Farzana Doctor: Making the write choice

Her mother died when she was eleven, and she remembers vividly the commotion that followed. The argument, she recalls vaguely, was of religious nature, something to do about burial. Farzana wanted those people, those angry voices to go away, leave her in peace. This encounter with religion was not a happy one. It seared her young mind.

“My mother wanted to be buried close to where we lived so we could visit her grave, pray for her,” said Farzana Doctor, author and social worker in Toronto. Born into a liberal Dawoodi Bohra family, her parents immigrated to Canada when she was six months old. Now in her Forties she has written two novels and the third is all printed and bound, ready for launch on 29 September 2015.

We met at a lake shore cafe in Toronto on an unreasonably cold and wet afternoon. Over hot beverages she talked about her books, her passion for writing, her activism and her tenuous link to the Bohra community and to religion at large. She said she was drawn to books and to writing from a young age. She wrote poems, stories and plays in school, and performed in her own plays. But when the time came for college all the writing implements were stashed away.

“As you know,” she said, “most immigrant families feel that their children should have artistic hobbies but not artistic careers”. She was speaking of a verity deeply ingrained in immigrant culture. Newcomers to the country struggle to settle down and dream of better future for their children; they want them to go into the professions, study hard and succeed. So off she went to McMaster University in Hamilton in pursuit of an education that would stand her in good financial stead. She joined the pre-med program but her heart was into activism. “I wrote irregularly then, I was more of an activist kid,” she said wistfully with a smile. Anti-apartheid and environmentalism and feminism were the burning issues in those days. “When I was in third year I got a job at a shelter for abused women, and I realized that I wanted to continue doing that kind of work, and that’s how I got into social work.”

It is the love of writing though, that caught up with her eventually. Some fifteen years ago she began to write in earnest. After a breakup she was at a loose end, and joining a course on novel writing seemed a natural thing to do. “What I wrote in that course became the first chapter of my first novel, Stealing Nasreen.” She kept at it after the course was over, not sure whether it was going to be published at all. At one point she showed the draft to her writing coach and she said “you have a novel here”. Perhaps that’s what she needed to hear at that crucial time. With that encouragement she continued writing. “It took me two and a half years to get it published,” she said.

There are many aspiring writers who love to write but lack the commitment, can’t find the resolve to apply themselves. I wanted to know what is it that drives her to write, motivates her, keeps her burning the midnight oil. “Love for writing is a huge part of it, of course,” Farzana said, “needing to write and needing to express myself in a particular way. All novels take years to write so you have to choose a subject that unsettles you a bit, engages you, otherwise it is very hard to stay with it. For the first novel I was very drawn to writing about the Bohra community and also about the immigrant experience. At that time I was working at a hospital and used to see this South Asian janitor working there. One day he just disappeared, and I wondered where did he go, did he find a better job or what. For some reason he stayed in my head,” she said. That formed the seed for the Shafique character in the book.

It is one thing to write a book and quite another to get it published. She sent out her manuscript to many publishers and never heard back from them. “When you are a new and unknown writer you have to really hone in to who would be interested in your book, you have to find your niche. And it is a subjective thing, not everybody is going to be interested in your work,” Farzana said. The publisher for Stealing Nasreen was a small, independent outfit so she ended up doing most of the marketing for herself. Once you are published, another battle begins: to get people to read your book. “You have to self-promote, you have to learn to hustle, and it is not hard to learn,” she said. She pushed herself to be heard and to be read. One particular year she managed to wangle a hundred readings, almost two a week.

After the first book things get easier. You have a name, you are recognized. Her second novel Six Meters of Pavement got her more traction, offered her more opportunities, and launched her as a writer who could make rightful claims in CanLit circles. The second novel is about Islamil Boxwala who is faced with the tragic hot-car death of his young daughter, and how that tragedy affects his life and marriage, and how in middle age he once again finds love and solace. With the third novel All Inclusive, Farzana feels she has arrived as a novelist. “I’ve hardly had to do any marketing myself. I get invited to readings, which is beautiful,” she said with satisfaction.

After the second book, she said, she wanted to write something less heavy, something less serious, and it so happened that six years ago she was at a Mexico beach reading a book by Tristan Taormino about all kinds of non-monogamous relationships, swingers, polygamous and all sorts of things. “I’m reading this book, and I go ‘Wow, how do these people live’.” She wanted to explore their lives, and then at the same resort there was this woman, a travel rep, who inspired Ameera’s character. She was a Canadian working in Mexico on a two-year contract. “And I wondered how does she leave behind her life and live alone, who are her friends, what keeps her going, etc.”

The two ideas somehow gelled together in that one week and laid the foundation for the book. The character of Azeez and the Air India tragedy came later. “He came to me as magic. I was struggling with this book, and hadn’t yet found the essence of Ameera. What is she about, what is her real story. I had written all kinds of back stories about her family but none of them was really fitting in. So I put the book away for a while and almost gave up on it.”

Then one day, she was teaching an emerging writers’ workshop, and “One of the great thing about these writers is that they have so much enthusiasm, they don’t have the kind of struggle you have when you are writing your third book,” she said. “I was very uplifted by these people. On the way back from that workshop, I’m on my bike, I hear a voice, and it is very loud. It said ‘here is your character, his name is Azeez and this is what happened to him’. So I start to meditate on what I heard. A lot of authors talk about the origin of the stories they write, about the inspiration behind them. Where do they come from? Do they come from spirits?”

In the book, Azeez is on the Air India flight that went down on the shores of Ireland in 1985. Farzana was 15 years old then. “It is strange that this idea about the Air India tragedy should come to me, it was not my story, I was in no way connected to it. I said, ‘what the hell is that’. But I was going to take it seriously, because you must take the voices in your head seriously. I started researching and then I became obsessed.”

Farzana runs a social work private practice, that is her bread and butter, “writing is the jam”. “I’m in a very lucky position these days as I only do part-time work. Mostly I write in the mornings for a few hours.” In her work she comes across many people, some of them in dire situation. Do they provide fodder for her stories, her characters? “No, not so much. My writing and my day job are sort of compartmentalized. Besides, ethically we are not supposed to write about our clients. It is their story they must tell them, right? What I borrow from my experience is that a lot of work that I do is swimming in emotion. In therapy work you have to connect with your clients, the same is about writing, you have to care for your characters in a very deep way, express their sorrow, their happiness.”

Many writers have a hard time separating the writer from the narrator. Does she have to struggle with that? “You want the narrator to tell the story. As a writer I may have my own agenda, but that is not the same as that of the narrator, right? You have to be true to the story. And then there are spirit guides. Some of my best writing comes when I’m in that state of mind. The pretty sentences come when I’m in the shower, and then I rush out and jot them down. Then there are inspiring moments when you are on your way to sleep or in the mornings when your mind is not troubled by intellectual pursuits. When your mind is blank.

“I don’t know how all this works but in our quiet moments we hear voices. And I have tried to play with this idea in this book where Azeez is a spirit and how he tries to connect with Ameera. But his character had to be challenging, complex. I didn’t want to make it easy for him, didn’t want him to be a benign spirit. He must struggle and learn how to communicate with the living.”

Death and loss are twin themes that run through her narratives. Has losing her mother at a tender age influenced her as a writer? “I think what shaped me was the loss.” Farzana said. “Loss is a theme I have visited in all my novels in some form or other, and I think my unconscious mind has been unravelling the meaning of such a potent loss ever since my mother died.”

She admires the writings of M.G. Vassenji, Zadie Smith and Shauna Singh Baldwin. About her writing process, Farzana said she did not have any outline or a plot when she set out to write the first two books. “It just came. Of course, I had to revise the prose, edit and such, but the story itself remained more or less unchanged.” The third one was quiet a struggle. But with the fourth she wants to have a plan, and would like to plot the story because it is reassuring when you know where you are going. The forthcoming book is going to be about Dawoodi Bohras and about “our dirty secret” — female circumcision or FGM as more commonly known.

Female circumcision is widely, albeit clandestinely, practiced among Dawoodi Bohras, a Shia Muslim sect of under a million people settled mainly in India and Pakistan. The community is ruled by a stern clergy that commands mortal fear and demands absolute obedience. Female circumcision is enforced by the clergy as an article of faith.

“FGM is an important issue, it is very problematic. And the thing is that no other Shia community practices it,” Farzana said. She related an incident to illustrate the convert nature of the practice. She said she has a couple of Facebook friends in India who have taken up this issue in a very serious way. One of them, Priya Goswami has made a documentary film A Pinch of Skin. Farzana in an attempt to help promote the film wrote to a bunch of people, mostly family and friends, asking them if they would like to do a screening. Not a single person responded.

“The reason I think is shame,” she said. “They don’t want to talk about it. Or they are afraid to be called out if they do. It is a beautiful film, and it is all Dawoodi Bohra women talking. And the irony is that it is the women who do this awful thing to their own girls. Men don’t even know what is happening. It is the women who end up being the monsters in this story. So it is the women who have to start becoming aware and start protecting their girls.”

Farzana’s connection to the mainstream Bohra community is at best tangential. Not for her the religious functions or visits to the markaz. But she feels attached to the Bohra culture, its food and its peculiar ways. When she is tired or stressed, her comfort food choice is always kheema, daal and rice. Her books reflect her love for the community. She likes to write about Bohras, most of her characters in her novels have Bohra names. “I like my people, it’s my clan.” She has a huge extended family in India, USA and Canada. Some are religious and some not so much.

Religion has never managed to grab her the way it does other people. “But as I grow older I get more interested in religion. I’ve learned to pray namaz, and now pray every evening,” she said.

“My father was very critical of religion and the priesthood, and most my of religious influences came from him.”

It is rare for a Bohra to cock a snook at the clergy and live happily. People are made to fall in line, in subtle and not so subtle ways. “Most of them choose to go with the flow, if they don’t then there are consequences. They fear the backlash,” Farzana said. What is that makes Bohras so meek, so accepting? I ask. “Because they want to be married and buried in the community,” she answered.

Some years ago when Farzana was in India she met the late Asghar Ali Engineer, the well known Islmaic scholar and reformist leader shunned and condemned by the Borha clergy. “I’ve great respect and admiration for him. He told me his story, his fight against the priests, how he was beaten. The thing is, it’s not just that you’re ex-communicated but there are also violent consequences,” she said.

But minus the clergy and its high-handed ways, Farzana thinks Bohras are the nicest bunch. “They are very polite. My experience is only politeness and goodness from Dawoodi Bohras. They have never treated me badly, ever.”

I ask Farzana about her take on Ontario’s updated sex education curriculum? Beginning this September Canada’s provincial government has implemented the new curriculum which has outraged great many parents who claim that it is not age-appropriate, that they don’t want their children to be exposed to ideas about sex, genitalia, gender diversity at such an early age. “I think it is a very small group of people who are very misinformed and are very reactionary,” Farzana said. “This is the curriculum that has been developed after a lot of community input. The kids already know a lot about sex, they watch porn. What they need is information to protect themselves.”

Muslims who support the curriculum have started a Facebook group: “Muslims for Ontario’s Health and Physical Education Curriculum”. Farzana was interviewed by VICE magazine for an article on the subject. The principal of a private Islamic school, Farrah Marfatia has released a guide for Muslim parents explaining the curriculum. “It is a terrible guide,” Farzana said. “In it the principal advocates that children should be segregated by grade four. That students of opposite sex should not chat, should not build relationships. That if you are born a boy then you have to be a boy. Not even Muslim scholars would agree with her,” she said, visibly agitated.

Farzana feels strongly about prejudices against gender identity. Her books tackle these issues in a creative and engaging way, trying to shine a little light on an area of darkness steeped in ignorance and misinformation.

“Then there is this myth”, she added, “that if you learn about transgender stuff, you would become transgender. No, this is not how it works. The more informed we are the better we are as human beings.”