Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Writing: The Short Story Edition, with Ava Homa | Open Book: Toronto

On Writing: The Short Story Edition, with Ava Homa | Open Book: Toronto

This summer Open Book will be checking in with short story writers and publishers to celebrate and explore a genre in which anything is possible. Today we talk to Ava Homa, a Kurdish-Canadian writer-in-exile and the author of Echoes from the Other Land (TSAR Publications), a collection of short stories about the resistance of modern Iranian women. Echoes from the Other Land was recently shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.

Ava Homa will be reading from her collection at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, June 15th at the North York Central Library. Visit our Events page for more details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Echoes from the Other Land.

Ava Homa:

Echoes from the Other Land is a collection of short stories about resistance of modern Iranian women in post-Revolution Iran. Let me quote some reviewers in response to your questions.

Gavin Wolch writes, Echoes from the Other Land is carefully crafted in a realist style but when compared to homogenized portrayals of Iran in the western media, the reader’s experience more closely resembles the surreal. For a western reader the conflict of the real and the surreal resonates — it echoes — and does not fade away. Echoes from the Other Land is a rare experience. A western reader is confronted not with a didactic tale of oppression or a stark narrative of an alien culture — Iranian — from across the globe. Instead these stories are dry-witted and at times shockingly funny.”

Susan Holbrook, poet and professor, says, “Ranging across regions, ethnicities, genders, sexualities and political dispositions, Homa’s characters give us a prismatic portrait of Iran that resists both internal tyrannies and Western demonization. Her style is elegantly spare, gem-solid. This is a voice we all need to hear.”

OB:

What was most challenging about writing or publishing this collection?

AH:

I was very lucky when it came to publishing. I sent my manuscript to TSAR and M.G. Vassanji loved my stories. Writing, however, was full of challenges. Due to the severe censorship in Iran, my stories were not published. In Canada, writing in English was a challenge because English is my third language. I did not learn it as a child, nor did I learn it in an English-speaking country. Speaking in a foreign language is completely different from creating stories in a foreign language. This was like a disability that would make writing slow and at times painful for me. Maybe it’s for the same reason that I am the only Iranian-Canadian novelist who publishes in English. Others write in Farsi or in different genres. That means I don’t have a community of writers to share manuscripts with or receive support from. In addition, being in exile makes life — and therefore writing — difficult. I am far from loved ones and I write about a place that I am not at, that I am not allowed to be at.

OB:

How do you know when the germ of an idea will be the right fit for a short story?

AH:

I wouldn’t know until I polish a presentable draft, leave it for a while and then read it again or read it aloud to somebody who has read a lot of books. When nobody is available (which is the case most of the time) I record my own voice and listen to it sometimes later. That’s when I decide if the story works or not and if I can work it out or totally throw it away. My collection has only seven stories in it. I have written more than 50 stories.

OB:

What do you enjoy most about the process of writing a short story?

AH:

I love how a story grows and shapes. It’s like watching an infant grow up, smile and cry. Crafting a story is a lot of work but has a thrilling joy for me.

OB:

How do you make a character vibrant and realistic in just a few pages?

AH:

And that’s why I said crafting a story is a lot of work. The moment I decide to write a story is when a character comes alive in my head and I have a vague sense of what would happen to that character. Before I write the story, or while I work on it, I live with the characters in my head. I get excited and sad with them. Before I write about a character, I know their past, present and future because I believe characters don’t just walk into my story out of nowhere. I know the details of their personal, social, psychological and economic lives. I know what they look like and how they feel about their look…

One weekend, about six years ago, I was at my computer when I felt my eyes were tired. I noticed that it was evening and I had been sitting at my computer and writing since morning without feeling tired, hungry or thirsty. What’s more is that when my characters run, I sweat at my computer. I am not sure how strange or normal that is. Anyway, my point is that without knowing much about a character and living with her/him for a while, a short story writer cannot “make a character vibrant and realistic in a few pages.”

OB:

What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your short stories?

AH:

It’s interesting that you say “notice turning up” because it is something that I discover later when I look at all of my stories. I guess feeling suffocation, self-alienation and hope are among my recurring themes. My characters are farther away from themselves than they think. A smart reader would know more about my characters than the characters themselves. For example, in “Silk Shawl” a couple is sitting at a coffee shop talking about the possible US invasion of Iran, the horror of war and all that. But when readers dig deep, they realize the couple is actually talking about their endangered relationship and the horror of having it shattered.

OB:

Is there such a thing as a perfect short story? What story have you read that's come closest?

AH:

Good question! Maybe no, but comparatively speaking some stories are significantly more powerful than others. Some of the stories I re-read and continue to learn from are “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver, “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes,” by J.D. Salinger, “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway and “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner.

OB:

What would you say to convince someone who is "more into novels" to give short fiction a try?

AH:

I’m surprised that short stories are still less popular despite the demands of modern life — I mean lack of time, ever-developing technology etc. You can read a short story at one sitting, devour it and let it grow in your head for the rest of the day or night. Good stories don’t die when you finish reading them; they continue to grow in your head. They are by far more thought-provoking and in that sense much more rewarding than few hundred pages' stretch of the same character! How can anybody NOT enjoy a beautiful short story! Well, give Echoes from the Other Land a try. I guarantee that you will like it!


Ava Homa has an MA in English and Creative Writing and an MA in English Language and Literature. Echoes from the Other Land, her collection of short stories, was published by TSAR Publications. Ava’s writing has appeared in English and Farsi publications including the Toronto Star and the Windsor Review. She was a freelancer and a member of faculty in Iran. Now living in Toronto, Ava writes and teaches Creative Writing, English and ESL. Find out more by visiting her website and her blog.

For more information about Echoes from the Other Land please visit the TSAR Publications website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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