Episode 4 | Farzana Doctor

Farzana Doctor (00:00):
If you’re going to walk into any room and do any kind of presentation, you just want to assume that people are really happy that you’re there. You bring more of yourself. You’re less focused on your content and more interested in who’s in the room and what they might need. You go from rigid to fluid.
Claire Tacon (00:23):
You’re listening to Parallel Careers where writers who also teach, share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
Farzana Doctor (00:32):
My name is Farzana Doctor. I’m a novelist and a poet, and I do that in the morning. And then in the afternoons, I’m a part-time psychotherapist. I’m also an activist I have been for about 30 years. I’ve been a founding member of a couple of anti-FGM, female genital mutilation groups.

Recently I’ve done a couple of webinars for the Writers Union of Canada. I also am a mentor through Diaspora Dialogues. I have been bringing together my psychotherapy and my writing work into workshops. I have a lot of ideas and I have a lot of strategies for helping writers to get over some of the emotional and kind of difficult mental things that come up in writing.

When I was a social worker working at a large organization, one of my jobs was to do teaching around psychotherapy work, and I started to learn some adult education techniques.

And that was how I learned how to structure a workshop so that people wouldn’t be, you know, really bored really quickly. And so I try to structure in lots of experiential things. I know that as a participant, it’s really the experiential exercises and the networking with the other people and hearing what they have to say and realizing I’m not alone. All of that is really what I take out of workshops, not with the lecturer at the front of the room is doing. And so I think really the, the teacher’s job is to facilitate people getting moving, doing their own work, and then sharing with the group.

Farzana Doctor (02:14):
I think the other piece around the connections between psychotherapy and writing is I’ve also learned to just wait and to be patient and to allow characters to reveal themselves over time.

All Inclusive was a very difficult novel for me to write. I had written a completely different version of it before, and my agent who I had at the time and a writing group I worked with at the time, um, really panned it. If I could sum up all of their feedback, it would just be a thumbs down and they were right.

And one day I was teaching an emerging writer’s workshop at the High Park library in Toronto. And as I was riding the hills home, I heard this very distinct voice in my head that said, “I am here missing character and this is what happened to me.” And I stopped, you know, my bike to be like, what? No! No thank you. Also weird.

I had written this novel about this woman who works at an all-inclusive resort and she’s got all of this stuff happening around her swinger lifestyle. I had no better ideas.
So I removed a lot of her backstory and in the gaps that were left behind Azeez was writing himself. This was one of those weird magic moments where somebody was helping me and he was sending me scenes and in the gaps that were left behind, he kind of seamlessly moved in and it shouldn’t have made any sense.

Farzana Doctor (03:53):
So the voice in my head told me that he was involved in the Air India bombing. And part of my no was how was I going to incorporate that into the story I’d already written? And how was I going to write about the Air India bombing in a way that was going to be really respectful? I did a lot of research. That was one of the ways to remain respectful.

Most South Asian people I know have had, uh, some kind of someone that they lost in the air, India bombing, but I didn’t.
And so I worried about how would the family members of the people who died feel about me as someone who didn’t lose a loved one, how would they feel about me writing that and bringing it into a novel. Happily people responded really well and just said, this is another contribution to helping people not forget. The other piece is that you can’t overstep. So I didn’t want to become a spokesperson about the Air India bombing. I had a couple of requests and I declined them. And instead pointed them in the direction towards other writers who had experienced those personal losses. That’s also a way—like you don’t take opportunities, and especially paid opportunities, away from people who really should be the ones receiving that.

So my fourth novel, Seven, was released in September, 2020. And it’s a book about a 40-year-old woman who goes to India, thinking that she’s going to be doing a little bit of historical research on an ancestor and homeschooling her kids. It’s inspired by my own research into my own great-great-grandfather and it’s also inspired by my activism.

Excerpt from Seven

April 2016, Mumbai
I take a cautious sip. Tasnim Maasi pours half her cup into her saucer and sucks the tea down in one long, loud slurp. She pulls up her orna, which slid from her oiled hair to her shoulders, tucking the gauzy fabric around an ear to keep it in place.
It’s going to happen today; this afternoon. Maasi’s life is going to change irrevocably. Will she think that her favorite niece has turned traitor?
I cannot stop this moving train. What good will it do to announce the crash? After all, Maasi can’t get off at the next stop. Instead I sit on the edge of my beloved aunt’s couch, scalding tea burning my tongue.

Farzana Doctor (06:40):
At the end of 2015, I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw an article by a woman named Masooma Ranalvi, who is the founder of We Speak Out, which is an organization that works against khatna or female genital cutting in my community. And she was the first person that I know of who publicly, in a major newspaper, wrote about Khatna. This is an issue that is so taboo and so silenced in our community. And so I was really taken by what she wrote. And I contacted her over Facebook and just thanked her. And she wrote back and she invited me to join a WhatsApp group that soon became, eventually We Speak Out. And so I was one of the founding members and I was really involved in the early activism around that. But it was stirring something deep inside me. I had some denial and some suppressed memories that, over time, no longer were suppressed about my own experiences of Khatna.

And so I was in the midst of all of this activism and at the same time, fully formed scenes were coming out of me. I would spend 15 minutes in the morning with my notebook and my cup of coffee. I was still promoting All Inclusive, so I didn’t have a lot of time for new writing, but these fully formed scenes were just, you know, coming out into my notebook.

So I created three different characters who have three very different experiences of the issues. For example, there’s one character who thinks khatna is a good thing. Then there’s another character who knows nothing about it. And then there’s another character who is a really strong activist. And that’s how you bring nuance is through characters and experiences.

Beyond wanting to create a beautiful novel, I wanted to contribute to the conversation around khatna edge. And for me, fiction is a great way to do that. Yes, we can be on Twitter and yes, we can be public speaking about these kinds of things, but I somehow think we get into people’s hearts better through fiction.

Farzana Doctor (08:54):
Self-care is really important for writers in general, but I think specifically if you’re writing about your own trauma or other people’s trauma, I think it’s really important. I think we have to just be really tuned into what’s going on in our bodies. So, for example, with Seven, there were moments where I wasn’t sleeping very well or moments where I would get weird pains in my body. And those were signs that maybe I need to back off and work on other scenes. Or back off and just take a walk with my dog, just back off in general.

The other piece of self-care that I’m doing a lot of work on right now is, when you’re releasing a novel, often you’ll be asked to talk about the hard issues in the novel. And you’ll also be able to, you’re also asked to speak about the personal connections, right?

What, what is the personal and what is, what is the fiction? So I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about that and where are my boundaries around talking about me and with talking about the book. I, I have no boundaries with talking about my characters and the book, but I do have lots of boundaries about talking about my own personal experience.

So I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about that. I’ve spoken with journalist friends where I’ve had them practice with me, where they asked all kinds of insensitive questions. And I needed to say, “Thank you so much for that question. And, you know, I have a boundary around talking about that,” or, “I prefer to talk about this,” or, you know, just getting good at holding my boundary. So that’s a piece of self-care.

I also know that when it comes to writing about issues that have impact for a lot of people, sometimes you’ll get a lot of readers reaching out to you with their own stories, uh, perhaps even asking for support and being a little bit prepared, in advance, for that. And thinking through your own boundaries for that is really important.

I’m a big fan of twin narratives, both as a reader and as a writer. But I especially was intentional with this novel because one of the messages of the book is how we inherit everything from our ancestors. One of the ways I could show that was to have the main protagonist kind of moving along in her story, and then to have these moments of time—and they’re very brief—where the great, great grandfather character is moving through his life. And there are big swaths of time that are missing in his life. But he’s, there’s just these sort of moments where he arrives. And sometimes the connection between him and the main character are very directly related. And sometimes they’re not. And it’s more up to the reader’s imagination to wonder why have I brought in this particular piece of his story when she’s doing this other thing. Some of it is for foreshadowing.

Some of it is to hint at what’s going on for her emotionally. But mostly it’s to show that our ancestors are always with us and the legacies that they leave us are always with us.

Excerpt from Seven
January 1866, South Bombay
Eleven-year old Abdoolally huddled under the yellow glow of a street lamp, his index finger pacing his laboured reading.
“The lion … lives … in the … jungle,” he whispered. “His … ro … roar is … loud.”
An elderly fruit-sellar trudged by with an empty wooden in cart pulled by a weary bullock. Just in time, Abdoolally wrapped his legs around the post to avoid a heavy hoof landing on his toe. A fly, one of the bullock’s many winged passengers, hopped onto his hand and then onto the Hindi primary reader he had “borrowed” from Sunil, the nine-year-old boy of the family for whom he worked. He told his mother it was a gift. Did she believe the lie?

Farzana Doctor (13:05):
So there’s a form of therapy called Internal Family Systems Therapy. Um, and it basically says that we have all of these various protector parts within us, that we have developed over time. And some of them are really helpful and some of them are trying to be helpful and then maybe overdo it and become unproductive. And so the inner critic is one of those internal protector parts that sometimes go overboard.

So this exercise is called “Befriend Your Inner Critic.” So the first thing you do is you just tune in. Just write down what you hear, or just listen to what you hear. My inner critic often says things like this writing isn’t going anywhere. This is not original, that kind of stuff.

And then the next step is you try a compassionate, validating statement. So I might say, yeah, putting out this writing into the world is really scary. I am going to risk getting some criticism, not everyone is going to like this writing. Some people are really going to be angry about this, maybe. So, yeah, this is scary.

And then next you thank it for its service. I know you’re just trying to protect me from humiliation, rejection and disappointment. Thanks so much for doing that. You’ve been working so hard on my behalf for so many years.

And then the next step is you remind the inner critic that you can actually handle the things that it’s trying to protect you against. Often our inner critic parts are developed in childhood. And so it’s helpful to remind the inner critic that you’ve grown up. So I would say I’m a grownup and I have lots of experience with rejection now, and I’m okay with it. Or I’m a grownup and I have people I can talk to who are going to be really nice to me when I experience failure.

And then you check in and you see if your inner critic has relaxed a little bit. So you can get on with your writing.

Farzana Doctor (15:20):
When I’m thinking about feedback, I really try to remember what it was like to be an emerging author. Writing is incredibly vulnerable and it’s, I think it’s more vulnerable when we’re emerging writers. Facilitators or teachers need to set the stage in advance of starting. So in that first class or at the beginning of a workshop, they need to create the guidelines. They need to make sure the students really understand the guidelines for what kind of feedback do we want to be giving? How do we want to be gentle and kind to one another? How do we want to be supportive?

So one question that I’ve sometimes asked people when there’s feedback that’s being given is, “First of all, do you want feedback or did you just want people to listen?” And then, “What kind of feedback are you interested in?”

So that person can at least ask—they might not get what they’re looking for—but they can ask for what they want. And then the rest of the people in the room know what’s expected. And then it’s up to the facilitator if people don’t follow those guidelines, to enforce them. To say, “I think we’re getting away from our guidelines,” or, “I think we’re getting away from what so and so has asked for, in terms of feedback, maybe we could, we could draw it back in.”

The other piece is that I don’t think that it’s possible to be 100% safe. We all make mistakes. We all get triggered and we sometimes don’t even know why we’re getting triggered. So maybe we don’t look for safety, but we look for respect and good working relationships instead.

Claire Tacon (17:02)
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com

Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Paul’s work, including his collection Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.

Web extras:

1. Using hands-up exercises in class
I definitely use hands up exercises if I have an audience in front of me, because it’s a way to engage them. So, you know, you’ll say, “Hands up, if you’ve read that book,” or, “Hands up, if you’re a writer.”
And even hands-up is a way to do anti-oppression education as well.
I love hands up just because it’s a way to get people engaged. You can also have people move around the room if you have enough room to do that. But hands-up is a really easy way to get people activated.

2. Writing sprints
So at the very beginning of the pandemic, when we thought it wouldn’t last very long, I was feeling a lot of energy and I wanted to share the energy with other people. This was actually inspired by Catherine Hernandez and Nazbah Tom, who at that point were just sharing their own yoga practice when we were all in self isolation. And I thought, what could I share that’s going well for me? And at that point, my writing life was going very, very well for me. And I knew that people were talking about how hard it was to write during the pandemic. So I created this group called “#writing sprint.” That’s how you can find it. And writing sprints are things that have been around for a really long time. People will post, for example, on Twitter using that hashtag saying, “I’m starting a writing sprint in 10 minutes, who’s going to join me?”

People will join for the hour and then they’ll reply and say how it went. And it’s just a way of getting everybody’s asses in chairs for an hour, knowing that you have a community—virtual community—out there, who’s also doing the same thing. And it sort of gives us some, I don’t know, some courage and strength to just stay put, even if we’re not feeling like it. So that’s why I created that group. And then I started to really need it myself as the pandemic wore on. I found myself, and I still do, I find myself more distracted than before. And so having, having that hour where I’m not going to move is really helpful for me. I’m finding the same thing with reading, just more distracted in general. I’ve got four different books on the go and I’ve never had that. And it’s because I’m distracted. So I’ve got to switch it up from one book to the next, because I just can’t hold it. I think it’s harder to be still when we’re in a space of so much anxiety.

Farzana Doctor discusses how her career as a psychotherapist informs her writing and teaching practices. She discusses:

02:14 | The lightning bolt of inspiration that helped her revise her novel All Inclusive
03:53 | Being respectful when writing about real-world events, such as the Air India bombing
06:40 | How her activism sparked her most recent novel, Seven, a multi-generational story dealing with the impact of khatna in the Dawoodi Bohra community
08:54 | Self-care for writers both while creating new work and while promoting it
13:05 | Techniques for silencing your inner critic
15:20 | Facilitating constructive peer feedback

  Bonus Teaching Exercise: Befriending Your Inner Critic

There’s a form of therapy called Internal Family Systems Therapy. It basically says that we have all of these various protector parts within us that we have developed over time. Some of them are really helpful, and some of them are trying to be helpful and then maybe overdo it and become unproductive. The inner critic is one of those internal protector parts that sometimes go overboard. 

The first thing you do is you just tune in, write down what you hear, or just listen to what you hear. My inner critic often says things like:

“This writing isn’t going anywhere.” 
“This is not original.” 

The next step is you try a compassionate, validating statement. I might say:

“Yeah, putting out this writing into the world is really scary. I am going to risk getting some criticism. Not everyone is going to like this writing. So, yeah, this is scary.”

Next: you thank it for its service.

“I know you’re just trying to protect me from humiliation rejection and disappointment. Thanks so much for doing that.”

Then, you remind the inner critic that you can actually handle the things that is trying to protect you against. Often our inner critic parts are developed in childhood. So it’s helpful to remind the inner critic that you’ve grown up. I would say:

“I’m a grownup and I have lots of experience with rejection now, and I’m okay with it.”

Just remind the inner critic that you can handle it. Then, you check in and see if your inner critic has relaxed a little bit, so you can get on with your writing.

  Bonus Writing Exercises

Writing Prompt

Using Hands-up Exercise in Class

Writing Sprints

  More About Farzana

FARZANA DOCTOR is a writer, activist, and psychotherapist. From 2009-18, she curated the Brockton Writers Series and has been a volunteer with The Writers’ Union of Canada and the Writers’ Trust. She currently volunteers with WeSpeakOut, a global group that is working to ban female genital cutting in her Dawoodi Bohra community.

She has been writing all of her life but it became a more regular practice 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.

She's just completed a novel, Seven (August 2020, Dundurn), and a poetry collection, You Still Look the Same. She is currently at work on a YA novel.