“I am being asked this question many times, both in Canada and in India, but I am quite pleased to answer it. The compartmentalising (as a queer author) rankles me slightly, but it also helps queer readers find my work, and I am glad for that,” says Toronto-based Farzana Doctor, the author of Stealing Nasreen (Rupa), the winner of Lambda Award 2012 for Best Lesbian Fiction.
In India these days to promote her second novel, Six Metres of Pavement , (which included a visit to New Delhi too), Farzana would like to fight her corner a bit more though, and challenge such compartmentalisation. “Heterosexual writers who have one queer character among three protagonists (as in both my novels) don’t have their books labelled in this way. Similarly, heterosexual writers writing about heterosexual characters don’t get compartmentalised as ‘heterosexual fiction’.”
Though Farzana sees her kind of writing as a niche, its readers are growing, and receiving the Lambda Award, she insists, was a proud moment for her. “I have a reason for it. Queer readers do like to see characters who reflect their experiences and realities.”
Some call her a Diaspora writer too. Not only does she have Indo-Canadian roots, but most of her protagonists also belong to that bracket. “I always prefer to be labelled as a writer of literary fiction first. But being a Diasporic person, Indo-Canadian and queer are all part of what influences me as a writer,” she says.
Farzana studied to be a psychotherapist and pursues it professionally. Her interest to contribute to society also led her to social work. Though writing, she says, came to her early on. “I have always written. As a child I wrote plays and poems and stories because it was fun. As I grew older, writing became more academic, less enjoyable.” About 15 years ago, she took a hobby course at the local university and wrote the first draft of the first chapter of Stealing Nasreen . She couldn’t imagine it to be a novel in the making till she wrote about 150 pages. “I just couldn’t stop after that.”
The initial struggle was typical: finding a publisher, being seen as a credible writer and building an audience. “I noticed it began to happen about a year and a half after Stealing Nasreen was published. That made writing Six Metres of Pavement (Rupa) slightly easier,” she says. She picked a style of writing which is “fairly organic, from start to finish.”
“I believe that the true art of writing is in the rewriting. For Six Metres of Pavement , I did about 13 drafts before I felt it was ready to be sent out.”
As a novelist, she rejoices in catching deep emotional experiences, what she calls, “the internal worlds of characters.”
“I think my role as a psychotherapist has helped me here because I am swimming in them all day at work. If I am imagining a character expressing anger or sadness, I can call upon thousands of moments to carefully construct a scene, describe how they move their bodies, what their facial expressions might be, the way they use their voice....”
One aspect of daily life she is developing as a writer is how to write about sexuality, “actual sex scenes, in ways that feel nuanced, subtle, erotic and literary. I think it takes a lot of talent to write good sex scenes! It’s sort of a funny thing to admit that it’s difficult for me, because I don’t have many hang-ups discussing and educating people around sexuality. But writing the scenes? Much harder.” Being an activist has taught her that the goal should be to disrupt the status quo. “I hope that my writing does that in subtle ways that are enjoyable for a reader.”
A prolific writer, Farzana is already in the final stages of revising her third novel. “It’s about a mixed-race woman (of Canadian and South Asian ancestry) who works at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico and is sorting out her life. This is the novel in which I’m working on writing better sex scenes!”