Amazon!

Today I fly to Toronto for the the Amazon First Novel Award ceremony. The other night Tom (Dr. Math) said: "I think you have a good shot at winning." To which I relied: "Not really. There are five other books." And he said: "Yes, 1 in 6. Those aren't bad odds." WHAT?

The award is given out tomorrow, Tuesday, May 22 at the Toronto Reference Library (6:30pm). All six of us finalists will do short readings on stage and have a small Q&A session with host Shelagh Rogers. I really hope they allow us to go off stage when they announce the winner. Because it's agonizing enough waiting for that envelope get opened, I can't imagine having to go through that while facing an audience!

Win or lose, the best part of these award ceremonies is always getting to know the other finalists.  Becky Toyne wrote a piece about us in the Globe and Mail and I was really interested to see that we are all 35+. People! It is never, ever too late to write your first novel. Last week I went to the launch of a beautiful debut called Catching the Light. The author, Susan Sinnott, is in her 70s. We're in a writing group together so I've been reading Susan's work and watching her at it for the past few years. Her commitment to doing the work, to undoing and re-doing and writing and re-writing, it is truly inspiring. That perseverance is, as I've said before, the fundamental non-negotiable of being a writer. You can have it in your 20s. You can have it in your 70s.

 

Audience matters

The M&S family at The FOLD! 

A couple of weeks ago I had the absolute pleasure of taking part in the Festival of Literary Diversity (The FOLD). It's difficult to believe The FOLD is only in its third year. It is hands down the very best literary festival I have ever attended. I am talking NEXT LEVEL FAN-FUCKING-TASTIC. The authors were top shelf. The moderators were incredible. The conversations were smart and hilarious and memorable. The programming was creative and playful. One panel was focused on dystopian stories. Another on anthologies. The show stopper for me was the non-fiction panel featuring Tanya Talaga and Robyn Maynard. When Tanya Talaga said "Rights before reconciliation. Basic rights. Then we can talk about hugs" the packed house was ready to yell AMEN.

I was in awe of the whole festival but it was the audiences that really caught my attention. Because here's the thing: at readings and festivals I consistently see the same faces in the crowd. They are...well, homogenous. Upper middle class, older, white. I appreciate those audiences and those book lovers. They are engaged and careful readers who ask thoughtful questions. But I suspect they represent only a fraction of our readers. Because I see lots of other faces at book shops, reading in airports, on bookstagram. I have banned myself from GoodReads but I suspect the median age over there is quite a bit younger than 60. So as a writer at the start of my career, I look at audiences and I can't help but wonder: is this model sustainable?

The FOLD has cracked the code. The place was on wheels! Standing room only for a couple of events and full of lots of different faces. Older folks. Younger people. Transpeople. Black people. White people. Brown people. Guess what? This is who loves books. All. Of. The. People. High five to The Fold for attracting new audiences, for building something that is new and fresh, and accessible in every possible way. This festival is only in its third year and it has a bright future ahead.

Photo of the After Canada Reads panel from The Fold's Instagram (@the_fold)

Along with Cherie and Omar and moderator Ali, I was part of the After Canada Reads panel that closed out the festival. After two days of being in the audience at other events, I have to admit that I was feeling a little intimidated. The conversations on stage at The Fold set the bar sky high and I've always been pants at the high jump. Fortunately, Cherie and Omar are pros and I let them do all the heavy lifting. The hour went by in a flash and I remember none of it. CBC radio is airing our discussion on Monday, May 21st at 5pm/ 5:30 in NL and some parts of Labrador so hopefully I didn't say anything too idiotic (I definitely swore so apologies to the censors who have to bleep that out).

CanLit folks: if you are in the GTA you must get yourself to Brampton next year for The FOLD. Authors: speak to your publicists, send flowers to the festival organizers, light candles at mass, sacrifice some doves, do what you need to do to finagle an invite. You won't be sorry.

Quickening

The only thing better than short stories are linked short stories. I love to read them. And I love to write them. Back in 2012 I wrote a story about a character called Hen who goes on holiday to France with her sister Daphne. The story is called "Gliding, Weightless"  and was published in Riddle Fence, issue 21. And then I wrote another story set a couple of years earlier and told from the point of view of Hen's husband Neil. It's called "Quickening" and today it was published by Understorey Magazine's latest issue. You can read the story here.

Big weekend

Good news! The Boat People is on the shortlist for the Amazon First Novel Award along with American War, The Bone Mother, The Water Beetles,  The Black Peacock, and Dazzle Patterns. I was at the Ottawa Writer's Festival all weekend and woke up on Saturday morning to an email about the short list. So I was floating on air all day.

In the evening I took part on a panel called Borders and Belonging at the Ottawa Writers Festival with Djamila Ibrahim and Arif Anwar. Their books are both beautiful, by the way, and they are genuinely warm and wonderful people and great fun as fellow panelists. I was having such a good time on stage and then afterward, meeting readers and signing books, that I totally forgot that over in Labrador AtsNL was hosting an award ceremony where I was up for the CBC Emerging Artist Award.

For the past few months, I've been going here and there, promoting the book, talking about how I became a writer, and in most interviews I end up saying some version of: "I would never have become a writer if I hadn't moved to St. John's." And it's 100% true. There are so many supports and grants and awards and opportunities for writers in my city. The Writers' Alliance of NL in particular has been really instrumental to my career. And a couple of months ago they got in touch to let me know they were nominating me for the CBC Emerging Artist Award. A few weeks ago, I was thrilled to learn I was on the short list (along with artist April White and the dynamic new PerSIStence Theatre Company) and only sorry that I was already scheduled to be in Ottawa and would miss the award ceremony in Labrador. On Saturday night, I returned quite late to my hotel room to find a message that I had won!

See? BIG WEEKEND.

I'm still in Ontario. I have a few work-related things to do in Toronto and then on Sunday I'm taking part in The Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton, on a panel with Omar El Akkad and Cherie Dimaline, moderated by Ali Hassan, to talk about life after Canada Reads (and hopefully also our books!).

Fainting Couch Feminists

Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 12.33.41 PM.png

In case you missed it, Mozhdah was on episode 8 of Fainting Couch Feminists, a podcast hosted by Mica Lemiski and the wonderful Room Magazine. Mozhdah talked about her career, trolls, being thick skinned, the Mozhdah Show, and the death threats and rumours of her murder that forced her to give it up. It was so lovely to hear her voice again and the story of why she ended her TV show is absolutely chilling.

PEN World Voices Festival

This weekend I'll be taking part in two events at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. I'm very, very excited. First, because I haven't been to New York in exactly 10 years and I love it there. Second, it's still winter in St. John's and I'm ready for spring and sundresses in New York (fingers crossed for magnolias). Second, this is a big deal festival, founded by a group including Salman Rushdie and featuring a whole cast of super stars. Oh look, here's my name on a list with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Roxanne Gay, and Hilary Clinton...no big deal!

I'm taking part in two super events. The first is this Friday night at Westbeth Centre for the Arts, an artists' coop and studio space. Artists open up their homes/ studios to the public. I'll be in one of the spaces doing two rounds of readings for a rotating group of audience members. And then there are drinks afterward. Can you think of anything more New York City than that?

The second event is on Saturday night and I'll be reading and answering questions as part of a panel called Still, They Persisted.

A couple of good pals from Toronto are joining me for the weekend so along with business there will be pleasure. (And quite possibly some shopping) But it's also a whirlwind. I'm back home late on Sunday and then off to Ontario for a week next Thursday morning! Book promotion is, as everyone promised, turning out to be a full time job.

 

Imaginary friends

While signing books in Halifax last week, a reader asked me if I was still in touch with any of the people from the boat. I think she must have assumed I'd interviewed real people from the MV Sun Sea, which of course I hadn't. I have no idea who any of the real refugees were and Mahindan et. al are totally imaginary. But I also thought a lot about her question afterward because it's true that for years I was in communion with all of my characters. They were continually changing and growing and forming and re-forming in my mind as I researched and drafted and revised the novel. But then last April, when I submitted the final manuscript, I drew a line in the sand and put an end to the creation. And now, while I do talk about those characters a lot, I no longer engage with them. They are out in the world being re-imagined anew by every reader. They are no longer my characters to create. They feel like old friends, people I reminisce about but never hear from.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with Anna Bowen at the Eden Mills podcast (30 mins). We talked a lot about characters, as well as the research that went into the novel, and the scenes that wouldn't have existed if not for my editors. We also talked about a bit of bonus content that you can find here.

I'll be taking part in the Eden Mills Writers' Festival in September and I'm really, really looking forward to it.

In praise of editors, again!

It never ceases to amaze me how little credit is given to book editors. I've already sung their praises on this blog but really and truly, they are the secret heroes of literature. Whenever I finish a book, I flip to the back to check out who the editor is. In fact, the other day, I was at the shop, considering whether or not to buy a new novel. Then I peaked at the acknowledgements, saw the editor was Iris Tulpholme, and went straight to the check out. The book, by the way, is The Storm by Arif Anwar. I read it and loved it. Iris did not let me down.

The Storm skillfully weaves various narratives together all the while keeping a firm grip on a true protagonist. There is a mystery at the centre that is solved at the end, but the threads of the story remained untied. It is not an anodyne happily ever after. It is a "they lived ever after" and what happens next is up to the reader to decide. I've been thinking a lot about plot lately (with regards to my new novel) and this book has given me something to chew on.

A couple of weekends ago I also read (gobbled up, more like) Zoey Leigh Peterson's Next Year For Sure. Billed as a story of polyamory, it's really so much more. It's the vivisection of a relationship and an exploration into loneliness, early adulthood ennui, friendship, and the fuzzy line of betrayal. Although it is a very, very different book, it reminded me of Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I couldn't look away even as the novel made me deeply uncomfortable. That's the hallmark of a great book. Plus, the dialogue was wondrous. More and more I find myself appreciating exceptional dialogue (Elisabeth de Mariaffi's Hysteria, edited by Iris Tulpholme, is another example of a book with sublime dialogue) Zoey eschews quotation marks and the result is that the line between interior thought and exterior speech is open to interpretation. If you are an intelligent reader who doesn't want to be spoon-fed, but who wants to be surprised and delighted by beautiful prose and new insights, this is a book for you. The Canadian editor, by the way, is Kiara Kent.

Jen Knoch, senior editor at ECW wrote two illuminating columns over at Open Book on the editorial process and what to expect when you're expecting to work with an editor on a new book.

En français

Last week, The Boat People hit international shelves as part of Penguin Random House's One World, One Book campaign! So international readers, you can now buy the novel on line at your local book shop or maybe even at the airport.

In other deal news, French language rights have been SOLD to Quebec publisher Mémoire d’encrier. Through them, the French version of the book will be available around the world. As always, the credit goes entirely to Stephanie, agent extraordinaire.

 

 

Math and hockey

My blog post about the Canada Reads gender gap went a little bit viral, this week. (Hello, new readers!) And on Tuesday, I spoke with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning. It was a quick six minute interview but we got into both the math and the larger issue of voice. One thing Matt asked: couldn't something else be driving the results, like the quality of the book or debating style? This is a question that's been asked quite a bit all week so I'm glad he raised it.

Now, I have binged several seasons of Canada Reads. Remember, all this began with me dissecting old episodes looking for winning and losing patterns. And yes, there are alliances and horse trading, and people vote off books that are perceived as strong. Books are voted off because their defenders are disliked. Graphic and YA novels can't get a break. Ditto books by Indigenous authors. All of these dynamics are in play. BUT every panel is different. Different players around the table every year. They vary in age, ethnicity, region, vocation, debate style, and literary taste. Some vote strategically. Others vote with their hearts. And the books change too, varying widely in content and style. The only constant is that there are always men and women.

Imagine two hockey teams facing off in 16 consecutive games. Red Team wins 13. Blue Team wins 3. You'd conclude that Red Team has better players right? But what if I told you the players on both teams were always changing, different skaters and goalies lacing up for every game? According to the math, this is very unlikely to be a fluke.

Tom gave an in-depth answer to this question in the comments of the original post. You should read his reply, if only because he uses the bad-ass expression "null-hypothesis." But in short, the evidence does not support the theory that gender is irrelevant in predicting success.

Some people (cough, cough...men) have argued we can't use the past to predict the future. To which my friend Nadra scoffed: "said every person ever...as history repeats itself over and over." (Ironically, this is exactly what The Boat People is about - how the sins of the past, when forgotten, repeat themselves in the future).

In fact, we use statistics about the past to predict the future all the time. It's called actuarial science and the insurance industry has been making hay with it for decades.

You’ve gotta be that girl in the horror movie with the knife in her teeth who’s climbing back into danger.
— Emily McKibbon, The New Quarterly

Enough about math! Monday ended up being a big day for rejection. In addition to getting voted off Canada Reads (to the Isle of Misfit Books where Craig, Cherie, and I are currently sipping pina coladas under a palm tree), I got a grant rejection and also had a form letter "no thanks" to a short story. Ah, the glamorous writing life. So I really appreciated this piece in The New Quarterly about rejection and the importance of grit. My favourite line was from the writer Emily McKibbon: "You’ve gotta be that girl in the horror movie with the knife in her teeth who’s climbing back into danger because she’s burnt out on running away from her troubles."

But this week was not a total bust. I had an acceptance too! Riddle Fence will publish my story "When the end came" in their spring issue. It's a comedy about quantum computers. I had so much fun writing it (that's not something I can say about every story) and it's part of a series of four linked stories, three of which deal with theoretical physics. This is the first of the four that I've managed to place.

Back to Canada Reads. I've been avidly watching all week, scrutinizing all the plays, and I've been so impressed by how Mozhdah has handled herself. Being under those lights, made to speak off the cuff, with a live studio audience and everyone watching at home, knowing what you say will live on the internet for posterity, that is no easy feat. I would probably crumble. But Mozhdah has been cool and collected. She's never lost her temper or yelled over anyone else. She's taken care with her words and her critique. I'm proud and frankly, relieved. Part of the stress for all of us writers is wondering how our defenders will represent us and our books. Right after I lost on Monday, my friend Nadika - who is a Canada Reads junkie - messaged me to say: Having a defender who isn't going to embarrass you is worth more than winning.

The really nice thing about this whole experience (apart from the book sales and publicity) has been getting to know the other writers and I'm really, really excited for our future appearances together. Omar and Cherie are sharing the stage at the Ottawa Writers Festival, which I'm also reading at late next month. And then the three of us will reunite with Canada Reads host Ali Hassan at The FOLD in Brampton in early May. In August, Omar and I are on stage at Winterset and I'm excited about that because our novels have so much in common. Reading American War, and in particular the scenes at Camp Patience, I had a feeling of real familiarity. I knew the scenes he was painting because I'd sketched them out myself. Go check out my events page for more details about tickets and times.

 

 

 

Happy to be here

Today my book was voted off Canada Reads. Which means The Boat People now joins the ranks of novels like The Break which also got booted off the island first. And you know what? That's mighty fine company so I'll take it! Also, as per yesterday's blog post, I was braced for this very likely outcome. (Good luck to you, Marrow Thieves)

For a while, a few years ago, my friend Erin had a pet phrase she was repeating: "I'm just happy to be here." Readers of The Boat People might recognize the line from the book. And that's how I've been feeling since around last November. I'm just happy to be here. At the start of this new career, with my book on the shelves and best-seller lists, getting buzz and selling copies, receiving lovely notes from readers. And yes that includes bad reviews and grumbles about my politics or whatever people choose to take issue with in the book. That's all a part of it - the rejections and lost opportunities and losses and bad reviews, just as much as the shortlists and festival invites and happy readers. This is what it means to be HERE. The good and the bad. As another friend Melisa likes to remind me: You take them both and there you have, the facts of life.

And now that I haven't got a horse in the race, here's a prediction: the odds on favourites were always Precious Cargo and American War. After watching today's debate, my money's on  Precious Cargo.

 

Canada Reads and the gender gap

For reasons that are about to become clear, I enlisted the help of my husband Tom for this blog post. To reiterate: much of what you are about to read came from a man.

The Canada Reads debates begin next week and to prepare I've been watching old debates, searching for patterns and tactics that mark out winners. But then I looked at the list of previous winners and all my strategic points flew out the window. I asked Tom, who is a mathematician and data nerd, to tell me if he noticed the same trends I saw and if they could possibly be a fluke.

Says Tom (note the deliberate use of quotation marks): "In the history of Canada Reads (2002-2017) there have been 80 competitors. Among these, there have been:

  • 24 men defending men
  • 22 women defending men
  • 21 women defending women, but only
  • 13 men defending women"

Book preferences of MALE defenders

Book preferences of FEMALE defenders

Tom says this trend has been rectifying itself. "In the first 9 years of the competition (between 2002 and 2010), men chose books written by men 79% of the time (15 to 4). Since then (2011-2017) it has been fifty-fifty (9 vs. 9). In recent years, about half the books in the competition have been written by women, as have half the winners. So on that front things have improved."

"More striking has been the success rates of the defenders," says Tom. In all of Canada Reads history there have been 37 male defenders and 43 female defenders. And yet, out of the 16 debates, men have won 13 competitions and women have won 3. Male defenders have won 81% of the time. Let that sink in. EIGHTY ONE PER CENT. Tom: "This despite the majority ( 54%) of defenders having been women."

Canada Reads Defenders

Who Wins Canada Reads

This is a glaring gender disparity. But what are the chances it's a result of debating skills or literary merit or bad luck or anything other than bias? Tom got out his calculator and did a bit of fancy algebra. "In an unbiased contest the chances of women winning 3 or fewer competitions is 1 in 272.  It's as unlikely as flipping a coin 8 times and only getting heads."*

But wait! There's more. What happens when we compare the genders of author/defender pairings?

A woman defending a woman has never won. In an unbiased competition, the likelihood of this happening is 1 in 180. It is less likely than flipping a coin seven times and only getting heads.
— Tom Baird, PhD

"Since every competition has 5 panelists and one winner, in an unbiased competition you'd expect each category of competitor to have around a 20% success rate. But of the 24 men who defended men, 8 won, which is a success rate of 33%. Of the 13 men who defended books by women, 5 won, a success rate of 38%. Women who defended men were successful 14% of the time. And women who defend women have had a success rate of 0%."

Canada Reads Defender Success Rates

Zero per cent. Again, I wondered: what are the odds this is a weird fluke?

Tom: "A woman defending a woman has never won. In an unbiased competition, the likelihood of this happening is 1 in 180. It is less likely than flipping a coin seven times and only getting heads."**

Women have always known that no one listens to us. (#AndThenAManSaidIt) At home, at work, at the podium, at the doctor's office, selective deafness is epidemic. This is why in the Obama White House, women staffers used a strategy of amplification to ensure their voices were heard and their ideas weren't appropriated by male colleagues. No surprise then if the tendency to dismiss women's opinions/ favour men's perspectives also happens around the Canada Reads table.

No one is consciously trying to sideline the ladies. The CBC, for their part, casts the panel with a view to gender parity. The problem is we have all been conditioned to pay attention to men and believe what they say. No one is immune; not even us women. This is what happens when one gender has had unfettered access to pulpits, soap boxes, stages, and microphones for centuries and the other has been told to shut up. Just this week a prominent music festival in my city announced a line-up that included only ONE female-fronted act. Only one woman will be allowed to open her mouth. So yes, I was not at all surprised by the BIG FAT ZERO or the dismal 14% success rate of female defenders.

Strategic advice to this year’s competitors: Vote against the male defenders. They are the threat.
— Tom Baird, PhD and bonafide genius

Canada Reads is a public debate. There are many other, more important, discussions that happen behind closed doors every day. Debates about who gets a grant; which book or story or poem wins an award; which author gets a festival invite or an interview; which books get promoted and reviewed; which manuscripts are purchased and the size of the advance. In these discussions, whose voices are heard and whose are ignored?

And what can we, as thoughtful citizens of this planet, do to overcome our own unconscious leanings? First, we acknowledge our biases. And then we fight against them. We listen to women. Really listen. We amplify their voices and give them credit to ensure they are heard. We don't just allow them the floor, we thoughtfully consider what they are saying. I'm not trying to silence the guys here. As this blog post has shown, men often have valuable insights to offer. But we are really good at listening to the gents. So let's give the ladies the same courtesy.

Last word goes to Tom: "Strategic advice to this year's competitors: Vote against the male defenders. They are the threat."


TOM'S FANCY ALGEBRA

*A simple approximate formula (which pretends 54% of defenders are women each year) is: 0.46^16+16*(0.46)^(15)*(0.54)^(1)+(16*15/2)*(0.46)^(14)*(0.54)^(2)+(16*15*14/6)*(0.46)^(13)*(0.54)^(3) = 0.0044 or 0.44%.

The exact formula which takes into account how many women defenders actually competed each year (2, 3, or 4) is:
(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.2)+
9*(0.4)^(8)*(0.6)^(7)*(0.2)+
6*(0.4)^(10)*(0.6)^(5)*(0.2)+
(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.8)+
(9*8/2)*(0.4)^(7)*(0.6)^(8)*(0.2)+
(6*5/2)*(0.4)^(11)*(0.6)^(4)*(0.2)+
9*6*(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.2)+
9*(0.4)^(8)*(0.6)^(7)*(0.8)+
6*(0.4)^(10)*(0.6)^(5)*(0.8)+
(9*8*7/6)*(0.4)^(6)*(0.6)^(9)*(0.2)+
(6*5*4/6)*(0.4)^(12)*(0.6)^(3)*(0.2)+
(9*8/2)*6*(0.4)^(8)*(0.6)^(7)*(0.2)+
9*(6*5/2)*(0.4)^(10)*(0.6)^(5)*(0.2)+
(9*8/2)*(0.4)^(7)*(0.6)^(8)*(0.8)+
9*6*(0.4)^(9)*(0.6)^(6)*(0.8)+
(6*5/2)*(0.4)^(11)*(0.6)^(4)*(0.8) = 0.0037 or 0.37%

** The chance that no woman defending a woman would win is (0.8)^(10)x(0.6)^(4)x(0.4)= 0.0056  or 0.56%.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1843 and other nice reviews

The Economist's 1843 (their culture magazine) has spotlighted The Boat People in their "What the world is reading" section this month. You can read the entire piece in print or online. Here's the bit I like best: “Already on several bestseller lists in Canada, Bala’s fiction has been praised for its timely appeal and its ability to capture this journey through the perspective of refugees.”

As I've said before, it's been an unexpected gift to hear from readers about the different ways they engaged with the book and in particular how their own life experiences shaped the way they interacted with the characters and storylines. I've been feeling pretty smug about the diversity of feedback. This is exactly what I hoped: that the novel would be a different book for every reader.

So I was thrilled to hear a couple of reviews on the radio this week. Bahareh Shigematsu talked about how the book brought back memories of her family's experiences as refugees from Iran as well as how it made her think about current events. "A lot more people should read this and find out about the history of our country. And it's not just history. It's current events. It's happening now." I had a little chuckle hearing how much Grace infuriated her! I was frustrated with Grace too. Just as I am frustrated with people like her who are so keen on building walls and closing doors to people in need. And I was so touched by this piece by Daniel Tseghay and in particular his thoughts on a scene that struck a particular chord with him. You can hear his radio review here (skip forward to 58:39).

Elsewhere online, the CBC asked the five Canada Reads finalists to write a little about their writing spaces. You can read my essay here.

The book once again made the CBC and Globe & Mail best-seller lists this week. The Canada Reads debates start on Monday. I'm a little sad, to be honest. I've read all the books and just love them. Each is important and riveting and necessary. Craig Davidson - who is just as genuine and funny in person as he is on the page - said something insightful in January when we were all together for the launch. This isn't about us or our books now, he said. It's about the champions and what happens around the table. I'm paraphrasing and probably badly but the sentiment is sound. Nothing that's said next week will change my opinion or the experience I had reading The Marrow Thieves or American War or Precious Cargo or Forgiveness. Still, I'm going to be cringing and queasy for all of us as I tune in.

At the same time, it really doesn't matter. I mean, yes, of course it matters. Winning authors and books get more publicity and opportunities and royalties, definitely more top-of-mind reader awareness. But landing on the short list has been an incredible boost for the book. And it's a thrill to have my book championed by someone whose ambition, activism, music, and work ethic I really respect. I have every confidence that Mozhdah is going to speak with passion and eloquence and be a credit to my novel.

So it's difficult to imagine feeling disappointed if we lose. Especially because of something I discovered earlier this week. But THAT is a subject for tomorrow's post.

 

THE NEW YORKER!

The Boat People got a nice little review in the March 19th issue of THE NEW YORKER. The mention is in the briefly noted books section alongside new releases by Peter Carey and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. THE NEW YORKER. I mean...what else is there to say?

Also this week: the novel is back on the best-seller lists (#2 on the CBC and #7 on the Globe & Mail). And I'm still loving the messages and cards and texts and emails from friends (and strangers). My favourite at the moment is a note from my pal Jess in PEI who, among other things, wrote: "I am endlessly impressed. I literally turn every page and think to myself: holy fuck." I love and appreciate all the blurbs on my book but there's something hilarious and arresting about the reviews from non-writers.

If you are in Quebec City this Thursday, March 15, there is a Canada Reads event taking place at The Morrin Centre at 7pm. I won't be there but author Neil Bissoondath will be talking about my book. You can hear a little teaser and his thoughts during an interview with CBC Radio's Breakaway host Saroja Coelho here. And if you can't make the event, parts of it will be aired on Breakaway next week. I'll post a link when it's online. (I feel like I say this often about links and then never get around to posting them. I'm working on it. A link round up of some sort is coming. Promise!)

And finally, recommended reads! Here is a short story that I loved and listened to three times last week. It's Antonya Nelson's "Naked Ladies" read by Lorrie Moore. I also just devoured Elisabeth de Mariaffi's latest novel HysteriaIt's a thriller set in the 50s. That's really all you need to know. And I'm nearing the end of Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which of course I'm the last person in this country to read. It's beautiful and I'm totally stuck in, wanting to know what happens next.

Hey, Ladies!

DEAL NEWS first: We've sold Arabaic language rights for The Boat People to Fawasel Publishing! It's ironic that one of my first foreign language deals is for Arabic rights. When I was a kid in Dubai, Arabic was hands down my worst class. My parents even hired a tutor and one of my earliest memories was kicking up a massive tantrum when it was time to go for those lessons (I was a brat). In school, the language teacher was a terrifying woman who used to march up and down the aisles checking our progress. She had a ruler that she held with one hand and smacked against the palm of the other. And that ruler, more often than not, ended up across my knuckles because I wrote too slowly. I hated Arabic with a passion but now, as an adult, I think it's actually quite a beautiful language. I love that it's written right to left. I love the way it looks on the page, flowing like a river. But I digress...

This book deal, like all the others, would not have happened without my hard-working, whip-smart agent, Stephanie Sinclair. She is just one in an army of women who made my career possible and The Boat People a success. Other notables include my three editors: Anita, Melissa, and Margo, and my marketing/ publicity team: Erin, Charlotte, and Sarah. And then there were all the early readers and the other writers who gave me advice, a leg up, loaned their time and talents: Lisa (x2), Carrie, Susan, Melissa, Kristen, Elisabeth, Megan....there are too many to name.

In honour of International Women's Day the CBC complied a list of 18 women authors to read in 2018. The list includes my pal Eva Crocker, whose debut collection made a big splash last year. For those of us in St. John's, Eva's work has been our little secret for a few years and I'm always happy to see her get the wider praise she deserves. Also on the list: the wonderful Djamila Ibrahim, Canisia Lubrin, and S.K. Ali. Every time my name or my book makes one of these lists, I always feel so honoured by the company. 

For IWD2018, I also did an interview with Kobo about the importance of questioning authority, speaking up, and getting your elbows out. Other interviewees include literary heavyweights Eden Robinson, Zoey Lee Peterson, and Gurjinder Basran. (Parenthetically I just read Basran's Someone You Love Is Gone on the flight to Vancouver and was blown away. It's an arresting, gorgeous novel).

It's March 8th but when your social and family and work circles are filled with loud, brash, opinionated, clever, creative, hard-working ladies, every day is defined by women. I’m so fortunate in this regard, to have been raised by a mother who worked in finance and brought home the proverbial and literal bacon (although there was an unfortunate stretch where said bacon was of the turkey variety), who taught me how to expect good things and showed me by example how to make them happen. And I am surrounded by aunts and cousins who refuse to shut up. (Try. And. Make. Us.)

In the interview with Kobo I said that there's no substitute for sensible real life women. Surrounding yourself with the right people will undo and mitigate so much of the damage that is heaped on us by social media and advertising and sexual predators. I'm grateful for my girl friends who are rock stars who inspire me daily with their marathons and child-rearing and kick ass careers. They are teachers and doctors and mothers and executives and artists making this world a better place with their compassion, their humour, and most of all their persistence.

March 8th is just one day on the calendar. What is important, as women, is how we live our lives every day of the year. In closing, I'm going to quote Gurjinder Basran whose advice can be applied to writing as well: "I would tell them that confidence isn’t inate. It is something that builds with experience. So, to have confidence to speak up, they simply must start. Nothing magical ever happens in our comfort zones!"

Springtime in Vancouver

On Tuesday there was a snow day in St. John's and I escaped to Vancouver where it was spring. I was there, of course, for the Incite: New Voices of CanLit event at the Vancouver Public Library. Three cheers to the Vancouver Writers Fest for putting on such a stellar event. I was especially impressed with how well they curated the authors. I had never met Kim Fu, Guillaume Morissette or Djamila Ibrahim before but the four of us had a great chemistry on and off stage. That doesn't often happen. (And we spontaneously colour coordinated with the library's colour scheme...ha!) It was really special to be at the Vancouver Public Library too because in The Boat People's fictional Vancouver, 350 West Georgia is the site of the Immigration and Refugee Board Building. As my editor Anita said: reading in that space was like bringing the story home.

 With the teacher at Westside (photo courtesy of  Westside's instagram )

With the teacher at Westside (photo courtesy of Westside's instagram)

My publicists took full advantage of my visit and packed the schedule with interviews and appearances. I began Wednesday with something better than coffee: a taping of Can't Lit with the hilarious, vivacious, sharp- tongued duo of Jen Sookfong Lee and Dina Del Bucchia. (I'll post an update when the episode is live.) I've been listening to Can't Lit for a while so being a guest was a real treat.

Then it was off to Westside School's Miniversity for a reading, Q&A, and another podcast interview. First, Westside doesn't look like any highschool you've ever seen. It's more like the open-plan offices of a start-up company. Second, the students are SMART. They were engaged and asked good, thought-provoking questions. It was my first school visit and Westside set the bar high. Plus, they gave me a mango as a parting gift. Someone clearly did their homework. (Please send mangoes, people)

 After taping one of my favourite interviews. (Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio and Minelle)

After taping one of my favourite interviews. (Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio and Minelle)

While I was in town, The Tyee ran a review of The Boat People. It was a wonderful, hilarious piece by Crawford Kilian but BE WARNED: THERE ARE MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS. If you've already finished the book, you are safe to read the review here. I love the classification of The Boat People as 'political horror.' Yes. It is horrific. Parenthetically, I hadn't actually realized I'd written a political book until quite late in the game. One day, I was walking down the street listening to a podcast where some foolish (male...natch) person was opining: "women don't write political books." And I thought: "don't we? wait a second...I did!"

Saying women don't write political books is idiotic. Everything is political. Austen, Eliot, Gallant, Roy...we are all political authors writing about political things. Second, I suspect that most of us don't go into our projects thinking: "right. This is going to be political." We just write books and because we are thinking human beings, our books end up being about world events or personal traumas or relationships between people and guess what? All that stuff is political. Sex is political. Washing the dishes is political. Culture is political. Refugee law is political. Men don't have a monopoly on politics. /Rant

Back to Vancouver! While there, I also taped an episode of CBC's North by Northwest with Sheryl Mackay and an interview with Joe Planta at thecommentary.ca. Stay tuned for links when both those interviews go live.

And finally, my very last interview was a long chat with Minelle Mahtani for Roundhouse Radio's Sense of Place (available now so go have a listen). They have a segment called "Acknowledgements" where they bring in an author and someone they thanked in their acknowledgements page.

 David, me, and Minelle. Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio.

David, me, and Minelle. Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Radio.

On our way to Roundhouse, my publicist Laura promised this would be one of my favourite interviews. She wasn't overselling. Minelle is an incredible interviewer. She asks deep, thoughtful questions and knows how to get at the big stuff, the emotional stuff. Plus she listens. I mean really listens. Two thirds of the way through our interview we brought in Lisa Moore. The conversation was wide-ranging. We discussed dialogue, location, language, bigotry, bureaucracy, and found a similarity between my novel and Lisa's February. And bonus: David Chariandy dropped by, unexpectedly, to eavesdrop. Knowing that both Lisa and David were listening in to my chat with Minelle wasn't at all nerve-wracking....nope, not at all! In all seriousness: what a lovely way to cap off my time in Vancouver, speaking with Minelle and Lisa and David and listening to them discuss literature with each other.

And did I mention it was spring in Vancouver, my favourite Canadian city? So lovely. Please invite me back!

ps. The Boat People was #1 on the CBC's Bestseller list last week and #5 on the Globe & Mail's list.

 

"Where are the quotation marks?"

Why are there no quotation marks in your book? This is one of the most common questions I get from readers. It's a good one. It was one my editors challenged me to answer as well (because good editors hold you to account for every. single. thing.).

Quotation marks dictate. They tell the reader: "this is who is speaking and here are the exact words they used in this exact order." Sometimes as a writer this is exactly what I want to do: tell the reader something. In The Boat People I did not want to tell the reader very much. There are many places in the book where I purposely left room for ambiguity. After all, this is what the book is about: the slipperiness of truth. Are stories true? Who gets to tell them? Or as Meg and Brianne might ask: What is truth, even?

There are many points in the book too where I wanted to blur the lines between direct and indirect dialogue, between thoughts in a character's head and the words they say out loud. I wanted the reader to decide for themselves. Direct dialogue, like quotation marks, signal truth and accuracy. This is what the character said, these words in this order. But indirect dialogue is different. It is a kind of summation, the gist of what was said, as perceived by the listener.

In the scene Back to Hell, Grace listens to Hema give her testimony, mediated by the interpreter, and wonders: How much of this story is real? How much is hers? Is the interpreter doing his job faithfully? In this scene, and many others, I wanted the reader to be unsettled and uncertain, just as Grace is. Think about Mahindan, sitting there in hearings, not understanding a word of English, feeling bewildered by the legal proceedings in this strange new land. By making things uncertain, a little difficult even, I hope to put the reader in his shoes.

Right coast, left coast, and all the news in between

Reading at the Association for New Canadians Training Centre. Photo by Andrew Sampson, CBC.

On Tuesday night the CBC and the Association for New Canadians hosted a local Canada Reads event in St. John's and it was a full house. I usually know the crowd at literary events but standing at the podium, looking out at the audience, I thought "who ARE all these people?"And that's when it hit me that this is what happens when the CBC promotion machine starts churning. It's not just friends and friends of friends supporting my book anymore. (I know...I know...why is this STILL a surprise?)

I have to hand it to the CBC and the ANC: they pulled off a fantastic evening with very little notice. There was music, food, and a great group of speakers who told their own arrival stories. I was struck in particular by the gentleman who arrived in Canada seven months ago after spending 17 years in a refugee camp. Seventeen years. Let that sink in. This is what people endure just to come here, just to have all these freedoms and privileges that most of us Canadians blithely take for granted.

L to R: Luwam, Bwisengo, Celestine, and Aveen share their stories while the CBC's Heather Barrett listens. English teacher Grace is on the far right. Photo by Andrew Sampson, CBC.

The five newcomers who shared their stories were seriously, seriously impressive. One young woman is about to graduate highschool with a full scholarship to Memorial University. After the staged part of the event, people stuck around to socialize and I heard the word "resilience" in more than a couple of conversations. Resilience is part of it, sure. But I think there's something else going on here. When good fortune isn't given to you on a platter you don't have the option to be lazy. It's something I've been thinking about a lot since Tuesday.

Segments of Tuesday's event will be aired on Weekend Arts Morning so tune in for that (I'll post a link to the podcast version when it's up). And Andrew Sampson (who kindly let me use his photos) wrote an article about the event.


Signing books. Photo by Andrew Sampson, CBC

In other news, The Boat People received a very favourable review in the Winnipeg Free Press. Here are a couple of my favourite lines: "Bala’s strength is in showing the human side of everyone involved" and "Many details of the situation — trying to evaluate individuals amidst federal government concern about letting in criminals — might have been dull and bureaucratic if Bala’s narrative were not so clear and engaging."

Reporter Dana Gee interviewed me recently for a piece that ran in both The Vancouver Sun and The Province. We talked about the best and worst parts of novel writing, character creation, and the engine of rage that powered my work.

I was on the St. John's Morning show on Thursday chatting with host Jamie Fitzpatrick (author of The End of Music, one of my very favourite books of 2017) and my Canada Reads champion Mozhdah. The segment isn't online yet but for those of you who missed it, I'll post a note as soon as it's up.

Next week I'm off to Vancouver for a couple of days of interviews and an evening event at the Vancouver Public Library. If you are in Van-city, the event is free but you do need to get tickets. Presented by the Vancouver Writers Festival, Incite is a free reading series featuring Canadian authors. I'll be reading from The Boat People and answering questions along with few writers Kim Fu, Djamila Ibrahim, and Guillaume Morisette. As always, I'm as excited for the reading and Q&A as I am to meet fellow authors.

Kerry Clare at 49th Shelf asked me to recommend a reading list for fans of The Boat People. The piece went live earlier this week.

American War toppled me off the top of the mountain and The Boat People is #2 on the CBC Bestseller list this week. No hard feelings. I absolutely adore Omar's book (see aforementioned reading list). We are both going to be at a couple of events in the next few months and I can't wait. Keep an eye on the events page. I post upcoming events, appearances, and readings as soon as they are confirmed.

And speaking of Canada Reads authors, all the finalists will be speaking with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter in the coming weeks. This week's episode features Mark Sakamoto speaking about his luminescent book Forgiveness. The conversation is well worth a listen.

Finally, check out the book's new cover! My first sticker! (Not available in stores just yet)

Date night in Turkey

DEAL NEWS: The Boat People will be translated into Turkish! My clever agent Stephanie has sold Turkish language rights to a publisher over there. It's our first translation deal and hopefully not the last one.

A few years ago my husband and I went to Turkey on holiday. On one of our last nights in Istanbul, we took the ferry across the Bosphorus, away from the touristy part of town to residential Kadıköy. It was, hands down, one of our funnest date nights and also one of my favourite holiday memories of all time.

We wandered through the market, treated ourselves to the best coffee in town, got enmeshed in a hyper competitive game of tavla (we got so into it, in fact, that the waiter serving us tea forgot we were tourists and addressed us in Turkish). There was nothing particularly special about the evening except this feeling of complete immersion in a place and the wonderful familiarity of this easy-going corner of the city. People more or less ignored us and so we could forget we were outsiders and just imagine for a few hours that we were locals on a stroll through our neighbourhood. And what do we do when we're at home? Visit a book shop, of course. There was a lovely little one in Kadıköy, somewhat shabby and dusty and bursting with books. What a thrill to think of The Boat People IN TURKISH in that store.

Numero uno

A few updates:

I'm on this week's episode of CBC Radio's The Next Chapter. The episode is archived and you can listen online or download the podcast to your phone. Shelagh and I had a short chat about news headlines, purgatory, and quotes we remember from Pier 21.

I had a longer talk with host Angela Antle on CBC Radio's Atlantic Voice. She devoted this weekend's full episode to my book and we discussed everything from the importance of editors and writing groups to word choices and Canada Reads. Listen online or download to your favourite podcast app.

At the end of the month, I'll be taking part in the Incite Reading Series at the Vancouver Public Library. I'll be on stage with Kim Fu, Djamila Ibrahim, and Guillaume Morissette. The event is free but please register if you'd like to come. There are a few other readings and public appearances in the works and I keep the events page pretty up-to-date.

Shelf Awareness gave The Boat People a really lovely starred review. Here's an excerpt: In her emotional debut, Sharon Bala composes empathetic characters and encourages her audience to endure their struggles. She grips her readers and dives into the humanity of the world she's created; when they resurface, they'll be gasping for air. Breathlessly beautiful,The Boat People reminds everyone of the value of compassion in a world claiming no shortage of hatred and violence.

And finally, The Boat People was on the Globe & Mail's best seller list again (for the third time in a row) last week AND was THE NUMBER ONE best seller on the CBC's list. Why the difference? The Globe & Mail collects its data mainly from larger sellers like Amazon, Chapters, and Costco and the CBC focuses its numbers more on independent booksellers. In any case, it's really, really wonderful to see the book being embraced by all fine establishments where books are sold. I've been getting photos of the book front and centre in all kinds of shops across the country, from Nelson, BC to Calgary, AB to North Bay, ON to, of course, good old Broken Books right here in St. John's.