Counting Down The FOLD: Fartumo Kusow

The Festival of Literary Diversity opening gala and kickoff is closer and the countdown to Brampton’s very own literary festival continues. We sat down with educator and author, Fartumo Kusow to talk about her book, Tale of a Boon’s Wife, the journey to getting published and how the FOLD made it possible for her book to be published by Second Story Press and reach Canadian readers. She will be part of the Setting The Story panel on Saturday May 5th.

You can get tickets for the entire weekend, or single day passes at the FOLD’s website.

You’ve said before that writing should make people feel uncomfortable enough to ask, “What are we doing?”. Can you elaborate on that for our readers?

I believe that writing should provide learning and some kind of growth for the reader or community that the story belongs to and I think that can only take place when people are uncomfortable. There is a kind of complacency and no growth when people are comfortable in what they do. When you’re uncomfortable, you see challenges others face and you question what role you play in that challenge, and what you can do to change it. What does it mean for you as part of the human race?

I think when we are in uncomfortable situations, we grow and learn. We can then perhaps take a different action from what we would’ve before we had the knowledge and education that come from books. Books should entertain, so that people are enjoying what they read, but I think there has to be some kind of discomfort and lesson in the material the book delivers. Good books should at the very least elicit those questions- What are we doing? Are we okay? Do we need to make changes in what we do and how we approach other things and people?

Books are so powerful and have such a power to move people. Especially with your book. You mentioned that one of the key takeaways you hoped for your readers, was the idea of “othering”. There was so much of this in the book not only with Idil and her marriage, but from her Mother as well.

One of the things I tried to do with the book, was make sure that I minimized the description of the setting to one of two items, to create more humanity in these characters. This made sure that Idil could relate to someone who could be Queer, Indigenous, a woman, a man, someone genderfluid or any identity. We have this incredible power as human beings where we can look at someone and understand their otherness (the fact that someone is different). It’s easy to find what makes you and I different, but it’s that difference that should make us better. It doesn’t always though and when people do that, it robs someone of the chance to just be a human being, wanting the same things as you.

Idil’s mother has this disconnect where she doesn’t feel like she’s subjugating and othering other people. She just thinks, ‘this is just how it is’ and doesn’t worry about it all. It even happens to those of us here and for those of us who came to North America from Somalia. We are treated like the other because we’re Black and Muslim and completely different from some people as a result.

I read that it took four years to get the book published- what was that process like relative to what you said in another interview, where you felt burdened to write the book because it was difficult, but you still needed to do it?

The story was difficult on three levels. First, it was the immediate in that I’m a single mother of five children who are all adults now, but I’ve been single for the last eighteen years, raising them on my own. I teach at a high school and I also teach two nights a week at an adult centre to make a little more money to support them. Finding the physical time and days to write the book was one of the biggest challenges. I had to convince myself that this was important enough for me to carve at least an hour a day out, to focus on the writing.

The next difficulty is that this is a story that needs to be told in an honest way without falling into the existing prejudices against someone who is different. With these characters coming alive in the minds of Canadian readers, I was weary about them being a token and not having a human face to them, where you as a Queer white woman for example, could see yourself in them. I wanted it so that everyone could put themselves into this too, and see that the consequence isn’t just for people who are othered. It’s society that’s at a disadvantage when this happens. Canadians play that role here too, where Indigenous people are living in third world conditions within a country that has so much wealth, so that everyone should be living a decent life. We’re losing something as a society, with this inequality. It was just about wanting to do justice to the characters and show their human side to readers.

My lack of connections to the publishing industry and as though I didn’t belong until it was published were where I had to ask myself- if this story will never be published, would I still write it? I had to ask myself that question often. If I had the guarantee that it would never be published would I still write it just to get it out of my head and onto the page.

Keeping in mind that drive to write the story, did the book you wanted to write, turn out differently from the book you finished?

The story didn’t change, but the way readers engaged with the story changed. I didn’t expect the readers to buy into the story the way they did, because I thought it would come across as a foreign subject. The people I’ve heard from at least, have said that they could relate to it and feel for these characters.

The process of writing itself was discouraging though. I spent about an hour a day writing for three years to get the manuscript written, then I edited it and polished it. Reader and critique groups read it afterwards until I sent it out to publishers. I continued to get rejections, and I think I had close to 104 rejections for the book. At first I’d get a rejection and then feel bad for a week or so and think, “What is the point of writing? I might as well just relax for this one hour and watch T.V.”  I thought though, that this doesn’t benefit me or anyone. I decided to stop opening up my email at 9pm each night and only opened it when I was at work. This meant I was dealing with 90 teenagers in a day so there’s not much to feel sorry for when you’re that busy. Then I would get myself back to the computer to edit and revise at night.

It found Second Story Press and they wanted some revisions to make some parts of the book or characters to be clearer, while adding explanations for Somali words or requests along those lines. They weren’t asking to make major revisions and change the story itself.

The story came to me because I was always aware of the caste system in Somalia; Everybody accepted that it is what is. Somalia has been at war for the last 27 years, trying to establish some kind of functional government which has proven difficult. There were 2 boys on television in 2011, accused of stealing a cell phone and they distinctly looked like the people from the caste that would be subjugated. Before the war those people had no access to good education, well-paying jobs and always lived in rural areas so when the war happened they weren’t able to get out of the country. Most of the people in rural areas now, are these people as a result.

The judgement was that they did steal the cell phone and had to lose a hand, and I remember thinking that if these kids belonged to the right tribe, this would not happen to them. Someone would’ve asked how much the cell phone cost, given the money for the mistake and gone home. These boys however didn’t have the right tribal backing or financial means to get out of it, so their consequence was severe. I remember thinking about what happened to people who were already in a compromised position when the wars were taking place. This is where the seed of the story came from.

Some writers say that they develop relationships with the characters so that what happens to them, also happens to the characters in their stories. Was there any difficulty in writing the characters because of the relationship you developed with them?

Part of the story was really hard and I remember some nights after writing a scene I would have to leave it with a heavy heart. The rape scene for example, was very difficult to write because it’s very rampant with no real rule of law. People would just use their tribes to deal with it. I was trying to write that scene to show the travesty of it without humiliating the character unduly, and so that any woman who experienced sexual violence didn’t walk away feeling like it was brutal. There was also the scene where they’re on the bus and they get shot at and something happens to the child in his mother’s lap. Those were difficult scenes, but I felt at times, like the characters were talking to me in my head, taking this story in a different direction.

I definitely developed a close relationship with Idil’s mother. It was painful to write the story from where she stood, where she felt that she was doing the best to protect her children but it wasn’t what was the best for them as people. It was best for them as her children because she thought that going against a system that’s stacked against you is not a good idea. She tried to get her daughter away from that. She was doing what she thought was the best as a mother for her child, but that’s not what was best for Idil as a young woman. I found that to be very difficult to write and I have a hard time knowing where to draw the line and where to give the mother some way to reconnect with her daughter without it coming across as forced.  

Their relationship progressed and in the beginning felt so tender which was an interesting dynamic between the two later on in the book, with Idil being led so much by her heart and her mother being so upset by this.

Many readers have no sympathy for Idil’s mother, but I can see her conflict because she never really says it’s the right thing to do. She always says that this is the only avenue open for Idil. It’s like her saying that a man’s dirt is always his woman’s wash and the idea that you just have to deal with these things. I felt sorry for her as a character who is caught in a position where she’s a product of her circumstances and she can’t just do what we would in Canada, and leave the husband, taking the kids. This woman is facing the consequences of divorce taking place meaning that the father would get custody and a stepmother who wasn’t particularly kind to her, raising her. Idil’s mother feels that she can’t ask for divorce because it will mean her kids are raised by a stepmother.

I felt so much sympathy for Idil’s story because as much as we’re reading her story, we’re also reading her mother’s story. You can only reject something so strongly when you’ve had to push away that very thing in yourself.

Even women are othering themselves beyond the tribe, where Idil’s mother realized her husband is with multiple women, but to admit that is to admit that she couldn’t make him happy. It’s easier to blame the other woman and say it’s her fault, although Idil always asked why it wasn’t his fault. She couldn’t understand why it was the other woman, which is because then her mother would have to share the blame with him, that she couldn’t keep him happy.

What did it feel like when Second Story Press sent the letter that they wanted to know more.

It was really good. It’s a small press, so it takes them a long time to read a manuscript. I sent the first 20 pages, query letter and synopsis and it took them about 6 or 7 months for them to say they were interested in the full manuscript. I sent the manuscript in September and then that next May I met their representatives at the FOLD. I didn’t even know the FOLD existed and I have children who live in Mississauga so I thought that I could go see the kids, and make a weekend of the festival.

When they had the Writer’s Court, I introduced myself and some people from their marketing department were there, so I told them I sent a manuscript to put a face to it. Then when I got home a week later I sent another email saying that I met them there and thanked them for speaking with me. One week later they said they were very interested in the story and that editors were reading it. I continued to get rejections but I’ve never gone anything beyond requests for more of the book. Someone asked for the first five chapters and 5 or 6 people requested the full manuscript but other than that it was rejections and silence.

It was very exciting but once I saw them at the FOLD, they were sending emails every two weeks. Sometime in the middle of September of the same year as the FOLD, they said they needed two more weeks and they would reply in that time. The editor then said they like the story and gave me a page of what didn’t work, including what revisions they would need. They said with the revisions, the story would be better and they could look at it again. It felt like an acceptance because I thought- at least someone’s telling me what’s not working. I know how the story works and now I know what wasn’t working.

The editor sent that email on a Monday and on either Tuesday or Wednesday she sent a follow up email saying that if I was willing to revise it they would give me a contract. They sent me the contract two days later though and everything was signed by December 2016 and that they wanted to then publish in October 2017 so we only had about 10 months.

I remembered hearing about you last year, where you were mentioned and that the organizers were excited and proud that these connections were made through the festival. Stories like this really help bring to light, the way that events like this are crucial to people publishing diverse works in the industry. In light of this, what does the festival mean to you and for your work?

I think festival are above all things mean possibility because we’re noticing for the last few years and especially for the last round of Canada Reads, you see more books that wouldn’t have made it into Canada Reads for example. We have a long way to go but sometimes we think of ourselves as Canadians who just aren’t Americans or their problems, more than anything else.

The festival is an opportunity to see and showcase to the rest of Canada that there are diverse stories to be told and that you don’t have to view them as token stories. It shows that just because we have diverse stories, we’re not giving up on quality stories or that because you’re publishing them, that the quality suffers. It gives all Canadian stories a chance and shows that there’s another world of experiences to learn about.

Whether it’s from someone that’s Queer, genderfluid, Indigenous, of a different sexual orientation, from a different religion or cultural background, when you read about these experiences, you get the full picture of what it means to be Canadian. Festivals like the FOLD offer a glimpse of hope, showing that diverse stories are here, and that we don’t have to look far- we just need to give them the opportunity to shine.