Farzana Doctor is a Toronto-based author and social worker. Her family immigrated to Canada from India via Zambia, where they lived for five years and where she was born. Her novel, Stealing Nasreen (Inanna, 2007) has received critical acclaim from the Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire, and NOW Magazine. She has had her poetry, reviews, short stories and creative non-fiction published in a variety of publications. She has also co-written a manual for therapists and was part of the video collective that produced the documentary, “Rewriting the Script”. She is completing revisions on her second novel, New Skin (working title). Find out more about her at www.farzanadoctor.com.
How did you find your voice as a writer? How has the journey been for your from a a social worker to a writer?
I started writing when I was a young child, and then I stopped some time in high school. In university, I studied social work and wrote a little as a hobby. However, it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I began to write in a disciplined way. This happened after I took a course called “Writing the Novel”, which I took as a hobby course—I never imagined I’d complete a novel. During that course I wrote the first draft of Stealing Nasreen’s first chapter and then I didn’t stop. The characters and story pulled me in until I realized I actually had written a novel! That’s when I began to call myself a writer. I’m still a social worker—I do that half-time and I write the rest of the time. The social work part of me provides me with contact with the world (my writing self is very solitary), an income, and allows me to do meaningful work in a way different from writing. Maintaining this half and half work life (and not allowing my social work life to crowd my writing life) is always a challenge.
Tell us about your experience as an immigrant in Canada? What do you think is the biggest issue facing the immigrant community in the West today?
My family came to Canada in the early 70’s, when “Skilled Immigrants” were in demand. Nearly everyone in my family found work in their fields soon after arriving and with little difficulty. At the same time, it was the era of “Paki Bashing” in Canada, a time of intense racism against all South Asians. We moved to a small, suburban town where for a long time, we were the only Indian family at our school. For me, the biggest issues were racism and the experience of identity confusion and alienation. It was only when I became a young adult that I was interested in claiming my South Asian and Muslim identities.
Today, racism takes some different forms. One issue of great importance for new immigrants is difficulty finding work. Canadian employers continue to value “Canadian experience” over job experience from other countries and so many new immigrants, including professionally trained people, are not getting their qualifications recognized. Many Toronto taxi drivers were surgeons, engineers, and professors in their home countries. This problem, and questions about how people cope with it, lingered in my mind and inspired the characters Shaffiq and Salma, who are underemployed new immigrants living in Toronto.
How was the path to publishing for you? Can you give the readers a brief overview of your journey?
It took about two and half years to find a publisher for Stealing Nasreen, which was a discouraging process. This is often the case for writers of first novels. Prior to this, I had poems, short stories, book reviews and academic articles published, which offered me a sense of validation of my skills and allowed my work to get out into the world. I’m now looking for an agent and hoping this process will be much faster! Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned a great deal about the publishing business and how to promote my work.
What compelled you to write a story about Nasreen Bastawala in Stealing Nasreen?
Writing Nasreen came out of my desire to see more South Asian lesbians in contemporary fiction. When I was first coming out as queer about 15 years ago, I sought information and reflection of my identity through books, especially fiction, and found little. Since Stealing Nasreen has come out, I’ve received many e-mails from young queer people who tell me how important it was to see themselves in the novel, and that feedback is very gratifying. I also wanted to write about the communities in which I live and derive much inspiration, and that needed to include queer South Asians.
How has your work been received so far?
I’m pleased to say that I’ve received several positive reviews from wonderful publications like Quill & Quire, The Globe and Mail, Herizons and NOW Magazine. Many readers have contacted me to let me know that they enjoyed the book and I’ve saved all these e-mails and notes in a folder that I peruse every so often when I need a boost. Readership has been varied—queer people, non-queer people, South Asians, non-South Asians, young people and older people.
What’s next for you?
I’ve recently completed my second novel, New Skin, which is about a middle-aged South Asian man who made the worst mistake of his life twenty years ago. The novel picks up in the present and is about his survival, redemption and a love affair he has with his Portuguese widow neighbour. As I mentioned before, I’m looking for a literary agent to help me sell this book. Meanwhile, I’ve started some embryonic work on a third novel.