Muti-genre, rural Ontario writer Hollay Ghadery talks to AW’s Lucy Black about her new recovery memoir

LB: Congratulations on having written such a moving account of your experiences as a biracial, bicultural individual.  Your loving descriptions of family, both the one that nurtured you, and the one that you have constructed, are beautifully written with rich, evocative language.  How did you decide which stories were representative of the families you describe?

HG: Thank you! The stories I tell are the ones that felt the most important to tell, and the ones I could live with telling. They were the stories that I feel challenged me the most—to write but also, to live. Importantly, they are the stories I felt might resonate the most with other people; stories that might spark further discussion.

But because I wrote about other people—people I love—I did not choose stories that were not directly mine to tell, or that I felt I could not tell compassionately. Again, I have to be able to live with what I write, not just now, but years from now. And while I can’t know for sure that I’ll even feel comfortable with writing what I did write years from now, I endeavoured to take my best guess. But of course, I cannot entirely predict the feelings of my future self. Already, less than two years after publication of Fuse, there are things I’d change about it. Still, it’s not a definitive text on my feelings. Just a time stamp.

LB: Siblings often detail having very different experiences in their shared family unit.  Did you take this into consideration when writing FUSE?

HG: Yes. I was keenly aware of the fact my siblings and I would have different memories and experiences, because, as Dr. Gabor Mate says, “no two kids are born in the same family. No two children have the same parents.” Parents can be at different stages in their lives when they have different kids. Different kids bring out different reactions in parents. Your gender/sex can also influence the way you’re treated and raised, as can birth order.

So, when writing Fuse, I aimed to centre experiences as my own, only. Unless I was certain of a shared experience or attitude, I didn’t try to speak for my siblings.

LB: Besides having written short fiction and this memoir, you are also an accomplished poet.  Please share with us the decisions you make, consciously or unconsciously, when you select the modality for a new writing project. 

HG: I think, for me, it comes down to how I feel when thinking about a subject. Do I narrate my thoughts to myself, or are my thoughts more sensory? If I’m narrating, then I write prose. If my thoughts come without words or just word fragments and are rooted more in senses—visual, smell, touch, feel, sound etc., —then it’s poetry.

LB: Tell us about your decision to write this book. What inspired and/or motivated your interest in the subject matter?

HG: Representation is why I wrote the book. I knew I wasn’t the only one living with these experiences, and I wanted to offer—and if I’m honest, receive—connection. I wanted to help other people feel less alone because I’d felt alone for so long. This loneliness made everything worse.

I didn’t write for catharsis. I’ve spoken to this before: I really don’t think catharsis makes for good reading, though it’s important for healing. By the time I wrote Fuse in earnest, I was sober, my eating disorder and OCD were less severe, and I’d stopped self harm. I needed to do the messy work of healing before I could seriously consider the messy business of writing.

LB: Share with us your driving force.  What is that special energy that encourages you to be a writer?

HG: Being a writer is my way of making sense of the world, my place in it, and the way I feel about it. From other people, to the systems that control us, to my mental health, writing is the one way for me to slow down, focus, and root around for connections, reasons, truths, comfort, and clarity—even if the only clarity I receive is learning that I will need to live with my questions.

And looping back to what I said about my mental health: I live with existential OCD, which is a type of OCD that centres around obsessive and intrusive thoughts concerning matters of existence. There are certain words I could use to explain it more clearly that I can’t even write here, because if I do, my illness tells me something bad will happen. I used to drink to make these thoughts stop. Now, in my seventh year of sobriety, I don’t have a drug to addle my brain—and during my years drinking, I wrote precious little—so, as when I was a kid battling through these thoughts, writing has become my primary weapon again.

I will always try to catch and express a little of our
atomic ruin and fashion it into a weapon of life—
anything to give sense to my scuffed eyes, clear 

This is an excerpt of my poem, “The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy”, which was published last year in the Temz Review and will appear in my upcoming collection of poetry, Rebellion Box. I feel it sums up my driving force.

LB: Tell us a little about your key priorities when you were working on this manuscript.

HG: My key priorities when writing Fuse were to tell my story honestly, but not hurtfully, and to not feel compelled to give all of myself away. Toward the first goal, I aimed to be as compassionate as possible, for many reasons. One such reason was because I was a parent by the time I started writing the book and I understood that parents mess up. Parents don’t always do the right thing. In some cases, this is unforgivable. In my case, with my parents, it wasn’t. At least not to me. With years and four kids between me and my scared, younger self, I was able to see my parents with more clarity, which isn’t to say I pretend to know their motivations with certainty, only that I could better imagine them. I know that they loved and love me.

I also wanted to be mindful of the fraught dialogue between mainstream and the margins. Being Iranian and white, I often feel torn. Divided. As I say in my book, rhetoric about and in the margins is often hostile, and I didn’t want to contribute to this hostility—which isn’t to say I shied away from difficult subjects. Only that I didn’t want to be divisive. I’m tired of divides; in myself, and in the world.

Finally, I was committed to not feel as though I had to tell everything. There are some things about the darkest times in my past I may never write about, and there are some stories that, while they colour my own, actually aren’t mine to tell. Or if they are, they aren’t only mine to tell and the implications of telling that story would be damaging to someone I care for. In which case, I didn’t write about it. I feel that the stories I did tell do justice to my experience as it is.

LB: If you had to choose one book that has influenced your writing life, what would that book be and how did it influence you?

HG: There are many but I think early on, Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus was transformative for me. Here’s this story of a man—a reporter—trying to find out the truth about this woman, a woman who may or may not have real wings. Throughout the book, you as a reader are never totally sure if this woman is telling the truth or is a charlatan. Regardless, like the reporter, we are dazzled, and in the end, more invested in believing whatever she wants us to believe that whatever the truth may or may not be.

Carter’s story made me think deeply about how truth alone sometimes isn’t sufficient to make people believe in something enough to make a difference; to take action. To see the world differently and re-examine their place in it.  Of course, Carter’s book is fiction, and this is what great fiction does: takes stories that are not based (or entirely based) in fact to make us question things that are.

LB: How and why did you decide to write this book as a work of non-fiction?  Did you consider using the same material but presenting it in a fictionalized form?

HG: I did consider writing Fuse as a novella, because I was scared and didn’t want to put my name and face to the experiences I was going to share: talking about my alcoholism, my self-harm, OCD. I liked the anonymity of a novel. But ultimately, I decided that the book would be much more powerful and, from a narrative and plot standpoint, easier to write, if I just told my truths. Then I wouldn’t have to fiddle with characters and timeline.

More importantly, I’d be more likely to affect the change I wanted for other people with similar experiences if I stepped up and shone a brutal, and admittedly, often uncomfortable light on mixed-race mental health.

LB: What is the biggest challenge or hurdle you have had to work through as a writer?

HG: Time management! I have four children (all under the age of 12), two dogs, three goats, a full-time job in communications, and several positions as editors for literary magazines. I also have to workout almost everyday or my brain goes squirrely.

Of course, for the most part, I have chosen this busy life for myself, so my time management challenge is not a begrudging one, but rather simply one I simply have to overcome, often on a day-by-day basis. Sometimes, I will have swaths of time to write. The kids will be at school, the animals calm and cared for, and all my work and literary journal related tasks finished. Other days writing will be impossible. Work will be busy, a kid or two will be home sick, the animals hyper and more needy than usual. It’s hard not to get frustrated—especially because my OCD is always there to whisper some unhelpful comment in my ear —but I try to zoom out. I try to look at my life from 30,000 feet, which helps me shake off whatever little things are bothering me, and hone in on what matters most at that moment. It’s not a perfect process and I do sometimes still get frustrated, but fighting back against my own, crippling expectations is really the only alternative. I won’t go back to being at the mercy of them.

LB: What types of writing achievements do you celebrate and how do you celebrate them?

HG: I celebrate ALL the achievements! Big, small, whatever. Writing may not be a crapshoot (because that depends on you, the writer, for the most part and you have a fair amount of control over your output), but publishing often feels like one, so when something good happens, I celebrate. If I finish a poem or a story, I celebrate by sending it to a few trusted readers. Sometimes, I share it with my children. I often feel, when working through an idea in poetry or prose, that something is holding me underwater; my writing is usually frantic. But then, when I am done, I can come up to breathe, and I gulp air. I’m elated. I want to share my joy. This doesn’t mean the poem or story is actually complete (I go back and edit heavily), but the piece’s first push into the world is done.

If I have a really big achievement, like having a manuscript accepted for publication, I will buy myself a hyacinth, or some plant I can replant or watch grow for a long time. Sometimes, the kids and I will make pizza and shove our faces with frozen yogurt, but due to my eating disorder, I tend not to celebrate with food. Still, as a family, we like to celebrate each other’s achievements and my kids like to celebrate with food and since I have no intention on passing on my messed-up relationship with food to them, if they express a desire to mark the occasion with the treat, then I don’t discourage them.

Hollay Ghadery is a multi-genre writer living in rural Ontario on Anishinaabe land. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her work has appeared in various literary journals and magazines around the world. Fuse, her memoir of mixed-race identity and mental illness, was published by Guernica Editions’ MiroLand imprint in 2021. Her debut collection of poetry, Rebellion Box, is due out with Radiant Press in spring 2023. The title poem from this collection was the winner of The New Quarterly’s 2022 Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Prize. Hollay’s short-fiction collection, Widow Fantasies, is scheduled for release with Gordon Hill Press in 2024.