Author: Tasneem

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.


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.

Where the Air is Sweet_finalsmallWhere the Air Is Sweet is the title of my first novel. It is being published by the wonderful people at HarperCollins Canada. The publication date is May 2014. The on sale date (when you can buy it from booksellers) is June 3.

Here is a blurb about the novel taken from my agency’s website:

In 1972, dictator Idi Amin expelled 80,000 South Asians from Uganda. Though many had lived in East Africa for generations, they were forced to flee in 90 days as their country descended into a surreal vortex of chaos and murder.

Spanning the years between 1921 and 1975, Where the Air Is Sweet tells the story of Raju, a young Indian man drawn to Africa by the human impulse to seek a better life, and three generations of his family who carve a life for themselves in a racially stratified colonial and post-colonial society. Where the Air Is Sweet is a story of family, their loves, their griefs, and finally their sudden expulsion at the hands of one of the world’s most terrifying tyrants.

In the writing of the novel, I relied, in particular, on two excellent books for background of the Idi Amin years. General Amin by David Martin and A State of Blood by Henry Kyemba. Both books provide some great insight into the politics of the time.

I also relied on family members’ recollections. I was born in Mbarara, Uganda (where a good chunk of the novel is set) in 1969, about three and a half years before Idi Amin expelled Asians (South Asians) from Uganda, a group which included my family. Officially he expelled only non-citizen Asians, but it was a little more complicated than that. In any case, I obviously have a personal stake in the telling of this story.


Asian Ugandans board a plane at Entebbe, Uganda,
in September 1972 after Idi Amin’s expulsion order.

I have read a number of long and short histories on Uganda, encyclopedia entries, news articles, whatever I could get my hands on. I was astonished by the almost complete absence of information about Asians. In a book-length rendering on the nation of Uganda from pre-independence until today, it was not uncommon to find a lone paragraph (made up of about two sentences) that summed up the entire history of Asians in Uganda (a history that spans a century or more), including their expulsion.

Someone had to tell their story. So I did. It is not the story. It is one story.

Ugandan president Milton Obote sits with His Highness Karim Aga Khan in Kampala in 1966.

Ugandan president Milton Obote sits with Karim Aga Khan in Kampala in 1966.

The central characters in Where the Air Is Sweet are Ismaili Muslims. Here is a bit of background on Ismailis.

Who are Ismailis?
Ismaili Muslims are a community of ethnically and culturally diverse peoples united in their allegiance to Karim Aga Khan (known to Ismailis as Mawlana Hazar Imam) as the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) and direct descendant of Prophet Mohammed.

Ismaili Islam is an offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam (the smaller of the two branches of Islam). Never in their history, in any country on earth, have Ismailis been in the majority. Even within Islam itself, they’ve had to struggle to survive as a distinct group.

Why have Ismailis faced persecution?
For centuries, Ismailis have been persecuted within the Islamic world mainly because they competed for the leadership of the Muslim community. Ismailis hold that their imam, the Aga Khan, who is a direct descendant of Mohammed, should be leader of the Muslim ummah, or community.

The Muslim ummah split at the time of the Prophet’s death over the issue of his successor. When the Prophet Mohammed died, a crisis ensued over who would succeed him as leader and ensure the Muslim community remained united. A minority group held that only a member of Mohammed’s family could possess the divine wisdom required to interpret the hidden meaning of the Quran and proposed that Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law succeed the Prophet. This group came to be known as Shia’t Ali, the party of Ali, and eventually Shia. The Sunni, the largest branch of Islam in the world today, maintained that elected leaders should lead the community.

Ismailis emerged as a distinct group within Shia Islam in the eighth century after another succession crisis.

How many Ismailis are there in the world? Where do they live?
There are about 15 million Ismailis in the world, scattered over more than 25 countries (with the majority in South Asia and Central Asia).

How many Ismailis were expelled from Uganda?
About 80,000 South Asians were expelled from Uganda in 1972. Of these, approximately 24,000 were Ismailis.

Where did they go?
After the expulsion, Ismailis settled primarily in Canada, the UK, the US and continental Europe.

Why are so many Ismailis of South Asian origin?
As Ismailis continued to struggle to install their imam as leader of the growing Muslim world, they gradually moved eastward from Arabia. By the early 19th century, the 46th Imam, who had been given the honorary title of Aga Khan – which translates as “master ruler” from the Shah of Persia – moved his seat to India, where Indian missionaries had been active for hundreds of years.

How did they end up in East Africa?
Late in the 19th century the British Empire began recruiting labour from the Indian subcontinent to construct a railway connecting the Indian Ocean with the East African interior. Large numbers of Ismailis, along with other South Asians, travelled to East Africa. Once the railway was completed, many stayed on, and many of these opened shops. They quickly distinguished themselves as a sizable merchant class in much of Africa.

Who is the Aga Khan?
Aga Khan IV is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. He is the Founder and Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of non-denominational development agencies with mandates that include the environment, health, education, architecture, culture, microfinance, rural development, disaster reduction, the promotion of private-sector enterprise and the revitalization of historic cities.

Watch a recent interview with Peter Mansbridge and the Aga Khan on the CBC dated Feb. 27, 2014. This is the unedited version.

More information:

Aga Khan Development Network

Official Website of the Ismaili Muslim Community

Institute of Ismaili Studies

BlogFirstPassMy publication date for Where the Air Is Sweet is confirmed. May 2014. The pace of everything has picked up. In late August I received the copy-edited manuscript for approval. And now I have the typeset page proofs, the first pass pages. They came by UPS. I can hold them in my hands: my words.

The book is taking shape, taking form, manifesting. Finally, after all the work, after rewrites and rewrites, after years of gestating, the book is being born.

Writing is solitary. Creating happens in my mind; sometimes it is expanded, built upon in conversations with my editor, but ultimately it’s something I do alone. I have created this novel from a deeply personal place. It feels strange, then, preparing to share it (broadly, beyond people I know). It feels as though I am about to be transformed. In the way giving birth transformed me, added a new dimension, a new layer, to my being.

I’m not writing here about my fears: fears that people won’t like the book – I know some people won’t like it (not everyone loves everything); or that the book won’t sell well – it may not; this business, and it is a business, is fickle. No one can predict how a book will be received.

I’m writing here about how it feels to share what I’ve considered for so long “unshareable” because it was (I believed) true only for me and not something anyone else would care about. I am sharing the unshareable, going even further, allowing people to connect to it, relate to it, perhaps gain from it.

It’s extraordinary. This process of creating art. And the impulse to share it. I used to think it was ego. But it’s not. Not entirely. Ego is, I think, wanting validation when you don’t have it for yourself. When ego is at work the sensations and thoughts I experience are unpleasant, cloying. I feel powerless and desperate for approval, acceptance, almost at any cost. This impulse to share what I have created from the depths of myself feels entirely different. It feels generous. The easy kind of generous, like when you have so much you are not at all concerned about sharing because there is no question in your mind you will always have enough.

There is a joy in this giving, in this sharing. Nothing is lost.

With this novel, I feel as though life has given me a gift that will grow in ways I cannot even begin to imagine when I share it. And so my sharing is a responsibility, a privilege and a pleasure.

And on this weekend of Thanksgiving I can say, for this, I am grateful.

In yesterday’s Guardian, children’s author Terry Deary declares that libraries have had their day.

“Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.”

Deary makes some valid points. Authors do need to make a living.

But in my experience, public libraries create lovers of books — the very people who habitually purchase books, which then supports authors, booksellers, publishers.

When I was a child, my parents didn’t read to me. Books weren’t a part of their experience. Newspapers, newsmagazines, on the other hand, were always around, planting the seeds of my lifelong habit as a news junkie.

Books? Not so much. I remember reading a Harold Robbins paperback once, and learning far more about sexual deviancy than a child should know. :) But that was the book that was lying around in the house and I wanted to read.

My parents are intelligent people but they did not grow up in a culture of literacy. Both my grandmothers were illiterate.

When I was six years old, something called a bookmobile used to magically appear down the street from my house. Every two weeks, this big white trailer with the words Kitchener Public Library on its side would remain parked for a few hours. I would wander over and sit in that little trailer and read. And the librarian was there to help me choose what to read. Then I would take a few books home.

I developed a love of reading and of literature through public libraries. This love of reading led me to journalism school and to do a master’s in English literature. Not only do I write books now, I own many, many books by many, many authors.

I hate that authors make so little money. I hate that I have to struggle to pay bills so that I can have the privilege to write fiction while someone skilled in biology or in mathematics has the potential to make a good living doing what he or she loves.

But do libraries contribute to this? I don’t think so. Very much the opposite. Libraries handed me, someone who does not come from a legacy of literature, the gift of books. A gift that I continue to share both by writing and devouring books.

What do you think? Do libraries diminish the value of books by offering them for free?

BlogFlannery“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits…You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away…Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place.”

Flannery O’Connor

Years ago I read this quote from Flannery O’Connor, the great American short story writer. She wrote each morning and then tended to the peacock farm she lived on with her mother. Every day, she sat down at her desk and gave over those hours to writing. Sometimes she wrote nothing of substance; sometimes she wrote nothing at all. But because her mind learned this time was always going to be dedicated to writing, it began to trust and to flow. Most days, she was productive.

There are practical reasons to write daily:

  • you don’t have to re-read sections of your manuscript, which takes up valuable time;
  • your family and friends begin to respect your writing time because you do;
  • as soon as you sit down you’ll be in the flow, no need to struggle to regain your mental writing space;
  • your subconscious starts to kick in and then magic happens in your writing (e.g. a character you created will say things you didn’t expect and will begin take on a life of its own).

But ultimately if you write regularly, you are making a sacred deal with that creative source within you to be open, to receive.

I finished my novel in one year by writing about three hours, maybe four, every morning while my daughter was in nursery school. If I needed a push here and there I took longer, after making arrangements with my husband. But the average was three hours daily. And I rarely wrote on weekends.

We’re not talking life-altering commitment here. No need to quit your day job.

Flannery O’Connor gave just two hours a day.


Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi shows Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso how to wax a car in the Karate Kid, 1984

Remember that scene in the Karate Kid (the original one) when Mr. Miyagi promises to give young Daniel karate lessons but ends up making him wax cars, in a very particular manner, until he is exhausted? (Click here to watch it.) What Daniel doesn’t know (until later) is that he is developing muscle memory and strength and actual skills for karate.

I wrote headlines for The Globe and Mail’s news section for about six years. I didn’t realize it at the time but the skills I was practising in writing headlines would, much like the young Karate Kid’s car-waxing lessons, serve me later when I wrote my novel. I’ll share them here because even if you never have occasion to write a headline in your life, they will help you write.

The thing about writing headlines for a daily newspaper is you have to do it, and fast. You can’t do your laundry first or make coffee or visit Twitter. Deadlines are firm and they keep coming.

This is how you write a good headline: Write down the first idea that comes to you. This is important: You must write it down. You must commit it to paper (or the screen). Just put it down, no matter how lame. And know this: that first idea will very likely be lame. This is important, too. The lameness will free you to create: You won’t be so in love with it that you will fail to see it’s flaws.

And then you fiddle and tweak, considering why this particular word is not quite right or that particular angle is off. And before you know it, you will have a good headline. It works. I promise. Not every headline created this way is brilliant. But every headline is workable.

It isn’t effective, at least it wasn’t effective for me, to play out this process in your head. You’d think it would be. Headlines are usually only about 5 to 8 words long. Why not just hold these words in your head? Because, as every non-enlightened human being knows, the mind cannot remain still. It keeps flitting and moving and floating and not settling on anything.

Imagine a potter trying to create something without first throwing down a slab of clay. Impossible, right? You need raw materials to create. For writers, the raw material are words.

When it comes to writing creatively, I follow this method. I did it with each line, each scene, each chapter of my novel until I finished it.

Do you want to write fiction but are having trouble getting going? Commit something to paper, a line or two or a page or two. Whatever is flowing. Examine why you think it’s bad. And then make it good.


Book publishing is slow
I was lucky. The first agent I submitted to agreed to represent me. But I waited almost six months for a response. The book sold quickly, in an exclusive to HarperCollins Canada within a month of signing with the agent. But that deal was in March 2011. My launch date is early 2014.

Publishers are gamblers
Publishers cannot predict how a book will sell (Londonstani anyone?) They have to guess. Obviously it’s an educated guess, but it’s a guess. They have to make a call and be willing to swallow the losses if they are wrong. They make a decision how much to invest (advance, marketing etc.) based on what they think the book will earn in sales. The writer does not have to pay back the advance to the publisher (regardless of how the book fares) and the publisher won’t get back what they paid out in production costs, marketing costs, office overhead, billing expenses and distribution expense. Oh, and if a vendor (i.e. Indigo, Barnes & Noble) fails to sell any books, they can return them to the publisher.

Writers need agents
Apart from the fact that agents provide access to major publishing houses, match up writers and editors, negotiate the best deals and scour through those complex contracts, they generally love to talk and “network” and are not shy about telling people what they think is good about themselves. The latter personality traits are usually poorly developed or outright absent in fiction writers.

Advance is short for something
This: advance against future royalties. This means if you earn royalties that equal the advance your publisher agreed to pay, you have done what is called earning out your advance (a good thing) and not lost your publisher any money. If you earn royalties beyond that figure, you’ve made your publisher money (a very very good thing) and then you get paid royalties.

Writers are paid very very slowly
In my case, and this is the norm, I received one-third of the advance upon signing, one-third upon manuscript completion and one-third at publication. So, basically, I get paid over two to three years. Even with a really good advance, this is not something you can bank on to support a family. Royalties (see above) come even more slowly, if they come at all.

Editors are on your team
I have worked as a journalist. I know editors are vital. But I viewed them as overly critical, cruel, knife-wielding pedants (when I was the writer; when I was editing, I was just usually right. :)). An editor is a writer’s greatest gift. She wants to see your book succeed. Editors and writers are on the same team, and realizing this will make the editing process a pleasure and likely far more successful.

A well-written book does not mean it is a marketable book; just as badly written books often sell spectacularly well
The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey. Need I say more?

Big publishing houses do care about quality literature
There is a narrative out there that only indie or boutique publishing houses are interested in quality books and the big publishing houses are all about slapping books together and making deals with celebrities. Obviously, these are profit-driven machines and the bottom line is vital. And, yes, celebrities often get headline-grabbing deals. But in my experience, HarperCollins has invested a great deal of time and two excellent editors in my book, despite it being literary fiction and despite me being an unknown writer.

Those bestsellers I mocked above? They are a boon to the book industry
The profits from blockbusters allow publishers to take on books that don’t have the potential of selling very well but have the potential to enrich our culture.

Everyone working in book publishing loves books
This is a risky business. If you’re in it you love the craft.

I have finished.

I just sent the latest draft of my novel, Where the Air is Sweet, to my editor.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said “I’m finished” with respect to this book. Let’s see. Here’s a rundown of finishes of Where the Air is Sweet:

  • I finished the first rough draft in the spring of 2010.
  • I finished my first polished draft (which I could send to a prospective agent) a few months later in June 2010.
  • I made some changes at my agent’s behest, completing the draft in January 2011.
  • My first major structural edit was completed by August 2011.
  • In January 2012 I completed another draft that incorporated smaller fixes.
  • In January 2013 I finished the second structural edit.

Now, I had no fantasies that I wouldn’t work on the book after acquiring an agent and then a publisher. I knew that I had taken it as far as I could on my own but that it still had a ways to go before it was finished. I work as a newspaper editor in my other life and so I understand and have enormous respect for the editing process. That said, I don’t think I really understood the road I was embarking on when I decided I wanted to publish a novel.

I feel like a boxer who is being trained for years for a big fight. I feel that I keep getting better, the book does but I do too, more refined in my writing skills.

Anyways, I’m digressing from my theme of finishing. I think what I’m getting from this process is that we can get so caught up in finishing that we miss the experience. And if we aren’t present in the moment we cannot, at least I cannot, create.

Me, writing.

Me, writing. Pic surreptitiously snapped by my iPhone wielding 6-year-old.

When I embarked on writing my first novel I didn’t know if I would get anywhere, if I would even complete a novel, let alone publish one. I knew only that I wanted to write it, that I had reached a point at which if I didn’t write it, a kind of bitterness or frustration at all of my life would set in. And only when I accepted this fact — that the purpose of what I was doing was not a finished product but the honouring of an impulse, a desire — did I free myself to create.

And while I did complete a novel and sell it, I learned something that I believe was at least as, if not more, valuable: I love the act of writing a book, the process of creating it. I love writing.

Get in touch with Tasneem

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