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ARCAnd here it is, my book, Where the Air Is Sweet. This version is the ARC, the Advanced Reading Copy (sometimes called a galley).  It is the pre-published book. It is typeset, bound and looks almost exactly as the final will look, minus the flaps and fancy paper. The ARC is created so that we have something to send to booksellers and reviewers months in advance of the publication date.

I couldn’t be more pleased with the cover. I loved it when I saw it on a monitor but I love it even more in print. The colours are muted, elegant, and the image is both inviting and disorienting.

Reading a novel, like writing a novel, is an act of creation. The reader brings herself (her perceptions, experiences, beliefs) to the words on the page, to the story in the book, and in the union of reader and novel something new is created. And that is why a novel is always alive, fluid, rich with potential.

My first real taste of this experience was seeing how the designer interpreted and then expressed my novel. I love what she sees. I couldn’t have imagined it the way she did. But I couldn’t love it more.

I stared at the ARC of my novel for a few days, held it, admired it. I was thrilled, obviously, but I was also afraid. I didn’t want to look too closely. I was afraid if I did I would find mistakes. (A familiar sensation for anyone who works in publishing.)

The thing is, it says, right on the cover “uncorrected proof.”  We can still fix mistakes. This is our last chance to catch them, in fact. So I needed to read it. And I did.

I found a few small typos. I also found some sections I might have, in hindsight, approached differently. The typos can be fixed. The rest will remain as is. Depending on the reading I have a different opinion anyways on how to handle a scene, a line. That’s why we let books go. That’s why we stop editing. I expect, despite this reading, some typos will get through to the final. This is the nature of books, of writing, of human beings: imperfection.

There is a tradition in Islamic art, in intricate rugs, portraits, mosaics to leave a deliberate flaw. This is a statement by the artist, a testament to the imperfection of human beings as compared to the perfection of God. I didn’t worry about adding a deliberate error. I’m 100 per cent positive one (or more) will get through without any effort on my part. :)

But this tradition reminds me that flaws are not only okay, they speak to what we are.

And on that note, I will quote a line from the magnificent Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

I have a memory seared in my mind.

I am five years old and swimming in the Apollo Hotel pool in Kampala. It is 1974. A quiet weekend outing is suddenly charged when a grinning Idi Amin Dada appears in his swim trunks. A little boy, no older than I, is standing in front of Amin, between him and me. The boy (one of Amin’s sons it is clear by the military fatigues he is wearing and his position next to Amin) is staring at me, though there must be many other people about. The boy’s anger is palpable and directed at me. I cannot imagine what I have done to inspire it. But I am afraid of him. I am not afraid of his father.

The context of this event was life in Kampala during Amin’s lunatic rule. Soldiers, usually drunk, were crawling on most streets, particularly the ones near our home (which was very close to a large barracks). Each night the city would erupt in gunfights that would continue long after I had fallen asleep.

AminKids

Idi Amin with two of his sons in Kampala in 1975.

In my early attempts at telling the story of Asians in Uganda at that time, I chose to put these scenes of my childhood at the centre of the narrative, to put myself at the centre of the narrative.

What I wrote was forced and stilted and embarrassingly self-indulgent.

Four years ago, I moved to Tanzania, leaving behind a well-paying job at The Globe and Mail and selling my house, having no plan whatsoever except to live in East Africa and write a novel (with two children under the age of three in tow, this was a reckless decision by any standard). In Dar es Salaam, my husband found a job piloting a small plane. We lived off savings and his meagre earnings as I wrote each day.

It was exhausting. The mosquitoes and heat were unbearable and my baby was waking multiple times in the night. But the words were flowing and in a voice that rang so authentically I knew the story I had been trying to tell for years was finally freed.

What opened the floodgates was a sensation of disorientation. I was lost in Dar. I found no peers, saw nothing familiar and ached for home. I began to think about why I moved, why anyone moves. When I asked these questions, my grandfather, as a young man and not as the old, tired dying man I remember, appeared in my mind.

With this young man standing in the pale dust of Malia, longing for a life beyond his imagination, Where the Air Is Sweet began.

The characters quickly came to life, often expressing thoughts I had no recollection of forming. I realized that what I needed to do for so many years was to get out of the way and the story could come.

About five months into full-time writing, I began to insert details, gleaned from my parents, from aunts and uncles and later from books and later still from newspaper archives. I travelled through Uganda to the places I was writing about. I touched the house my grandfather built, visited my grandmother’s grave, stood in front of the once feared Public Safety Unit.

This book is fiction. It is framed by historical events and my family’s experience. It is, at its simplest, a story of movement and longing.

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