Interview & photos by Vivek Shraya.
When I am asked what I like about living in Toronto, I always mention the transit system (aka the TTC). Say what you want about the Dufferin Bus or the inconsistency of our streetcars, the TTC is a luxury after growing up in a city where the bus only comes every 30 minutes. But if I were to expand my Favourite Things About Toronto list, I would have to include writer, activist, psychotherapist and dear friend, Farzana Doctor.
It’s strange to think of a time when I didn’t know Farzana, timidly approaching her at the Trans March or at readings, and then running away. Hi! Bye! And yet my every awkward greeting was consistently met with an unusual warmth, the kind that perhaps foretold our future friendship, or is just part of who she is. Because of the scarcity of opportunities—sometimes perceived, sometimes real—artists, especially in Toronto, can be guarded and even competitive. But Farzana embodies a rare generosity that I am indebted to and also inspired by. And it’s not just me that has benefited from her generosity. I recently met someone who, upon me mentioning Farzana, immediately shared that it was Farzana who helped them confirm their career path. Farzana is an important reminder that few things have more impact, and are more necessary than kindness.
Earlier this year, Farzana asked me to take the press photos to accompany her fantastic new novel, All Inclusive, which launches in Toronto on September 29 at Gladstone Hotel. The photos featured here are some of my favourite outtakes from that shoot.
What compelled you to write All Inclusive?
Opening Up (by Tristan Taormino), a book about non-monogamy, was my beach reading at an all-inclusive resort I went to six years ago. A sort of idea collision occurred that vacation week, seeding the novel.
During my first year of writing, I joked that this book was all about my love/hate relationship with all-inclusive resorts and monogamy.
I realized there was much I wanted to explore (and contest) about both through fiction.
What were some things you wanted to do differently in this novel versus your last two?
My first two novels are set in Toronto and I wanted to try to write a different space. A walled-in amusement-park, rife with inequality, turned out to be a good setting to develop Ameera’s angst.
I’ve written about sexuality in my previous novels, but perhaps in a more muted, circumspect manner. In this novel, sexuality is a metaphor for my protagonist’s growth and is central to the story. I had to bump up against my own sex-negativity to write some of the scenes.
For example, I worried: What if people would think that I was Ameera and that all her sex scenes are my personal experiences. My answer to this: Yeah, so what? Sex is normal. Also, everyone thought I had Nasreen’s body image issues (In Stealing Nasreen) and that I’d been kicked out of my family’s home, like Fatima (in Six Metres of Pavement).
This is your third novel. This is an incredible achievement and is so inspiring to see, especially in Canadian literature, where women of colour writers aren’t as visible. What does being a woman of colour in Canlit, now with three novels, mean to you? Do you feel a kind of burden or responsibility as a writer of colour?
Thanks! I think a part of me is only just accepting that I am a good writer.
I’ve heard many others speak about not feeling like “real” writers until Book #3 or #4 or #5. Some of this has to be linked to being a woman of colour in Canlit. We encounter a kind of dismissal that doesn’t happen to white male writers.
Because I tend to include characters from the communities in which I live, I do feel a responsibility to write our stories well. Sometimes my inner critic makes that a burden for me, and other times I feel privileged and proud to be a position to do this.
I also feel a responsibility to promote emerging/aspiring writers from marginalized communities and I try to do this through my volunteer gig as curator of the Brockton Writers Series.
What are changes you would like to see in Canadian literature?
Where do I start! I’d like Canlit institutions (the associations, organizations, festivals, publishers, granting bodies, reading series, awards, schools) to take more action! It’s not rocket science. They need to hire, promote, publish and teach more people from marginalized communities.
Why are there still all-white juries, panels and line-ups in Toronto in 2015?
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
As a child I wrote poetry, stories, and performed my own plays. After university, I still wrote a little poetry and was part of a theatre troupe, but I turned most of my energy to activism and a career in social work. In my family, like most immigrant families, creative endeavours are seen as hobbies, not professions. It wasn’t until 2000 that I began to write in earnest once again.
Sometimes I wish I’d had support to follow my creative instincts. What if I’d studied literature or done an MFA instead of an MSW? On the other hand, I have a meaningful day job that I love and that also allows me the flexibility and income to write fifteen hours a week.
What does your dad and family think of your literary career and success?
When a new novel is released, my dad will buy a box and proudly hand them out to his friends. Other family members help to organize readings, house me on tour, and promote my work on social media. I’m very lucky to have a supportive family. I’m not sure what they’ll think of the swinger sex scenes in this novel, though…
Who are women of colour writers that inspire you?
Some of my favourites are Zadie Smith, Shani Mootoo, and Shauna Singh Baldwin. I’ve just been introduced to, and have enjoyed, books by Eden Robinson and Laila Lalami.
I often want to ask you to tell me more about your involvement in Rewriting the Script, A Love Letter to Our Families but we run out of time. So, tell me, how did the idea come about and what was your involvement in the project?
We need more time to talk, obviously! Back in the 90’s, many of my queer South Asian friends and I came out to our parents. There weren’t any resources available for South Asian families of LGBT people and we felt that our families went into a kind of silent denial that was painful for everyone. So a group of us formed Friday Night Productions, and we decided to create a documentary that we could watch with our families. Over the next few years we fundraised, researched, interviewed, filmed, edited and then released the film (we all did a little bit of each of these tasks).
In all your years of activism, what has been your greatest learnings?
It was through activism that I started to make sense of the racism and sexism (and later homophobia) that I’d been experiencing. I could name it.
And then I began to understand ways that I am privileged too. It’s all a life-long process.
I also learned, though activism, that self-care is incredibly important. Many activists (myself included) burn out while organizing demos and actions. I learned to take breaks, let others take the lead, and to surround myself with others who understood the importance of self care. I also shifted some of my activist work to arts-based organizing, which I find more fun and satisfying.
What can you tell us about your next novel?
All my novels have had at least one character from my Dawoodi Bohra community. I’m going to focus my next novel on this community. It will likely be my most difficult and personal novel yet. But I’ll find a way to make it funny too.
Interview & photos by Vivek Shraya. Makeup by Charm Torres.