We spoke to author Farzana Doctor about her debut poetry book You Still Look the Same.
Farzana Doctor is the Tkaronto-based author of four critically acclaimed novels: Stealing Nasreen, Six Metres of Pavement, All Inclusive, and Seven. You Still Look The Same is her debut poetry collection. Farzana is also the Maasi behind Dear Maasi, a new sex and relationships column for FGM/C survivors. She is also an activist and part-time psychotherapist.
Here are a few excerpts from our email interview with the author.
Booknerds: Your debut poetry collection 'You Still Look The Same' is a pleasant read. What are the challenges you faced during its publication process?
Farzana Doctor: While I've written poetry since childhood, I needed to learn the skill of editing poems and revising a collection for flow. It was interesting--I teach these skills with novel-writing, but I felt like like a student again as I tackled this book!
Booknerds: You used a lighthearted tone to illustrate the crucial topics. What effect does this mode of delivery have on the reader's perspective?
Farzana Doctor: I was intentional about wanting to create a flow in emotional highs and lows in this collection. Humour and self-deprecation in some of the poems offer an emotional "break" from the sadder ones. I also think that this mix brings more pleasure, and can make poetry more accessible, especially to readers who might not be drawn to poetry.
Booknerds: In the heart-wrenching poem ‘Zainab,’ there is a mention of Khatna or genital cutting, a heinous ritual still practised in the name of Allah. How far have you tried to eradicate this taboo with your poem?
Farzana Doctor: I have been doing activist work with groups like WeSpeakOut, Sahiyo and the End FGM Canada Network for a few years now. The practice continues because of lack of awareness and open conversation, so with my last novel, Seven, and a few poems in this collection, I hope to contribute to breaking silence around this very taboo subject.
Booknerds: During our childhood, we always used to blame things or situations. Through the poem 'Blame it on childhood', what message did you want to convey?
Farzana Doctor:The title is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Of course we are shaped by the blessings and traumas of our childhoods, but it's more complicated than that. I wanted the reader to think deeply about the emotional experience versus a blanket blame.
Booknerds: This book attempts to address a gamut of issues which are paramount for our self esteem and being comfortable with who we are. Do shed light on this please.
Farzana Doctor: This poem takes up the issue of body image, and how as women we can struggle with our bodies changing as we age because of the context of fat-phobia and toxic diet culture. So the character in the poem goes through a reckoning, and emerges just a little fiercer at the end.
Booknerds: Mid-life partnerships are not tolerated in India. Women are misunderstood when it comes to their sexual satisfaction. What are your thoughts on this?
Farzana Doctor: I think that sex-negativity is a global problem, and women's sexualities are policed everywhere. We are told a lot of lies about what it means to embrace our erotic lives. There is purity culture, slut-shaming and a true lack of sex ed. For me, continuous questioning and learning has been key to reclaiming this part of me. After a mid-life break-up, I was lucky to fall in love again, and I'm glad for that!
Booknerds: The feeling of new love and the pain of heartbreak is undefinable. 'Date night' speaks about new love, whereas 'Carried away' tells a heartbreaking story. Why do you think it is necessary to move out when the relationship becomes one-sided?
Farzana Doctor: Most of us don't learn relationship skills from our role-models, unfortunately, and we can be gripped by self-doubt and lose sight of our own needs and wants (plus women are taught to self-sacrifice). These poems are contrasts to one another - 'Date Night' - about recognizing mutuality and care, and 'Carried Away' about the opposite experience. It's hard to extricate from toxic or abusive situations, but it's so life-affirming when we can do it.
Booknerds: After an age body's shape and size change. Our stretch marks are a symbol of this change. As you have mentioned:
“This middle age,
by births and ink,
How can we embrace this change?
Farzana Doctor: For me, the process has been made easier by talking with other women my age and learning more about how peri-menopausal hormonal shifts affect the body. This normalizes the change. I've also done plenty of self-education about fat-phobia and ageism. Bodies are supposed to change. We can embrace this by appreciating the body's amazing and intricate functioning, by remembering that we are vastly more than our bodies, and that the beauty myths we all learned were lies anyway.
Booknerds: The poem ‘Grandmothers’ is an emotional note from a seven-year-old who trusted her grandma but ended up with a nick on her genitals. Can you elaborate on this emotional note?
Farzana Doctor: This poem explores the psychological impact of khatna, which can involve a deep emotional betrayal by trusted and beloved elders. I think sometimes khatna can break the close intimacy that once existed, and create a guardedness that can carry forward to adult relationships too. The poem is also about naming the violence, and ends with placing the blame on the religious leaders, rather than on the grandmothers.
- Team Booknerds