Novelist Farzana Doctor pours out a decade of love, loss and life in her debut collection of poetry

Novelist Farzana Doctor.Tanja-Tiziana Burdi/Document

A lot has changed since the last meeting with Farzana Doctor. In 2019, there was an unbalanced heart latte between us and chatter from nearby tables that we had to enunciate. This time we were framed on bright screens in front of makeshift desks in T-shirts we could probably wear to bed.

Despite the change, she had managed to keep the same short and bouncy hairstyle. And she always spoke with her hands when she felt passionate, flashing the tattoo of her late mother’s name on her forearm.

Those habits big and small that nurture a sense of familiarity when revisiting old relationships are a dominant theme in her carefully structured new collection of poetry, You still look the same.

The Doctor wrote the collection throughout her 40s, a time she has found the most difficult in her life so far.

“Each decade taught me things, of course, but this decade taught me things like my body was a punching bag,” she said.

Born in Zambia to Indian parents, Doctor immigrated to Canada as a baby. The Toronto author has written five novels, including Six meters of sidewalkand his most recent work, Seven, won the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s 2011 Dayne Ogilvie Award for Emerging Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender Writer. The work often focuses on the complexities of sexuality, homosexuality, childhood trauma, and race.

You are still the same reads like a poetic memoir reflecting a time filled with vulnerability and opportunity. She begins the collection by intimately capturing the end of a 13-year relationship.

“When you’re in a long-term relationship, you assume you’re with that person forever, so it was a really tough breakup,” she said.

My shy text stumbles upstairs:

How are you?

His response falls:

Sorry if I disturbed you.

I want to write:

I know this sorrow.

When she felt ready, she first started dating online in her 40s.

“I felt maybe the way I imagined people in their early twenties would feel, where you have this great sense of possibility. I wasn’t jaded by the process yet.

In his poetry, Doctor also retreats to such firsts as encounters between the sexes and non-monogamous relationships.

“There was a feeling of possibility and freedom to be able to experience a lot of different things,” the doctor said.

My data suggests direct communication

is not a standard. There’s a lot baby, baby, smile for me

and jokes that go a bit too far.

Although Doctor is known for her novels, she has been writing poetry since she was young.

“Poetry is really accessible to you as a child. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but that’s part of the fun. I love how poetry feels more like a game to me than writing a novel.

After turning off Seven in 2020 – a book about an Indian-American mother that confronts the reality of the tradition of khatnaor female genital cutting, a tradition practiced in the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shia Islam – she feels more comfortable being vulnerable.

“I knew poetry would also feel very vulnerable. And while there are elements in there that are definitely not me and not my life, a lot of it is inspired by things that I’ve been through.

But there are nights alone in bed

when all i feel is

your stamp of shame

my numb body

my spirit

too awake.

Meanwhile, the doctor was coming to terms with his own trauma of khatna. “I was really processing my own feelings. Many of these early drafts of poems which deal khatna were my way of trying to make sense of some of these things.

The doctor voices his anti-FGM stance and is part of We Speak Out, a group that seeks to end the dangerous procedure commonly performed on seven-year-old girls. She oversees the group’s Twitter page.

“I’m the one who sees all the trolls, and for a long time pro-khatna trolls have been very active, very mean, very horrible. So, I started writing down the things they said, and those are the most polite things.

You lie

It’s just a small notch.

It is my religious right.

It makes our girls clean.

But there’s more to Doctor than writing and activism. After completing her Masters in Social Work and securing a place as a Registered Social Worker (RSW), she opened a part-time private psychotherapy practice in 2004. The doctor works from an anti-oppressive stance and is specializes in techniques that help her clients process and release complex emotional triggers – a practice she says complements her writing by helping her stay present.

The pandemic years have been particularly difficult for being a therapist, she said. “There’s this parallel processing that happens where we’re often having the exact same experiences at the same time as the customers. You talk to people about how they’re so afraid of the same things that you’re a little afraid of them. At this level, it was quite intense.

Although she has a clear and established boundary when it comes to drawing inspiration from her clients, Doctor recognizes shared universal themes that also preoccupy her poetry.

Poetry can seem relatable, she says. When Doctor picks up a book of poetry, she doesn’t necessarily like, relate to, or understand every poem. Instead, she searches for the one or two poems in a collection that are going to be a “punch.”

“I really hope this collection of poetry does that for people.”

When asked what was next, the author assured me that she had no intention of laying down the metaphorical pen. She is already buying a young adult novel and has prepared the first draft of a self-care guide for carers, medical professionals and activists.

Some things never change, I thought.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. register today.