Welcome, Ava! You and I have a long history with each other. We first met at the University of Windsor in 2008 where we were both students in the MA program. That’s why I wanted to talk to you about resilience and writing today for carte blanche readers.
First, can you tell us a little about your writing journey? When did you start writing seriously? Any major challenges along the way? For example, can you tell us about writing in English, your third language? What’s one word you would use to characterize your writing career so far?
Ava Homa: Writing has been taxing. Much of my life as a secular Kurdish feminist growing up in Iran and later writing in exile in Canada has been daring.
I have been writing since childhood. I completed my first storybook when I was in grade five and writing has been part of my life throughout all the ups and downs. Writing isn’t a career or a passion for me: it’s existential, it’s my malady and my cure. Without writing, I would simply be floating through life without discovering agency or depth. Writing helps me reflect, imagine, excavate myself and others, create, communicate, belong. That’s why I never gave up, even though writing in my third language initially felt crippling.
Like many authors, I have dealt with uncertainties, questions like:
“Who am I to write?”
“What’s the point?”
I write because it keeps me sane and grounded and might help someone else too. The daily question has been, “What do I have to give up to be able to write?”
I have worked hard since I was seventeen—long shifts at jobs like landscaping, retail, telemarketing, and teaching—and have always written on the side.
It’s been through reading and writing that I understood how I have been lied to: women are inferior, Kurds are doomed to be voiceless, creating literary art in a foreign language is impossible, you live to earn money and procreate.
I defied expectations and have been able to connect with like-minded people through books—connecting across borders, races, religions, and other human-made barriers. I learn from the subtle conversation happening between authors like Bernardine Evaristo, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ocean Vuong, Tommy Orange, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Judith Butler, Richard Flanagan, and others. They help me see the universality of oppression and the unoriginality and predictability of the oppressors—pathetic in their addiction to power and their need for destruction. They help me to not get caught up in my personal and national drama. That’s why I wish to join their club and add Kurds to this list.
JF: Thank you for this honest approach. It resonates. We work in an industry that’s rife with rejections, from literary journals, to agents, to editors, and then, of course, there are readers who “one-star” books on Goodreads. That’s a lot of rejection.
How do you think writers develop the skin they need to work in this business?
Do you have any tips for writers who are starting out?
AH: Yes, rejections are abundant, gatekeepers are cruel, writers are becoming poorer.
Middle Eastern and Hispanic writers make up some one percent of published books in North America. Diversity is liked only in idea not in practice, etc., etc.
We do have a million reasons to give up, don’t we?
But those who are writers at heart, like yourself, keep writing because we have a philosophy behind it.
I believe one of the most important decisions any human makes in their lifetime is deciding whose side they want to be on. I will have to generalize here so please bear with me.
I see the first group, a small one, as being profit-obsessed at absolutely any cost (dictators, arms dealers, corrupt politicians, some corporations, etc.). The second group, a large one, is of people who accept the status quo and get absorbed by the challenges of their daily life.
Then there is a third group that pushes for justice and humanity. They see the realities but can also imagine otherwise, envisioning the possibility for transformation. Their ideas often seem radical at their own time (suffrages, abolitionists, unionists, and more) but they leave tangible effects on the next generations. For example, at one point women couldn’t vote and now we discuss benevolent sexism.
I have always wanted to be on the side of the writers, artists, intellectuals, scientists, and activists who say “collective humans can do better than this.”
This group is willing to swim upstream to bring about change. I write because I hope this will help me join forces with those who are willing to make sacrifices to help humans grow collectively. Being on this path means falling on my face so many times, looking sheepishly at my role models, getting up again only to fall again, and keep going, hoping to make fewer mistakes next time. But I keep going, keep learning, keep transforming pain into poetry, oppression into resistance, and rejection into fuel.
JF: I want to stand up and clap. Seriously. So imagine I did. Let’s dig in to your debut novel, Daughters of Smoke and Fire, next, and into the resiliency of the Kurdish people. Why did you write Daughters? What parts of this story refused to be silent in your mind over the years you’ve spent writing and rewriting it?
AH: Too many women in Kurdistan of Iran find no other solution to their problems but death. So suicide is rampant—I spoke up about this at the United Nations. See, I understand what it’s like to be powerless, abused, battered, and, most of all, hopeless. I was so lucky to make my way out of that country through education but public universities in Iran are extremely competitive and many can’t get in. Some are denied entry because of their own or their family’s political activities. I have been trying to reach out to the women, through writing and activism, to tell them that someone cares, that if they look hard, they will find hope, maybe not in the near future but somewhere down the road.
I wanted to write the story of one woman who is pushed to the edges but finds strength and self-liberation through resilience.
Daughters of Smoke and Fire is also inspired by the life, arrest, trial, and execution of a Kurdish activist and teacher, Farzad Kamangar, and the novel’s publication is timed to the tenth anniversary of his execution.
JF: So writing is a kind of resistance? A kind of resilience?
AH: Absolutely. Domestic and global oppressors have this in common: They want you to suffer in silence. That’s why novelists and poets have been one of the primary targets of dictators everywhere.
They also want the oppressed to turn against each other, to be disheartened, be filled with self-pity and distrust. I admit that they have somewhat succeeded.
I belong to people who have been the subject of genocide and ethnocide. The Allies divided Kurdish land after WWII for their own interest and the government of the states where Kurds live have been seen as threats to be annihilated, never as humans.
I resist non-existence through writing. What better way to tell the murderers that they failed to silence us?
JF: Exactly. This is the power of literature, of art as resistance. And that power is incredible.
Your debut novel just released on May 12, 2020. That’s super exciting, but you know readers, we’re always hungry for the next great book. What are you working on now? What’s next for you—writing-wise?
AH: I am writing another novel, the love story of a couple who are separated after the August 2014 genocide and kidnapping of Yazidi Kurds by the Islamic State. I am researching the story of the women who are now free and back in their communities after having been a sex slave to ISIS. Some had children with the Jihadists too. This means, exploring ways that humans can or cannot survive horrendous events, find meaning, and embark on a journey toward repair and recovery.
JF: I can’t wait. Last question, and I’ll make this one fun for you. If Daughters of Smoke and Fire was ever made into a movie, who would you dream-cast for the role of Leila, your protagonist, and Chia, her brother?
AH: Ideally Golshifteh Farahani will play Leila or Nazanin Boniadi. Maybe Bahman Ghobadi can play Chia.
JF: Thank you Ava. Readers, get a copy of Daughters of Smoke and Fire, or request that your library order it, or hey, why not do both? Literature is powerful, but it takes readers to harness that power.
Ava Homa’s collection of short stories, Echoes from the Other Land, was nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Prize, and she is the inaugural recipient of the PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-In-Exile Scholarship. Daughters of Smoke and Fire is her debut novel. The Globe and Mail named it one of “the best new reads” of the spring.
Jenny Ferguson (she/her/hers) is Métis, an activist, a feminist, an auntie, and an accomplice with a PhD. She believes writing and teaching are political acts. Border Markers, her collection of linked flash fiction narratives, is available from NeWest Press. She teaches at Loyola Marymount University and in the Opt-Res MFA Program at the University of British Columbia. She is the creative nonfiction editor at carte blanche.