Category: Where the Air is Sweet

The following essay was published in Chatelaine’s April 2015 issue.

tasneen-jamal-tanzania

A number of years ago I came to believe — I suspect after a period of binge-reading self-help books — that if you follow your heart, you cannot go wrong. That if you pursue your true passion, unseen, benevolent forces will propel you toward your goal, all the while holding you up on impossibly solid, puffy clouds.

So, in early 2009, my husband, Craig, and I gave up secure and well-paying jobs as Globe and Mail editors, sold our Hamilton, Ont., house (which we had spent three years and a lot of money renovating), stored its contents and moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. We intended to honour our respective pent-up passions:  his to work as a full-time pilot, mine to write a long-planned novel.

This was not a carefully considered, calculated risk — it was the kind of risk that takes your breath away. We had no jobs waiting for us, no medical insurance, no relatives who would meet us at the airport and nowhere to live. Holding our daughters, Mia, 3, and Lily, 9 months, in our arms, we closed our eyes and leapt.

Almost immediately we were in free fall.

In late 2008, a few months before we set off on this journey, the global economy took a nosedive. The Tanzania-based safari outfits where my husband planned to work were hit hard, and he had little prospect of finding a job with them. But I had already taken a buyout package from the Globe and Mail; Craig had spent more than a year upgrading his pilot’s licence; our house was on the market. We felt powerless to stop the momentum.

Upon arrival we found an affordable hotel (which, in less charitable moods, I refer to as a dive) in a broken-down suburb of Dar es Salaam called Kariako. Mia, homesick and bored, graced us with three temper tantrums a day, and Lily woke four times a night, every night. My husband and I were exhausted and constantly snapping at each other. And we were hemorrhaging money.

Three weeks later, just as we were contemplating heading home, Craig found a job co-piloting a plane for a group of executives based in Dar es Salaam. It paid very, very little, but we were prepared to live on our savings so that Craig could accumulate hours as a pilot.

Within a few days we moved into a furnished two-bedroom apartment in Masaki, a suburb popular among expats. We rented a car and bought a desk and a crib from a roadside carpenter. The railing on one side of the crib folded down so that you could reach in to lift out the baby easily. A small latch held the railing in place. To my untrained eyes, the crib was well built, if not exactly CSA-approved.

A week later, Craig flew his bosses to Zambia. For the first time since moving to Africa, I was alone with the girls. As it does every evening in Dar es Salaam, the sun set shortly after 6 p.m. Lily was in the crib, standing against the railing. Mia asked to join her. I lifted her in and went to use the bathroom. I could see the girls through the open door. I turned my back to wash my hands. They were out of my sight for 15 seconds.

I heard a smack and emerged from the bathroom to see Lily lying face down on the concrete floor, screaming. I picked her up, frantically searching her face for signs of injury. The moment I noticed her forehead beginning to swell, she threw up.

“What happened?” I demanded, noticing for the first time that the crib railing was folded down.

“I opened it,” Mia said, pointing to the latch.

“Why?” I screamed. Lily’s forehead and right eyelid were rapidly changing colour. “Why would you do that?”

I didn’t know if there was a 911 service. I was not yet comfortable driving on the left side of the road and had never driven at night.

“Why?” I shouted again and again. I didn’t stop, even as Lily, wailing, threw up a second time, covering both of us in vomit, and Mia picked up her beloved stuffed monkey from the floor. “What were you thinking? How could you?”

I paused to catch my breath.

“I wanted to get Monkey,” Mia said softly, clutching him against her chest. A reasonable response, as though it were something I deserved. As though I weren’t insane.

I apologized to Mia. I explained I was frightened, that Lily’s fall wasn’t her fault. But I will never be able to take back my initial rage. And I’ll always wonder which version of her mother she believed.

The blame was not directed at her, anyway. It was, as blame tends to be in these instances, intended for me.

What have I done? What was I thinking?

I watched as Lily became listless and her eye swelled shut. I packed the girls into their car seats and drove into the night in search of a hospital I was vaguely certain I’d seen in the daytime. I knew, from earlier research, that the hospitals in Dar es Salaam had no facilities to handle neurosurgery. If Lily had a brain injury, we would have to medevac her out of the country, to Nairobi or Johannesburg. Both destinations were perilously far. This, too, I knew.

In Canada, I lived minutes from world-class hospitals.

What have I done? What was I thinking?

Africa is important to me. Like my father before me, I was born in a small town in southwestern Uganda. I took my first steps on its red earth and spoke my first words in its languages. In 1972, when I was three, dictator Idi Amin conducted an ethnic cleansing. South Asians, many of us from families that had lived there for generations, were given 90 days to leave Uganda. We had our homes confiscated, our bank accounts frozen.

I grew up, a seemingly ordinary child in southern Ontario, with a sense not merely that something had been lost but that something had been stolen from me. Unlike my parents and older relatives, I didn’t even have memories to cherish. I ached, for things tangible and intangible.

A writer by calling, I decided I would connect to a purloined past by writing a novel about it. I would create my own memories. I would write my own history.

So, in my 30s, and after many false starts, I organized my life to support my writing. I lived in a compact apartment in downtown Toronto, armed with a master’s degree in English literature, a writing nook and an evening job as a copy editor to pay the bills. But everything I produced in that writing nook rang false. It was as though I were an extraterrestrial trying to guess what humans felt. I dumped hundreds of thousands of words into my computer’s trash and began to taste a bitterness that poisoned more and more of my life. I needed to write this novel and I had no idea how to do it.

The births of my first and then my second child did nothing to temper the bitterness. Instead, my precious daughters introduced fear and desperation into my work. I could feel myself consumed by their constant needs. East Africa came to represent the missing piece of my life.

For Craig, East Africa afforded the opportunity to build flying hours with safari companies, all of whom use small planes. Uganda wasn’t an option because it has relatively few large safari outfits. But Tanzania, and the vast Serengeti Plain, offered many.

I could work on my novel and find myself while Craig flew airplanes over the savannah. The life I pictured was beautiful and absurdly romanticized. It was somewhere between Out of Africa and The English Patient: literary, poignant and sort of sepia-toned.

The reality, I would quickly learn, was messy and terrifying and bruising.

I found a hospital the night Lily fell. It was clean but looked more like a low-end office building than a medical facility. Nevertheless, after paying a fee of approximately $7, Lily and I were ushered in to see a doctor. He was young, African, his English impeccable. He explained that Lily appeared to have hit her forehead (fortunately, a well-protected part of her head) and that she likely vomited from the emotional distress. He told me to keep a lookout for signs of serious injury, but he strongly suspected she was all right.

She was. By the time Craig returned home five days later, Lily’s eye had opened again and the dark-purple skin had become pale yellow. The following week she showed no signs of having experienced any injury.

But I felt beaten up. Life wasn’t becoming easier. We had no friends or family for emotional support. Our bank account was emptying at an alarming rate. Everything — from buying groceries to fighting the overwhelming and chaotic traffic — was a challenge that left us physically and emotionally drained.

Despite the challenges, I forged a rhythm to the days. We enrolled Mia in a nursery school and hired a housekeeper to watch Lily. For four hours each morning in a roadside café, where I could plug in my laptop and drink spiced tea, I wrote.

Not long after Lily’s accident, Craig was riding his motorcycle home from the airplane hangar and was hit by a bus. He phoned to tell me about the accident and to assure me he was okay. A few hours later, I stood at the window and watched him negotiate the steps to our building, my chest heaving at the sight of his heavily bandaged foot, his crutches. It was a minor injury, but like Lily’s, it reminded me we didn’t have to be here. It didn’t have to be this hard.

One night, Craig and I had a terrible argument. I don’t know why I was directing my anger at him; he was doing the best he could. I walked out the door, down three flights of stairs and sat outside. I didn’t know what else to do. The night guard, standing at his post next to the gate, unabashedly watched me cry.

When I went back upstairs I offered my husband platitudes. I was so disgusted with myself that I could give him nothing more. I was now a lousy wife as well as a lousy mother.

The next day, though exhausted from the argument, I did what I did every morning: I wrote my novel. My life’s disorienting chaos had cracked something open inside me. Freed from a fear of failure because I had failed by every imaginable measure, I wrote with a power and authenticity I never had before. The story was flowing, the characters  as real to me as I was to myself.

That afternoon, Mia cheered as Lily took her first, unsteady steps on the red, forgiving earth.

After 10 months, our money was mostly gone. I had written the book I wanted to write. It was time to return home. Back in Canada, I sold my manuscript. Where the Air Is Sweet was published last summer. Craig has returned to journalism, while flying part-time. The girls are settled in school. I am at work on a second novel.

I gave up every safety net I had. I put my family in unnecessary danger. I placed my marriage in a crucible. Yet despite falling and failing, I didn’t crash. I didn’t break into pieces.

I learned in those 10 months that falling is okay. And that failing is merely a matter of opinion. I noticed that in the space between my Hollywood-movie fantasies and my terror of hitting the ground, I was living.

Craig flew us in his company’s plane from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi once. About halfway through the flight, my pilot husband looked back at me and pointed to the window. Directly outside was Mount Kilimanjaro. From my seat in the clouds, I could see its summit.

IsmailiCentrePhotoThe Ismaili Centre Toronto, which opened its beautiful doors in September, is hosting an event showcasing me and my book and discussing the Ugandan exodus in general this coming Sunday. It’s at 1 p.m. and will feature an onstage conversation between me and journalist Omar Sachedina.

It’s a great opportunity to see the gorgeous centre as well. So, if you are in the area please come by. Click here for details and to register.

T.

My interview with Piya Chattopadhyay on TVO’s The Agenda aired tonight. It’s a little ridiculous how nervous I was today, considering I taped it about 5 weeks ago.

I wasn’t sure I’d watch it. In the end I couldn’t resist. We taped it in one go and I hadn’t watched any of it, so I was curious. Plus it was sufficiently long ago that I didn’t recall all my responses to Piya’s questions and so I was quite intrigued to hear what I would say. :)

Some behind the scenes pics (thanks to my cousin Alia Kherani for taking them):

My publicist Lauren Morocco and I.

 

 

The makeup room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being made up.

Where publicists and friends watch the taping.

The whole picture.

The whole picture.

TasDean

My agent Dean Cooke and I.

After last night’s Toronto launch at the Dora Keogh pub on the Danforth, Where the Air Is Sweet is officially launched.

Launches are not what they used to be. Before the internet and social media, a book used to be launched by means of an event — much as a young lady was presented at court, I imagine? (Not the best comparison, I know; but I love Downtown Abbey)

Nowadays, a launch is  simply a celebration for the author. It doesn’t really serve a purpose as far as the book is concerned.

But for me it was essential. For me, the launch was a ritual — as important as a wedding or funeral — in that it marked a significant transition. And in this sense it was like a presentation at court, which  would mark a girl’s transition into womanhood and her entry into society at large.

For  many years this book was a deeply personal experience. It became less personal when I acquired an agent and then a publisher. But even then it was malleable, fluid, in progress, in many ways abstract, becoming. Now it’s finished, solid. Many, many copies have been printed. And it’s out there, in the public.

And, so, it was important for me to mark that shift, from evolving and personal to completed and public. I’ve already documented the big, fun bash we held in Waterloo here.

Tasjane

Editor Jane Warren and I.

The Toronto affair was smaller, quieter, but people who were a huge part of bringing the book to its final form and into the public were there — my agent, Dean Cooke, my editors Jane Warren and Iris Tupholme ( who is also the publisher and editor-in-chief of HarperCollins Canada), my publicist Lauren Morocco. Many former media and publishing colleagues (who have become dear friends) were in attendance  as well. They were all a part of my growing up (career-wise) and therefore a part of bringing my book into reality.

It was a big day, a big week, and I’m grateful to everyone who was a part of it.

Corey

Photo: Kris Culp

It’s been a busy few days and I’m finally sitting down to write about the bash we had on Saturday night. I could not have  imagined a better event to kick off the public life of Where the Air Is Sweet. We had plenty of books, drinks and munchies on hand and even a fabulous DJ (big thanks to Doug of Sound Dynamix)!

The venue

ButtonFactory

Photo: Geoff Grenville

venue

Photo: Catherine Unrau Woelk

The Button Factory (25 Regina Street South in Waterloo) offered a beautiful, bright space with massive windows and high ceilings. The Button Factory is the home of the Waterloo Community Arts Centre (which is a non-profit, volunteer-run, charitable organization that exists to promote all forms of art programs in the community) and so it felt right to hold the launch in such a hallowed space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The food

Spanakopita

Photo: Catherine Unrau Woelk

Family and friends provided tasty appetizers, including a gorgeous candy bar!

candybar

Photo: Saj Jamal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The posters

Thank you to the Canadian Immigration Historical Society for these fabulous poster boards that included 1972 newspaper clippings about the Asian expulsion from Uganda.

Ugandaargus

Photo: Saj Jamal

Easels

Photo: Geoff Grenville

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The speeches

Michael Molloy, president of the Canadian Immigration Historical Society and former ambassador to Jordan, travelled from Ottawa to give a riveting speech about the efforts of Canadian immigration officials in getting Asians out of Uganda in 1972. Mike was a big part of that operation. You can view a talk he gave in 2012 about the Ugandan Immigration Movement here. After a sweet introduction from my husband (and biggest supporter) Craig Daniels, I had an opportunity to publicly thank everyone.

Mike

Photo: Catherine Unrau Woelk

Craig

Photo: Catherine Unrau Woelk

Tas

Photo: Alia Kherani

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The books

Thank you to Words Worth Books of Waterloo for selling books at the event! The party became very loud but the sales continued.

Wordsworth

Photo: Geoff Grenville

Books

Photo: Catherine Unrau Woelk

BlogScreenShot launchdayWhat a fantastic launch! Where the Air Is Sweet reached #20 in Books on Amazon.ca today. I was hoping for a spike in sales on Day 1 and you made it happen! So thank you to all of you who are buying, posting, tweeting, emailing, telling friends.

I’m loving this ride. Let’s keep going…xo

 

OI wrote the first words of Where the Air Is Sweet in June 2009 sitting at a newly constructed wooden desk in this apartment (see photo) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

While I was working on the book I came across this quote from E.L. Doctorow that helped me through some difficult times in the following years:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Five years almost to the day I began this journey, I have arrived.

My book is released. To buy, click here. 

Cheers!

Less than a month to go before launch (June 3) and I just received these beautiful bookmarks (that I helped create in InDesign). Thank you HarperCollins!! Hope to give these out at launches, readings, book clubs…Remember if you would  like me to join your book club I’m happy to do so (in person or on Skype). Contact me here.

bookmarkBlogfront

The front

bookmarkBlogback

The back

canstockphoto6298451If you don’t live in Canada and you want to buy Where the Air Is Sweet, please read:

You can purchase the book at Amazon.ca and have it shipped internationally.

Unfortunately you cannot download an e-book unless you are living in Canada.

But if my fellow Canadians buy the book in nice, big numbers, perhaps we can sell rights to publishers in the UK, US and elsewhere who would then distribute the book in their territories, making everyone’s lives easier. 😉

If you encounter any problems/issues purchasing the book, please contact me via my website (the message goes directly to my gmail account).

1db52c66a5f762d1990d27e1e9ac401eI found this 1908 poster (on Pinterest) advertising the Uganda Railway. According to the poster, East Africa comprises “nature’s zoo.”

I’m really glad it’s no longer 1908.

A number of people have asked me, with respect to Where the Air Is Sweet, and also with respect to my place of birth (i.e. Uganda), how was it that South Asians came to live in East Africa in such large numbers.

Late in the 19th century the British empire wanted to build a railway (the Uganda Railway) from the Indian Ocean to the East African interior. And they recruited labour from the Indian subcontinent to do this dangerous job. Many South Asians came and many stayed on. Many, many died.

To be precise, 30,000 South Asian labourers died constructing the Uganda Railway.

This is yet another reason I want to document and honour the role Asians played in the history of East Africa.


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