Culture  Secrets, sex, and social justice

Farzana Doctor’s first novel treats fluid identities with a touch of tenderness

Stealing Nasreen, by Toronto- based author, Farzana Doctor, is a lighthearted story that revolves around three characters: an immigrant couple from India, trying to adapt to life in Canada, and an Indo-Canadian lesbian, exhausted by her work as a psychologist. Through a series of coincidences, persisting secrets, and lies, the three lives become intertwined and knotted within the restraints of a “doomed love triangle.”

One of the main characters, Nasreen, works as a psychologist at a Toronto psychiatric hospital. After a rough breakup with her long-term girlfriend, Connie, and the death of her mother leave her emotionally stunted, Nasreen finds herself often distracted, unable to concentrate during her patients’ sessions.

Enter Shaffiq and Salma, an immigrant couple new to Canada, trying to adapt and assimilate into North American society without losing track of their Indian identity. Shaffiq, formerly an accountant, must resort to a temporary profession as a janitor at the same hospital. He develops a fascination for Nasreen, retrieving small treasures from her office. Salma, his wife, formerly a teacher passionate about her job, now works at a dry cleaners. She coincidentally begins teaching Gujarati classes to Nasreen. She develops an attraction toward Nasreen that holds ties to a forgotten part of her past. As the characters cope with loss and despair, their stories intersect, and secrets and lies accumulate, eventually erupting in a kiss with impending consequences.

Doctor wrote the first draft of the first chapter of the novel in University of Toronto Continuing Education class called “Writing the Novel.” “There is a growing awareness of issues relating to underemployed immigrants,” Doctor says. “That helped me write Shaffiq’s character. I was also really interested in writing immigrant and queer characters because I feel that there aren’t enough novels on this topic.”

This is not solely a book about lesbians; sexual diversity is demonstrated more as a method to leverage, to progress the storyline, rather than making it the focus or defining characteristic of the characters’ lives. “Sexuality is fluid,” Doctor says. It does not define their identity, but only an aspect of it.

“I’ve talked to many South Asian taxi drivers in Toronto. Some of them are neuroscientists, now working as taxi drivers. I wanted to show they have back stories,” Doctor says. This triggered her desire to bring up the issue of unfair underemployment for immigrants, whose educational backgrounds are not recognized in Canada – Doctor considers this racist. It is difficult for these people to assimilate, to establish a sense of belonging. Like gender issues, immigration issues do not dominate the novel either.

Despite the presence of these topics, the novel presents more of a refreshingly simple, lighthearted message. More than the gender issues and the underemployment of immigrants, the true message of the novel seems to be more about the fluidity of identity and sexuality.

Doctor uses humour as a device to parody the psychologist’s perspective as well as certain cultural stereotypes. The humour incorporated into the plot seems at times farfetched and unrealistic. Though, at the same time, comedy also helps to downplay the seriousness of the plot, to lighten up the story, in a way quite effectively encouraging a sense of awareness. And, while Doctor’s prose is distinctly banal, it conveys a message powerful in its universality.

Doctor crisscrosses characters from different cultural contexts. Her attempt is to break the “racist myth that somehow South Asian people are more homophobic than white Canadians.” The characters intersect as a result of actions enforced by pure human rationale and instinct, rather than as a result of their different backgrounds, tendencies, and lifestyles, as one would assume. She aims to “break those stereotypes,” and “poke holes” in common assumptions.

“I wanted to convey something political, but in a subtle, not heavy-handed way,” Doctor says. “I want people to start noticing the people around them, like those who clean their offices, for example.”

Stealing Nasreen is available for 22.95 from Inanna Publications.