Tanaz Bhathena: Feminism will continue to exist as long as sexism does. I was born in India where women are revered as goddesses and mothers, but still disparaged for wearing short skirts or travelling late at night on their own. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, where I would have never been allowed to drive a car as a woman. Even in Canada, where I now live, many women continue to earn less than men for the same jobs. Feminism is relevant because women are, and will continue to be so.
F: Tell us about your novel, Qala Academy.
TB: Qala Academy, a novel for which I recently received an offer from a YA publisher in the US, revolves around the life and death of a teenage girl in Saudi Arabia.
Zarin Wadia, is 16, a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a troublemaker whose romantic entanglements are the subject of endless gossip amongst the girls in her class. When she is found dead after a car accident on the Al-Harameen Expressway in Jeddah, with a Parsi boy who is not a student at Qala Academy, the religious police arrive and everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is called into question.
Using the family as a lens for society, Qala Academy explores the themes of love, prejudice and gender discrimination in India and Saudi Arabia – two countries that are struggling to hold onto their traditions even as they adapt to a rapidly changing world – countries where female virtue is still inextricably linked to family honour.
F: What motivated you to choose South Asian diaspora as the main focus of your writing?
TB: I was born in Mumbai and grew up in Saudi Arabia and Canada. However, I chose to make the South Asian diaspora a focus of my writing when I realized how few novels there truly were about South Asians living in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.
F: How have your personal experiences shaped your writing? What lessons do you want your readers to take away?
TB: My personal experiences have shaped my writing mostly in terms of the setting and cultural influences. While I don’t necessarily have any lessons for readers to take away, I hope my writing provides a unique perspective into this particular segment of Saudi society.
F: Getting published can often feel like a daunting prospect to many writers. Do you have any advice for writers hoping to be published?
TB: Be persistent. And patient. It took me 8 years of writing, submission and rejection to receive an offer for Qala Academy.
A rejection from a magazine or a publisher may sting, but it does not necessarily mean you are a bad writer. Reread your work to see if you can make improvements. Then move on and submit elsewhere. Sometimes, it’s really a matter of timing and finding the right publisher, someone who loves your story as much as you do.
F: What has been your favorite piece that you’ve written and why?
TB: Apart from my novel, Qala Academy, I really enjoyed writing a short story called “Kafir” (published in Witness Magazine).
VS Naipaul once said that he could recognize a woman writer blindly, based on the first few paragraphs of her story. However, when I submitted “Kafir” for critiquing in a creative writing class, many thought I was closer in age and gender to the story’s narrator: a 60 year old Saudi man. As writers we are constantly trying to slip into the skins of their characters to describe their feelings more accurately. It was the biggest compliment I received.
Tanaz Bhathena writes Middle Eastern and South Asian fiction. Her work has appeared in various journals, including Blackbird, Witness, Room Magazine, Origins, The State and Himal. She won the 2009 Mississauga Arts Council Award for Emerging Literary Arts and was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Jeffrey Archer Short Story Challenge. She most recently completed a novel with funding from the Ontario Arts Council. Visit her at tanazb.wordpress.com or follow her on twitter: @bhathenatanaz.