Recent reads and reviews

If we met during the Christmas holidays past, odds are I thrust a copy of Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon into your hands, and then held a cleaved sword over your head till you began to read. “But I don’t like fantasy,” some burbled. “You’ll read this,” I replied, “because it’s set in a fantasy Middle-East where the locals are the heroes rather than the villains, because the writing is kick-ass and because the world-building is delicious.  Because NPR called it The Lord of the Rings meets the Arab Spring. And because I’m interviewing Saladin Ahmed.”  That interview was published in the February issue of Bookslut; here’s an excerpt.

The novel features a fat old hero, and a warrior-priest swordsman who’s all of five feet tall… You subvert so many conventions about masculinity and heroism that dominate this genre. Did you have a particular agenda while planning the novel, or did it all flow organically from the plotting process?

I’m glad someone finally noticed that Raseed is short. That was very intentional, and few have remarked upon it! Yes, I had — that most dreaded of things! — an agenda: look at other (Other?) criteria for heroism and follow the sorts of heroes we don’t usually follow. But to me, that’s not mutually exclusive to flowing organically. A writer starts out writing with a set of suppositions and questions in her head — even if she is unaware of them. But as one writes, these, one hopes, shift and squirm a bit.


Writers don’t tell stories in a vacuum, however much we might wish to pretend otherwise. So what already-told stories are your stories re-inscribing, which ones are they countering? Since long before 9/11, US culture has been saturated with stories about Arabs and Muslims as villains, as fanatics, as worthless, as better dead than alive. So yes, I aim to tell different stories in my work, and Throne is a part of that effort, however cloaked in swash-and-buckle it may be. […] in general, Throne very consciously aims to re-center the traditional western fantasy map, and to interrogate attendant cultural assumptions in the process. But, again, via monsters and magic rather than polemic.

Read the interview here, buy the book here, and visit Ahmed’s website here.


I reviewed a couple of books for Herizons which I though I’d mention on the blog. Lilian Nattel’s Web of Angels is an unflinching yet compassionate exploration of Disassociative Identity Disorder (better known as multiple personality disorder).  Nattel never sensationalizes the condition, and the plot unwinds very delicately. The protagonist Sharon is a Toronto wife and mother who has successfully concealed her condition for decades, but when a young pregnant girl in the neighborhood commits suicide, she decides to take action, even at the cost of revealing her DID. “And it all seemed so ordinary except it wasn’t” observes a character, and this line serves as a fine precis of the novel.  Nattel demands that we re-evaluate our conception of normal–whether applied to ourselves, our near ones or our society–and the results are unsettling, to say the least.

(you) set me on fire by Mariko Tamaki nails the miserable angsty insecurity that most teens wear like a second skin. Allison Lee opts to attend St. Joseph’s College because no one from her high school will be there–she was picked on in school, had a messy love affair with a fellow student Anne, accidentally set herself on fire twice, and now bears burn scars running from her hairline to her shoulder; re-inventing herself in college is a seductive idea. But then she meets the beautiful, crazy Shar, and their relationship soon turns abusive. Allison’s voice is remarkably wise and funny and she has a finely-calibrated bullshit detector for society’s strictures, but she’s so spectacularly misguided in her relationship choices that you want to leap into this book howling “WTF are you doing!” There’s an enviable alignment of authenticity and skill in Tamaki’s new book; this is stuff of classics.


And now, for some exciting literary happenings, aka a nude author calendar. Twelve Canadian authors will display their beautiful…minds for a 2014 calendar, whose proceeds will go to PEN Canada (an organization that supports freedom of expression). The calendar is produced by Bare it for Books, and the line-up includes  Farzana Doctor, Miranda Hill, Terry Fallis,  and Yann Martel, who I hope will pose with a tiger covering his bits.

Bookslut interview with Sheela Chari

When Neela agrees to bring her veena (an Indian stringed instrument that is an older and much bulkier sister of a sitar) to her sixth grade Instruments Around the World unit in her Boston school, she’s chiefly worried about performing in public without embarrassing herself. But then Neela’s four-foot veena, packed in its special wheeled case, vanishes while she’s taking shelter from the rain during her walk back home from school. The veena has a history of disappearing and reappearing; could it be cursed? How can an eleven-year-old track it down, especially if it might have resurfaced in India? And does the dragon carving on the instrument mean something special?

Sheela Chari’s middle-grade (MG) novel Vanished (Disney Hyperion, 2011) is a rollicking mystery that seamlessly incorporates multicultural elements into the fast-paced plot. Vanished was chosen as the 2012 Children’s Literature Honor book by APALA, and was nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award. Chari, who was born in Bangalore and moved to America when she was three, lives in Boston with her family.

Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Chari on this month’s Bookslut.


“Before Vanished, my writing was generally literary, and without a lot of action. When I decided to work on a children’s mystery novel, I had to deal with a very clear story arc. Which was great for me! I learned how to structure my novel, how to space out clues, and how to make my chapter endings more urgent and page-turning. I was very conscious that a middle grade reader might get impatient with a lot of narrative and description. Essentially, I learned to read my writing like a reader, instead of as a writer alone. If I ever write an adult novel, I will apply a lot of what I learned to the writing of it as well.


I also wanted to create a certain kind of immigrant on paper — an Indian-American girl who was comfortable enough in her skin that the thought most immediate on her mind wasn’t “How do I fit in?” but “How do I solve this mystery?” A story about such a girl couldn’t focus on all that made her different.”

Check out the rest of the interview here.


Vanished was one of my favourite reads of the year, and I urge you to pick up a copy now! And visit do Chari’s website at

An interview, and a talk

I’ve been interviewed on Open Book: Toronto by the wonderful Dorothy Palmer.  Here’s an excerpt:

“After completing my MBA, I worked for a while in large corporations (last with Citigroup), till I started believing I was entitled to do what I really wanted. I wanted to read and to write, and not just on stolen hours on weekends. So I got myself a Masters degree in the arts, and then I started sending out my work.

Clark Blaise says about Indian immigrants to [North] America that material success “has been the easy part. After all, they were programmed to study hard, invest wisely, and live frugally. But that other Constitutional promise, ‘happiness,’ has been elusive.” I’m a product of the Indian upper-middle class that Blaise so astutely portrays, and in some ways, I had to give myself permission to be happy and to believe that things would work out. And you know what? They did. Sure, it’s been a bumpy road–I initially received nothing but rejection from every Canadian publication I approached. (Fortunately my work got picked up in the US, otherwise I might have returned to banking.) I now work as a freelance writer and spend much of my time reading and writing.”

If you feel so inclined, you can read the whole thing here.


This weekend, I attended a round table conversation at IFOA on the topic “The Individual in Society”, featuring authors Bharati MukherjeeLauren B. Davis, and Johan Harstad. In essence, the three authors discussed why they (and their characters) chose not to conform, their respective motivations and reasoning, and the consequences of questioning the values of the societies they belonged to. I was (predictably) most interested in hearing Mukherjee–I’ve been reading her since high school, and “The Management of Grief” still tears me up.

I was particularly intrigued by Mukherjee’s response to Harstad mentioning that self-effacement was part of his manifesto of living. Harstad said (I’m paraphrasing liberally here) that he always endeavored to cause the least amount of fuss, to minimize his societal footprint, if you will. For instance, he said that when his flight landed, he always remained seated till the passenger in the aisle seat was ready to disembark. Mukherjee replied that it took a certain confidence to behave in such a manner, and that sometimes, in some societies, the only way to succeed was to claw and grasp at the most fleeting opportunites. Here’s the thing: Harstad is from Norway, while Mukherjee’s protagonist is a girl from small-town India. Pushing and shoving are perhaps both inevitable and necessary in a society featuring scarce resources, one that imposes draconian consequences for bucking tradition. I think a small-town girl would be mincemeat if she chose to be self-effacing rather than brash-bordering-on-selfish.

The tricky part, I suppose,  is recognizing when to abandon that sort of mindset. I think some are so conditioned to having to fight for the least glint of opportunity that twenty years after, they’re still jumping the queue at the $9.99 India Palace lunch buffet despite earning six-figure incomes.

Anyway. After the talk, I briefly met with Mukherjee and asked her to sign my book, and I didn’t have to spell my name out for her. And of course I gushed like an idiot; poise: when will you make my aquaintance?


Some of you may have noticed a pleasing symmetry in the above post: Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee are husband and wife. I’ll be hearing Blaise read this Thursday at the Rogers Writer’s Trust  Fiction Prize event.

On television, on books

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a guest on Book’Em TV, a Canadian TV show about books and reading, and the episode where I feature was shot on Monday. It was a lot easier than I expected, but I suspect I giggled feebly on camera while drool slopped down my chin. Ah, well. The show, which debuts this September, features a host, a panel of three readers, and a different guest in each episode. In essence, the three panelists, who each picked a favorite book, had to entice viewers to vote for their novel as the show’s read of choice. Their chosen titles were The Alchemist, The Beach, and Northanger Abbey, and it was great fun watching the three fight it out. The show host, Dr. Mary Ashun, really held it all together with her enthusiasm and down-to-earth approach–she made it seem as though a bunch of nice, book-obsessed folks got together to talk about their favorite thing. But, like, on TV. This is all way more difficult to achieve than it sounds.

The guest for the first episode was Terry Fallis, whose debut novel The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humor and also won Canada Reads 2011, which is a big big deal, sort of an Oprah Book Club but with a sedate, publicly funded Canadian flavor. His episode was shot the same day, so I squeezed hands with him and then procured his signature on my copy of TBLP.  I’ll do a full-length review of the book soon, but a quick heads-up if you haven’t read it yet–it’s a funny, mordant, but surprisingly tender story about an academic-turned-politician. Sometimes CanLit can seem deadly dull, all earnest angst and winter depression, but this novel makes its points through humor and satire, and it’s ultimately a shout-out to idealism. Huzzah! An intelligent feel-good novel! When was the last time…? I want to mention here that TBLP was repeatedly rejected by publishers, and that Fallis went the self-publishing route. Now he has a nice deal with McClelland, so a slush-pile rejectionista somewhere has probably changed jobs, and is now Rob Ford’s advisor. Fallis was really funny and smart, so I hope you catch him on the show. Meanwhile, stalk him on the internets here.

It was then my turn, and I talked about reviewing and blogging and proclaimed on television that I don’t own an e-reader because I like to smell books. And then it was over, and we all (minus Fallis) went out for pizza. And here is a picture; the long hair in the pink coral shirt on the extreme right is moi.

And a shout-out to all the lovely people on the show and behind the scenes, who were stratospherically NICE and very smart; someone set them to work on the debt ceiling already. And not to belabor the very obvious diversity thing, but holy crap, we participants came from four continents. Lots of different people all talking happily about books, followed by pizza. Do you have a better vision for Utopia?

An interview with Camilla Gibb for Bookslut

My interview with Camilla Gibb is up at the latest issue of Bookslut. Gibb’s new novel The Beauty of Humanity Movement (Penguin, 2011) is a very accomplished piece of writing, but what really intrigued me was were the issues surrounding the Canadian Gibb’s authorship of a book set in a culture and country far from her own–Vietnam. Moreover, Gibb presents a Vietnam seen through Vietnamese eyes; the only Western character is a Vietnamese-American woman visiting the country in order to trace her missing father.

I am not questioning for a second Gibb’s (or any author’s) right to handle Vietnam (or any other) subject matter, but I do think it’s a notable omission not to acknowledge the place from which an author writes. What if the situation had been reversed; what if, say, a Muslim Pakistani writer had penned a novel about Canada on the basis of a vacation to the country-a novel that didn’t concern itself with the issues that are supposed to preoccupy such a writer but instead, simply sought to capture today’s Canada. Would critics readily cast aside the author’s racial, religious and national identity while reviewing this book?

Gibb is a white Western-educated Canadian woman. Gibb is immensely adept at understanding other cultures–she has a PhD in Anthropology from Oxford. Gibb’s previous novel again dealt with  a culture very far from her own–2005’s Sweetness in the Belly explored the life of a white Muslim woman in Ethiopia with astonishing depth and sensitivity.  I kept these facts in mind while communicating with Gibb, and here’s the resulting interview.


Camilla Gibb’s last novel, Sweetness in the Belly, was set in Ethiopia and Thatcherite Britain, and described the story of a white Muslim woman who self-identified as Ethiopian. Critics praised the work’s authenticity and cultural sensitivity, and Sweetness scooped up a number of honors, including the Trillium Book Award.

In her new novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement, Gibb again writes about a country and culture far from her own — Vietnam. Beauty avoids the regulation West-centric narratives of the country to offer an intimate, richly-detailed account of the forces of history and optimism animating Vietnam today.

Gibb, who earned a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford University, was born in England and now lives in Toronto. She answered Bookslut’s questions via e-mail on the eve of her trip to the United Kingdom.

Sweetness in the Belly is set (partly) in Ethiopia, and The Beauty of Humanity Movement is set in Vietnam. Given how a sense of place is so key to your writing, it’s intriguing that you’ve said you always enter a novel through a character.

I see the encounter with place always happening through the eyes of an individual. I am interested in place and culture in terms of how they shape an individual life, but what and how one encounters is really determined by individual personality and circumstances. For example, the main character of The Beauty of Humanity Movement is an old, itinerant pho seller named Hung. When I “discovered” him, I wanted to know his life story, what he had lived through in eight decades, what he had experienced and how that might have shaped him. I thus encountered Vietnamese history and culture through his eyes — taking him back through the decades, from the French colonial era, to the beginning of the communist era, to the war, to the years of poverty following the war that necessitated some liberalization of the Vietnamese economy.

Vietnam has a knotty history with the West — of colonialism, exploitation and war. Do you, as a Western writer, feel a burden of representation (so to speak) when dealing with Vietnam?

Not burdened, but appropriately challenged. What I wanted to do was tell a story about Vietnam that had very little to do with the war. When I went to Vietnam in 2007, it became immediately apparent the degree to which the war is a Western, rather than Vietnamese preoccupation. Once you put the war aside, the possibility of a thousand other stories comes to light — stories we have not heard because Vietnam still exercises a stern degree of censorship, individual expression has been discouraged, there is not a strong tradition of novel-writing and there is no publishing industry to speak of beyond the government’s own propaganda department. If I, because of the privilege of living and working in the West, have some freedom to shine a light in a hidden corner, I take it as my responsibility to do so, and do it responsibly.

The Vietnam War is still an important cultural and political touchstone for America, but your novel conveys the impression that modern Vietnam doesn’t devote much mindspace to it. In the novel, a young man named Tu’ says “The war was a long time ago… And furthermore, the Vietnamese beat the Americans…” And the matter seems to end there for him.

The legacy persists, the damage done, the scars, but perhaps in part because of a Buddhist sensibility, there seems to be a strong inclination to live in the now.

To write narratives which get deep under the skin of a country, you must have inhabited the private spaces of the people. Did you find this easy to achieve? How do you fold yourself away and become an invisible observer?

I will never be an invisible observer. I will always be an outsider. But that stance can sometimes afford you insight, with the benefit of some distance, some objectivity and some access to private spaces that might otherwise be off-limits. In the research that informed Sweetness in the Belly, for example, I lived and worked in a Muslim community for a year. Because I was non-Muslim, because I was not a woman from that community with all the associated expectations, I had the advantage of being able to move between male and female spaces in the way a woman in that community could not. Being a woman also allowed me access to the private worlds of women in a way that a male writer could never have accessed.

I can see how your training as an anthropologist helps your writing, but does it ever cramp you in the domain of fiction?

It did. The early drafts of Sweetness in the Belly were full of explicit ethnography. But then I was burdened with having written a Ph.D. thesis on the place and its people. I had to purge a lot of detail in the interests of moving along and telling a story. I learned a lot through that process.

I approached this novel very differently, just doing enough research to give me a toehold, then taking the plunge into the imaginative. I let the main character, Hung, take me back through time. I imagined he came from a village, and therefore researched village life in the ’20s and ’30s. I brought him to work in his uncle’s restaurant in Hanoi in the 1930s, and thus did research about café culture and intellectual life in Hanoi during the ’30s-’50s. And in doing so, I discovered the men I refer to as “The Beauty of Humanity Movement.” I did research about the end of the French era, the early days of communism, including the brutal land reform policies of the ’50s, and so on, situating Hung in all the eras he had lived through, asking how the universal and political was personally experienced. I encountered history through his eyes.

Is your connection to the setting of your novels primarily literary, or does it extend to other aspects of your life? Once a novel is published and done with, what sort of relationship do/can you maintain with the place?

I don’t shy away from the designation “political” writer. There is a politics at work in everything I do — a humanitarian spirit and a belief in the importance of underrepresented voices being heard. In Sweetness in the Belly, for example, I very much wanted to explore something of Oromo experience. The Oromo are an Ethiopian ethnic group who have been marginalized and denied freedom of cultural and political expression for centuries. An Oromo friend thanked me for speaking to the Oromo situation in a way that she was not at liberty to do. Her life would be in danger if she even attempted to do so.

On the topic of a humanitarian spirit, I heard you helped your Vietnamese tour guide Phuong (who told you about the itinerant pho seller who inspired the character of Hung) set up a pho shop of his own?

My friend Phuong had a dream to open his own pho restaurant. Years ago I had a dream — to write fiction. Someone — an anonymous benefactor — gave me a gift of $6,000 to quit my job and give it a try. It was then that I wrote my first novel. Because someone gave me a chance. I always wondered how and to whom I would pay the gift forward. When I met Phuong, I knew. He opened his first shop in 2008.

How has The Beauty of Humanity Movement been received in Vietnam? And by Vietnamese Canadians and Americans?

I have sent copies to friends in Vietnam, but have yet to hear their reactions. So far, I have had lovely responses from Vietnamese Canadians and Americans, most of whom left Vietnam as children. There is some relief, it seems, in reading a happy story about Vietnam, of reading about Vietnam as a modern country, and of hearing a story that is not preoccupied with the war.

Who is the one Vietnamese writer we should all be reading?

Dương Thu Hương, a Hanoin writer born in 1947, is considered something of a hero of the Đổi Mới era. Đổi Mới, an official platform adopted in the mid-1980s in order to liberalize a crippled economy, saw some degree of relaxation in social and political policing as well. At least for a time. Dương was imprisoned in 1991 after having published two novels openly critical of the Communist Party – The Other Side of the Illusion and Paradise of the Blind. She is an outspoken and vocal critic who continues to live and write in Hanoi, though her work is banned in Vietnam. Her subsequent novels, Novel Without a Name and Memories of a Pure Spring, have both only been published abroad in translation. All her works offer rare insight into post-war Vietnam, an era largely hidden from (and ignored by) Western eyes.

What are you working on now?

I edited a collection of Canadian memoir that is coming out this April — The Penguin Book of Memoir. As a consequence of spending three years reading memoir, I’m leaning toward writing one myself.

One of the main themes of your fiction is, in fact, the power — and unreliability — of memory. Could you elaborate on the latter in the context of your novels as well as this anthology? What draws you to memoir?

I don’t know that I make clear distinctions between fiction and memoir. They both seek to elucidate some truth about human experience and employ narrative devices in order to tell a story. Fiction often has the advantage of reading truer than nonfiction, ironically. The draw toward nonfiction at the moment seems to be rooted in a desire to explore a more direct means of storytelling.


The Indian diaspora: When? Why? Where? And, what next?

Writer Minal Hajratwala takes an in-depth look at the evolution of the global Indian diaspora through the lens of her own family’s migrations in her book Leaving India. In an interview with me for Bookslut , she talks about the Indian diaspora in America, the research that went into her book, and the place she calls “home.”

Here is an excerpt:


 In your book, you seem to discard the notion of the ABCD — the American-Born Confused Desi, a person of Indian ethnicity who is constantly forced to choose between America and India and confused as to her cultural identity. Do you think that image is irrelevant/dated now?

 I think that image was always a lie, although like most lies it had some truth to it. Our generation was not particularly confused; we were a focal point for the confusion of others, both the white society around us that didn’t know what to make of Indians and the immigrant generation that didn’t know quite what to make of America.

To distill the complexity of a group of 1.7 million people of various socioeconomic levels, religions, languages, and regional backgrounds down to a single “image” is something that various forces both inside and outside the Indo-American community are constantly trying to do, but it’s an impossible and, to me, undesirable project. I’m much more interested in a multiplicity of images of who we are and can be. The diaspora is incredibly complex and diverse, and in the United States some desis have been here five generations, some arrived yesterday, and there are confusions and certainties in each situation. The best image for me would be one of those goddesses with a thousand and one different faces and arms and tools. No confusion, but lots of options.

You’ve placed much emphasis on the accuracy of your writing, stating explicitly that you have not fictionalized anything in the book. What significance does this scrupulousness about telling the truth about your history hold for you?

It’s interesting that, no matter how much I reiterate that Leaving India is nonfiction, people still call it a “novel.” On the one hand I think that’s a compliment, as people often say admiringly of nonfiction books, “It reads like a novel.” No one ever compliments the voice or pacing of a novel by saying “It reads like nonfiction”!

On the other hand I think we’ve just become very used to the dominant experience of South Asian literature in the United States being fiction. It’s lovely for readers to sink into an exotic world of spices, silks, and family dramas, and often those dramas are stripped of historical tensions such as colonialism and racism, or at least history takes a far back seat. To me the project of this book was to understand why and how the Indian diaspora formed, in a very personal way; why do I have 36 first cousins spread out all across the globe? And because I really wanted to understand precisely how political and personal circumstances conspired to affect our lives, it wouldn’t have helped me to just make things up. I have other fiction projects in the work, and fiction is a fine way of making sense of the world; it just wasn’t right for this material, for me.

You’re a poet, and a journalist. Did you have to work to reconcile these two sides while writing the book, or did they flow into each other?

My journalistic and poetic voices battled mightily, but it was a productive struggle in a sort of Hegelian sense. I hope the synthesis is as satisfying to readers as it was torturous for me.

Read the whole interview with Minal here.

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