& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, October 15, 2018

For me, writing a novel is a holistic endeavour: Ian Thomas Shaw


Ian Thomas Snaw
Ian Thomas Shaw’s second novel Quill of the Dove will be launched in April 2019. It is a blend of literary fiction and a political thriller. Framed by contemporary events in the Middle East, the novel covers two distinct time periods: 2007 mainly in Europe, the Palestinian Territories and Israel and Lebanon from 1975 to 1982.

French journalist Marc Taragon has spent the last thirty years attempting to bring to readers the truth about the wars and political intrigue in the Middle East.

Unsparing in his criticism of extremists in the region, he has earned many enemies. Taragon agrees to be interviewed by a young Canadian journalist, Marie Boivin, not knowing that Marie has a hidden agenda: to discover through Taragon the truth about her childhood.

Before Marie finds the answers she seeks, she is enmeshed in Taragon's plan to broker a private peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. In the isolated Greek village of Arkassa on the island of Karpathos, Taragon succeeds in persuading a dissident Palestinian leader and a left-wing Israeli politician to negotiate a far-reaching agreement that challenges hard-liners on both sides. 

The action moves quickly through Europe and the Middle East as Taragon, Marie and their associates try to stay one step ahead of deadly opponents of their initiative.

Ian was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. For the last 33 years, he has worked as a diplomat and as an international development worker, living in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. He currently lives in Aylmer, Quebec.

In an interview, Ian says, “In writing Quill of the Dove, I wanted to provide a perspective where individuals, not governments, armies, militias or political movements, were at the centre.”

You have worked as a development aid activist and a diplomat in the Middle East. Your latest novel Quill of the Dove is set in the Middle East. It attempts a personal narrative, a path to self-discovery, and a recapitulation of the region’s tortured history.

Why did you choose such a challenging subject?

I have always felt a great affinity for the peoples of the Middle East, whether they be Arabs, Jews, Druze or Kurds and have been dismayed at how the political leaders of the region have put their egos ahead of the welfare of the common people, often egged on by foreign backers. Unfortunately, many novels on the Middle East fall into the trap of catering to one side or the other of these conflicts, which are nurtured by the narcissism of the region’s leaders and serve the strategic interests of bigger countries.  In writing Quill of the Dove, I wanted to provide a perspective where individuals, not governments, armies, militias or political movements, were at the centre.

Are you satisfied with the results?

As a writer, I am, but I will leave it to the readers to decide whether the novel rises to their expectations.

What does the title of the novel mean?

The central character of Quill of the Dove is a journalist who deeply believes in pacifism. The quill is both the quill as an instrument for writing and as the feather of the dove, a symbol for peace. The novel is a eulogy to the courageous work of those journalists who denounce atrocities committed against civilians.

Your debut novel Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls was set in South East Asia. The second novel is set in the Middle East. Both have a Canadian connection. Why do you choose foreign locales as settings of your novels?

I belong to that generation of Canadians who in their youth saw the world as their oyster. Our economy was strong. Unionized summer jobs paid well, and after high school and during university, I, and many of my classmates, travelled the world. We didn't stay in fancy hotels or take trains or airplanes to hop around the countries we travelled in.

Instead, we put out our thumbs to hitch rides, slept in cheap youth hostels or sometimes by the side of the road, and mustered our language skills to connect with the people we met along the way. I look around today and don't see many young Canadians able to travel as freely as we did. So, in part, my novels are a way to harvest my own experiences and those of others to share with young Canadians and bridge the divide between them and the incredible world beyond Canada's borders.

You are active in the literary circles in Ottawa, you recently emceed a literary event, you founded the Ottawa Review of Books, you have organised a literary festival Prose in the Park for a few years. What motivates you to get so deeply involved with literary activities?

By nature, I am a strong organizer with a bias for action. After publishing my first novel, I started going to literary events in Ottawa, only to find that attendance was often dismal. I remember attending a reading in a bookstore with three outstanding Ottawa writers a few years back; I was one of three people in the audience. 

Two months later, the bookstore went out of business and these writers haven't experienced any real success in their writing despite their skills. At another event organized by the local literary festival, twenty people sat in the audience for a Governor-General winner.

There were many other examples that convinced me that I could draw on my organizational skills to make a contribution to the literary community in Ottawa and elsewhere. I strongly believe that for literature to prevail against video games and reality TV in Canada, a strong community of writers needs to be built, and I am very motivated to do my part in building that community.

You have done two novels in a decade. How would you describe your writing process?

I love to talk about my plots with people, especially with people who know something about the politics and societies of the regions that I write about. It is surprising how often others who are not writers can offer ideas to build fascinating stories. For example, my first novel drew on a number of anecdotes that a Vietnamese-Canadian friend told me about her “boat-child” experience leaving Vietnam and her integration into Canadian society when she arrived in this country.

As I questioned her about her experiences, I soon realized that through fiction, I could lend a voice to her and many others who had similar experiences. At that time, no Vietnamese-Canadian was writing in English although Kim Thuy was making her debut writing in French so I wrote Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls. I am proud to say that through my writing collective, Deux Voiliers Publishing, two Vietnamese-Canadian writers were later able to join the community of Canadian writers with some exciting novels.

I am also a structured writer who first prepares an outline of entire novels with each chapter containing a one-paragraph synopsis. For Quill of the Dove, I sought the views of 25 beta readers on one or more of the three drafts. Every beta reader was able to offer some good insights into what was working and what was not. Of course, you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros to take the collective criticism that comes from so many early readers. Finally, I also write keeping in mind the final product, i.e. the number of pages, number of chapters, dimensions of the novel and imagery that can be used for the cover design. For me, writing a novel is a holistic endeavour.

Are you working on anything right now?


Yes, I am in the process of formulating a novel about the Shining Path guerrilla movement in Peru. I have never been to Peru but my late brother spent fourteen years there and spoke often of his experiences there. I speak Spanish and am familiar with the politics of Latin America. To develop this novel, I plan to travel to Peru relatively soon. The plot I have in mind will centre around a teenage girl with a younger brother. Her parents are teachers in a small town in an area of Peru where the Shining Path guerrillas are receiving support from the local population. I hope to explore how innocent people were caught in the dirty war between the Peruvian government and the revolutionaries.

Title: Quill of the Dove
Trade Paperback
6"x9" 304 pages
Other Formats: E-Book
ISBN 978-1-771833783
Guernica Editions (MiroLand)
Price: $24.95
Publication Date: April 1, 2019
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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

I am an engaged writer, I’m interested in novels of ideas: Manjushree Thapa

Born in Kathmandu, and having lived in many countries, Manjushree Thapa is now a Canadian novelist, essayist, and editor. Her novel All of Us in Our Lives, published in Canada by Freehand Books and in India by Aleph Book Company, was launched last month in Toronto. In an interview, Manjushree says her writing has always been rooted in Nepal, "and will continue to be."


Manjushree Thapa at the launch of her book
at Another Story Bookshop
You’ve been a Canadian for a fairly long time, but only now have published a novel in Canada. Is the prolonged delay because of an unwillingness to adapt and accept your new Canadian identity?  

I moved to Canada from Nepal in 2008, mid-career, with several published books, and a novel in its final stages, Seasons of Flight. It took a few years to see that novel through to publication.

Then I began All of Us in Our Own Lives. I finished its first draft at the Writers’ Trust residency at Pierre Berton’s house in Dawson City, the Yukon, in the winter of 2011. It’s taken this long for it to be completed and published. I think it took me this long because it’s the first book I wrote about Nepal from afar. I wasn’t quite sure how to do that.

And the Canadian literary world maybe didn’t know what to do with a writer like me, who migrated to Canada fully formed. My writing has always been rooted in Nepal, and will continue to be. I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts for it, even though none of my earlier writing had been published here. I suppose that’s why it’s particularly meaningful to me that All Of Us in Our Own Lives found a home with Freehand Books. This is the first time I feel like I may be related, in some way, to the world of Canadian literature.

To be honest, I didn’t quite feel Canadian till I became a citizen in 2016. Before that, as a permanent resident, I took an interest, of course, in my milieu. I’d read many Canadian authors before moving here, but didn’t know much about the intricacies of the Canadian literary world – the institutions that shape it, and the writers they produce. It took a few years of reading to get my bearings. I now follow the Canadian literary world’s goings-on, though I do still feel some confusion about being an insider-outsider to it. But then the world of Canadian literature can be quite cliquish and inward looking. I suspect that many writers feel out of place in it as perhaps is fitting, given the revival of Indigenous literature. I’ve learned the most by reading writers such as Eden Robinson, Thomas King, and Lee Maracle. They’ve reframed the entire world of Canadian literature. Perhaps it’s right for all of us to feel a bit like outsiders here.

You’re a rare, authentic, grounded feminine voice to have emerged from South Asia and your oeuvre is rich, diverse and eclectic. Is your latest novel All of Us in Our Own Lives your first attempt at what is generally described (often derisively) as immigrant literature?

Immigrant literature, if I understand the term, refers to literature about what Salman Rushdie called 'the imaginary homeland’ - the homeland of the immigrant writer’s ancestry, perhaps viewed somewhat nostalgically upon an experience of loss through migration.

I started writing as a Nepali writer based in Nepal, and I remain creatively rooted in the contemporary moment. It’s true that I’m an immigrant writer now. But I don’t think this automatically makes the content of my writing immigrant literature. That is a sensibility that I haven’t ever adopted. I am, in fact, decidedly anti-nostalgic. I grew up in Nepal, the US, and Canada, and my family has lived in many other countries - Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Switzerland, India. I was formed by this constant feeling of displacement, and see myself more as a writer of the contemporary global moment. I always try to bring in as much of the world as possible into my work, rather than a duality between my ‘imaginary homeland’ and where I now live.

That said, if someone sees me as a writer of immigrant literature, I don’t particularly mind. There’s a lot of confusion around these terms, and I don’t take the term ‘immigrant literature’ as derisive.

You’re multilingual and a renowned translator, and yet you prefer English. Why?

My family lived in Ottawa when I was just learning to speak. English is my first language, even though Nepali is my mother tongue. I’m far more fluent in English, with a much greater range of expression. 

I did at one point start to write in Nepali, but quickly realized that it would be a better use of my skills to become a good translator of Nepali literature, rather than a mediocre Nepali writer. A good literary translator a rare thing. It has also led to a deeper engagement with the world of Nepali literature. It’s become my way to pay tribute to Nepal, which has a rich literary scene.

Do you see a natural progression in your journey as an author? What are the broad themes that your fiction attempts to help understand?

I am what is called an engaged writer, that is, a writer who takes on large social and political themes. I’m interested in novels of ideas and start with concepts that I then flesh out into specific characters’ personal stories. 

The theme of All Of Us in Our Own Lives is interdependence, as understood in Buddhism: the interdependent nature of the rising and extinguishing of people’s suffering. The world of international aid, and particularly the women’s empowerment industry, became a way to flesh out that concept by having characters whose trajectories would otherwise never intersect come together and spark personal growth and change in one another.  

My main growth as a writer has to do with aesthetics. When I started out as a writer, I was not always in control of my material. I’d start out meaning to write a picaresque and end up, four years later, with a nineteenth-century novel with some picaresque elements. The form would get away from me, or the characters would. Over the years my writing has grown more controlled. I feel like I now end up writing the books I set out to write.   

You have produced quality creative nonfiction. Is the process of creating the same with fiction and nonfiction?

Those processes are completely different. I love writing nonfiction because it’s straightforward. I conduct the necessary research, and then find the best possible form to illuminate my material. There isn’t the existential angst that comes with fiction-writing. Or maybe I’m less ambitious about my aesthetics in nonfiction. 

With fiction, I am keenly aware that I have complete creative freedom: I can write anything at all. And so I’m filled with doubt. Why write this when I can be writing something else? What is at stake in the writing of this story? Why have I chosen this character, this style, this tone, this word? What is the right form for this story? And the eternal question - is fiction dead? 


Every decision is marked by doubt. This makes writing more difficult. Fiction writing feels a thousand times more angst-ridden than nonfiction writing. Yet here I am, launching into a new novel. I can’t seem to stop.

Read an excerpt from Manjushree's novel below.

Buy the novel: All of Us in Our Own Lives

Publisher's website: Freehand Book

Author's website: Manjushree Thapa

All of Us in Our Lives



Excerpt from All of Us in Our Own Lives by Manjushree Thapa. Copyright © 2018 Manjushree Thapa. Reproduced with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Manjushree Thapa was born in Kathmandu and raised in Nepal, Canada, and the United States. She has written several books of fiction and non-fiction, and she has translated Nepali literature into English. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the London Review of Books, Newsweek, and the Globe and Mail. All of Us in Our Own Lives is the first novel she wrote after moving to Toronto. She is working on a new novel about citizenship.

OF ALL THE European cities Indira had travelled to for work — London and Brussels, Helsinki and Cologne, Copenhagen and of course Frankfurt, several times — Paris was definitely the prettiest. Indira had been here before, eighteen-nineteen years ago, for her first-ever international conference, a UNIFEM summit on women: she remembered it warmly as a blur of national costumes and inspirational speeches. The best part was the city tour at the end. The delegates had been taken to the famous boulevard, the Champs-Élysées, and from a stone bridge, Indira had taken photos of the Seine. Where were those photos now? Awed by all she had seen, she had vowed to return, and now here she was, back in Paris!
A fashionable lady in stilettos sashayed by. A boy drove his scooter onto the sidewalk and stopped in front of an automated teller. A tall man in a tailored suit cavorted down the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette.
Indira shadowed the man so as not to be spotted by the organizers of the Women’s Empowerment Initiative. There were, in her experience, two kinds of conferences in this world. The first was organized by veterans from the developing world, who understood that formal interactions were greatly enhanced by informal activities such as sightseeing or gift shopping. Indira had formed lasting bonds at such conferences. Years later, she still kept in touch with Abena Kwasima from Accra, Rudo Gamble from Cape Town, W. Werry from Jakarta, Mei Wang from Shanghai, Juana Hernández from Lima, and the formidable Kadri Pütsep from Tallinn. Together they formed a sisterhood of global change-makers.
            The Women’s Empowerment Initiative was, however, the other kind of conference, the kind organized by amateurs, usually American, who tried to squeeze out too many outcomes in too little time. From the very first Inspire! Breakfast on, Indira had had to pursue an asset-based approach using the principles of appreciative inquiry to discuss her work at WDS-Nepal. All day long, she had been trapped in lectures and workshops, and in the evenings, she had had to attend Solidarity! Dinners with earnest cultural shows: a one-woman play set in Ciudad Juárez, an all-woman Roma folk band. Tonight there would be a slideshow on female genital mutilation. And tomorrow morning she would leave.
            Why organize a conference in Paris at all? Why not meet, as WDS-International had one dire, under-funded year, at an airport hotel in Frankfurt? Why not save money and teleconference, for that matter, or video chat, Skype-shype, Viber-shiber — all that?
            The tall man turned abruptly into an alley. Spotting a stately stone bridge directly ahead, Indira hurried towards it. Having stolen out of a session on role-playing, she had two hours, or maybe three, to buy a present for Aakriti, for having passed out of ninth class. Indira also had to pick up something for Muwa, though nothing would ever please her witch of a mother-in-law. Aakaash was easy: she would buy him a computer game at the airport duty-free; two bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label would suffice for Uday Sharma.
            Indira reached the bridge, and her heart fluttered: was it — could it be — it was! It was the very same bridge she had been to nineteen years ago! She reached for the railing as she would for an old friend, and found the stone smooth and hard and warm to the touch. Oh! She had once been young here.
She walked the length of the bridge, overcome with nostalgia.
            On the far side of the bridge, she came across a row of boutiques. A mannequin in a slinky dress stood in one boutique window. A dress would be perfect for Aakriti, she thought — not this one, the neckline was low, but a dress from Paris would be perfect for her daughter.
            The next window contained an array of jars filled with fruits, vegetables, and nuts: dried, oiled, marinated, pickled, preserved. Yet another window was decorated with fine white lace panties. Another contained nothing but wine. Here, she lingered. The bottles — white, red, rosé — glinted like precious gems in the sunlight. She imagined Uday Sharma lifting a long-stemmed goblet and toasting, “To you, Indira Sharma. To our marriage of twenty years.”
“To us.”
“No, to you.”
            It wouldn’t happen, not in this lifetime. Whenever Indira was in the developed world, she always rued the way she, as a Nepali, was obliged to blunder through life without grace, without refinement, merely getting the needful done. Emotionally it saddened her, though rationally she understood why it was so. There was no comparing and contrasting the life of a Kathmanduite with the life of a Parisian, because the developed world was the developed world, and Nepal was Nepal.
            Next to the wine shop was a beauty parlour. On an impulse, she went in: she would buy a face cream for Muwa here. A bell tinkled. The interior smelled like roses. A redheaded saleslady came up to her, high heels clacking, and after babbling in French switched to English: “May I help you, Madame?”
“I need a face cream,” Indira said, pointing at a jar on a shelf.
            “Ah, oui, there is much desiccation.” The saleslady whisked out a magnifying mirror and held it up to Indira’s face, assaulting her with a vision of the furrows and grooves, dots and patches, stains and blotches on her middle-aged face. To Indira’s horror, the lines under her eyes had deepened, and her complexion, once clear, looked mottled.
Briskly, the saleslady said, “I strongly recommend a treatment, for you it is urgent, Madame.” She mentioned something called Eau Vitesse. “That will make the skin tight, but my advice is to go for microdermabrasion. It aids the revitalization of youth.”
Indira noted that the saleslady herself had a flawless complexion, even though she was — how old? Quite old. “How much?” she ventured to ask.
“Just one hour, Madame.”
“No, no. How much money is it costing?”
It came to over twelve thousand when converted into Nepali rupees!
            Twelve thousand rupees for a beauty treatment! That was simply immoral! Though, of course, Indira’s per diem could easily cover it, and it wasn’t unreasonable when you converted the cost back into euros. Plus, a treatment, as the lady said, was urgent for her. A global change-maker ought to look good. Also, a beauty treatment in Paris: when would she ever get this chance again? But then again — twelve thousand rupees! Oof. Chances taken and opportunities missed, longings and qualms, desires and disappointments pulsated through Indira — yes, no, yes, no — till with profound regret she decided: “I will take one face cream only.”
“Bof. Your choice, Madame.”
High heels clacking, the saleslady took a jar to the cash register.
The bill came to nine thousand rupees.
            Nine thousand rupees for a jar of face cream! A high-quality cream, to be sure, a cream from a beauty parlour in Paris. She shouldn’t waste it on Muwa. It would be a gift to herself.
As Indira left, the saleslady called out, “Au revoir!”
            “Bonjour,” Indira replied grimly.
Outside, she felt just awful. What was she doing buying a nine-thousand-rupee face cream for herself? What did she think, that it would bring back her youth? That Uday Sharma would notice, and they would recover their marital happiness? What? Walking along the row of boutiques looking for a dress for Aakriti, she excoriated herself:
Look at yourself, Indira Sharma. Tchee! Look. Just look at what you’ve become.

Monday, October 08, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 17

At the Toronto Reference Library for the Cosmopolis Toronto project
Photographer Colin Boyd Shafer launched the Cosmopolis Toronto project in August 2013. I heard of it on Facebook. And wrote to Colin who had this crazy ambition of photographing an individual from every ethnicity that had made Toronto home. That was one staggering project, both in the immensity of its scope and its execution. I believe by the time the project ended a couple of years later, he had managed to photograph individuals from 200+ different countries who were now Torontonians.  

Colin wanted everyone who was interested in participating in the project to explain why they’d chosen Toronto as their new home. My answer was simple: Toronto is cosmopolitan; it's vibrant, encourages enterprise, is tolerant, accommodative and gives everyone a chance to live their dream – our hometown Bombay (Mumbai) once shared these characteristics. Toronto is home because it has welcomed me, accepted me, helped me create a space for myself as a writer.

Colin responded immediately and accepted me as a part of the project. The subject had the choice of selecting the venue where s/he wanted to be photographed. I choose the Toronto Reference Library, because “Toronto gave me the opportunity to become a writer. While I was a journalist and a communications person for many years in India, in Toronto I wrote fiction for the very first time in my life.” The subject was to also choose something that linked them to their past. I choose a photograph of Eros Theatre from the 1950s.  

At the photo shoot at the Toronto Reference Library, Colin instructed me that I wasn’t allowed to smile. The photo is still on the site. You may see it here: Cosmopolis Toronto Website. Then, a couple of months later, he arranged for a video shoot where he interviewed some of the participants. I was among the handpicked few to be interviewed, asked to explain my two home cities – Bombay and Toronto. It was an interesting experience. You may see the short interview here: Cosmopolis Toronto YouTube.

The project went on to acquire larger dimensions and became a part of Myseum Toronto and the photographs were exhibited in all Toronto libraries. In 2015, Colin finally produced a book Cosmopolis Toronto: The World in One City. It was launched at a glittering event at the Toronto Reference Library. Colin has kept himself busy with other interesting projects after Cosmopolis Toronto.

At the video shoot of Cosmopolis Toronto
Cosmopolis Toronto was one of the most interesting projects in which I participated. I’ve blogged about it on a few occasions. If you’re interested in reading about it (which is highly unlikely) you may click here:



Also in 2013, MG Vassanji and Nurjehan Aziz involved me in the third edition of the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts. It was one of the best in a short-lived series. MG Vassanji and Nurjehan Aziz did everything to make the festival truly global in its content. FSALA was “a Canadian arts festival with a difference, promoting writers from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, and those not writing in English, who though major figures in their own countries are not always known to the global ‘mainstream’."

If the previous edition had Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani, this edition had Selina Hossain, the Bangladeshi author and Prasanna Vithanage, the Sri Lankan filmmaker, whose Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka (With You Without You) was shown at the festival. It was the first time I saw Anjali Patil, who has since gone on to become a known face in Indian cinema. I also met Sharankumar Limbale, a Dalit author of global repute.  I translated one of the short pieces that he read at the festival from Marathi into English and posted it on this blog. It’s been one of the most accessed blog posts.

Read the translated piece: Sharankumar Limbale

There were others, too, and the line-up included globally renowned authors. What I remember the most of the festival was how I was to get Selina Hossain from the airport and both of us spent two hours at the airport without meeting each other. Finally, she took a cab, reached the hotel, and was justifiably upset when I met her later that evening. But she granted me a great interview that I posted here.

Read the interview: Selina Hossain

In 2013, Mahesh Dattani, unarguably the only Indian playwright in English who has acquired global fame, visited Toronto. There were seminars in his honour, staging and reading of his plays. Towards the conclusion of his hour-long talk, Mahesh said he feels most connected to three of his creations – Dancing Like a Man (1989), Morning Raga (2004), and Where did I leave my Purdah (2013) - these creations encompass his love for dance, music and theatre.
With Mahesh Dattani

“They form my triptych,” he said.

Overcoming my general reticence, I said the plays that really form his triptych, plays that he will really be remembered for are Final Solutions (1993), On a Muggy Night in Mumbai (1998), Seven Steps Round The Fire (1998) all of which evocatively deal with the issue of minorities (religion, sexual orientation, gender).

Mahesh admitted he hadn’t really thought of them as such, but agreed that they do form a unit.

Harishchandra's biography in Polish
In 2013, Aleksandra Skiba a librarian at Pomeranian Library (The Central Library of the West Pomeranian Province) in the Polish city of Szczecin sent me an email inquiring about my grandfather Harischandra Bhatt, an eminent poet in Gujarati. She was researching Wanda Dynowska – Umadevi and Maurycy Frydman – Bharatanda, and came across references to Harischandra.

Intrigued, she wrote to me to find out more but ended up giving me more information about my grandfather than I’d known. Umadevi, who was Harischandra’s creative collaborator for a brief period, claims that Harischandra was in love with a young Christian woman and even wrote a poem on Jesus Christ for her.

It’d be pointless to recap the content of the two blogs – one of which is a guest post by Aleksandra. But I do urge you to read them.


To look for something and to find the other