An Interview With Author Tasneem Jamal

Senior Library Assistant

Critically acclaimed author and Kitchener resident Tasneem Jamal sat down with KPL Senior Library Assistant Anne Jung to talk about her writing process and the role the library has played in her life.

Q. Tell me about yourself. What led you to write?

A. As long as I can remember, I liked storytelling, even before I could write. Apparently I talked to myself constantly as well as acting things out. I had story telling energy, a lot of creative energy allowing me to make things up. When I was a child, even before I could write, so my mother tells me, I liked storytelling. I see this in my younger child, I too talked to myself in front of the mirror or told stories. As soon as I could write, in school, I was writing. In high school, it was the 80’s and all about making money. I didn’t think creative writing could be a legitimate career.

I ended up in journalism which I loved because I’m a news junkie.

So I went into journalism. But fiction writing was always my heart. It was always pulling me. In journalism I struggled in reporting to stay to the quotes, I wanted to change them to fit the narrative. I began an academic career and got my masters in English literature. I thought I’d pursue a PHD but didn’t enjoy it because I wanted to write my own and not have to focus on others writing. Also at the same time, I had a story in my head, and knew that it was a powerful story, a good story even from a journalistic side.

Q. Were you born in Uganda? How was your transition to Canada? In particular, Kitchener Ontario

A. Yes, I was born in Uganda and settled in Kitchener by the time I was 6 years old. I was old enough to have memories, but young enough that they were emotional fragmentary memories so there was a lot of material there.

My first language was Punjabi, my mother’s language, along with Swahili.

In East Africa I started school in English so when I came to Canada there wasn’t a lot of trauma that way, in fact it was quite smooth. My Mother started us in school a year early. So when I came in in the middle of grade one, academically I’d done the work so I felt it was a lot easier but there was the emotional adjustments. There were not a lot of non-white people in Kitchener so it helped to have the academic go smoothly.

My parents and my grandfather came to Canada initially but he wasn’t with us the whole time. My siblings and I came with my mother but went back for a year before coming to Kitchener again and settling with the whole family.

Q. Your novel “Where the air is sweet” builds on the truth of your family’s experience?

A. Yes. I think the line between Fiction and Non-fiction is blurry. Starting point stories I had heard in my family, I realize in hind sight that what allowed me to write the novel and a sense of the characters….distance between characters, third or fourth removed from me, or I heard a story, and this gave me a lot of creative space to write. The reason I note this is because recently I tried writing a non-fiction story about the year my husband and I spent in North Africa, I really struggled with it because reality kept pushing, it was too close, into my creative space.

I did write an article for Chatelaine but it was my agent who thought there was enough for a book from that year and the possibility of making money, I put together a book proposal and got a book deal with Harper Collins.

Only when I went to write it, it was a struggle. I can write 300 pages of material but it just was not working. It was more a journalistic type of book, than a creative non-fiction which was what I was after. Even though they are real events, real memories even, there is a lot of space for creativity. Memory is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently myself, Memory is fallible, we re-create it when we count it in our minds.

Q. Are you saying you are going to write a novel about this story instead of a non-fiction account?

A. I’ve actually set aside this project, maybe in 20 years I’ll feel like re-visiting it.

Q. What are you working on now? And what process do you use?

A. What I’m working on now is memories of the 1970’s, Kitchener, in particular Courtland Ave …powerful, memories, with enough space. There is a lot of creative energy for that and I’m writing scenes, things are flowing. With the book deal there was a lot of pressure. I even upped my hours of my day job so there wasn’t any financial pressure to HAVE to write. It has freed me creatively, this is huge.

My writing is no longer attached to any financial need, any financial expectation, even for my family, you have to pay your bills. Even though technically I have less writing time. I set one day aside a week to write. It is easier now my kids are a bit older. My older daughter swims twice a week and when she is in the pool I have 2 hours where I can write at the pool. I just take my laptop or my notebook and that’s my time. I actually have more creative time. I’m feeling quite creatively good about it. You have to trust the process. You have to trust what comes.

At this point it’s fiction but I don’t know what it will be. I have this writing group with 2 other authors writing friends and share the material and discuss it together.

Emily Urquhart heard me on a panel of Wild Writers and then contacted me. And we ended up doing a panel here at Kitchener Public Library with Camilla Gibb.

Carrie Snyder and I actually worked together at the National Post many years ago. Of course she’s a local author too, she’s here in Kitchener.

When I moved back here, I wrote a blog and we re-connected. I wanted a mentor and when I was on the panel and Carrie (Snyder) was at that festival. Why didn’t we do this 5 years ago? But we’re doing it now.

Emily’s parents, have a painting of her father’s in their home, but now it is in the space at the Art Gallery at Centre in the Square. It’s all right here. There is energy for this physical space….very Kitchener very Waterloo.

Q. I remember helping you in the library to do microfilm newspaper research for your novel that became “Where the air is sweet” years ago. Can you talk about how the library has helped you? How the library has shaped you as a kid?

A. I blogged about it a few years ago. I can’t say enough about libraries.

My Mother and Grandmother were illiterate. My family did a good job of engaging us, discussing politics and other topics.There wasn’t reading though. There seems to be an idea out there that if you don’t read to your children they won’t become readers. But I think as long as you’re engaging your children intellectually that’s what matters.

Kitchener had mobile libraries when I was growing up, and one was parked on the street MacKenzie King School is on… Natchez Rd. Literally a 3 minute walk, it was only a small street to cross and then up a few steps into the trailer. At a very young age, probably 6, I would get books and return them every week or every two weeks. I learned to love books. The library came to me and it was free. The library literally came to me.

I don’t even remember showing my parents books, sometimes I would. But the library opened up a world entirely for me. I went alone, didn’t even take friends, I had feeling I had access to a universe all my own through the library

All through school I took the bus to the Central Library on Queen St, I was enamoured of books, stories. I liked to come here for the stories because they weren’t at home.

When I was home on weekends from the University of Toronto, I was working on a journalism degree and still came to the public library for research. These were Pre-internet days and everyone needed a library to do research….the academic libraries didn’t have the cultural setting I was craving. Of course at U of T there were libraries.

In East Africa in 2009, I wrote my book, while travelling with my husband and babies. I wrote the bulk of the book in Tanzania, and the setting is East Africa. Libraries there weren’t great, and I picked up/bought a couple of books there. There was a book by Idi Amin, former ruler. That was it as far as research. Difficult to get around with little kids. I’m not saying these resources didn’t exist, it was just a challenge for me to find them.

By 10 months later, when we returned to Canada, I had written ¾ of the novel

And I still wanted to research the political side, and look at the newspaper the time coverage of the time period in Canada, because the characters come to Canada

The Kitchener Public Library’s Microfilm of Globe and Mail became my source and I quoted them in my book, acknowledging the newspaper in the credits. Most of the articles dealt with the expulsion from Uganda under Idi Amin’s rule.

I also wrote in the Central library where the microfilm was housed in the research area of the KPL at that time around 2010, 201. The library is space I felt comfortable in.

Q. How have you been involved at the Library as an author? What spaces have you used to meet other authors here?

A. I interviewed Emma Donoghue as part of a Kitchener Public Library event, and been in programs with Camilla Gibb and Emily Urquhart

The Central Library has the Café on the main floor now, along with social space and study rooms for free which I plan to make use of when I meet with Carrie Snyder and others.

As a judge for the Dorothy Shoemaker Literary Contest one year, I really enjoyed being involved and it twigged something for me. In particular, the Youth category really excited me, there are kids out there doing this writing and that is truly exciting. I spent a long time writing notes and critiquing in an effort to help them. Noise of life these days, and the impact of social media on youth as they are encouraged to only communicate in short sentences. I could really get behind any efforts like Dorothy Shoemaker contest that encourages youth to write longer, better, creatively. All these youths had this energy, you see it in some adults, something fresh and raw.. I would be really open in the future to doing more in this area with the library….workshops, one day seminars, anything, something to get youth engaged. To show them that there is rewarding in many ways, it may not make you money, but it can give you so much.

I suggest re-invigorating the Dorothy Shoemaker contest including making schools aware, and have them participate in the creative writing process and even make it part of their curriculum.

Q. Can you comment on libraries vs. bookstores?

A. One author said he didn’t like libraries because he felt it discouraged people from buying his book. But I disagree one hundred percent. The public library made me a book lover, it made me a reader, before even becoming a writer. It does count towards your book sales when the library buys your book. If you’re talking straight figures, maybe. But when I do book clubs I say, I explain about the need for book sales, and ask if everyone could either buy a copy of the book or get a copy from the library. When your book circulates from the library it is providing recognition.

Libraries promote local authors, unlike Chapters were I cannot find my book, I cannot find Carrie Snyder’s books. I did find Camilla Gibb’s books. There is a sense that libraries now, and librarians choose…. A lot of the literary culture has diminished, and it is the flashy books that get attention…so libraries and librarians will still be able to recommend good literature, local literature. It has become even more important. In bookstores there are pillows and gifts, and so much stuff to buy, at least in libraries there are lists of good books and book displays.

About Tasneem Jamal

Tasneem was born in Mbarara, Uganda, and immigrated to Canada with her family in 1975. Her debut novel Where the Air Is Sweet was published to critical acclaim in 2014. That same year she was named one of 12 rising CanLit stars on CBC’s annual list of Writers to Watch. Her writing has appeared in Chatelaine, Saturday Night magazine, and the Literary Review of Canada. She worked as a news editor at The Globe and Mail and before that as a copy editor at Saturday Night magazine. She is currently a consulting editor with The New Quarterly. She lives in Kitchener

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