Farzana Doctor: On Resiliency, Terrorism, and Swingers
Author: Theodore Kerr
December 14, 2017
In Farzana Doctor’s latest novel, All Inclusive, (Dundurn) we meet Ameera and Azeez, two people who are stuck and who need to make sense of their reality before they are able to move on. Taking place primarily in an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, readers find out what happens to people when paradise is not all it’s cracked up to be. Populating the world of the novel are swingers, ghosts, underpaid workers, and those facing the consequences of terrorism and tourism. Through them, readers are invited to consider the work that goes into luxury, pleasure, and the sweet hereafter.
This is Doctor’s third novel, following Stealing Nasreen (2007) and Six Meters of Pavement (2011), all of which explore the vast spectrum of sexualities across cultures including those found in Canada and beyond. Like her previous books, All Inclusive, now available in the US, invites the reader to question how well they know both strangers and themselves. Doctor’s books are gentle in approach, and rigorous in heart-felt content.
In the interview below, Doctor speaks with writer and fellow Canadian Theodore Kerr about the importance of sex on the page, Saturn Returns, spirituality, history, and the positive moment that queer Canadian literature is having. But first they begin by talking about Ameera, All Inclusive’s protagonist and how she came to be.
How did Ameera come to you?
As characters have come to me in the past, Ameera came to life through influences. A few years ago I was at an all inclusive resort at Huatulco and I thought, “this is a setting,” because it is so full of tension. At the time I was reading Opening Up by Tristan Taormino, and a lot of it was really interesting to me especially, for some reason, the swingers chapter. At the same time I was watching the all inclusive scene around me. Amid all this was a foreign tour rep. She was from England–unlike Ameera–and I found myself preoccupied with her. I was watching her, wondering how she found herself at the resort, and her backstory. All of these factors birthed Ameera in my head. Then it was about spending time with her and figuring out what does it mean to be 29: what is that voice. She is someone who was trying to escape her life, and a relationship. She lands herself at the resort to see if that will unstick her.
Ameera is likable, and real. She lives on the page with obvious faults.
You liked her? I have had people say that they found themselves so frustrated with her. Which is good, because you want people to react.
Frustrated because she was not perfect? She was making choices?
In that way she is like Issa Rae’s character in Insecure. She is an empowered and interesting woman who makes mistakes.
Mistakes are important. They are how we learn.
Especially when we are, as Ameera is, 29. She is rethinking her job, family, sex life, friendships. Did she come to you at this point of transition?
When she came to me she was really stuck and needing to figure out what next. The opening scene in All Inclusive is what came first. She was sitting there, jaded by the experience, finding the place tedious. The back stories of what was happening with her mother and her ex-boyfriend back in Hamilton came later.
Who do you read when it comes to female protagonists?
I read a lot of P.O.C (People of color) and Indigenous writers, partly as a political choice, and partly because these are the voices that speak to me as a Diaspora, South Asian Canadian. If I think about your question, who comes to mind is a specific character I met facilitating a book club at the International Festival of authors. Gertrude Samphire is at the heart of Dancing Lessons, the new novel from well established Jamaican Canadian author Olive Senior. Gertrude is in her sixties when her house is destroyed by a hurricane. She has to move into a senior’s residence in Kingston, Jamaica. Through a very strong voice, we are with Gertrude, who has been silenced and abused most of her life, as she comes to a turning point in the senior’s residence, which begins to unlock her life. As we can see with Ameera, I like stuck women trying to get unstuck. I am drawn to that process. I see human beings as being completely resilient and I am interested in how it is often in odd situations and within strange relationships that we begin to figure out what is going to happen next.
I love how in the book this happens for Ameera both within herself, but just as important, within community. In thinking about the title, All Inclusive, it is hard not to think about how it refers obviously to the setting, but also the people in the world on the page.
Other people have said that about the title, and that was not my intention, but I see how it is true. I do intentionally try to write the world as diverse as it is. I think there is a growing momentum in which writers are populating their books with the people that are our friends and are in the audiences of our readings. Catherine Hernandez’s new novel Scarborough, whose pages are filled with queer people of color. That is one example. And because we are writing from within our community it is important to reach out. In writing this book, it was important for me to get feedback about my representation of Ameera’s Mexican co-workers. I asked for advice about language and cultural references. Similarly, I focused on representing swingers in a way that didn’t reinforce or present stereotypes. So I did the research, I read a lot, and I reached out to people within swinger communities. I wanted to make sure I had a real diversity: from the people who are inconsiderate and not paying close attention to consent, all along the spectrum to folks who are skilled, helpful and kind.
Also, if you look back at my previous two books, there is a lot of queer sexuality. And it is there in All Inclusive as well, but also for the first time I have a main character who does not identify as queer or bi. She does not like labels. This was important to me. How do you write a character who is not sexually politicized in a specific way?
I mean, it seems your answer is: listen. Which is something that I like about your process. There seems to be a—dare I say it—spiritual aspect of how you work.
I think, like a lot of people, I am aware that we are not alone. We are often being influenced by ancestors, spirits and ghosts. They come to us in our dreams and in our waking lives. Nearly every time I have sat down and there is a clear character’s voice I am pretty sure it is coming from somewhere outside of me. The “me” comes in after, when I am making choices, editing, revising, thinking about the reader’s responses. But that kind of stream that is the first draft feels like it is coming from somewhere else.
And there is a hesitation to talk about this way of thinking. All Inclusive is the first time I have been out about this aspect of my process. I had been weirded out by it. Now I am not. With my two previous books that was what happened but I did not talk about it. At my Toronto launch for All Inclusive, Susan G Cole was interviewing me and I just started talking about all the spirits in the room. As I was talking I was wondering what people were thinking about me but at the same time, it is my reality and I think it is the reality for a lot of artists: there is something that is helping us along.
Knowing that I am not alone, is also something that can give me strength, Writing is lonely and I think like a lot of other writers, I find myself sitting there thinking stuff like, “Oh, this is crap,” but if I allow myself to sit and meditate there will be some helpful voice that will say, “keep going.” I just finished a draft of my fourth novel, and a lot of it came to me in my dreams. I think this is important and worth sharing.
Do you feel that you had help from the spirits in writing All Inclusive?
Yes. I had taken two months off from work to finish the book. I had sent out a draft I thought was fairly close to the finished book to readers and they all came back with thumbs down, saying that it was lacking. This was not what I expected. I kept working with it, but getting the same feedback. So now, here I was with time off work and I was stuck with a book that needed help and I didn’t know how to fix it.
Around this time, I taught an emerging writers workshop which was great because emerging writers are so wonderful. They are so creative and full of hope. After being with them I thought “I can get back to the book.” On my way home I rode my bike though the rolling hills of High Park when I heard a voice that said, “I am your missing character.” At first I was like “no.” As he made himself known I could see he came with a very specific story he wanted to tell and I was not sure how I was going to integrate it with what I already had, nor did I think that it was my story to tell. Of course, it was Azeez’s voice, and one of the stories he brought with him was his connection to the Air India bombing.
Can you say more about what gave you pause?
For Canadians, specifically South Asian Canadians my age, there is an awareness of the bombing. I know people who have lost people in that tragedy but I personally did not lose anyone. I wondered if I could write about it. But in the end it felt like that didn’t matter. Through Azeez’s voice, the information and the details were just coming, arriving even in my dreams. I had to do a lot of research to ensure I had the details right, at least the ones I needed to bring the story along. Eventually, the closer I got to the material, I felt that perhaps I was actually contributing, bringing the truth of the event forward. I hope I am contributing to blocking the amnesia around the bombing.
I am glad Azeez insisted. It has been appreciated by people who have read my book who lost people on that flight. I came to see that the representation I created mattered because there is not a lot of fiction writing around the Air India bombing, and it is something we need to remember.
Why is it important that there is fiction writing about the Air India bombing?
Initially the bombing was not considered to be a Canadian tragedy, it was considered an Indian tragedy, even though the vast majority of the people on the plane where Canadian citizens. So, what does it mean when Canadian citizens are not claimed as Canadian? We have to keep remembering the tragedy and all its various meanings and impacts because of what was not seen in the beginning.
Of course, I am not alone. There are fabulous people within the worlds of art and academia doing work around this. I recently went to the launch of Remembering Air India, edited by Chandrima Chakraborty, Amber Dean and Angela Failler. It is really terrific how they have paired academic articles with some of the art. People have written about dance, poetry, and another novel. The dedication to remembering by this small group of people is amazing.
It is interesting that fiction might be the first place that someone finds out about the Air India bombing.
People have told me they knew nothing about it, then went to Wikipedia after reading the novel and learned about it. And I read fiction the same way. This is also a question of the role of the artist in society. We are here to entertain and also educate, and maybe change how we all live. I think there is a positive role in having people understand the world differently. And this can come from the complexity we can share in a novel. People come up to me and say, “Is this book about all inclusive resorts, terrorism, spirits, and swingers…and, I am like, “Yah.”
It is also a book about guardianship, guest / host relationships, and what it is to take care. This is most clear to me in the book as Ameera celebrates a birthday that brings her closer to being 30. She is approaching a milestone that for many of us begins the process of understanding how to be a guardian for ourselves, what it means to be both a host and guest within our own bodies on this earth, not to mention this land.
Yes, that whole Saturn Returns thing. It is when everything turns over in your life. As I was writing I had young people in my life going through it. When I was 29 I was ending one relationship and starting another one. I changed jobs, I moved, I was coming into my queer identity, although I had been out for a few years.
I think an empathy towards a young woman going through life chances comes through. I can almost picture you and Ameera looking down at her body together and discussing how to render it on the page.
That was something I was very conscious of in writing about the messiness of sex and the body. For a couple of decades I have been thinking a lot about my own body and body issues and what it means to be sex positive. While writing the book, I went through a period of being single and dating. Dating is such a strange anthropologic experience. All the different energies of the people you meet along the way, and the stories and the way you experience yourself the same and different with other people. All of this comes through in the book.
Do readers comment on Ameera’s body?
With every book I have intentionally had bodies that are not necessarily the standard of beauty. But no, nobody has mentioned her body. People have more so picked up on the sex. In book clubs there is such a variety of reactions. Urban book clubs say it was “titillating” and “interesting” and “it pushed my envelope.” In rural book clubs, and this is a huge generalization, the response has been that the sex was “gratuitous,” or people have said, “I did not enjoy that,” and “Why did you write it in a pornographic way?”
We are not a sex positive society. What does it mean when people get so fraught about normal sex scenes? I think sex is important to write. It gives characters an inner life, and in this book sex was a metaphor for Ameera’s growth. Sex becomes dialogue, sometimes wordlessly.
You want readers to enjoy it.
You want them to feel something deeply about it, perhaps to question their own feelings: why is this scene challenging for me, is it that there are more that 2 people? These are great questions for people to ask themselves.
It seems community is very important to you. Be it with the spirits or your community of fellow readers and writers. One of the first things I knew about you was your creation of the Brockton Writers Series, a program of readings with local authors in the Brockton area of Toronto.
I feel a responsibility to the world to challenge the status quo. I have been an activist since I was 16. I see places where things need to change and so I take action knowing that nothing changes if we don’t do it. So I started the series because I wanted to have more community myself and I was going to a lot of readings and it was not very diverse. And I mean, Toronto is almost half POC. So I thought what if we could create something else? With the series I got to shake things up and create more space for myself and community. Now there are 6 volunteers and I only now do a small piece of the work pie. Next month we celebrate our eighth anniversary.
Congrats! This seems like an important moment for the Canadian literature community, often referred to as Canlit.
Canlit is a small world, but there are a lot of us. Recently there have been a lot of awful things happening: examples of cultural appropriation; general racism; examples of sexual assault by supposed leaders, with members of the Canlit community protecting the perpetrator. So Canlit is like any other community, It is a place I find support and resources, and it is a problematic space that is worth working on to make better.
And there seems to be a special moment in terms of the Canlit queer community. Your third novel is now available in the US, Ivan Coyote has been short listed for a Writer’s Trust of Canada prize, and Vivek Shraya is on Tegan and Sara’s new album and has begun her own imprint. Here you and so many others are, being activists, writers and cultural producers amid a culture that can be dismissive and violent.
I think there are more openings now than ever, and we are in a moment where some publishers are looking at their politics and are beginning to open their doors a little bit more around race, sexuality and—too extremely slowly—around disability. Things are begin to be reshaped.
You mentioned dreams earlier, what dreams do you have for All Inclusive?
I would love for this third novel to reach a larger US audience. It is harder to build an audience in countries where you don’t live. Help me spread the word?