Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, With Tasneem Jamal

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Tasneem Jamal

Tasneem Jamal was born in Mbarara, Uganda, and immigrated to Canada with her family in 1975. She has worked as a journalist for over a decade as an editor at The Globe and Mail, Saturday Night magazine and the National Post. She has written fiction and non-fiction for the Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad, The Globe and Mail, Saturday Night magazine, the National Post and the Literary Review of Canada.

Tasneem speaks to Open Book as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Today, Tasneem tells us about her novel and the writing process behind Where the Air is Sweet. Tasneem offers up the questions that emerge from these writings: what is behind the human impulse to migrate, and what makes a space into a home?

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Tasneem Jamal:

My novel, called Where the Air Is Sweet, examines the 1972 expulsion of 80,000 South Asians from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin. It is told from the perspective of two members of one family. The book draws on my family’s experience – I was three when we were expelled from Uganda – and was inspired, in particular, by my grandfather and, more generally, by a powerful compulsion to tell an extraordinary story. I struggled for decades to tell this complicated and – for me – emotionally charged story. It wasn’t until I moved with my husband and young children to Tanzania in 2009 that the words began to flow in a manner that felt authentic. The disorientation and homesickness I felt in East Africa gave me a glimpse of what my grandfather might have experienced as a young man when he left his ancestral home. And this glimpse was the entry point of the novel for me.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

TJ:

The question that launched the actual writing of the novel for me was: What is behind the human impulse to migrate? Why do we leave what we know to embark on what we cannot even imagine? Two secondary – and related – questions emerged as I was writing: When does a place, a land, become our home? What is the cost of resisting the forces that propel us in our lives?

OB:

Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

TJ:

It changed structurally but not substantially from when I first started working on it. It took me about one year to write a solid, workable complete draft. (I spent approximately three to four hours writing each day.) Six months later I found an agent and, about a month later, a publisher. The next three and a half years were spent editing. I did two major, structural edits with two different editors at HarperCollins. Almost five years to the day I began writing it, Where the Air Is Sweet was in bookstores.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

TJ:

• A laptop.
• A power source.
• Sustenance (food and drink).
• Solitude.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

TJ:

If I’m feeling discouraged or blocked, I stop writing and begin reading a beautiful, familiar piece of fiction (written by someone else). This opens my mind, allows for some fluidity of thought and gets me back to writing very quickly.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

TJ:

A great book for me needs to be beautifully written, have compelling characters and a strong narrative pull. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun are both, in my opinion, great books.

OB:

What are you working on now?

TJ:

I’m in the very early stages of a novel. What this means is that I’m mulling, reading, writing some short scenes. In other words, I’m letting my mind wander in open spaces. It’s far too early to articulate anything more coherent that this. But I’m in a good, fertile place with respect to my writing.

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