A momentary lapse of attention can lead to terrible accidents; mistakes that can haunt you for the rest of your life. This forms the crux of Canadian author, social worker and queer evangelist Farzana Doctor’s second novel Six Metres Of Pavement. Awarded the 2012 Lambda Literary Award, Six Metres Of Pavement tells the story of Ismail Boxwala who made the worst mistake of his life one summer 20 years ago. He forgot his baby daughter in the backseat of his car.
We read stories like Ismail’s as “freak accidents” in newspapers everyday, but Farzana reveals the emotional turmoil such incidents take on parents and families in her novel. “Every summer you hear about these stories. I wondered how a parent gets over the worst mistake of their life. It led me to write this novel,” says Farzana, who was in Bangalore for the launch. For her research, Farzana followed news stories. “I thought perhaps I could interview parents in this situation, but I thought it would be insensitive so I read news stories. I read them closely to see how the issue was being taken up and interpreted. I realised the primary cause for such incidents was sleep deprivation,” says the author who was in the city for the launch of her novels.
Farzana didn’t receive responses from parents who faced such tragedies, but from parents who lost children when they very young. “They identified with parental grief portrayed in the book. ” With regard to this novel, Farzana narrates an interesting personal story:
“I had lost my mother when I was a child. My father never talks about her. I had gone to visit him when he read about a 100 pages of the book and he asked me if I remember how my mother and he had left me in the backseat of the car when I was a baby. They returned to find me in physical distress. I have no way to prove this, but I believe that human beings store body memories of traumatic experiences.”
Farzana’s debut novel Stealing Nasreen is about “a doomed love triangle of sorts, though not in a traditional sense”. An immigrant couple from Mumbai move to Toronto, where they meet a lesbian psychotherapist, for whom each develops a fascination for different reasons. “In Stealing Nasreen, I tell a story of love, loss and what is family.”
Farzana also writes about immigrant experiences. Her family moved from Zambia to Canada in the early 70s. She says that the experiences of second and third generation immigrants are very different from that of the first generation. “They don’t have to struggle with the basics of integrating with Canadian ways.”
She believes, though, that there are some major differences between Indian and Canadian culture. “In India it is a more collectivist culture. The ‘we’ is privileged over the ‘I’. In Canadian culture, on the other hand, an individual’s goals are more of a priority.” There are still some instances of racism, Farzana says. “Immigrants are often asked ‘Where are you from?’ Sometimes it’s innocent, but at times, there’s a notion that if you are not white, then you are not Canadian.”
Farzana won the 2011 Dayne Ogilvie Grant from the Writer’s Trust of Canada for an emerging LGBT writer. Although Farzana understands why writers are put into niches, she resists it too. Being classified, Farzana says, has its benefits. “We get support from women and gay bookstores.” She adds that if a white person were to write about heterosexuality, his or her work would not be categorised.
Farzana says she received a lot of praise for Stealing Nasreen, and that Six Metres Of Pavement is close to her heart. “I had to go deep within to write this book. It’s special for me.” She enjoys writing the internal worlds of her characters. “I do like to delve deep. When we read books of characters we haven’t encountered, it helps develop empathy.”
Farzana says that the publishing industry is in a flux. “It is up to writers to figure out ways to publish their book. One has to devote a chunk of their writing life to finding ways to reach out to readers. Social networking sites are helpful in spreading word about books,” she concludes.