GRANT'S DESI ACHIEVER
AN EXCITING NEW CHAPTER
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
Tanaz Bhathena, whose debut novel, A Girl Like That, received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly and New York Times’ best-selling author Jodi Picoult among others, knew she wanted to be a writer when she was 13, but the conversation with her father didn’t go as planned.
Having decided it was time to talk about planning for her future, he sat her down to discuss possible career options.
Did she want to be a doctor, he asked. No, said Bhathena, she didn’t like science. Lawyer? An emphatic no. An engineer, then? Math wasn’t her strong suit, she pointed out. Well, what did she want to do, he asked.
And that’s when she said she wanted to write.
“He stared at me for a long time. ‘Fine, you’ll be an accountant,’ he announced,” she recalls with a fond laugh. “I was not raised to argue with my parents and that was that, at least for the time being. If and when I brought it up again, they’d ask if I was sure I would be a success and obviously, I couldn’t say for sure that I would!”
Her parents, Parsis from Mumbai, were working and living in Saudi Arabia at the time and moved to Canada in 2001.
The family settled in Mississauga. Bhathena attended TL Kennedy and faced some of the issues the protagonist in her second book, The Beauty of the Moment, faces.
However, in the book, Bhathena chose to make Susan a South Indian and her boyfriend Malcolm, Parsi.
“Susan is too close to me in personality, her struggles to meet her parents’ expectations mirror my own,” confesses Bhathena. “If she were Parsi, it would be almost autobiographical – I wanted some semblance of fiction!”
The story of a young girl’s immigration from Saudi Arabia to Mississauga, and her struggle to adapt to Canadian culture is full of heart, hope, and the confusion of navigating new worlds, both as a teenager and an immigrant. It is a tale teenagers – and their parents – will relate to on many levels.
In Jeddah, Susan Thomas knew what her life would look like – she would study, excel in school, and choose whether she wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. She did not plan on moving to Canada, leaving behind her father and friends, or meeting a boy who would make her question everything. Life in Mississauga opens Susan’s eyes, both to new problems and possibilities.
Her father settles them in an apartment and returns to Jeddah, promising to be back in a few weeks. As those weeks stretch into months, Susan is increasingly aware of the tensions and pressures her mother is dealing with.
The gray, messy side of her love that gets turned off by the very mention of my father, that still blames me for the distance between them.
Bhathena writes about the families in the area in Mississauga that is infamous as Begumpura. Wives and children in Canada, the husbands working in Persian Gulf countries, visiting periodically.
In Jeddah, Indian expats joke about a whole street of buildings across from the Mississauga Civic Centre, where new immigrants buy apartments to deposit their wives and kids in, and then return to their tax-free, high-paying jobs in the Gulf. Begumpura, they call the place: The City of Wives.
She describes the sense of isolation, of dislocation, of existing in a limbo in her book.
“I feel that immigrants who come to Canada are not necessarily fully prepared for the realities of life here,” says Bhathena. “There are many like Susan’s mom who lived as housewives and then to adjust to living alone and perhaps get back into the work-force is not an easy transition. We need resources that can help newcomers in these aspects of their lives. They need support. Mental health is a very real issue that needs to be addressed. I’ve heard the jokes about the families in Begumpura and I’d think, these are real people who are living with the consequences of a difficult choice, separating because of the future of their kids. The choice affects the parents as well as the kids in many ways.”
As she struggles to fit in, to make new friends, Susan clings to old ones in Jeddah. The insecurities surface when Alisha takes a little longer than usual to respond to texts, or is too busy to Skype. And then the blessed relief when she finally does.
I text back a series of heart emojis, my world temporarily restored.
Susan experiences her first snowfall – or what she thinks is one until Malcolm educates her that this is just flurries. With real snow, he tells her, one can collect it and add maple syrup to make taffy.
Though Bhathena drew on her own experiences to create this story about family, friends and love, there are significant differences, too.
“I was too shy to have a high school romance! Our family lives were very different, and it took me much longer to come into my own about what it was that I wanted to do in my life.”
That happened when she was doing her Bachelor of Commerce, following the plan that was determined for her. There were recruiting sessions at her university and while going through the different stages of interviews, she realized how acutely unhappy she was.
“It just didn’t feel right. I had to sit down and ask myself if this is what I would do for the rest of my life. I told my parents that I would get my degree, but then I would write.”
Her father said if that’s what she really wanted to do, she should go for it. That was a turning point for Bhathena, who got her degree and a job at an export company. She also enrolled in a writing program at Humber College.
She wakes up at five every morning, writes for a couple of hours, works from eight to four and then writes some more. “Been doing this since 2006!” she says.
Which brings us to her journey as a published and acclaimed author.
“Once I got my parents’ blessings – that was the biggest obstacle for me – I was like, I will overcome whatever hurdles that might come my way and I began writing short stories.”
After four years, she had a substantial body of work and found herself an agent in New York who submitted her stories to various publishers. The response was that short stories by new authors rarely sell, write a novel. Bhathena took one of the short stories and expanded it from 5000 words to 80,000. And again the rejections started coming in. But this time, there was no consensus on just why it didn’t work. Some loved that it was set in Saudi Arabia but didn’t like the fact that the couple died in the very beginning of the book. Others liked the beginning but not the setting.
Her agent thought it might work better as a young adult novel, but by then Bhathena had worked on the story for close to eight years.
“I was exhausted,” she shares candidly. “I was skeptical if another revision would magically sell the book. But the agent got a publisher to talk to me and I realized she actually loved the book and that the revision would work.” She rewrote it and 12 years later, her debut novel made waves in the publishing world.
Teenagers she interacts with on her book readings sometimes want to discuss this aspect of her writing career. It was such a long journey, what can she say to them that will make it a positive one for them?
Bhathena poses a question in turn.
“Does writing make you happy? If the answer is yes, then continue to write, even if you don’t get published. This might sound rich coming from me but honestly, publishing doesn’t make me as happy as writing does. In college, when I wasn’t writing for a while, I was very unhappy.”
She also tells them to have a Plan B, something that will help pay the bills. “JK Rowling did! It may be a while before you get published. So keep writing, perfecting your craft. Talent is great, but persistence is important.”
Bhathena’s other interests include travelling, discovering new places, going on long walks and reading – she was reading The Chai Factor at the time of this interview. “I also love drawing. I’m not too good at it, in fact I am a failed cartoonist that lived vicariously through Susan!”
Like many writers, she continues to work full-time at her day job and says she is very grateful to Canada Council for the Arts and Ontario Arts Council for the grants that allow her to pursue her passion.
“My books are getting published and I hope that one day I will be able to write full time. It’s a slow build, but this is what I love doing. Getting lost in a different world that I can create, getting away from my mundane reality. When I stop writing for the day, sometimes it’s like emerging from under water. If the session went great, it’s almost a spiritual experience.”
Bhathena is working on her next novel, the first in a young fantasy series. Haunted by the Sky is set for a Spring 2020 release.