This month saw the release of Farzana Doctor’s fourth novel titled Seven (Dundurn Press). Seven is a fictional story inspired by real events and the community and culture of the Dawoodi Bohras, a sect within Shia Islam. This interview explores what truths are revealed through fiction and Doctor shared several books that have inspired her.
ROOM: What draws you to a book? And what lingers after reading it?
Farzana Doctor (FD): I love characters that are drawn with rich complexity and get swept up in their emotional struggles. For example, one book that hooked me immediately was Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes whose protagonist, in the very first chapter, is forced to make a terrible choice, and then live with its consequences.
Often, uncomfortable endings linger. For example, I recently finished Cherie Dimaline’s gripping Empire of Wild and I’m still trying to make sense of how I feel about its ending!
ROOM: In an article on Chatelaine.com, you wrote about your new novel, Seven, and the process of decoding your community through writing fiction. Can you share a book you’ve read that allowed you this same experience of self discovery?
FD: Shaukat Ajmeri released his debut novel Keepers of the Faith this past spring. Through fiction, he explores the genesis of the Dawoodi Bohra reform movement and the resulting schisms in the community. I’d heard stories about this movement from family, but his novel brought them to life and helped me to better understand aspects of my community, and therefore, myself too. I wish I could have read this book twenty years ago!
ROOM: What is your preference between character-driven versus plot-driven stories?
FD: I do prefer character-driven stories, but plot is essential. Plot drives the story forward and gives characters something to react against.
ROOM: Was it ever a debate whether you would write fiction over memoir? In a recent interview with POPtv, you posed the question “How do I communicate a truth to the world that I think is important?” How do you balance truth with fiction?
FD: With Seven, I wanted to create relatable, flawed and diverse characters who grapple with khatna in their own ways. I think the best way to balance truth and fiction is to do really good research. My characters are composites of people I’ve read about or have known. Of course, there are threads from my own life experience in there too.
Fiction is a terrific tool for educating while entertaining, and a wonderful way to increase readers’ empathy and interest in social justice issues. Memoir can do this too. But fiction does it in sneakier, more indirect ways.
But honestly, there was never a debate. Memoir makes me nervous! I like a high degree of privacy around most aspects of my personal life. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll change my mind and have the guts to write a memoir.
FD: I’m staring at my bookshelf trying to figure out how to answer this question. Each book I’ve loved is an offering from that author’s beautiful mind and specific experiences, so I can’t imagine wishing that I’d written them. That being said, there are so many writers whose skills I admire. For example, to name just a few: Larissa Lai’s lyrical dialogue in The Tiger Flu; Vivek Shraya’s wry wit in The Subtweet; Eden Robinson’s magical descriptions in Son of a Trickster.
ROOM: What are you reading right now?
FD: It’s been a time of distracted reading for me, mostly because of the pandemic. But also, launching a book makes my brain buzz with excitement and its counterpart, anxiety.
So, I’ve been alternating among a few books right now:
I recently finished Cicely Belle Blain’s sharp and gorgeous Burning Sugar.
My bedtime reading is Bif Naked’s fascinating memoir, I, Bificus.
On my e-reader, I’m halfway through Ava Homa’s haunting and original Daughters of Smoke and Fire.
And on audiobook, I’m almost finished Deborah Frances-White’s empowering The Guilty Feminist.