What is at Stake

Khalida Hassan

Khalida Hassan

Attending #FestofAuthors18 as a Delegate, Khalida Hassan, who was a finalist for the 2018 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Authors, was drawn to events reflecting on certain questions that all writers are likely to encounter at some point during their creative process: Why this story? Why this form? Why write at all?

By Khalida Hassan

When two writers meet, sooner or later, the subject of what each is writing comes up in conversation. Or, more exactly, the subject of trying to write something—our struggle with finding time or the right form—comes up. When I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, outside the Brigantine Room before a Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) event, our small talk consisted of describing the ways each of us had found in carving out a little writing time. I explained that I’d started to squeeze in time for my own “stuff” before work as a nine-to-five literary assistant. It meant I had to be up a couple of hours earlier than usual, and that I was often sleep deprived. What I didn’t mention was, in that daily fog, I can lose touch with the why, my purpose in writing. There has to be more than wanting to write a decent story to make me feel connected to the practice.

“Why?” another friend asked me over dinner during the Festival’s run. Once that sense of being adrift had come to the forefront of my consciousness, my feelings take a form I could recognize. “Of course writing a good story is enough.”

I couldn’t quite answer her, but I continued to think about the why as I made my way through the Festival schedule. When you come from somewhere else, there is a different kind of urgency to writing—or you feel there should be. The immigrant writer is keenly aware of the parallel selves who didn’t or will not make it out to find a safe space from which to write. When you live not under the threat of danger or death, but are faced with the “deaths from paralyzing chagrin in exile” (in Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat’s words), traditional story structure doesn’t seem to be enough; you are neither victim nor warrior of that hero tale. Rather, because pieces of your identity are scattered, you turn to innovative forms to conceive a new way of being. I’d later hear writer Dionne Brand call this process “thinking your way into the world.”

The urgency I describe stands in contrast to what readers and publishers have come to expect from ‘immigrant’ or outsider fiction, where questions of selfhood and diaspora and exile are neatly subsumed in the traditional five-act structure. That’s why TIFA organizing a panel on form featuring four writers of colour, each of whom defy genre conventions, was refreshing.

Early on in that panel discussion, the moderator, Wendy O’Brien, posed a question to these writers: where does your daring (in breaking with convention) come from? A writer as understated as Brand did not characterize her work as an act of daring so much as an act of recording. In layering ideas and story in her novel Theory, Brand’s authorial intent was to record different modes of thinking and inhabiting the world. It seemed as if the work stretched laterally, as does the character’s consciousness. Similarly, Isa Kamari incorporated the mystical and the poetic in his novel Tweet to counteract the dehumanizing machinery of late-stage capitalism and urban sprawl. Being disturbed with the spiritually destructive forces in Singapore necessitated the form. Like any good blueprint, the working architect said, he conceives narratives with dotted rather than bold lines to give the design room to grow. And, to tie together the previous writers, Pierre Mejlak begins first with a story rather than an innovative shape, but those stories usually come with dotted boundaries—it is in those spaces that the reader has the most potential to “break into” the story.

(L to R) Randy Boyagoda, Rawi Hage and Elamin Abdelmahmoud at TIFA 2018.

(L to R) Randy Boyagoda, Rawi Hage and Elamin Abdelmahmoud at TIFA 2018.

All three writers I’ve mentioned pointed to a kind of subjective truth-telling as the impetus behind their work. At least one person’s truth was at stake. Not for the fourth writer on the panel. When questioned, Ondjaki declared that he tells people his job is to lie for a living. We are, after all, in the business of moving the reader through well-constructed sentences; the writing itself is an act of manipulation. Ondjaki made no claim to leading the reader to a greater truth through these “lies.”

It was a sentiment echoed in another event at TIFA. Rawi Hage—the only writer I heard at the Festival speak explicitly about death—sets out only to write beautiful sentences. Style, not the truth, was his foremost concern. Through his onstage conversation about faith with Randy Boyagoda, it was easy to imagine that Hage’s novel, Beirut Hellfire Society, was imbued with the author’s worldly insouciance. Hage set out to transform Beirut—a city set upon by religious strife—in his own vision.

I had a second unexpected run-in with a friend at the Festival, the same one who’d assured me “writing a good story is enough.” She was lingering in the bookshop before Guernica’s 40th Anniversary celebration. The winner of Guernica’s annual publishing prize would be announced during the event and my friend was one of the finalists (something she’d shied away from sharing at our recent dinner).  Having your work chosen or not both lead to questioning its merit. Later, I’d see the anxiety over whether her work was ready—actually publishable, in a state she could be proud of—creep over her face.

It was my fourth day at the Festival, and my head was buzzing with all the activity, with all the voices of writers digging at their craft. She was deserving, I reassured her, and she’d put so much of herself on the page. We offer up as much of ourselves as we are capable. That, in the end, seems more than enough.

In the bookshop, we delayed going into the gala for a while, before we decided we’d celebrate whatever outcome: making the shortlist or winning. Of course, she won the prize.

Stay tuned for more Delegate-penned pieces on #FestofAuthors18!