Writing worst case scenarios with heart and empathy: Nazanine Hozar, John Irving and more…

The Delegate Programme is an opportunity for local authors and journalists to enrich the level of discussion at select events throughout the Festival. Returning Delegate Kevin Hardcastle shares his experience at #FestofAuthors19, or “the Fest” as he affectionately calls it, below.

By Kevin Hardcastle 

While interviewing Nazanine Hozar, author of the critically acclaimed novel, Aria, John Irving mentioned something that I’ve heard him say a number of times previously. He said that he considers the people in his life, and the characters that he conjures and cares about, and then he writes about the worst thing that could happen to them. As a world-renowned and decades-published author, Irving has also gravitated toward other authors that share similar sensibilities, at least in as far as trying to construct deep, complex characters that the reader cares about, and then putting them in a scenario where the worst sets upon them and forces them to react.

Nazanine Hozar is now one of a fairly small number of authors that Irving has lately put his support behind, and, given the material in her novel, and her approach to the work, it is not surprising in the least. Aria is a novel that draws from history, as much of Irving’s work does, and then builds out from there, focusing on those aforementioned characters and the way that they struggle or persevere some of the worst circumstances that could fall on their heads. The novel is set during the Iranian Revolution, and follows the path of an orphaned girl, a “bad luck baby,” as Irving put it during the interview. She is taken in and given her name by a soldier, and must find her way through the tumult as she grows up and becomes a young woman in the drastically changed Islamic state.

Orphans, political upheaval, identity, and characters who are outliers in society. These are elements that suggest a clear link between Irving’s novels and this new and powerful work by Hozar. As does the meticulous nature of her writing, which balances careful research but puts characters and story paramount over all of it. This balance, that Irving asked Hozar to speak on, came from months that the author spent researching in libraries, building all of that historical framework in her mind and knowing it to the detail. Then, after those months of research were complete, Hozar made a crucial effort to “let it all go,” as she said on stage. She let it simmer below as someone might their real, experienced personal history, but focused on “story first,” molding the narrative to what the story and character needed, before going back and building in the historical elements that complemented and enhanced her tale.

As is common in Irving’s novels, Hozar writes characters that do not carry neat or simple perspectives. There are multitudes of perspectives in the novel, from many different characters that surprise and defy routine. She is not trying to write a novel that packages a message about Iran, or about the effect or war, or transformation through trauma, in a way that readers can feel comfortable with receiving before putting the novel down and moving on. Irving noted that some of the events in the novel, and experiences, are “brutal” and do not let the reader off the hook in thinking about their impact. But he also stressed that Aria becomes an “exceptionally positive person,” a “true survivor who won’t quit and has her own resolve” in the face of all of the horrors she sees and knows through this journey. If there is no neat message for the reader to feel settled after reading Aria, perhaps it is simply that they’ll have to be satisfied that the titular character endures and survives, and does so while trying to reconcile her complex relationship with her homeland, and a nation in flux. Irving plainly said that this is not a novel that plays down to “weak-kneed readers,” but perhaps this is why Aria’s story is all the more potent.

I think this makes plenty of sense when you consider what Hozar said about her mother country Iran, and the misconceptions about it. Most poignantly put, she told the audience at this event that, despite often being defined by the west in terms of these decades after the revolution, “Iran is thousands of years old. The last forty years isn’t what Iran is.” In Hozar’s writing, and in her words on stage, her Iran is a “society of real humans in pain, yearning for happiness,” but that cannot escape the framework around them. They are suffering entrapment in their own country, and are struggling against a societal framework that predetermines their behaviour and ability to contend with the stricture of everyday life, especially if they are women.

As I mentioned at the start of this piece, John Irving, somehow or someway, has managed to cross paths with and support authors like Nazanine, and has done so right here at the Festival a number of times in showcase events, or in TIFA events outside of the Festival window. He previously interviewed Nathan Hill, John Boyne, and, bafflingly, the guy writing this piece right now. The way I came to know John is probably the most confusing, and the least likely, given that I would never have been on his radar as a writer had I not interviewed to be his assistant some five or so years ago when he relocated permanently to Toronto. I also tend to write books in a style and structure that isn’t reminiscent of Irving’s novels, but perhaps shares something in as far as this focus on writing honestly about complicated, embattled characters, and trying to reframe preconceived notions about a group of people, a misrepresented region, or those who have to spill some blood and put themselves at great risk to endure their “worst-case” scenarios.

When Boyne was at the Fest, he spoke with Irving about The Heart’s Invisible Furies, a novel about growing up gay in an Ireland firmly under the thumb of the Catholic Church. Hill’s novel, The Nix, told the story of a protagonist abandoned by their mother as a boy, and then forced back into contact with her after she commits an act of violence against a politician that causes a media frenzy in an already deeply divided America. But as it goes, that novel delves very deep into generational haunts from the American mid-west to a small fishing village in Norway. The novel I spoke with Irving about, In the Cage, centred around a retired mixed martial artist forced into a life of piecemeal trades work and rural crime, in an effort to keep his small family afloat in a region slowly wasted since his family immigrated there. I found the rural poor in Canada were wildly misrepresented in the few stories told about them, and told a story that – if there is a tenuous link to Hozar’s novel – set out to humanize the rural poor and leave in all the love but also the blood and guts of trying to survive in an environment and society that actively tries to lay you low or kill you. None of these books showcased at TIFA were trying to let the reader walk away unscathed, or with a simple understanding of the characters within and the journeys they take, often through violence and chaos. That so many showed up to see the authors interviewed is a good indication that readers are ready for novels like that.

This extends to other authors who have been showcased at the Festival, in their careful and dynamic approach to craft, their capacity to dig deep and tell stories that are masterfully constructed, and their ability to stand out for their bravery and willingness to break with the conventional literature that we may be used to seeing from popular authors, especially those who have traditionally got the shine from larger publishers and retailers. In other events we saw David Chariandy honoured for his novel Brother, as it had its place writ into the stones of the Toronto Book Garden after winning the Toronto Book Award (along with this year’s winner, the mighty Dionne Brand). I am proud to have been on the jury that chose Brother as the winner of that award, as it was another novel that illuminated a world close to what people think they know, but so much richer and more nuanced than it has been often chronicled in our national literature to this point. The Scarborough that Chariandy writes about is full with the family love and joy of working class people trying to navigate their lives, along with the exhaustion and prejudice and violence that they encounter as they try to survive and thrive.

Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild landed at the Fest right after release and has already shaken the tectonic plates under “CanLit.” Dimaline’s events at the Fest were attended with voracious readers and admiring authors eager to hear more about the world Dimaline had built in her novel, set in and around the rural Georgian Bay Metis community, near the towns of Penetanguishene and Midland (where In the Cage happens to be based, though fictionalized in name). Empire of Wild is full with monsters and danger, in the form of the Rogarou, a creature that haunts the rural roads and hunts women, used as a warning to be wary of travelling alone in a place that has traditional killed women and Indigenous people for centuries. The Rogarou is what a man becomes if he does not honour his community, and uphold his role in it, or if he causes harm within. Though strongly centred in a living, breathing region that is known to many as just a pocket near to “cottage country,” Dimaline builds this out into a world of magic, monsters, love, longing, lust, violence, and the wild determination of a woman who is hellbent on bringing her lost husband back from the brink. This is Dimaline’s world, and it is just being discovered by so many readers though it likewise gives no easy out for those willing to experience. It seems that they are seeing why that matters in our literature, and why so many of these authors are resonating.

Seeing Nazanine Hozar interviewed by John Irving initially framed all of this for me while I attended that TIFA event, and had me thinking throughout about why the most celebrated authors at the Fest this year are finding traction for their new, powerful stories. They are not afraid to write the worst, the stories that come from complicated characters that suffer or struggle to survive their lot, or to do so in a way that is easy to forget. These writers are all having an impact because they’ve taken the risk to look at the subject of their stories honestly and nakedly, and then use their craft to share these stories with real heart. As a result, they’re gaining the respect of authors who’ve done so in previous decades, and the admiration of readers who are hungry for books that challenge them and set their minds alight.

Stay tuned for more Delegate-penned pieces about #FestofAuthors19!