Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits

There’s a writer I’ve been wanting to blog about for a while now but wanted to wait until her book, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits had arrived in the mail from Amazon, and until I’d finished reading it.

It’s a thin little novel, less than 200 pages, and worth all the hype I’d previously read about it. The author, Laila Lalimi, is the creator of a popular blog, Moorishgirl (the site has since changed names to simply where she covers a fairly wide range of topics about contemporary literature, Arab issues at large, literary Arab figures, and Moroccan issues in particular. Lalimi herself is a transplanted Moroccan, now a lit professor living in Portland, Oregon.

What I really like about Lalimi is her grace.

She tackles some very serious, sad stuff without anger or virulence, something most passionate, opinionated people have a hard time with, with elegant, understated prose.

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits may be about a raft full of Moroccans from wildly different walks of life about to cross the dangerous Straits of Gibraltar to a (one hopes) better life in Spain, but as the collection of character sketches unfolds, we see the life of the illegal immigrant in all of its tragedy, melodrama and universality. It’s a book about very specific people and very specific circumstances and yet it’s one of the most relevant books I’ve read in a long time.

Take the current illegal immigration crisis in the States. I hate to break this to those of you who think that America (or any country) belongs only to its citizens, and who support anti-illegal immigration laws, but we’re about to find out what “immigration crisis” really means.

Americans (and Canadians) should count themselves very lucky as the poor masses that come sneaking into their country come from one direction only. You’ll have a much easier time protecting your borders when your country is isolated from all sides but one by oceans (and in Canada’s case, icebergs). It’s not as easy for, say, Chinese migrants to hop onto a raft and paddle their way to California as it is for a Moroccan to make it to Spain. Fourteen kilometers, Lalimi writes, is all that separates abject misery from a life of human dignity.

Another important point is capacity. If the entire population of Cuba were to take to inflatable rafts, that’s just….. eleven million souls. I bet Florida (population: 18 million) could take half of them on without too much trouble. Eleven million… that’s 6 million less than how many people call Cairo, Egypt home. And we are talking about the United States of America here, the world’s largest economy by a few light-years. We are also talking about a country (like Canada) with massive tracts of yet-uninhabited land – not because there’s anything wrong with the land, mind you – just because people would rather live in New York, or LA, or Phoenix, or Miami.

We’re not talking about, oh, I don’t know… Syria.

Syria’s population is 19.4 million. Syria, as a consequence of the Iraq war, has absorbed 1.2 million displaced Iraqis.

Would you like to know how many “innocent Iraqi civilians” the United States has absorbed?

800 since 2003. That’s an average of 160 a year, for five years.

800 people??? 100 people came to my launch party last year… that’s 12% of the total amount of Iraqi refugees accepted into the United States since the start of the war!!! (They have since signed-on to 7000 more in 2008, after some much-deserved hoopla over the disgustingly low figure. Will they honor the promise? Who the heck knows)

800 out of a population of 300 million is… my calculator doesn’t have enough space for all the zeros in this one.

1.2 million out of 19.4 million?

That’s a 6% population increase in just half a decade.

And we’re talking about just one war, one tiny little man-made crisis in a world that’s going to see massive displacement of peoples as a result of natural disasters, rising water levels, and more pronounced inequality than the world has ever seen.

Over 2 million refugees created by the Iraq war. How many refugees will be created if a big portion of a southern Indian province is lost to rising water levels? Who will “absorb” those people? And what kind of life awaits them in their adopted countries? What future awaits us all if we continue to treat these Global Untouchables as “surplus humanity”?

It might be time to start talking about the “immigration crisis” as it really is, as opposed to how we imagine it to be in our pampered, sheltered little fantasies.

Read Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. It’s a good start.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Can Someone Please Explain Paulo Coelho to Me?

First off, does everyone know what I’m talking about? It’s been a little while since Mr. Coelho’s come up with a new novel, but for the past few years, all I ever saw when I walked into a bookstore were huge displays of Paulo Coelho’s various books, and all I ever heard were people raving about The Alchemist, or gasping about the “controversial”, salacious Eleven Minutes.

And by “people” I don’t mean people who read widely and regularly, but that mysterious third party who decides what ‘everyone’s watching’ these days, or who were the best dressed celebrities at the Oscars, etc, etc.

Sometime after The Alchemist had snuck into my consciousness somehow (don’t remember anyone recommending it to me, or reading any articles about it, so can only assume the bookstore hype got so bad that my brain could no longer ignore it), I came upon a copy of Veronika Decides to Die. That, I thought, sounded far more interesting than The Alchemist. And for most of the novel, Coelho actually lived up to this image of a genius writer I had built up in my head. I LOVED this book.

Until I finished it. It weighed on me like a supersized double Big Mac with extra cheese.

Something about it was not right. I’m not quite sure what. But now, halfway through the ‘salacious’ Eleven Minutes, I think I may have it figured out.

I think Paulo Coelho appeals to the masses the same way that guys who paints ‘light’ in and quaint country cottages does.

McLiterature? McPhilosophy? McSpirituality?


You can scoff and call me a snob, but I would rather read Danielle Steel than a guy who feels it’s necessary to place his philosophical gems in brackets, in mid-action, mind you, rather than have the readers figure it out on their own from the writing and story itself.

I don’t think that the fact I can’t appreciate Paulo Coelho’s body of work as much as the millions of people out there who do is because I am a literary snob. I write chick lit for Pete’s sake.

I just think Mr. Coelho appeals to people who don't have time for nuance and subtlety. Which is not most writers, or people who read widely and often. It’s like bite-sized literacy for the hurried. Or men. Which probably explains why his books are so thin.

Anyone out there have a favorite Paolo Coelho book? ‘S okay, you can tell me. I did find the ones I read entertaining. It was just the aftertaste I wasn’t too happy with...

Friday, February 22, 2008

Rx for the Winter Blues

I popped into Chapters on the Grande Dame of Montreal shopping streets the other day, Sainte-Catherine, to gaze upon Fashionably Late for a few delicious moments (yes we newbie novelists do that every once in a while… quite pathetic, I know), and lo and behold, but it wasn’t there! I was mad. This is my home town, after all.

But right there in front of the fiction titles shelved against the walls is the ‘Travel Lit’ section. And what do I see in between a book about adventures in Mexico and one in India, but Fashionably Late.

I am shelved in Travel Lit.

I don’t know why but that gives me the chills. Happy chills. Thrilled chills.

In between the few articles I wrote for Atmosphere Magazine (will post links to these soon) and Fashionably Late, it seems I’ve become a travel writer.

And I could not possibly be more thrilled. It’s the kind of vocation the universe gently nudges you toward because it knows what’s good for you, even if you don’t.

What does this have to do with the winter blues? It’s winter, it’s cold, dark and depressing, and I’m going to seriously regret upping my chocolate intake levels, so for me, the next best thing to running away to a wonderful, exciting place when my life is in a phase I’d like to skip over is to watch a movie or read a book where other people are running off to wonderful, exciting places and having the time of their lives.

In writing as in life, nothing jolts a ho-hum plot quite like a vacation. Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite trip-lit. I’m sure there are lots more I’m forgetting about, so I’d love to hear what your favorites are.

The Buenos Aires Broken Hearts Club by Jessica Morrison – Recently fired 30-year-old self-described obsessive planner goes on a totally unscripted, unplanned trip to Argentina after catching her fiancé in bed with a hot cellist. Plot meanders a bit, but I learned lots about Argentina and was quite taken by Argentine hottie Mateo.

Burning the Map by Laura Caldwell – The first chick-lit-travel-lit I ever read and a big source of inspiration behind Fashionably Late. Three best friends head off to Rome and Greece just before the lead chick, Casey, is shackled to her first out-of-school job at a Chicago law firm. Caldwell is a great writer and turns what could be a predictable plot into a really fun adventure. Characters are very well drawn, and both Rome and the Greek isles sound like breathless fun.

Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert – This book has gotten so much press already, and I am absolutely honored beyond belief that it comes up as a suggestion to customers who enjoyed Fashionably Late on It’s a travel memoir of a woman getting over a nasty divorce (pretty typical s far) across Italy, India, and Indonesia. It’s really the author’s style, humor and with that carry this book, and the fabulous sections in Italy and Bali. India was a bit lackluster as it focused on the author trying to achieve ‘inner peace’ in a high-profile Ashram, and could have been cut shorter, but I guess in the end this is a spiritual book that reads a lot like a fun, reckless, escapist, sexy novel, but it’s still mainly about teh quest for inner peace. It's the kind of spirituality an atheist like moi can have respect for. Reminds me a lot of Anne Lamot’s style.

• Under the Tuscan Sun (the movie) – Rent it when you’re feeling blue. Guaranteed to lift your spirits.

My Father the Hero (movie) – This is a mediocre Hollywood 1994 remake of an old French movie starring Gérard Dépardieu. I can’t say much about the plot as it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I’ll tell you this: the cinematography, the shots of the Bahamas were so stunning, they’ve stayed with me all these years. Time to rent it again, methinks….

Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana by Isadora Tatlin – The title is pretty self-explanatory. The author’s insights into daily Cuban life are fascinating even though we get a deep look at the small miseries of life in Havana mixed in with the author’s growing and strange attachment to the city. As someone who’s come into close contact with Havana and her locals, I can assure you the author gets it just right.

Something Blue by Emily Giffin – Not sure whether this really qualifies as travel lit as the protagonist only flies to gray, dreary London about a third of the way into the book when her baby daddy leaves her pregnant with twins and her ex-best-friend is about to fly off to Hawaii with her ex-fiancé on what was supposed to be her honeymoon, but this is a great example of spicing up a meandering plot with an exciting trip. I also went to London solo a few years back and it was really cool seeing the city through the character’s eyes.

Seven Sunny Days by Chris Manby – Set in a resort in Turkey, I would have loved to see the author delve into the culture provided by this unique setting, but she stuck to predictable, self-absorbed characters that epitomize the McTravel experience: sheltered behind the high walls of a gated resort where the only local you’re likely to run into is the one cleaning your toilet. Even the “local” love interests are French, not Turks. And yet….. if you accept that you are in a resort that might as well be in Mexico or Belize, Manby does a great job of making you feel like you’re right there with the three girls on a hen trip, the bickering couple, and the studly tennis pros. And to be honest, I’ll take a canned resort experience over February in Canada any day.

Anybody else have any suggestions out there?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The End of an Era

I don't check the evening news for one night - ONE - and this is what happens. Fidel Castro, after nearly fifty years of uninterrupted rule, has decided to step down.

The Earth's rotation won't reverse course, life as we know it won't come to an end, and yet... this is still the end of an era and the beginning of something more nebulous, uncertain, even scary. No matter how much some people out there hated Castro there’s some comfort to be had in old hatreds, and change is always met with a bit of cynicism. Who says Raul won’t come down harder on individual freedoms? How will the US react (or not react…) to this development?

We’ll see.

I’m just glad he announced his retirement just before I handed back my copy edits for Cutting Loose as there’s a teeny tiny reference to the caballero in there and I need to adjust accordingly… Gracias, Fidel!

As for Fashionably Late... I think it's now officially a "historical" novel ; )

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What Do Mexican Buses and the Veil Have in Common?

Here’s an interesting post from Alisa VR, this time about a group of Mexican women who, fed up with the groping and taunting they get everyday on the overcrowded public buses, complained to the authorities. Now they get to ride same-sex buses and are loving it.

Many months ago I blogged about the veil and why it’s not an oxymoron for progressive, liberal-minded women to support the wearing of it if the decision is a voluntary one, and that the veil stands as a symbol of liberation for some women, not oppression.

It’s a tough stand to defend to Westerners because of the particular way modernization unfolded over on this side of the world, unhampered by outside forces, unfettered by oppression, and fed by unparalleled economic super-growth that spanned several decades.

Even when times were tough, Americans and Western Europeans collectively decided to change some values, tilting them towards modernism, to preserve their economic gains. After WWII for example, suddenly, a woman didn’t have to be pregnant, barefoot, and doing the laundry by hand anymore. She could get herself a job and buy a washer and dryer set instead. She’s had to get a job during the war anyway, and society didn’t collapse, after all. Then, suddenly, it was seen as a good, privileged thing to have a proper education (even if the more privileged of the women who got it just ended up marrying well and staying at home anyway) and education for women entered the mainstream, trickling down from the wealthy classes to the middle class. And with economies in North America and Western Europe doing great, with cheap plentiful oil and an expanding middle class, there was plenty of room for women in the workforce. In fact, it became easy to see that how they were an asset to the economy as opposed to a mass of undesirables who took jobs away from white, able-bodied men.

So society’s values as a whole changed.

Now, imagine yourself in a society where there is no middle class to speak of, or if there is one, it’s extremely vulnerable to the slightest economic, military, or natural disaster. There isn’t enough money to provide clean water for everyone, much less education. Over the last hundred or so years, this society has managed to get its act together, had a revolution or two, where, for a brief moment it looked like everything would be okay and everyone, even women, would have the privilege of living with a modicum of human decency (no more middle-of-the-night raids, slave wages, widespread rape and prostitution, lack of sanitation, etc…).

Then, for whatever reason, the revolutions failed, or outside forces intervened to make sure everything would stay as it always was, which is to say that the same benefits would keep flowing to the same people, and the miserable would stay miserable.

Under such circumstances, people don’t really have the luxury of enlightenment. Of choosing their values. In some cases, like that of the Mexican women choosing segregation, the correlation is obvious. The environment is such that it makes men abusive, and segregation is one way to deal with it.

In other cases, like Muslim women clinging to the veil, it’s much more insidious. Tradition and religion have sort of codified male/female relationships insofar as women are expected to be modest because men “just can’t help themselves”.

Because no society lives in a vacuum anymore, people are exposed to alternative ways of living even if those alternatives run counter to their experiences (I’m sure they get Sex and the City in Saudi Arabia, at least by satellite…). So you will naturally get people who yearn for the individual freedoms of a modern society while their countries at large are still buckling under the weight of old oppressions.

Tunisia and Lebanon are usually held up as positive examples of countries where governments are abiding by Western standards of individual rights. The Sha’ria laws of Islam are not followed, women have the same rights as men, are not made to wear the veil (in fact in Tunisia, female civil servants are strictly forbidden from wearing it while on duty). But since they do nothing to alleviate the suffering of their poor (the majority of their population), don’t invest in hospitals and schools, this public image of forward-thinking is nothing but a shallow mask. Large chunks of their populations are reverting back to Islamic extremism (think Hezballah), for lack of any other source of hope.

In these circumstances, I’d have no trouble whatsoever believing a woman who tells me Islam respects her and gives her freedom. Just like I see why those Mexican women might be much happier riding on same-sex buses than being groped everyday on their way to work. I just wish we could stop obsessing over women’s rights in the Middle East to the blind exclusion of all those other things that created the perfect environment for abuse in the first place.

And on that note, happy Valentine’s Day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

More Rants on Chick Lit

It’s still a dirty word, like most things female-centric, still pejorative, still snubbed and looked down upon, and judged as one big homogenous blob in spite of the massive range of subjects, themes, situations, characters and moods it covers.

Here’s the hilarious Maureen Johnson’s recent take on the issue-that-won’t-die, which is one of the best, funniest treatments of the topic I’ve ever seen.

I’m not about to add my own voice to the circus as I’m sure I must have done it at some point in the past, and honestly, I don’t care what people call my books as long as they read them and (hopefully) enjoy them.

But the reason I’m bringing this whole thing up again, is because of a book I just finished reading that would certainly fall under the “chick lit” category, and therefore will never be eligible for any kind of literary prize or recognition, despite it being a truly impressively written novel. But because the heroine can probably be described as “plucky”, and certainly funny, plus she does describe her outfits every once in a while (not gratuitously, but as a seamless addition to plot and character), I doubt this book will ever be reviewed as seriously as, say, White Oleander was a few years back (another excellent book, for different reasons) or Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone (an awful, depressing look at an obese, sexually-preyed upon teenager on the cusp of entering college).

The book I just finished is Anyone Out There? by Marian Keyes, and based on the cover copy, I would never have picked up a book like this if it weren’t written by the never preachy, always hilarious Ms. Keyes.

Because this book, you see, is about death. More precisely, about the death of the love of one’s life. And I can handle a lot of depressing topics, but this is one I tend to steer clear of.

The genius of Anyone Out There? is in just how deep Keyes takes the reader into the main character, Anna’s, head. So deep, that even though you know her husband died (the rational side of your brain deduced it somewhere in the opening chapter), your emotional side is held completely hostage by Anna’s deep denial. When she finally utters the word ‘dead’ out loud, about a quarter into the book, you gasp. Because you didn’t want to hear it anymore that she did. You, the reader, were just as much in denial.

Also, as it goes with most literary fiction, not a whole lot happens in terms of plot, and yet, unlike most so-called literary fiction, you can’t put the damn book down. It makes you want to believe in the impossible, and yet when you get to the end, you realize that things could not have ended any other way.

Marian’s first novel, Watermelon, and her latest is genius. Now I just wish all those chick-lit bashers would take note that you don’t have to have an unsympathetic cast of characters, a thin an uninspiring plot, unusual situations, and an almost sterile distance from your subject matter to be qualified as a serious writer. Some writers actually manage to be hugely entertaining, highly relatable, and literary at the same time.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Getting Real About Money

The writing business is a very solitary and insecure one, even at the best of times. It's made even more insecure with contract clauses and industry practices that keep tipping further and further in the publishers' favor. Worst still, writers themselves are a private, guarded bunch who often feel so lucky to be writing at all that they're hesitant to broach the subject of money. Those of us who've been doing this for a few years laugh at that misconception that writers are rolling in it, or even making enough to subsist. Most of us hold full or at least part-time jobs to finance our "hobby", even those of us who publish regularly.

Still, the following post from a novelist I love and admire, who was short-listed as one of Time Magazine's 50 most influential Hispanics in America, and whose debut novel was optioned for film-production by none other than Jennifer Lopez (later put on hold, then repurchased, and currently being produced by another company).

Knowing everything I know about this business, I was still taken aback by this author's account and her honesty, and also her perspective on her situation. It was incredibly brave and selfless of her to go in such depth into an issue most of us are too shy, guarded, self-conscious or afraid to discuss.

Thanks you Alisa, for your honesty.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Thinking Chick’s Reading Guide

For some reason, starting last August and lasting through to January, I took a chick lit break. Sometimes there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. And I’m worse than most in that I tend to gorge myself on one thing (like, say, authentic Lebanese shish taouks) until I can’t look at it anymore. I did it with the Oprah book club back in its early days, with Danielle Steel novels when I was twelve (although maybe in that case it wasn’t so much that I got sick of them, but that I realized they were all exactly the same sometime after I turned thirteen…), and I think I did it again with chick lit. And because I’m not much of a genre reader (I honestly believe that the thematic and writing range chick lit provides makes the label ‘genre’ very loosely applicable to it), it leaves me with slim pickin’s when I decide to get off a particular kick. Luckily, after Dona’s How to Salsa in a Sari, and Marian Keyes’s Anybody Out There, I think I’m back in the game.

So what did I do all these months, besides moping over winter and frantically racing against time to get the Cutting Loose manuscript in?

Here’s a partial reading list:

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

I wanted to blog about this book the second I finished it. It wasn’t particularly well-written, nor especially hard-hitting or even tightly plotted. It was nonetheless a page-turner. Think of it as the chick version of The Satanic Verses – rocketed into bestsellerdom by virtue of its subject matter and the utter stupidity of its critics.

I lived in Saudi Arabia until I was nine, though not in mind-bogglingly restrictive capital of Riyadh, but in the slightly more palatable coastal city of Jeddah (based on this, I have a theory that give any city – even one in Saudi – a beach, and you’ve automatically upped it a few notches on the coolness index)

I also read this book to get a better handle on the Ranya character I wrote in Cutting Loose (she grew up in that milieu). Because even though I wasn’t one of those “Girls of Riyadh” (too young and blessed with parents who did not consider me chattel to qualify), in the eye of my mind I can still see those girls. And they really are something else, even in the conservative Middle-East. The book was controversial because apparently the Saudi Big Wigs are upset over the suggestion that their daughters actually have feelings besides piety and devotion.

It was also an interesting study in perspective for me. I read this book, and got it. I have no issues with believability, and I didn’t think it was sensationalized or exaggerated in the least. Also, the book doesn’t give a lot of cultural background – it’s clearly intended for an Arab audience (methinks). In fact, my cousins who’d read it in the original Arabic (it was published in Lebanon and banned in Saudi Arabia – surprise, surprise), were shocked it had been translated to English.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder – what would a “Westerner” reading this think? This is different from the Princess accounts which expose an extremely narrow, rarefied world of tribal royalty. Despite its very specific subject matter, this book remains a commentary on society and male-female relationships in general. But from a perspective I’m pretty sure most of you have never been exposed to.

I would love to hear from any “Westerners” who’ve read it. I’m almost afraid to recommend it – it’s one of those books that should come with a warning label: Please do not generalize to the entire Middle East.

It was the cat’s pajamas back in August, all over the airports and bookstores, so if you’re looking for something still within the women’s fiction realm yet very different, read it, and tell me about it. I’d love to shed any light on any queries you have, or answer any “is it really like that???” type questions.

Moving on… The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.

This is the first economics book to make me cry. I’m talking genuine misty, wipe-the-corners-of-your-eyes crying.

It’s about 650 pages of text, and maybe another couple hundred of notes. A little on the long side, but you don’t notice until around page 500.

To say it’s about economics is a little bit misleading, seeing how thorough and well-written, and yes – tightly plotted – it is. This is a work of non-fiction, but almost reads like fiction. Which goes to show, good writing is good writing, and always a joy to read, even if the subject matter is tragically real.

The introduction is set in a devastated post-Katrina New Orleans and recounts a simple scene that encapsulates what the entire book is about. The next chapter introduces the reader to a Montreal woman who went to the psychology ward of McGill University back in the fifties because she was often depressed and wanted to get a proper diagnosis. Forty years later she would successfully sue the government of Canada for having turned a blind eye to the torture techniques that were tried, tested and perfected on her, and on others, in the halls of that venerated university (it chills me to think this happened in my city, at a University I might have attended had I not gotten a scholarship somewhere else). The inhumane testing done on this woman would eventually become a torture instruction manual referred to as the Kubark manual used by the CIA, a sophisticated new kind of torture that uses the shock element rather than say, randomly plucking people’s fingernails off, to get suspects exactly where you want them.

The premise of Klein’s painfully detailed and thoroughly documented book is that over the past fifty years, this kind of coercion method was used to get whole societies to make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise make, if they didn’t happen to be in "shock", and that ultimately devastated them and their societies.

Not bad for an economics book. If you’re at all curious about why a place that looked as economically promising, almost like a fully developed economy with a healthy middle class as Argentina can suddenly and without much warning just collapse, this is a great reference. And written more like a novel than a reference book. As a bit of a history and economics geek, I personally could not put this one down, even though it was directly conflicting with my own writing schedule, and I’m going to read it again, because there was just too much information to absorb all at once.

And then there was The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer-Dixon.

This is a peculiar little book that tries to be strangely upbeat even as it details the utter collapse of society as we know it, in only the way really gung-ho scientists can be. “Gee, Irv, isn’t it fascinating how the complex-connectivity that brought us the Internet, abundant food and the cure for polio will also be at the root at the complete obliteration of civilization?” said the bespectacled, rotund man to his colleague as they examined the glowing green liquid in the glass beaker.It starts with the author’s trip to the Coliseum in Italy and concludes among the ruins of an ancient Roman temple in Baalbek, Lebanon , is chock-full of scientific notions and ratios like EROI (Energy Rate of Return) in between, and is not an especially easy read, but is absolutely fascinating (I would have never picked it up had it not won a bunch of awards in Canada).

The basic premise is that we’re screwed, and not just because we’ve depleted the cheapest and most efficient type of energy known to mankind, not just because of global warming, or overpopulation, or resource scarcity that will result in increasing political instability and terrorism, but because all these things are going to smash into each other at a time when global connectivity has never been higher. The butterfly effect to the power of a gazillion. It might have been a little bleak, to be honest, if the author wasn’t so positively giddy about that fact that it was high time our system broke down and made way for something healthier, more positive, and more sustainable. I’m not sure how he pulled off being so “zen” about the whole thing, but he did.

And then I rewarded myself for all this brainy reading by picking up Madeleine Wickham’s (AKA Sophie Kinsella) Cocktails for Three, about a trio of best friends keeping some pretty juicy secrets from each other.

Stay tuned for musings on the writing “process” tomorrow, seeing as I just completed Cutting Loose and have craft/writing on the brain.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

New Year, New Look

It wouldn’t do after three (okay, four) months of blogosphere absence to just shrug and say I was busy.

I was – finishing up my second novel, Cutting Loose (yup – it’s got a real title now!), not to mention settling into a new job in Montreal doing something wildly different from what I did in Cayman – but those would just be excuses. I’m not sure why I feel compelled to be so honest on something the entire universe has access to, but hey, I do just that every time I put pen to paper and write a scene. Why should a blog entry be any different?

I’m having some very mixed feelings on adapting back to Montreal life. And mixed feelings make good blogging pretty difficult. It makes you question – what’s the purpose of a blog in the first place? Is it a soapbox (that’s pretty much what I’ve been using it for lately)? A place for uncensored, disjointed, and totally random thoughts (kind of like how this post is turning out…), or a place that brings together people with some sort of common interest(s)?

Blogging for me has been, I think, if I look back on two and some odd years I’ve been doing this, largely a matter of mood. More direct and transparent than fiction writing, it’s still a way of connecting what’s rattling around in my head with my friends and readers.

So, as I sat in the Second Cup on the corner of Sherbrooke and Claremont, watching the frost forming at the edges of the glass of the windows and huddling tighter into my thick scarf every time someone swung the front door open and subjected me to a blast or arctic wind, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t let anyone one in to the jumbled mass of miserable thoughts rattling around in my head.

As much as I love being close to my family again, my fabulous sex-and-the-city-like life, complete with a fun, downtown apartment and weekends dolled up and out on the town, and a fun new Rachel-esque job as a buyer for a Canadian clothing chain, I haven’t managed to kick Cayman out of my system yet.

Maybe it’s the weather. When people used to ask me why I’d picked up and moved to the Islands, I always listed weather before money, and three months into an interminable winter, I realize now that this really was my main motivation. Even as I write this, I’m sitting in a cute little writing “nook” set up in my kitchen, right next to an big old window overlooking very Parisian-looking rooftops below, but… it’s snowing. Again. And as much as I’d love to pick up and go to one of those Montreal cafés and bookshops I constantly reminisced about while I was away, I just can’t bring myself to bundle up in a heavy-duty winter coat that makes me look like a miniature Yeti. The fact that it’s a Michael Kors does not make it any easier to fool myself into thinking I look remotely fashionable (or even human) every time I slide it over my shoulders. And the adorable plaid one with the bell sleeves from Zara, and the sleek black one from Guess, both hang idly in the hall closet, virtually unworn, as it has been way too cold and snowy for these “medium duty” coats.

See? A whole paragraph on the miseries of winter. So it’s probably best I haven’t been blogging.

But why now, you ask.

Well, this past month has marked a number of signposts on the old writing path that deserve to be commemorated, and that are making itch to jump back into the game.

At the turn of the New Year, not one but two of my very dear friends and critique partners – ladies whose support, opinions, and words of wisdom did so much to improve my work have seen their own babies hit the shelves.

I had the chance to see Wendy Toliver’s The Secret Life of a Teenage Siren back when it was a mere flicker in Wendy’s mind, and now it’s a full-blown novel on a shelf right here in a Montreal bookstore. I’m so proud of her, I could burst. Even though I’ve read several drafts of the manuscript, seeing it looking so… book-like… as opposed to a Word document is making me want to read it all over again. If you enjoy Young Adult fiction, or have kids who do, this is a great one – fun and well-written, and light-hearted with a dose of Greek mythology on the side.

And then there’s Dona Sarkar’s How to Salsa in a Sari. Even though it was Dona’s adult fiction, not her YA I’d helped critique, I’ve had a special place in my heart for this one. I’m usually total rubbish when it comes to titles but for some odd reason, Dona’s theme of Latin-culture-meets-Afro-Indian-culture struck a chord in me, and so when we were discussing title ideas, that one just jumped at me, with no brainstorming or excessive head-breaking needed. Now that’s I’ve read HTSIAS cover to cover, I can see why the themes hit home so much. Which brings me to my next tangent…

Cutting Loose, my second novel, a loose spin-off of Fashionably Late involving Ali’s deeply traditional cousin Ranya’s efforts to break free of the judgments of not just one but two societies, was finally finished, polished and handed in to my editor on January 8th.

This one was so completely different from Fashionably Late, on so many levels, it nearly drove me nuts.

For one thing, I’ve always had kooky, eclectic and widely ranging tastes. I’m not someone you can easily box into category, and while that sounds like a desirable, highly evolved trait to have, it can be quite annoying most of the time. Because our society is built on categories. White. Black. Brown. Anglophone. Francophone. Allophone. Brainy. Ditzy. Alternative. Mainstream.

Sometimes I want to look around at everyone around me trying to smoosh everyone and everything into a box and scream – isn’t it all relative??? At various points in my life, I’ve been slotted into every one of those categories listed above (except maybe 'black') – relative to who I was talking to.

In the Middle East, I’m white. In North America (particularly in her airports – thank you, Miami Homeland Security! I love you too!), I’m brown. In Quebec I’m technically an allophone but effectively and anglo, and in the rest of Canada I’m a Francophone. They haven’t come up with an “Arab” category in the census yet, not to my knowledge anyway, so those were always a gas to fill out.

But I’ve ranted about all of this before.

The point here, is that with Cutting Loose, since it was on contract (meaning people were actually expecting me to write something, and I had much less groveling and sucking up to do than with Fashionably Late), and since I’d proven to myself that I had at least an adequate grasp of the writing craft, I was free to take some chances with themes I really cared about.

Dona’s How to Salsa in a Sari and Cutting Loose have this in common, that you would be hard pressed to box them in. Dona’s main protagonists are, after all, African-Indian and Cuban-American. In Cutting Loose, they are Lebanese-Muslim, Palestinian-Christian (and yes, your religion has a very tangible effect on your life in the ME), and Honduran-American.

So which section of the bookstore would these novels find themselves?

Why, mainstream of course (in Dona’s case, mainstream YA). Because when you challenge people’s notion of categories and labels, sometimes you succeed in transcending them.

Congratulations Dona and Wendy – you’ll be hearing more from these ladies just as soon as I get into a more regular blogging groove, which, though not an official resolution this year, is something I really want to throw myself into this year.

(The official resolution, of course, is to hit the gym regularly and maintain my svelte, post-winter-depression body weight. If I am grateful for one thing in my life is that stress actually makes me lose weight. Thank God for small mercies)

All the best in the New Year, and for those of you in the Big Old Nasty North, hang in there, at least January is over.