Growing up, my favourite places were my town’s public library and my school libraries. I still love these spaces for the sense of possibility they offer....
Brooklyn Public Library is delighted to welcome award-winning author Farzana Doctor to Off the Shelf as our latest guest. A true Candian triple threat, she’s a psychotherapist and activist as well as the author of a new book Seven hailed by Ms. Magazine as “fully feminist and ambitiously bold.” I couldn’t agree more.
Seven follows Sharifa, a middle-aged wife and mother, on her trip to India where she begins an ancestral research project that ultimately unearths truths both devastating and galvanizing. Sharifa’s story is an intergenerational exploration of family, identity and culture that brilliantly balances such complex topics as infidelity, trauma and khatna, or female genital cutting. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, the story—carried by a cast of vibrant female characters, is a pleasure to read and shines a light on a community underrepresented in English-language fiction. At times shocking, this uniquely powerful story is nonetheless recommended for all adults.
I connected with Doctor while fan-girling over Seven on Instagram. I was delighted when she wrote me back and agreed to sit for this interview in which she candidly describes the origins of her novel’s title, the inspiration for her characters, her activism and so much more. You can check-out Seven in print and eAudiobook formats through the Brooklyn Public Library catalog. Seven can also be found in all formats in independent bookshops everywhere.
Off the Shelf (OtS): Thank you so much for sitting down with Brooklyn Public Library! You’ve published four books, including your newest Seven, which Quill & Quire describes as “Visceral and emotional... a courageous feat." Did you know you always know that you wanted to be a writer? Did you spend time around books and libraries as a child?
Farzana Doctor (FD): Growing up, my favourite places were my town’s public library and my school libraries. I still love these spaces for the sense of possibility they offer—to borrow ANY book! To explore ANY subject! Books were great escapes and helpful for making sense of the world as a child. They still are.
I didn’t always know I’d be a writer, but I was a child who loved to write and to perform plays for any audience—willing or unwilling—at home. I come from an immigrant family where security and financial well-being matter a lot and so I was encouraged to see the arts as hobbies and “professional” careers as work. I ended up becoming a social worker. I am now a writer in the morning, a self-employed psychotherapist in the afternoon and an activist in my spare time, which is a good balance.
OtS: What do you love most about libraries?
FD: As a child, they were safe places for me to learn and imagine. I recall bean bag chairs, quiet, and a magic card that let me access thousands of books.
OtS: How does being an activist and a psychotherapist influence your writing?
FD: I think every part of a writer’s life somehow finds its way into stories. With Seven, my activist work with WeSpeakOut (a group that is working to end female genital cutting in my community) fueled my writing in direct ways, but with other books, social justice issues have folded themselves in more indirectly. I’ve been a counsellor/psychotherapist for almost thirty years now, so psychological and emotional ways of seeing the world are just part of who I am. I have lots of experience listening to, sitting with, and understanding human emotions, and this must support my writing. In practical terms, it’s helpful for a writer to have rewarding, flexible and part-time work, so I also appreciate how my private practice sustains my writing practice.
OtS: Seven is a powerful story about an Indian-American woman, Sharifa, grappling with so much at once: her marriage, her sexuality, her ancestry, and, perhaps most impactfully, her discovery of khatna—or female genital mutilation (FGM)—in the Dawoodi Bohra religous community she was raised in. With so much happening at once, how did you select such a small title, Seven, to carry everything?
FD: Titles are funny things—often decided upon at the last minute and sometimes by the marketing folks, not the author. My working title was Four Wives, a nod to Sharifa’s great-great-grandfather’s spouses, with whom she gets obsessed with in her research. But then, an award-winning book—Five Wives—by Canadian author Joan Thomas, came out nine months earlier and I had to think of a new title! Seven is a beautiful age, and also the age when everything changes for the characters in this novel, so it seemed right. Also, short titles are easy for readers to remember!
OtS: Regarding Sharifa’s research project about her wealthy ancestor, Abdoolally, and his four (consecutive) wives. Did personal experience inspire this ancestral plot line?
FD: Absolutely. While Abdoolally is a fictional character, his story was inspired by what little I know about my own great-great-grandfather, Hussonally Dholkawala. The year before I began writing Seven, I had been doing some informal, oral historical research on him. Like Sharifa, I couldn’t find out much more than the rags-to-riches trope, and so I let my imagination take over where my research ended. Readers interested in the real man can read about him here. There are also photos of Dholka, one of Seven’s settings.
OtS: The storyline is punctuated by flashbacks into the lives of these ancestors. What is the significance of their past in Sharifa’s present?
FD: I truly believe that our ancestors live with us in so many ways. I wanted to show how Abdoolally and his wives left a lasting legacy for Sharifa. These short episodes are also a way to give the reader a glimpse into some of the emotional realities that Sharifa is (unsuccessfully) seeking. Later in the book, they also offer the reader brief breaks in the intensity of Sharifa’s story. I won’t get into spoilers, but the Abdoolally story structure gets replicated in Sharifa’s story structure near the end and I really liked that (which is a nerdy author thing for me to say).
OtS: Seven features a cast of strong, successful, opinionated women. They feel so genuine. Did real women inspire your characters?
FD: My feminist WeSpeakOut sisters have had a huge influence on my life these past few years. They’ve helped me to heal and to grow as an activist, and have reconnected me to my Bohra community. Some of them were my beta readers. There are bits of all of them in Sharifa, Zainab, Fatema, and the rest of the book’s women characters.
OtS: For many readers, this may be the first time they are hearing of India’s religious Dawoodi Bohra community. Was raising awareness of this community—with such transparency and complexity—important to you as an author?
FD: Yes it was important. I knew that if I was going to write about khatna, I’d have to give some context in order to avoid reinforcing some of the myths and Islamaphobic stereotypes that exist about FGM. So I sought to write the community with love and nuance, and to show the diverse humanity that exists within.
OtS: As an #endFGM activist, did you feel it was important to include pro-FGM view points in some of your female characters?
FD: I wanted to increase understanding about this complex social norm. All of the people who continue the practice are victims themselves—this is intergenerational violence cloaked as a harmless religious ritual. Most pro-khatna people really, truly believe that they are not harming children because, until recently, there has been almost no public discourse about this taboo subject. I wanted to show that pro-khatna folks are both beloved elders as well as people continuing a harmful practice.
OtS: As an activist, a psychotherapist, and a writer, your bookshelves must be quite eclectic. I have to ask, what are you reading these days?
FD: Here’s my list of recent reading:
- Keepers of the Faith by Shaukat Ajmeri
- The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya
- The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole (which I’m listening to on audiobook)
- Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
- Crosshairs by Catherine Hernandez
- An Introduction to the Family Systems Model by Richard C Schwartz
Liza is an archivist-turned-librarian living in Brooklyn with her pup and husband. She enjoys arranging her books by color, foraging the internet for new titles, and unearthing forgotten Brooklyn history.
This blog post reflects the opinions of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Brooklyn Public Library.
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