1. Your debut novel “Belief” appears to bear striking similarities with your own immigrant experience in so much as the novel is set around the time of your own immigration and flashes back to your place of origin. Was there a point in the course of writing your novel where you decided to veer away from your lived experience and create characters that were entirely fictional?
Let me emphasize, Belief is a work of fiction, and while it does draw upon my lived experiences both in Canada and in India, there is no direct link between my life and the theme of the novel. The idea for the story came from observing my neighbours at my apartment building at Keele and Lawrence. They were like me – qualified, experienced, and doing survival jobs. I explored the theme of immigration and what Western societies describe as “terrorism.” I wanted to understand how a family would cope (or, more likely, crumble) when it discovers that their son is involved in a terror plot. The novel’s backstory draws on Bombay of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Let me reiterate, Belief is fiction.
2. Of “Belief” Paul Gurski says, “is a look into what makes young people give up their sheltered, secure lives and take up causes that are sure to lead to catastrophe, for others as well as themselves”. Did you have to research this aspect of the novel? Could you describe your research process?
Please permit me to shift the focus of the question away from research. Mr. Gurski’s review focused more on the “terrorism,” but my novel is nuanced portrayal of the immigrants’ life. Dana Hansen’s Quill & Quire review understands that aspect. She says, “(Belief)…reads as a message to mainstream Canada that the isolation and marginalization of the immigrant experience has the potential to result in unintended consequences when faced with individuals who “[don’t] know what one could do about an unjust system except fight it.” Yes, I held extensive interview sessions with a Brampton-based criminal lawyer to understand the process of investigation that law enforcement agencies undertake in such matters. I also interviewed hospital nurses, community settlement workers for authenticity.
3. In an interview with Open Book you say “When my family landed at the Pearson Airport … we were each given a bag that contained invaluably useful information on settling in Canada. If I could decide the contents of such a bag for newcomers, I’d definitely include In the Skin of a Lion. It should be mandatory reading for anyone who wishes to make Toronto (Canada) their new home. Why?
Michael Ondaatje wrote this novel more than three decades ago and it describes the life of immigrants in the early 20th century. In 2008-09, when I immigrated, I instantly identify with many of the novel’s faceless and unacknowledged immigrants that helped build Toronto. Undoubtedly, Toronto and Canada have changed since the days the Bloor Viaduct was built. But despite progress, the newcomer continues to remain faceless, unseen, and unacknowledged. We all have personal reasons to immigrate. At the time my family immigrated to Canada, an immigrant’s life was fraught with ceaseless challenges. In the struggle to survive, it is easy to turn cynical and lose perspective. This novel helps a newcomer understand that his / her arduous experience is not unique.
4. How did you come to write your first book?
The ancient Greeks told us that those whom Gods wish to destroy, they first make them mad. That may have been true in ancient times. These days, Gods turns them into novelists. It all began innocuously during the graveyard shifts at a condo in Toronto where I worked in 2008 after I immigrated. As a security guard, one does nothing. I decided to write a short story. My short story was selected by the Diaspora Dialogues and I was able to improve it under MG Vassanji’s mentorship. It was published in 2010. Mr. Vassanji suggested turning the short story into a novel and then I worked on it for the next five years. Belief was published in 2016 by Mawenzi House.
5. Do you remember any experience around learning to write that became formative for you in the later years?
I was a journalist for many years in India. As a journalist, I had learned to write directly to communicate immediately. Writing fiction is different. I must acknowledge MG Vassanji’s contribution to my evolution as a fiction writer. It’s mistakenly believed that writing is a gift one is born with and that it cannot be taught; my experience with Vassanji was different. His guidance helped me improve my story, my characters, the pace at which the story developed. He did all this patiently, often imperceptibly, occasionally sarcastically, and at least on a couple occasions quite sharply. In 2009, I assisted Isabel Huggan, a Canadian author, at Humber Writers’ Workshop. She had a simple advice that I follow in my writing: “All writing is rewriting.”
6. How do you become conscious of the craft in your work?
I have been writing intermittently, completing my collection of short stories (Faith). For me, writing is not natural or easy, it has never been, even when I was a hack, and especially so now. This is because every time I write, I am acutely aware that I will never be able to write like the authors I admire, and I am not talking of Shakespeare. As a fiction writer, I often suffer from imposter syndrome. Craft is evolutionary. In my initial drafts, I focus on narrating the story, then I look at the development of my characters, and finally, I look at the flow. I’m convinced that a professional editor should work on the manuscript before it is considered ready.
7. Is pleasure an emotion that you would associate with any of the stages of your writing practice? Or is it not pleasure but a different positive emotion? Can you reflect on that?
For me, there is no pleasure in writing. I dread it. But I’m emotionally compelled to write. I have missed writing since I quit journalism. In Toronto, I blogged every week for more than a decade and stopped only when I was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in 2020. Since then, I’m obsessed with completing my short story collection, which I hope to do by 2021 end. I’m also writing essays on my journey as a cancer patient, with six-monthly updates. For me, writing is personal; I write for myself. It is a bonus if others like it, but I don’t stop if they don’t. An editor once told me I should stop working on my manuscript. I Ignored him and worked harder.
8. Are you conscious of developing a distinctive voice or a narrative style through your work?
Developing of a distinctive voice emerges from the story. In a novel, the voice must be linked to the narrative. Both are dependent upon each other. Let me focus on Belief. To me it posed a challenge of portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada, and I’m not a Muslim. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation.’ Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil? I was born in a Hindu family, but my dad was a socialist, and I grew up to be an atheist. Also, as a journalist, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93 and recorded the misery Indian Muslims suffered. Pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over 25 years. I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that is palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create. I have done so in Belief, and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.
9. What is your definition of a successful piece of writing? Who decides that?
A successful piece of writing is one that readers love, and the author’s craft is subtly evident. If we were to look at novels (in English language) of the last two centuries, only a few manage this difficult achievement. To me, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861); Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934); V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961); Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969); Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981); MG Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lal (2003) are a handful of creative works that will be remembered centuries after their creation. Of course, this is purely subjective, and every literature connoisseur will have a different definition of a successful piece of writing.
MAYANK BHATT immigrated to Toronto from Bombay (Mumbai) in July 2008 with his wife Mahrukh and son Che. His debut novel, Belief, was published in 2016 by Mawenzi House Publishers. Diaspora Dialogues’ selected Mayank for its short fiction mentoring program in 2009, where MG Vassanji, the eminent Canadian novelist, was his mentor. His short stories have been published in TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto, Canadian Voices II and Indian Voices I (India), The Maple Tree Supplement, The Beacon (India) and the Montreal Serai. Mayank has done two writing programs – journalism from Sheridan, and creative writing from Humber. From 2010 to 2014 he was a columnist for Canadian Immigrant magazine where he wrote about his everyday experiences as a newcomer to Canada. He blogs at generallyaboutbooks.com.