An Interview with Farzana Doctor
by Mary-Lou Zeitoun
Farzana Doctor is a Toronto based author, editor, and registered social worker. She is the author of Stealing Nasreen (Inanna Publications, 2007) and Six Metres of Pavement (The Dundurn Group, 2011), which won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award, the Rainbow Award for Best Contemporary Lesbian General Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. In 2011, Doctor was listed by CBC Books as one of “Ten Canadian Women Writers You Need to Read Now.” Her recent novel All Inclusive (The Dundurn Group, 2015) was named “Best Book of The Year” in The National Post. She is a recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Grant and co-curates the Brockton Writers Series.
Mary-Lou Zeitoun: All Inclusive is about the personal journey of twenty-eight-year-old Ameera, a mixed-heritage Canadian who works at an all-inclusive Mexican resort called Atlantis. For me, who grew up with the familial reality of refugee camps, it felt like you were speaking to the idea of exile. Were you cognizant of this theme as you were writing and if so, how do you feel it was delineated in this novel?
Farzana Doctor: Initially, I felt that an all-inclusive resort, a space of beauty and inequality, would be a good setting. It also served as a place of exile for Ameera, who needed an escape from her life in Canada and an away-from-home container in which to explore her sexuality, needs, and boundaries. While there, she has to sort out why she left and whether she wants to return.
MLZ: When Ameera goes to Mumbai, she thinks: “I blended into the crowd, a chameleon amongst people who looked like me.” What do you think are the psychological effects of not having oneself visually reflected back to you in your community?
FD: I think many diasporic racialized people living in white-dominated countries imagine and fantasize about an experience of one day blending in. We can feel alienated and have difficulty feeling a “fit” when we never experience this. It may impact our ability to normalize and validate our very existence.
MLZ: Can you give an example? For my sister and I, it was my Irish Canadian mother not knowing how to deal with our curls and realizing I was the only girl bringing hummus and grape leaves to lunch at school.
FD: I grew up in Whitby, which at the time was a small white town. My primary school had one black family, one Chinese family, and us. I very much wanted to fit in and wished that I was white, but was often reminded that I wasn’t. My green chutney sandwiches were made fun of, I got called “Paki,” and experienced other instances of bullying. If I wasn’t white, it meant that I was something unacceptable.
I have had the opposite experiences too, ones similar to those Ameera imagines, always in spaces that are primarily for people of colour. I also experience this when I travel to India—that is, until I open my mouth and everyone can tell I am not Indian!
MLZ: Do you find that the literary market is also a racialized space? For example, are there certain topics that writers of non-European descent are expected to write about or expectations from the literary marketplace that tend to determine genres of South Asian writing?
FD: Of course the literary market, like all aspects of society, is a racialized space! I feel cynical about this question because POC writers have been talking about this for a long time and feeling like not much is changing (or quickly enough). It’s difficult for an individual writer to know exactly how racism is playing out at each moment in their publishing journey, but we do know that the industry leaders work from a highly subjective space, and this means that all kinds of oppressive biases are at play. Some of my colleagues have said that South Asian literature that focuses on historical events, migration, and with settings in India do better than contemporary stories. In the end, we all need to write what is important to us and hope for the best.
MLZ: While the scholars, lawmakers and critics are labouring over ideas of diversity and inclusivity, diverse millennials are including themselves in westernized culture, particularly in pop culture. Ameera’s mother sends Ameera “O Magazine” and Ameera often references the quizzes and the pop psychology articles in which Oprah has famously celebrated the idea of angels with her “Angel Network.” In your book, Ameera’s dead father, a victim of the Air India crash, tries to connect with his daughter—in effect, as a guardian angel. Are you influenced or inspired by pop culture?
FD: A belief in spirit guides and angels comes more from my own eclectic spiritual beliefs, which are heavily influenced by my Muslim roots, rather than from pop culture. But of course I am influenced by pop culture all the time. I read fiction in order to improve my own writing and I enjoy Netflix way more than I should! I love good storytelling, and believe that fiction helps us to develop a greater kindness and empathy towards experiences we’ll never have ourselves. And music! Music appears all through All Inclusive. I imagined many of the scenes with Duran Duran and Bob Marley songs in their backgrounds!
I think of Oprah as someone who popularizes psychological issues for the mainstream. The relationship questionnaires and Deepak Chopra “wisdom” came in handy as devices to better illuminate Ameera and her mother’s personalities.
MLZ: In All Inclusive, Ameera is a “swinger.” Swinger began as a derogatory term for someone who engaged in spousal exchange in the ’60s. Today, the term tends to refer to experimenting with one’s sexual behaviour. Can you define swinger and swinger lifestyle now?
FD: I push Ameera out of her sexual comfort zone and, in doing so, I hope to push readers too. Rather than define, I attempted to portray swingers (and other non-monogamous characters in the book) as a diverse group with a variety of behaviours and interests. Some like the label and others hate it. Some are into the “lifestyle” while others experiment. Some are clumsy and others are more nuanced and sophisticated. They are of all sexual orientations.
MLZ: Female and South Asian and sexually experimental. These elements all make women vulnerable to judgement, prejudice and outright racism. Women of colour are often sexually exoticized and we often dance between capitalising on this and being demeaned by it. However, in the novel, your tone deftly, almost stubbornly, refuses to dwell on this, except for a few wry references. Can you speak to this dynamic?
FD: Thanks! As I wrote this book, I was especially cognizant about not pathologizing or demeaning Ameera’s sexuality. We live in a sex-negative society where slut-shaming is rampant, and this misogyny is amplified for women of colour. I chose to make her sexual exploration a vehicle for her growth. It was in the process of coming into herself in this way that she was able to grapple with the bigger (and more threatening) question of her existence: whether she wanted to search for her father.
MLZ: Do we need to get rid of the word “slut”? The concept of honour and sex?
FD: I think the word slut has been reclaimed by feminists to highlight and de-power the misogynistic ways in which women’s bodies and sexuality are viewed. In All Inclusive, one of the characters, Azeez, comments on Ameera’s swinger preferences in neutral ways, and this is how I wish sexuality was viewed in society. It can be ugly and beautiful, silly and serious, sacred and profane, shady or honourable.
Our society is very confused about sexuality. We worry about every aspect of it: are we having the right kind of sex, with the correct people, and at the appropriate frequency? We can’t speak openly about it and yet we are deluged by mostly sexist sexual imagery.
MLZ: What is your take on the sexism in sharia law?
FD: I’m no expert on this subject, but I would say that all religions are societal institutions, and as such, contain their oppressive elements. Hopefully they are living institutions with change-makers who will work to correct them.
MLZ: This is your third book. How might your writing process have changed since your last book?
FD: During the writing of All Inclusive, I lost track of this spiritual link to the writing. I got bogged down with questions about the publishing industry and success and audience. I allowed my inner critic to guide me far too much! So this book was about remembering and returning to this process.
In terms of craft, one big focus was plot, something I didn’t think much on in previous novels. I wanted All Inclusive to move, to be a page-turner, so I read about chapter transitions and tension and “beats.”
MLZ: What particular aspects about “the publishing industry and success and audience” did you find influencing your writing? For example, did you experience pressures to conform to a particular style or to present your work in a certain way?
FD: It’s more that I experience the publishing industry as a place of scarcity. Thousands of books come out each year, and all of us authors are competing for limited opportunities—for shelf space, festival invitations, grants and awards. Societal oppression and privilege plays into how successful we will be with “winning” these scarce resources. I don’t think I’ve felt a lot of pressure to conform or present in a certain way, mostly because I work hard to stay centred on my own writing path.
MLZ: In one interview (Open Book Toronto 2015), you speak about an inner voice. How do you keep connected with that voice?
FD: I see writing as a process in which I’m listening for stories. The source is hard to explain, but I imagine the stories come from ancestors, ghosts, spirit guides. Staying present and open enough can be a challenge; there is so much noise and busyness that can block the stories. And so I try to write first thing in the morning, soon after waking. I do short meditations to quiet my mind. I give thanks to whomever it is who is “speaking.” After listening, my job as a writer is to structure, tweak, and edit.
MLZ: How does your psychotherapy practice affect your writing?
FB: One practical piece of advice I give emerging writers is to find some kind of paid work that you can do less than full time (ideally part-time) and still survive financially. It needs to be work that won’t drain all of your time and energy, so that writing can happen in and around it. I feel so privileged to have studied Social Work. It offered me a stable career and I was able to gradually reduce my hours so that I could write more. The work is also stimulating and has trained me to be comfortable swimming in emotions, a task required for good writing.
MLZ: You are also an editor. Do you find that editing other voices affects your work?
FD: Helping others to hone their craft helps me to improve mine. I’m better able to identify and articulate common writing mistakes as well as what makes writing beautiful. I tend to read like a writer too, noticing that works and what doesn’t.
MLZ: Considering the number of awards and social media recognition you’ve lately received, what does it feel like to attract a greater amount of attention from the writing community? You’ve received a lot of attention on the “Diverse Canadian Writers” Facebook page especially!
FD: I am really grateful for all the attention I’ve received from the media. I’ve never had such national and mainstream coverage. I credit my publicist, Jim Hatch, for his hard work. I also think that it helped that this is my third novel. I worked very hard with the first two novels to build audience and grow my writer network, and I think this effort paid off.
MLZ: What is your definition of inclusivity? What challenges have you met by being outside of the mainstream?
FD: I think this work—the work of creating inclusivity—is about intentionality. We have to be aware of our privileges. We need to be aware of who is not present and why. And then we have to work to improve the situation. All this is a work in progress and we will all mess up and have to sort out our mistakes as we go! As someone who is beginning to receive some mainstream attention, I try to highlight the work of people who have not, especially those from marginalized communities.
I think that my work has taken time to reach the mainstream because I am outside of it. Many of us have read the CWILA and VIDA stats about women in literature. The oppression is magnified for women of colour, queer and trans people, and other marginalized writers.
Mary-Lou Zeitoun is a Canadian Palestinian book reviewer, teacher, editor, and author. Her fiction has been published in Taddle Creek and her non-fiction (The Globe and Mail, Now Magazine, The National Post) addresses Middle Eastern culture, and health and disability issues. Her book 13 (Porcupine’s Quill, 2002) was the winner of the New England Young Adult Book Award and was named one of the top ten books in Now Magazine and The Globe and Mail.