In the fall of 1998, Anar Ali was walking in her Crescent Heights neighbourhood when she saw a pamphlet blowing in the wind. It was advertising a writer’s conference to be held that weekend in Banff.
On the cover was a photo of author Shyam Selvadurai, a Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist and author of books such as Funny Boy and Hungry Ghosts, who was one of the conference’s star attractions. Ali had a lucrative career at Proctor and Gamble at the time. The future writer had never heard of Selvadurai, but she was contemplating a major life change.
“To see a person of colour, as a writer, kind of shocked me,” says Ali, in an interview from her home in Toronto. “I actually went to the conference and I met him. He was so sweet to me and he’s still a really good friend of mine. I confessed that I think I might want to be a writer.”
When signing a copy of Funny Boy for her, he wrote: “Take the plunge, it’s worth it. Love Shyam.”
“That was a Saturday and I foolishly took that to heart,” says Ali, who will be appearing at the Wordfest Imaginairium on Oct. 17. “On Monday, I went to quit.”
With her debut novel, Night of Power, it’s likely that Ali will now join writers such as Selvadurai and David Chariandy as one of the country’s foremost chroniclers of the immigrant experience.
And, not unlike those two authors, there will likely be an assumption that her novel has at least a few autobiographical elements.
She was born in Kenya and moved to Red Deer in the mid-1970s at a young age, where her parents ran a hotel. Like one of her protagonists, Ashif, Ali entered the business world when young and did well but always felt it was an awkward fit and felt a pull towards something more artistic. Still, there are a number of differences. Ashif is the only son of a small-time, mostly failed businessman named Mansoor. Ali was the youngest of four daughters in a family that later prospered in Calgary with a wholesale sporting goods business.
“The writer Jeanette Winterson said: ‘As a fiction writer, everything is autobiography and nothing is autobiography,’” Ali says. “I love that because she’s right. It’s coming from you and in some ways passing through you, yet you make up so much. So, for me, I think in this book there is an emotional truth in it.”
Night of Power, however, does borrow from Ali’s memories. It takes place in a bustling Calgary circa 1998. Mansoor and his wife Layla are devoted to each other, but their son Ashif has become somewhat estranged in his new life as a rising star in the Toronto business world. The son of a severe self-made man who built an business empire in Uganda, Mansoor is forced to flee his home when Ashif is a baby after a crackdown on wealthy South Asians by the brutal regime of Idi Amin. He arrives in Calgary as a refugee, but his near-delusional faith in the free market and his own business savvy convinces him he can regain the stature he lost. While the novel shifts time periods, most of it takes place in the late 1990s, when Mansoor hopes to convince his son to get on board with an ambitious plan to start a dry-cleaning franchise.
Ali said she meant the book to be an immigrant version of Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman, exploring “what happens to us when we don’t get to be who we want to be.” The time and place was key to the theme, she says.
“It was this new frontier, this feeling of something that is changing,” she says. “But what happens if you’re on that edge and you want to be part of it and, with someone like Mansoor, you can’t be. That was really interesting to me because it harkened back to his own father who had come to East Africa and was able to harness that. It means the weight of history is going to weigh on him even more when he sees everybody else around him doing so well.”
But while Night of Power certainly has elements of tragedy, it’s not quite the downer that Miller’s depressing tale of the delusional Willie Loman is. Since she has turned to writing full time, Ali has published Baby Khaki’s Wings in 2009, a book of short stories centred on East African Ismailis, and most recently began work as one of the writers of an upcoming Canadian medical drama called Transplant, which focuses on the experiences of an immigrant doctor.
But while Ali may focus on telling the stories of immigrants of colour, she says her work is part of a wider trend of Canadian writers who reflect the experiences of their communities, from Mordecai Richler’s focus on Jews in Montreal to Miriam Toews writing about Canadian Mennonites.
“I think it’s always been part of us,” she says. “It just happens to be now more writers of colour because the next generation is coming of age (and) we have a greater sense of freedom and privilege to take up the arts.”
Anar Ali will participate in Wordfest Imaginairium events on Oct. 17 at 4 p.m. at the Memorial Park LIbrary and Oct. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the Patricia A. Whelan Performance Hall at the Central Library. Visit wordfest.com.