I recently met writer and former Globe and Mail editor, Tasneem Jamal, at the Arts Awards Waterloo Region. She was nominated in the writer category, and I was nominated in the ‘other’ category, for this blog. She won; I didn’t, but I knew I wanted to interview her about her first novel, Where the Air is Sweet and her writerly life.
We discussed the surprising response to her Chatelaine essay about her family’s African adventure; balancing writing time with work and motherhood; the popular books at her house; and the best way to drink tea.
I just finished reading her book – it is fascinating and once you finish reading this post, you should march to your favourite bookseller, such as WordsWorth Books, and get yourself a copy.
Last year, you published your first novel, Where the Air is Sweet. Congratulations! How has the shift to being a writer in a public sphere gone for you?
It’s been an absolute pleasure. Writing a novel is such a solitary experience. But throughout the process I was conscious of the reader, of wanting to connect emotionally with the person reading the book. To meet readers is a gift.
Part of being a writer today is public speaking and doing lots of self-promotion. Is this part of the writerly life at odds with who you are or is it manageable?
I enjoy meeting people and speaking about my book, so in that sense public speaking and promotion are not at odds with who I am. Time, however, is a challenge for me. I have young children and a part-time day job in addition to writing. In that respect book promotion can be a challenge.
The book was inspired by your family and the Ismaili Muslims’ experience of being forced out of Uganda in the 1970s. What sort of response has this generated from the Ismaili community? Are they pleased to have their story told in this fashion?
The family in the book, like mine, is Ismaili Muslim, but the story chronicles the experience of the larger community of Ugandan Asians. And the response from this community – former Ugandan Asians – has been extremely positive. Prior to my book’s publication, the expulsion had not been told in any meaningful, public way. Many people who lived through the experience – as well as their children – have told me reading about their story in a novel form has been gratifying and moving.
If someone says, ‘Hey, what is your book about?’ what do you say?
My book tells the story of the 1972 expulsion of South Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin.
Many people read your article in Chatelaine and related to your poignant story of the dreamy African adventure turning sour. What kind of response did the article generate?
It was tough for me to publish because it was deeply personal. But the response has been overwhelmingly positive. People emotionally connected to the essay in a way I had not expected. So much so that I have been inspired to write a book-length account of our year in East Africa.
What is the best thing about writing?
I feel like a child again when I write. I’m playing – and anything is possible.
Was it your family connections that drew you to Kitchener after your African adventures?
It’s my hometown. My family settled in Kitchener more than 40 years ago. My parents never left. I lived in Toronto (where I went for university) for about 12 years. When my husband, my daughters and I came back from Tanzania, my parents were kind enough to let us live in their house. I found a job in Waterloo soon after and we moved into our own home.
You have two young daughters at home. What books are popular in your house?
Novels by Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary hold a special place of honour in our home.
What do you read for fun?
I’m a news junkie, so I regularly scour news sites and love to read analysis and opinion. When it comes to fiction, I have a physical repulsion to bad writing and so I cannot read more than a paragraph or two of popular literature. Reading literary fiction is pure pleasure for me.
What writer would you love to meet?
What does a typical day look like?
A typical day involves getting the children off to school, working – either at my part-time job as a communications officer at Project Ploughshares in Waterloo or writing (I have two days a week to focus on my writing) – and then picking the children up after school. If I can squeeze in some writing time after they are in bed, I try to do that.
The most important questions: coffee or tea?
The answer is complicated. At home, I drink tea. I like it in a very particular way, milky (with evaporated milk) and sweet. I think that’s the South Asian in me. When I’m away from home, coffee, always.
What creative project are you currently working on at the moment?
I’m working on a creative non-fiction book about our year living in Tanzania, stemming from the Chatelaine essay you mentioned.
Tell me three things you can’t live without (except people).
- My laptop or some sort of writing device.
- Modern plumbing (I cannot do outhouses and such).
- A hit of caffeine in the morning.
What gives you the greatest pleasure?
Remembering that life is to be enjoyed, no matter what I’m doing.
What do you wish you had more time for?
To write in solitude.
What would you rather do: go dancing, see live music or watch TV?
It depends on the live music in question and my level of sleep-deprivation. Listening to a beautiful voice and an acoustic guitar is a lovely night out. But good television is fun as well. Dancing doesn’t make the list for me.
What other arts and culture things do you like?
I love live theatre. Going to see plays was something I did regularly in Toronto and before I had children.
Is there a wish you have for Waterloo Region?
I wish there were a culture of walking. This is in the realm of fantasy in 2015 but I would love to live in a neighbourhood where you simply don’t need a car to go buy groceries, go to a restaurant, etc.
Favourite topic of conversation?
The topic matters less than the attitude of the person with whom I’m conversing. If someone is truly engaged – with him or herself, with me, with the present moment – I’m in heaven.
P.S. Tasneem will be one of the speakers at the Waterloo Public Library’s annual fundraiser, After Hours @ The Library this fall. You should come.
You can keep up with Tasneem’s activities on Twitter.