I bought and started reading Farzana Doctor’s second novel Six Metres of Pavement with specific and high expectations: not only has it just been shortlisted for the 2012 Toronto Book award, it was named one of Now Magazine’s top ten books of 2011 and won in the category of lesbian fiction at the most recent Lambda Literary awards. Six Metres of Pavement also won a 2011 Rainbow award. That’s a lot of praise, especially for only a second-time novelist. This kind of positive feedback creates high expectations that can sometimes be hard to live up to. Do I think the novel deserves the praise it’s been garnering? Absolutely. It’s a very moving novel that is ultimately about the power of chosen families, which is something that’s particularly poignant for queers. Do I think this novel was the right choice for a lesbian fiction category, particularly for the Lambda? No.
Let me explain: Six Metres of Pavement follows Ismail Boxwala, a man in his fifties who has never recovered from the worst mistake of his life: forgetting his baby daughter in the car on a hot summer day. The death of his daughter leads to a divorce, and for the last twenty years he has been only half alive, trying to numb the pain with alcohol and meaningless sex. Ismail’s story is one that will at first break, and then warm, your heart. The way that Doctor deals with the psychological implications of Ismail’s fatal mistake is brilliant and real; this is not surprising, given that she is a practicing psychotherapist as well as a novelist. The way she depicts anxiety in particular is painfully accurate, from the point of view of someone who’s experienced it.
Ismail’s story is about to change, however, and it all has to do with Celia, his new neighbour who is also grieving, having recently lost both her husband and mother. Although Ismail is definitely the protagonist, the omniscient narrator often gives readers Celia’s perspective and thoughts, leaving Ismail’s life to enter Celia’s for a while. Celia is a fascinating character in her own right, and I enjoyed how Doctor subverted gender expectations by making her the instigator of her and Ismail’s romance. I appreciate that this straight love story is not one told often: not only is it cross-cultural (Celia is Portuguese and Ismail is South Asian) but both of the lovers are in their fifties. The novel does a great job empowering those—particularly widowed women—often not considered sexual. Celia also fiercely maintains her independence in her relationship with Ismail, a feminist turn of events that was really fantastic.
All this to say: Six Metres of Pavement is a great novel. But it’s not a lesbian novel. The synopsis on the back cover of the book would have you think that Celia and Fatima—the young queer character—play equal roles in the novel and Ismail’s life. That’s simply not true; I wouldn’t call it a fault or a drawback by any means, but it is frustrating as a (queer) reader to have your expectations thwarted. Fatima doesn’t appear until almost 100 pages into the book, and she doesn’t ever really become a major player in the book, not to the extent that Ismail’s love interest, Celia, does. The novel never gives us Fatima’s perspective directly as it does Celia’s. Again, this wouldn’t have bothered me if I hadn’t been expecting Fatima to play a larger part; these expectations came from, not only the back cover of the book, but the fact that the novel had won two awards in a lesbian fiction category. To me, the novel just doesn’t have enough lesbian content to merit this categorization.
Also, Fatima—who is, by the way, a completely endearing 19-year-old activist in all her naïve and angry glory—isn’t a lesbian. She explicitly identifies as queer, and gets herself in trouble with her conservative parents by writing an article titled “Beyond Bisexual: A Queer Girl’s Take on LGBT.” In other words, Fatima would be called bisexual by others, but prefers the term queer, since she dates people of different genders and believes in the malleability of sex/gender. One of her exes, for example, is a trans man. I don’t know about you, but when someone says they identify as queer and not lesbian, I take that seriously. I’m not sure why the folks at Lambda don’t see it that way. At the very least, someone there maybe could have remembered that they have a bisexual fiction category?
This isn’t to say that Fatima and Ismail’s relationship isn’t moving; it is. In many ways, she’s the daughter he lost at such a young age. His loss puts Fatima’s rejection because of her queerness into perspective; how can her parents kick out the happy, healthy daughter they have, even if she calls herself queer and has blue hair, when Ismail would do anything to have his own daughter back?
Six Metres of Pavement is the kind of novel I’d recommend to someone like Ismail: a straight person, perhaps in their forties or fifties who has recently had a young person close to them come out as queer. It would especially be useful for South Asians or Muslims who fall into that category. But is it the kind of book I’d give to that young queer person? Probably not. My mom would love this book. I also loved it. I wish that my experience of reading it hadn’t been coloured by the categorization of it as lesbian by certain organizations, which of course have nothing to do with Farzana Doctor as an author. I want to make it clear that I don’t expect Doctor to only write about queer characters because she is queer; as I wrote in my review of Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring, it’s reductive and limiting to expect a queer person to always and only write ‘queer.’ But the labelling of this book as lesbian disrupted my enjoyment of it as a novel that is ultimately both touching and inspiring.
An extra note: Farzana Doctor is currently the writer in residence at the Toronto Public library and you can meet her in early October at the North York Central Library. Go see her if you can!
Thank you for making not feel completely alone for thinking “HOW DID THIS WIN ANYTHING ‘LESBIAN’?!” I mean, personally, I didn’t like the book in general, but that’s just a personal preference. Then again, I think part of it was getting more and more frustrated by this book that is about a straight couple being in the lesbian fiction category. Sigh.
So weird, right? I know that Lambda has been criticized for similar mistakes before but I’m really flabbergasted that they so badly misrepresented this book. But it’s not just the awards (which are out of the author and publishing company’s hands); it’s also the way the book has been marketed (on the back cover), which is even more irritating. It’s so frustrating being a reader looking for books featuring queer women (especially a woman of colour!) and being misled. It’s hard not to suspect that someone wasn’t trying to make the book marketable to queer audiences by embellishing the queer content but ultimately making it palatable to straight audiences by keeping the focus on the straight couple. I hope I’m just being cynical.
Thanks for reviewing the book!
The question of what makes a book a lesbian book is confusing. I too was uncertain about Lambda’s categorization. Is it content? Characters? Something else?
I spoke with one of the jurors recently and she told me that the book has a lesbian “sensibility” (which I loved hearing). As a queer person of colour, I know that my identity gets infused in my writing, and I wonder if I write straight people with with a lesbian sensibility. I’m not sure, but I hope so! I also see Fatima as quite central to Ismail’s transformation (as central as Celia) though I can see how that view might not be shared because she does arrive later and is a more secondary character.
Happy to hear the debate!
Thanks so much for stopping by my blog! A visit from the author is a real treat! I’m really interested in the idea of a lesbian sensibility: I do feel like you wrote Ismail and Celia with a queer eye, particularly when it came to Celia’s forwardness and Ismail’s feminine qualities (which Fatima as the radical queer so helpfully points out). I also thought Fatima was quite central to Ismail’s transformation, but she didn’t feel as central to the narrative, in my view; I wanted the narrator to go over and have a peek in her head when she was alone too, like what you did with Celia. In short, I wanted more of Fatima!
I guess the question with the Lambda categorization is: is a lesbian sensibility coupled with a straight protagonist and romance enough to merit inclusion in the lesbian fiction category to the exclusion of books with lesbian or queer protagonists (because you can only have no many nominees)? I also wondered whether Fatima’s identification wouldn’t be relevant, since she’s the queer character: you’re very clear that she’s an anti-binary kind of thinker who explicitly identifies as queer, not lesbian or bisexual. But I guess Lambda doesn’t have a category for that (yet)!
My main concern would be that queer/lesbian readers like me (and like Danika above) would end up enjoying your novel less, because of these expectations that come with a ‘lesbian’ category. Otherwise, I would have simply thought it was a great novel by a queer writer with an awesome secondary queer character: end of story. Queer readers are so starved for representations of ourselves that feeling misled about the amount of space devoted to queer characters can be so disappointing!
Thanks again for your input! It is so great to hear the author’s perspective!
Hi, Great conversation. A couple of things: Very few quality literary novels are published every year with lesbian content. Most of them are from Canada or Britain. The US has almost ceased (with less than one handful of exceptions) from publishing quality fiction with lesbian protagonists. Because of the chilling effect, younger writers are avoiding that content – psychologically it become less compelling because the other books aren’t there to be in dialogue with. Professionally it is what Urvashi Vaid called “the kiss of death” because the industry is so punitive to authentic lesbian protagonists. As a result, primary lesbian content can’t be the foundational requirement that it would be in a healthy publishing environment, for the recognition and promotion of work. The fall back position, in the midst of this crisis, has become to look for significant books that have secondary lesbian content that is clearly authentic, from a lesbian experience and reflective of lesbian experience. The lesbian content in Six Metres of Pavement does this, and furthermore it extends the kinds of experiences that have been engaged in the past. Hopefully more gifted writers will work with lesbian protagonists in the future, since there is a great deal to say, learn and engage about our humanity.
Yours Sincerely, Sarah Schulman
Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s great to have the opinion of another (published queer) author!
Maybe my sense of how many ‘literary’ (I have some qualms about the assumptions embedded in this term) novels with lesbian/queer protagonists are published annually is a bit off since I’m Canadian and read (mostly) Canadian authors. There certainly are a good number of writers doing amazing queer work here, but I don’t know much about the situation in the US. I would have assumed there were at least the same number of authors/texts in the US since the population is so much larger. This ‘kiss of death’ you mention is quite terrifying! That situation is self-perpetuating: publishing companies look to see what has sold to decide what will sell in the future, and if lesbian novels haven’t been out there in the past, they’re not going to be picked up for publication or, as you point out, written in the first place. I wonder if 2011 may have been a low year for lesbian publications (or for fiction in general: after all, there was no Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for literature!).
I completely agree that Six Metres of Pavement extends the kinds of queer experiences that have been portrayed in past literature (particularly in terms of ethnicity); the representation of a queer woman of colour was a large part of why I was interested in the novel. But I do think the label lesbian for the queer content in the novel isn’t accurate: Fatima explicitly doesn’t identify as a lesbian, and has relationships with multiple genders. I would be much more inclined to call the novel ‘queer,’ as I would also call Kristyn Dunnion’s collection The Dirt Chronicles, which was up for the same award (it after all contains stories about trans people, lesbians, and gay men).
I think the big issue here might be that the categories currently in place at Lambda are a bit behind or off in relation to what’s actually being written. There’s no queer women’s fiction category; there’s no category with the word queer in it at all. The categories should reflect the work, I think, instead of the work being squeezed into categories that misrepresent it.
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