Erum Shazia Hasan’s debut novel, We Meant Well (ECW Press) was longlisted for the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize last fall. This week, she joins us on The Chat to discuss her novel and the politics of humanitarian work.
Novelist CS Richardson says: "With a daring use of craft both exacting in detail and sensual in tone, Erum Shazia Hasan has written a compelling novel of one woman’s struggle to restore her equilibrium, her humanity, and ultimately her truth amid the betrayals of her personal world and the threatening chaos of her professional life. We Meant Well is a remarkable literary debut by a gifted new voice."
Erum Shazia Hasan was born in Canada, raised in France, and is of Pakistani and Indian heritage. She designs initiatives to help communities improve their livelihoods, ensuring opportunities for women while protecting biodiversity. A Sustainable Development Consultant for various UN agencies, she lives in Toronto with her husband and their two children.
Congrats on being longlisted for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. What did it feel like to be recognized in this way for your debut novel?
Thank you. I have to admit, the day I was longlisted was among the happiest of my life. I had just dropped my children off at school and my husband and I were cleaning the kitchen when I tuned in to the announcement. I had my own list of predictions—I was not on the list but predicted three books correctly.
My husband asked me why I watched these announcements when suddenly we saw my face and the cover of my book stretch onto the screen. Both of us turned to each other and started screaming. This was followed by me gasping, crying, and likely drooling. There was such relief in that moment. Writing a book is hard, I spent 8 years on mine. When the longlist was announced, I finally felt a sense of validation that I had indeed become a writer. One should probably not be that dependent on outside recognition, but writing is an act of sharing, it is an act of delivering something to be received. Having writers that I respect put me on the longlist was like an encouraging pat on the back that my words had been well-received.
We Meant Well is in part a powerful exploration of the complicated moral politics of humanitarian aid work. Why did you want to tell a story set within this world?
The initial desire for me to write about the humanitarian context was merely because I felt like there weren’t a lot of stories about it. There are so many humanitarians working in countries which aren’t theirs, in life-threatening circumstances, with fierce intention to want to make things better—these factors lend themselves to fiction. There is also a lot of nuance and complexity in the relationships that humanitarians experience with each other, with their home and host countries and I wanted to give a snapshot of the issues and ethical concerns that can come up. I also wanted to highlight how charity, a seemingly benign act, can be fraught with its own inequities.
As I began writing more of the novel, it became clear that the humanitarian sector is just like any other—it reflects broader dynamics of power, race, ownership and provides a mirror to the way we live our lives in Western countries.
The humanitarian sector is just like any other—it reflects broader dynamics of power, race, ownership and provides a mirror to the way we live our lives in Western countries.
In particular, the novel tells the story of Maya, the manager of an aid organization brought in to examine allegations of sexual assault involving two employees in-country. Maya is such a complex, relatable character, trying hard to pinpoint the truth while operating within with her own moral grey zones. How did Maya first announce herself to you as a character and what was the most difficult part of bringing her to life?
Maya was the first thing that came to me—most of my writing starts that way—a character comes first with loosely defined traits and the stories build around them. The most difficult part of bringing Maya to life was to not fall in the trap of making her a hero or a villain. I wanted her to be nuanced—to have moments of great insight but demonstrate the very prejudices she critiques. I wanted to show how hard it is to make the right decisions. This was tricky to do as the novel is in first person voice and I didn’t want her flaws to be too caricature-ish. I needed her to be complex and demonstrate that people can have all sorts of paradoxical thoughts and practices. I just had to hope that the reader would see both her frailties and strengths through her inner dialogue and interaction with other characters.
When I read the book, it felt like such a powerful and clear indictment of the hypocrisy and caution of so many international organizations, focused (as you say in your book) more on “protecting the brand” and risk management than in always making the best choices for those they serve. What has your own experience been like in this regard, working in the humanitarian field?
Protecting the brand is not something I’ve experienced in my work as a development professional and it is because I work independently and can give my own recommendations. However, I’ve worked for government and other organizations in the past, and I think any institution that you work for, whether private, public or non-profit, can promote a common mindset, a form of groupthink, with its own logic.
While this can foster organizational culture, it can also make it difficult to challenge flaws in the system. In the charitable realm, there is the added challenge that the work is beholden to donors, and any shift in perception can threaten the foundations of that work. This creates a negative incentive for full transparency. In the past, I have worked for organizations that could not reveal large truths on corporate activity in impoverished countries because of the reprisal. Small charities with limited budgets can seldom stand up to large corporate actors that run charities to the ground through ongoing legal fees and disputes, so risk management is very much a reality for survival.
I refer a lot in this book about the monopoly of rules, regulations, procedures, because in my work I’ve seen how those become almost evangelical-like guiding documents. They are there for a reason, for accountability, for satisfying donors, for presenting a logic, but sometimes the needs of people don’t fit neatly into the onerous processes we have created. Any kind of work, especially service-oriented work for vulnerable people, needs constant self-critique and evaluation to evolve and improve, and we have to be open to it, otherwise we will keep repeating the same mistakes. Donors also have to be patient—these are imperfect systems and people need the space to correct themselves without fearing the end of their organizations.
Without giving anything away, at the novel’s conclusion, Maya makes a clear choice about her own allegiances. I’m curious about how difficult it was to write this ending, and whether you considered alternate endings in earlier drafts?
I wrote so many endings to this novel! Some were outlandish and others were subtle. But this was the only ending that felt right. I knew that it would make some readers throw the book across the room, but I wanted a strong reaction at the end. I wanted the book to feel like holding one’s breath, and the ending was the big exclamation. I also needed the ending to honour the questions raised through the story, and for the reader to have their own perspective on what Maya should have done. People have asked me if there will be a sequel—there won’t, the sequel is whatever the reader feels should have happened.
Excerpt from We Meant Well
There’s a rap on the windshield. It’s a couple of children. They raise their T-shirts, show me their ribs.
They want something. Food, money, anything. I look straight ahead, my sun- glasses on. We’re not allowed to give money to beggars. And I can’t look them in the eyes while ignoring their pleas. I’d have to be a sociopath to do that. Instead, I continue my conversation with Philippe, the driver, trying to evoke an intimacy between us that doesn’t quite exist.
These are children—like my Chloe—begging, showing their underfed bellies, I should be more appalled by this, but I’m not. If you see enough of anything, it becomes ignorable. Even hungry children.
I once used to hold scrawny children like these. I used to nuzzle their hair under my chin, feel their small palms slide in my underarms for warmth.
The 4x4 laces up the dusty broken road. It’s beautiful here. The sun sears through the window. I hear the staccato yells, the buoyant laughs of the market adjacent to the road. I smell the sea over the sweet scent of rotting garbage. Bougainvillea spills over every broken wall. There are bodies all around us, walking alongside, hips brushing my car door, people crisscrossing in front of our vehicle. Loud conversation, misshapen words from mouths of chipped teeth. It’s familiar—all these strangers holding us in. I’ve stopped feeling most things, but this feels good.
A woman carries twins in her arms and balances a ten-liter plastic container on her head. I wonder which she picked up first. Did someone else place the container on her head? These are miracles of the poor. How they carry so much and don’t break. How they walk in kilometers, while we walk in steps. They have a strength my body can never know. The strength of birthing nine children in a hut or plowing fields by hand. Even their breasts are more potent than mine, producing milk on cue, babies latching as they should. No pumps or lactation consultants here.
Seventy-two hours ago, my phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Burton telling me to fly out as soon as possible. Tickets had been reserved; I needed to confirm. I tried to focus on what he was saying, but was half-asleep, nervous that my daughter would wake up. I tried to sound professional, my mouth dry, annoyed that he hadn’t taken the time difference into account when calling. But then I heard his words and sat upright in bed: Marc is in the worst kind of trouble. The fallout could be dire, for all of us. So, I have to be here, one last time, to clean up his mess. Even though I’d secretly been planning my extrication from this job, from this place from its people.
On sterile days back home, I miss this country’s noise. I miss how free I am here despite the mosquitos and violence. I even sound different here. An accent takes birth on my tongue. It’s inadvertent; languorous s’s, long o’s emerge. I long for them in a bizarre homesickness that spreads while I’m buttering toast or driving my daughter to Montessori in Los Angeles. A homesickness that doesn’t make sense. Why yearn for war and hardship when you have the Hollywood Hills—the holy gifts of the first world?
Besides, here can never be home. These people, they’re familiar but I don’t really know them. I’m driven among them. I have polite conversations. What am I really doing here? For years, I was convinced I was saving lives.
Philippe and I have a polite relationship. I see him a few times a year when I visit to check up on things. He drives me places; I ask about his family. I crack a few jokes to appear relatable. It’s forced, but he smiles. I can’t help it; the words teem, wanting attachment, even a temporary one. But Philippe will disappear, from my mind and vicinity, as soon as I step out of this Land Cruiser, like all the others.
Despite this, Philippe, in his crisp blue-collared shirt, with his shiny forehead, is the one I trust with my life. If hoodlums show up, tapping their guns on the windshield, he’ll intervene, standing tall between his countrymen and me, the foreigner. Perhaps even giving up his own life.
The locals, they know a first-worlder when they see one. They see me. Sunglasses on, in the tinted vehicle with my charity’s fancy blue logo painted on the door, ignoring emaciated children. They walk by without ever hurting me. That guy sauntering with the rooster, holding it by the neck, he peers through my car window, then walks away. That old man, sitting in the dirt with an umbrella, dusty laminated pictures of 1980s porn stars dangling from the ribs of the umbrella, barely looks up, as though I’m a landmark, a building he’s used to seeing.
If someone ever did attack me, I’d end up in the hospital the UN diplomats use. I’d be hooked to beeping machines charged by generators that will run to the end of time, bypassing power outages that plague the rest of the country. The media would be there in an instant. My smiling face blitzed across TV and phone screens, and magically I’d be repatriated to my land, where I’d appear on talk shows to recount how I survived brutality in a war-torn country.
But nothing like that ever happened, even though other things did. Things that did not warrant a talk show segment.