. My cousins and friends tell me that urban India and urban Canada are not as different from one another as they once were. Indians buy books, and read a lot of English language books. There is a very large queer community there who appreciate books by queer authors and that have queer themes. I can’t wait to go and see how my novels will be received! Plus, I’ll get to see my nani (maternal grandmother) after way too long.
My nani has been really supportive and proud of my writing. She attended a reading at Giovanni’s Room (a gay bookstore in Philadelphia) while in the US for a family wedding years ago. She sat in the front row, which just happened to be right beside a display of soft-porny gay coffee table books (you know the type, beautiful, air-brushed naked men posed just right?). Frankly, the whole scene—gay bookstore, soft porn, my 80-year-old nani—made me a tad nervous. But while I read from Stealing Nasreen, she just beamed at me. I know she only understand pieces of the excerpts (she speaks a little English), but she understood it was a big accomplishment for me and made sure to attend.
JW: Thank you for your time, Farzana, and for meeting up in the park to record this reading from Six Metres of Pavement.
Farzana Doctor is the author of two novels, Stealing Nasreen (Inanna) and Six Metres of Pavement (Dundurn). Visit her at www.farzanadoctor.com and check out her blog for event and touring updates.