- The award-winning writer talks about her passionate fight against female genital mutilation in her Dawoodi Bohra community.
Award-winning writer, activist and psychotherapist, Indo-Canadian Farzana Doctor has once again wowed the literary world with her recent book, “Seven.” Recipient of the CBC Books Best Canadian Fiction of 2020, the book has several more laurels under its belt — notably, Indigo/Chapters/Coles Best Book of 2020, Amnesty International 2020 Reader’s Choice, Apple Books Best Book of 2020, Globe and Mail Best Independent Read among others.
Sitting down with American Kahani for a tete-a-tete, this daughter of immigrant parents, who originally hailed from Mumbai, says, “I was born in Zambia, where my parents were for five years, before we immigrated to Canada in 1971, and where I have spent my whole life.”
Her father, a doctor, had renounced religion and Doctor and her siblings, were brought up questioning organized religion.
An imaginative child, Doctor was involved with activism, as a member of an anti-nukes organization by the time she celebrated her sweet 16th. But her happy childhood was cut short when her mother passed away from cancer. “We were forced to grow up quickly and become independent kids,” she recalls.
Social justice has been an underlying theme of Doctor’s life. Having inherited her rebellious instincts from her parents, who spoke up against racism, she joined human-rights clubs while studying arts and sciences at McMasters University. Her first job at 18 was at a women’s shelter. She followed it up with a Master’s in social work.
“I always had an activist bent. Both of my parents taught me how to question things. And early in life, I found myself joining anti-apartheid groups and writing campaigns. And my first serious job was at a women’s shelter. And it’s through that job that I decided I wanted to further my education and become a social worker.”
Today, Doctor wears many hats. “I am a psychotherapist in the afternoon and a novelist in the morning,” she says laughing.
Doctor has been writing all of her life, but it became a more permanent endeavor around 2000, when she began writing her first novel, “Stealing Nasreen,” which was published by Inanna in 2007. Her second novel, “Six Metres of Pavement,” won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award and was short-listed for the 2012 Toronto Book Award. In 2017 it was voted the One Book One Brampton 2017 winner. Her third novel, All Inclusive was a Kobo 2015 and National Post Best Book of the Year.
Today, Doctor says, “writing feels necessary. When I don’t have a chance to write I feel itchy.”
Doctor’s activism often spills over into her writing, and all her novels take up nuanced social and relationship issues: same-sex love and religious conservatism in “Stealing Nasreen” (2007); a father dealing with the memory of having killed his baby accidentally in “Six Metres of Pavement” (2011); and swinging couples in “All Inclusive” (2015).
The one factor that unites all her books is that she draws her protagonists from her own community — the conservative Dawoodi Bohra community.
“I think South Asian characters are ‘missing’ — more so the Dawoodi Bohras,” says Doctor, who recently celebrated a milestone birthday. She believes there is space for feminism and evolution even in her conservative religion.
“You can be Dawoodi Bohra and still be a feminist. You can love and critique your community at the same time. Else, it can never be welcoming and safe for everyone,” she adds.
“For me, it is really important to be able to weave in social justice issues into my novel. I think writing is a tool for change and “Seven,” has definitely been a vehicle for raising awareness around this unknown issue.”
Telling American Kahani how the idea for “Seven” came about, Doctor says it all started when in 2015 she got involved with ‘We Speak Out’, an organization that works in the Bohra community to end FGM/C (female genital mutilation or cutting). “At that time, I was very busy promoting my third novel and really didn’t have time for writing anything new. But I found myself sitting down with my morning cup of coffee and these fully formed fictional scenes were coming out and I just let it happen. And by the time I had about 20 of those scenes, I realized that I was working on a novel. So, I think “Seven” was a combination of activism and my own personal experience with “Khatna” (FGM/C). And when you’re doing that kind of work, it’s a very emotional moment, so it makes sense that my imagination was taking me in those directions,” she says.
In “Seven,” the Indian American protagonist — a mother of a little girl in New York – accompanies her husband to India on a research trip. There, she confronts the reality of the tradition of khatna, or female genital cutting, in the Dawoodi Bohra community, and realizes the issue is closer home than she could have ever imagined.
The issue is personal to Doctor too. “The book is set in India in 2016 when debates about khatna are coming out in the open. That really mirrored what has been happening in the Bohra community. It wasn’t until late 2015 that khatna became a part of public discourse. It is such a taboo subject. There’s a lot of shame and silence around it. But, over the last five years, a lot has happened in the community and I tried to mirror that through happenings in the book. And while it is fiction, it is based on things I have seen around me and people I have spoken to. It is very much based on what has happened.”
Speaking about an issue that is clearly important to her, Doctor says, “The more you bring up issues such as FGM/C, the more you normalize the conversation and help survivors speak up. My novel is my contribution to this.”
As to how her book has been received by friends and family and the conservative community at large, Doctor says, “It’s still early days to know for sure how to answer this question, but I can tell you from a few examples that it’s been received positively.”
Citing some examples as to the positive feedback she has received, she further adds, “For example, I did an online event with a group of India-based academics and in that group there was a Bohra academic who thanked me for being brave enough to talk about this. A couple of other women, who have Bohra friends have asked me how to raise this subject with their friends. And in Canada, I have heard from young women who have said that for the first time now, they’ve been able to raise this conversation with their mom. But then again, these people are the ones quite in favor of raising this topic. I haven’t heard from people who would be more conservative or might be opposed to talking about this.”
As to whether she fears a backlash, she says, “I did wonder if there would be a backlash, definitely in our activism, we did experience backlash, particularly from Twitter trolls,’ adding with incredulity, “I’m quite surprised I haven’t experienced any backlash.”
Her biggest fan however is her partner Reyaan. “He’s been so supportive. He’s not someone who really enjoys reading fiction, but he reads my work. He’s a huge booster. All his social media posts are about me and my books,” she says laughing, adding, “He definitely behaves like my biggest fan!”
Asked if being a brown writer in 2020 is daunting, Doctor says, “Things are changing slowly. We are seeing more racialized writers winning awards. We are seeing more racialized writers getting published. We still know that lots of things need to change.”
Quoting a recent December 11, New York Times article titled, “Just how white is the book industry?” Doctor says, “Only 5 precent of published fiction writers are BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color). I think we are at the beginning of change, but the very beginning.”
She adds, “One of the things we hear from publishers is ‘we already have our brown writer or our black writer for the season.’ What that means is that the space, especially with the Big 5 publishers, can feel really limited. However, the good news is that more indie publishers are interested in racialized voices. But that puts us at a bit of a disadvantage because indie publishers don’t have the kinds of budgets for publishing and marketing. So sometimes, it’s harder to get our voices out there in the mainstream. We have to work much harder, even pay our own publicists. “
So what comes next for this celebrated author after the success of “Seven,” Doctor says, “I have a poetry collection that’s just found a publisher, which will come out in Fall 2022 and I have another novel that I’ve been working on over the last couple of years that my agent will be getting ready to sell in the new year and I’m just beginning to think of a new writing project,” she says, not ready to divulge the details quite yet.
However, she does add, “I like to write about South Asian immigrants, people from the Bohra community. I also bring in elements of magical realism into my stories as well.”
A contemporary adult literary fiction writer, and a voracious reader herself, Doctor’s favorite author, who has had a lasting influence on her is Zadie Smith, “and it was after reading “White Teeth” that I thought, maybe I should try this out!”
To all aspiring writers out there, Doctor’s message is simple – “Find a community of writers you connect to.”
And for Doctor’s fans, a little-known fact about this busy author is that she is an amateur tarot card reader. “As a kid, I was a seeker. I was always interested in religion and spirituality and so whenever I had a friend who would invite me to go see a psychic, let’s go get our cards read, I would go out of curiosity. And seven years ago, I took a class in tarot reading and have been doing it for myself, friends and family ever since.”
Still an amateur at it, Doctor admits she does love reading the cards and believes her spirituality “guides her writing!”
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.