Why I Wrote This Book: Issue #15

Featuring Aaron Tucker, Mariam Pirbhai, Ivanka Fear, and Aaron Schneider

Why do your favourite Canadian authors write the books they write? Let’s find out in this exclusive feature here at The Miramichi Reader.

Aaron Tucker, author of Soldiers, Hunters, Not Cowboys (Coach House Books, June 2023)

My second novel started, as most of my projects do, as something entirely different: I had moved to an apartment in St. James Town in Toronto during an August heatwave, and I started to walk around my neighbourhood, through Allan Gardens, down George Street by Filmores, along Dundas and back up Sherbourne, all the time documenting with pictures and videos. At the end of my walk, I would come home and write about what I saw, the life moving around and the buildings being torn down for condos, thinking I was constructing something like the Spike Lee film Summer of Sam, my guiding light at the time, a look at the disintegration of a city teeming with male violence, overt and covert. I wrote nearly half a novel moving in this direction, without any real sense of shape nor ending.

But the novel didn’t really take its current form until, thanks to Derek Beaulieu, I did a Leighton Residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts, making my home in the Henriquez Studio where Yann Martel wrote Life of Pi. At this point, I had become obsessed with Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman in parallel with the 1956 John Ford film The Searchers, starring John Wayne. Puig’s aural retelling of movies, through pure dialogue by Molina to his cellmate Valentin, struck me as something I could borrow and remake. While The Searchers was over 60 years old at that point, in the midst of the Trump presidency that included the normalization of the alt-right and open white supremacy, the film took on a shimmering relevance that bonded itself with the writing I had already done. During my ten days in the little houseboat, I read Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty; I read Antonin Artaud’s The Theatre and its Double; I read the then recently-released reports by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A fragile and aggrieved masculinity became central in what would become the first half of the novel; what I had already written formed the second half as mirror.

I didn’t finish the book until the first two weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. I took walks as the chaos of those early days and restrictions began to form, the once-bustling streets reduced and the area around the Eaton Centre largely abandoned. It was then that the mysterious airborne event in the second half of the book made its most sense. There, I envisioned my unnamed protagonist making an ill-advised stand, the surreal world around me folding into the final visions and pages of the novel, John Wayne wandering out into the desert, then the dark door closing.

Mariam Pirbhai, Author of Isolated Incident (Mawenzi House Publishers, Oct. 1 2022)

Sometimes we write books because we don’t see ourselves represented—neither our stories nor a community’s stories. It is in the space of absence and omission that we find ourselves writing. Writing ourselves onto the page. Thus far, stories about Pakistani-Canadians are few and far between, and largely found in the memoir genre. Many of these works tend to focus on the “homeland” left behind rather than on the lived experiences of Pakistanis settled in Canada.

This is where my novel Isolated Incident took root: in the space of omission, those gaps in representation. The novel started out as a story about a multi-generational Pakistani-Canadian family living in the Greater Toronto Area, but as hate crimes against Canadian Muslims escalated (nowhere more evident than the Quebec Massacre of January 2017, when a young man walked into an Islamic Cultural Centre and gunned down six worshippers and injured many others), the novel took a bit of a turn from an immigrant story to a story about what it is to be a community targeted by religious intolerance. I also felt that this story—the story of a community’s sense of place and belonging at a time of intensifying Islamophobia—was another kind of gap, another missing page in the story of “Us,” as Canadians.  

Isolated Incident takes place on the eve of Eid-al-Adha (or the Festival of the Sacrifice), one of the most sacred events in the Islamic calendar. A mosque in a Toronto suburb is vandalized and a hate letter threatens more violent attacks to come. What kind of response is called for by such threats is on everybody’s mind, especially Kashif, Arubah and Marisol, three second-generation Canadian Muslims who are directly or indirectly affected by this surging spate of hate crimes. The mosque incident deepens Kashif’s long-term plans to become a cop, but he also finds himself involved in an amateur surveillance mission to help protect the community on Eid night; Arubah is targeted for wearing a hijab by a group of teenagers who ambush her on the street; and Marisol finds herself consumed with a case of racial profiling. When Kashif meets Frank, a retired cop from Kitchener, he gets one step closer to applying to the police academy, but as Eid night approaches and tensions rise, he begins to question whether these two things—being a young brown man and being a cop—are even compatible. Arubah, who has fervently embraced Islam, and Marisol, her mixed-race queer best friend, are securely united against Islamophobia, but increasingly divided by their own conflicting interpretations of what it means to be Muslim. As it becomes clearer to Kashif, Arubah and Marisol, that there is no such thing as an “isolated incident,” the likelihood that Eid festivities could be the target of the next hate crime begins to mount.  

By positioning second-generation or millennial Canadians at the centre of my book, I wanted to show characters who are part of this national fabric in every sense of the word. For my young characters, Canada IS the homeland. This is the place where they were born. For some, there is also no place of return, no other “homeland” to which they remain connected. This is perhaps why these young characters feel so strongly that it is incumbent on them to respond to these attacks and these threats. But in examining the theme of discrimination, I also hoped to suggest that every community, like any individual, is not without their own prejudices or blind-spots. So, as much as my characters feel bereft of allies—in their elders, in the police force, in those that hold positions of power—they are also tasked with considering what kind of allies they wish to be, to others. In this way, I hoped to direct the gaze as much inward as outward—that is, to show that everyone is invested in these questions, and meaningful allyship cannot occur without some level of self-reckoning. 

Ivanka Fear, author of The Dead Lie (Level Best Books, February 2023 )

Every story starts with a spark. As cliche as it sounds, this one began with a dream… or perhaps awakening from a dream state. I’m still not certain whether the call came from the phone on my nightstand or from my subconscious. “Would you be interested in investing in coloured diamonds?” a voice asked.

I hung up the phone. But, what if I had answered, “Yes, I’m very interested”?

I had never heard of coloured diamonds till then, so I went online and did some research, which led to the topic of diamond smuggling and organized crime. A picture formed in my mind of a young woman who becomes unwittingly involved with a mobster’s son. It only takes a second to change the course of our lives. One wrong choice. The repercussions of her short-lived romance and the choices she makes formed the basis of a short story I wrote. My main character, Lana, took on a life of her own, her past mistakes forever affecting her future. And so, a story evolved into a novel that takes place decades after the inciting incident. In writing that novel, I realized Lana’s story couldn’t be restricted to one book. Hence, the Blue Water Mysteries Series was born, with three books preceding that first novel.

The Dead Lie, Book One in the series, follows a younger Lana on a quest from Canada to Croatia to discover more about her parents and their untimely deaths. I chose Croatia as her cultural background because I was born close to the Croatian border, and because Croatian/Serbian conflict plays a big role in the story. The overlying theme in the series is redemption. One wrong choice. Does it determine our fate, or can we make reparations?

Aaron Schneider, author of The Supply Chain (Crowsnest Books, June 1 2023)

The Supply Chain has multiple points of origin: the indeterminate moment when, after moving to London, Ontario, I started to believe that I belonged to this place and its history and problems belonged to me; the time a teammate on the masters swim team I trained with told me that he worked at the General Dynamics plant in the east end; the 14-billion-dollar deal to supply armoured vehicles made in London to the Saudis; and the tragic war in Yemen in which those vehicles are being used. But the most important origin point for the book was Michael Lista’s Canadaland article “The Shock Absorber” in which he outlined the connections between the Griffin Prize and the vehicles produced in the city I called home.

What emerged from my reading of Lista’s piece was a question: how do the people who work in arms manufacturing rationalize what they do? How could my teammate tell me what he did so casually as if it was a job like any other? 

The Supply Chain is an exploration of this question. The heart of the novel is the life of a man whose distant relationship with his own parents has damaged his ability to connect with his newborn son—a story of a minor and commonplace tragedy, a story about breaking free of a difficult past and learning how to be a good man and a caring father. But this man works at a fictional cognate for that very real arms plant in London, and his personal narrative is overshadowed by the work that he does and its terrible consequences. It is a book about the full and difficult context of its protagonist’s life and of the lives of Londoners connected to that company and its plant in the east end of the city.