Home of the Floating Lily, June 22, 20201
It’s my pleasure to share this conversation with author, Silmy Abdullah. She’s just published her debut story collection, HOME OF THE FLOATING LILY. I’ve known Silmy now for a number of years and had the pleasure of reading some of the stories in earlier drafts. Silmy’s ability to juggle the demands of her law career and family life, all the while continuing to write, is an inspiration. More than anyone I know, Silmy has understood the demand of the sandwich generation life.
I love this story collection. Home of the Floating Lily is an intimate examination of love and loss, duty and freedom, of family and friendship. Follow the silken thread running through Silmy Abdullah’s illuminating stories. She will remind you of what it truly means to be a daughter, a sister, a son, a brother, a parent, or a friend. Her characters will speak to you of what it is to be young and to be old, of endings and beginnings. Each story is an exploration of our universal longing to be at home in this world and at home in our hearts. I am a better person for having read this wonderful book.
About the book
Set in both Canada and Bangladesh, the eight stories in Home of the Floating Lily follow the lives of everyday people as they navigate the complexities of migration, displacement, love, friendship, and familial conflict. A young woman moves to Toronto after getting married but soon discovers her husband is not who she believes him to be. A mother reconciles her heartbreak when her sons defy her expectations and choose their own paths in life. A lonely international student returns to Bangladesh and forms an unexpected bond with her domestic helper. A working-class woman, caught between her love for Bangladesh and her determination to raise her daughter in Canada, makes a life-altering decision after a dark secret from the past is revealed. In each of the stories, characters embark on difficult journeys in search of love, dignity, and a sense of belonging.
About Silmy Abdullah
Silmy Abdullah is a Bangladeshi-Canadian author, lawyer and social justice advocate. She was born in Bangladesh and lived in Saudi Arabia for twelve years before moving to Canada. Her debut collection of short stories, Home of the Floating Lily, explores the Bangladeshi immigrant experience in Toronto. Set primarily in a Bengali neighbourhood in the Scarborough/East York Area, close to the Danforth and Victoria Park intersection, the stories are inspired by her own lived experience as an immigrant, as well as the work she does in her community as a lawyer.
Silmy provides legal services to low-income South Asian clients in the Ontario, many of whom are newcomers. Her practice focuses on the intersection of immigration, poverty and gender-based violence. Working on the ground with marginalized communities helps her to find the seeds for incredible stories of love, courage and resilience, and intensify the compassion and empathy with which she writes them. She is a passionate advocate who has spoken on important human rights issues on numerous platforms, including community workshops, mainstream media, the Parliament of Canada and conferences in Canada and overseas.
Silmy holds a bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry and South Asian Studies and a master’s degree in Sociology and Equity Studies from the University of Toronto. She completed her Juris Doctorate at the University of Ottawa. In 2016, Silmy was selected as one of the most promising emerging writers by Toronto’s Diaspora Dialogues program. Through this program, she completed a mentorship with author, Lawrence Hill. In 2019, Silmy completed a writer’s retreat at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, where she worked with celebrated authors, including Cherie Dimaline and Liz Howard. She is represented by Stephanie Sinclair at the Cooke McDermid agency.
In Conversation with Silmy Abdullah
When did you start writing fiction? Do you have a story of how you knew you wanted to be a writer, a specific moment?
I have wanted to be a writer since I was a child. Growing up, I was very close to my grandfather, who was also a writer, so I have always been surrounded by books. I remember visiting Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia during winter holidays, and hanging out by my grandfather’s desk while he wrote. I was fascinated by his writing space – He had a verandah attached to his bedroom, which had a glass wall that offered a view of the large coconut tree towering over the house. He had placed a bookshelf on one side and a very simple, wooden desk on the other.
I guess that is how the seed of writing was sown in me. One day, in Saudi Arabia, my father brought home a children’s newspaper on his way back from Friday prayer at the mosque. I opened it up and saw poems and stories written by children my age and older. I was seven at the time. I remember that specific moment when I told myself that I was going to write a poem. When that cheesy poem was published, I remember my parents calling my grandparents in Bangladesh and proudly telling them about what I had created. That is how my writing journey started, and my love for it grew stronger as I got older. I was lucky to be born in a family where writing and literature was celebrated, so I had no shortage of support and encouragement from my family.
How did you become involved with Diaspora Dialogues? Would you recommend this experience to other emerging writers?
Honestly, it’s serendipity. I believe it was in 2014, when a friend of mine spotted a poster for Diaspora Dialogue’s mentorship program on her University campus. She took a photo and sent it to me, saying, “you should apply.” I didn’t get selected the first year that I applied. I polished my cover letter a bit more the next year and was selected.
It is through Diaspora Dialogues that I got to work with Lawrence Hill. They were the ones who found me an editor, who then connected me to my agent. My involvement with Diaspora Dialogues led to a chain of events that changed the course of my writing journey.
Does your training and work as a lawyer impact your work as a fiction writer or vice versa?
Definitely. As human beings, we all carry stories within us. Every day in my practice, I meet people from different walks of life. Many of my clients are newcomers to Canada. Beyond their legal issues, I have the opportunity to hear the very human stories of their day to day lives, their joys and sorrows, their triumphs and tribulations as they try to make a home in Canada, which in many instances, has fueled and inspired my fiction writing. In a way, I am using the same kind of muscle in both lawyering and writing – it’s is a consistent effort to sharpen my observation and understanding of human emotions. In that sense, I guess my love for writing has also helped me to succeed as a lawyer, by bringing that humanity into the work.
Do you research for your fiction? I am asked this frequently, and I realize because I don’t write historical fiction, it’s surprising to people. I’m curious about your process. My research is mostly my lived experience, and what I have observed around me. I tend to write about what is most familiar to me, so I can’t say I researched extensively for this book in the academic sense of the term. But I did run some google searches and speak to family members and professionals to make sure certain descriptions about places and people, and the timeline for certain events in the stories were accurate and made logical sense.
Where you still working on this book when the pandemic hit? Did it affect the writing, your writing process, or your final book, creatively? I was at the tail end of writing this book when the pandemic hit. I can’t say it affected the writing process significantly. If anything, it gave me more time to work on it since I had transitioned to working remotely for my day job. Saving three hours of commute time every day makes a huge difference! The pandemic did slightly delay the publishing process, but that’s about it.
Who are you favourite writers (dead and alive)?
In terms of contemporary authors, I love Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Adichie, Elif Shafak, Lawrence Hill and Khaled Hosseini. Among authors who are no longer alive, my favourites are Anton Chekhov and Rabindranath Tagore.
How do you balance work, family and writing? I know some writers have a set routine, and other writers, like me ha ha, take it week by week, often day by day. Your life is so full that I am in awe of how you manage to tend to so many demands on your time with such grace and conviction and determination. Thank you so much for your kind words. My routine changes all the time. At one point during the course of writing this collection, I did have a lot of time to dedicate solely to this work. It wasn’t by choice, as I was fresh out of law school and was unemployed. (I was doing some contract work here and there) It was a blessing in disguise as I wrote my earliest draft during that time. I used to wake up around 6 am every morning and write at a stretch with my favourite cup of tea until 4 pm. What a luxury that was!
Sometimes I wrote early in the morning on the weekends or before starting work, sometimes I took vacation days just to be able to forget my work-related responsibilities, and near the end, closer to the publication date, I worked part time for several months just so that I could dedicate a couple of days a week to finishing the book. I find it very challenging to be in the creative headspace while I am going through the day-to-day rigour of practicing law, so I need to take short breaks from it (even it it’s for a short period of time) to be able to write. It is a constant juggling act, driven by the single most important question: how badly do I want to do this? The answer to this dictates what I am willing to sacrifice in order to be able to find the time to get the writing done.
Tell us about your writing space.
For a very long time, my writing space has been a small, minimalistic desk (my husband calls it a kiddie desk, haha!) with nothing on it but a painting with a quote by the poet Rumi (see photo), a lamp and my laptop. I have positioned by desk by the window in my bedroom which looks out to the quiet street in my neighbourhood. My desk is flanked by my bookshelf. This is the space that inspires me the most. By the grace of God, since my marriage, I have acquired an additional writing space, in my new home where I live with my husband. My dear husband has set it up with a bookshelf and a desk, also by the window. (But this desk is much larger ).
I was struck when reading your collection by the power presence of food in your book, from the act of preparing it, to your incredible sensory descriptions. Tell us about the role of food and cooking in your stories. Do you see this as a feminist act? We Bengalis love to eat! Food, cooking and sharing meals with others (whether through casual informal dinners with friends and family or through hosting elaborate parties) is such a huge part of Bangladeshi culture, that I couldn’t imagine writing about my community without writing about food.
I mainly used it as a symbol of tradition, and the vehicle through which the characters remember the country they have left behind and try to build that sense of home in Canada. By using traditional foods in my stories, such as when Shumi (in A Good Family) learns to make biryani or smells the kichuri and fried chickpeas as she is walking down her neighbourhood street, I try to symbolize that sense of loss and longing for the familiar, that desire to find and hold on to tradition in a new, unknown place.
Shumi was never expected to cook when she was in Bangladesh, and Asif is not a chauvinist husband who demands that she cook. But she learns to do it anyway as a way of staying close to her roots and building a bond with him. Rubina is a single woman, and she turns her love for cooking into an entrepreneurial venture, which is also a way for her to serve her community by giving them the comfort of traditional food. Shaila is a well-educated woman with a well-educated husband, who is fully supportive of her. Yet, she gives up her career out of her own volition to focus on raising her sons, cooking for them and imparting traditional values partly through cooking. I tried to portray this strength and resilience of women, who despite all the struggles and against all odds, seamlessly build a community in a new land through the act of cooking and sharing food.
Food is also used to signal some of the points of disruption or rupture in the stories. You see Shumi learning to cook for her husband, but eventually she stops doing it when something in their relationship goes terribly wrong. In all the adjustments, the two sisters-in-law, Ayesha and Rachel, bond over making tea, but later on, Rachel stops helping Ayesha in the kitchen and joining her and her in-laws for dinner.
You feel a distance between the characters, and at the same time, you as a reader, feel slightly distant. I used food as a tool to create intimacy, both among the characters and between the reader and the stories and the characters, so I tried my best to create the sensory experience as vivid as possible, by showing the act of preparing the food, by describing the tastes and texture and smells.
If one of your stories could be a film or television series, which one would it be?
Wow, it would be amazing if that happened! I think I would choose Reflection for a film, and Home of the Floating Lily as a TV series.
Tell us about any events you are doing, or a virtual launch.
I am having a virtual launch hosted by Diaspora Dialogues and Dundurn Press on June 29. I am also participating in a panel discussion on October 14 at Richmond Hill Public library, and a reading at Western University on November 24. I will be doing a reading at the Word Vancouver Festival on September 23, and Eden Mills Writers’ Festival on September 16.
Silmy on the Web
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