Zoya Patel on moving from memoir to fiction
Zoya Patel is the author of No Country Woman, a memoir of race, religion and feminism, and Once A Stranger, her debut novel.
She is co-host of The Guardian's Book It In podcast, and the Margin Notes podcast alongside Yen Eriksen. Zoya is a columnist for the RiotACT, and regular books critic and writer for The Guardian, Canberra Times, SBS Voices, Refinery29 and more. Zoya has won numerous awards for her writing and editing, and she was a 2020 judge for the Stella Prize and Chair of the 2021 Stella Prize judging panel.
ASTRID: Introduce us to, Once A Stranger, which is your second long form work, but your first novel.
ZOYA: It sure is, and I've been so bad at explaining what this book is about so I've been practising. Once A Stranger is a novel about family and about culture and loss. So, it follows the story of two sisters, Ayat and Laila, who are first generation migrants to Australia and they have very different kind of experiences of cultural identity growing up. And the novel finds them after a period of about six years of estrangement because Ayat chose to marry outside of culture or form a relationship outside of her culture. And her mother hasn't spoken to her in all that time and then they find out that the mother, Khadija, is unwell and they're kind of forced to come back together.
ASTRID: Six years is such a long time for a family estrangement. Obviously it happens for longer periods, but I was mindful of that the whole time. I was reading Once A Stranger, when I got to the end of the work, I read your acknowledgements and you write there that this was a very difficult work to write and that you actually finished the first draught on New Year's Eve in 2016. That was ages ago. And you have published a memoir in the meantime. Can you talk to us about why it was difficult to write and how the structure changed over time?
ZOYA: Absolutely, and I love that you read the acknowledgements because that's my favourite part of books. I always read them.
ASTRID: Sometimes I read them first.
ZOYA: Yes, I love that. And I put so much effort into them, so I appreciate that. Yeah, so this was the hardest thing I've ever written and it's also the book that I felt like I had to write before I could write anything else. So, I kind of got to this point, back in 2016, I think I was like 27 years old and I wanted to write a book and I knew that that was what I needed to do to kind of push my career, but I could not bring myself to write anything else. And it's because the story does have close connections to my own experience and my experience wasn't as extreme as what happens to Ayat and Laila, the two sisters in the book. But I did go through a period of estrangement from my family because I chose to be with a white Australian man and I really needed to write the book.
But when it came to the point of I got an agent and she started kind of pitching the book around, I didn't feel ready to have it in the world and I think I had this resistance to it. So, when a publisher showed interest in publishing a memoir, I was like, ‘Oh, great. Cool, I can do that’. And the memoir doesn't touch on those experiences at all. It was something that they were interested in, but at the time I just didn't feel like I could talk about it, and I'd only just come to a point when my family was in a better place. So, I didn't want to mess with that.
And so, I wrote this memoir and then I tried so many other things. I was like, ‘Publish a different thing, how about this novel?’ And my publisher and my agent kept being like, ‘What is your resistance to this book?’ You wrote this novel. We love the novel and I think I needed that distance. So, during COVID I kind of sat down and did a big rewrite and of quite a few things changed about the book over this period of time. So, the original work had three main perspectives. So, the way the structure of the book is in the final version, it kind of has these flashback sequences. We move between the past and the presence so that we can really understand that migrant experience and get a little bit of that context for what leads someone to this point. Interspersed with that, I had the perspective of the man that I, is with Harry, this character that was the only male voice and was the only kind of white voice throughout the book and it just didn't work. And it's like, ‘I knew’, but I also was like, ‘I don't want to do with this’. So, I needed a few years, went back, stripped him out completely.
And then there were just these little niggly things in the first version of the book. Ayat and Harry both just pick up and move from Melbourne back to Canberra to be closer to her family. Even though at this stage her mother hasn't said whether or not she wants to reconcile. And my publisher was like, ‘Would people do that?" And I was like, ‘I don't know, I feel like I would’. But then I was like, ‘That does seem kind of extreme’. So, then we made it that just Ayat moved back and then that still felt weird because everything happened so quickly in this book. So, then it was like, ‘No, you know what? She'd stay. She'd stay back in Melbourne and maybe she'd fly’. All these logistical things that are really boring to try and think of as a writer, but once you get to the reader experience, you're like, ‘What does and doesn't work?’ So, yeah, it just took a long time to get it right.
ASTRID: There is a lot in that answer that I would like to unpick. Let's start with still kind of talking about the writing element. You have ended up after all of those changes with three points of view and two different timelines, six years ago and in the present. Sometimes when books do that, it requires a bit of work from the reader. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but sometimes it does require a bit of work. And I found you didn't make me kind of work for it once. It was kind of seamless and that is not common and I wanted to congratulate you, but I also wanted to ask how you did that. I mean, a lot of writers listened to this and I think it's quite a technical achievement.
ZOYA: Thank you so much. That's such a kind piece of feedback to receive. I actually, in the very first version of the book, I wrote about half book without any flashbacks and then I got to the point where I was like, this point of view that I'm trying to get across, and it was just as important to me that we understood the mother's motivations as we did the daughters because the daughters are sympathetic. They're other generations that have grown up in Australia. They came over here quite young. They're easy to relate to because they have a lot of the kind of common values that I think most progressive kind of Australians have. Whereas Khadija, as this figure who is quite unyielding with her daughters, I wanted to make her sympathetic. And I felt the only way that I could do that was to actually show the transition that she's gone through.
And it's worth noting, and this is not a spoiler, her husband dies very early in their time in Australia. So, there's a lot that's kind of there and I thought, well, I need to show the back. And so, I kind of stopped writing at about 40,000 words and went back and started putting scenes in. And I think the reason why it does work is because I'm not trying to tell a linear storyline in the past. You jump in and out of these kind of moments of time in each of the characters lives. So, you see these key pivotal scenes that frame who they are and why they are the way that they are without having to remember what happened in your last flashback scene or having to retain that thread the whole way through.
ASTRID: Also, in the long answer that you gave before, Zoya, you mentioned that this work, that the first work you wrote, and your first novel was the book you felt you had to write. Now, I've heard that phrase from quite a few writers and I have to confess. Normally, they're saying it about a memoir, but you apparently felt much, you felt different about the memoir and I'd really like to unpick that.
ZOYA: I think that is a interesting observation as well. And you're so right. Most people are like, ‘I had to tell my story before I could tell someone else's story’. I think because of the complexity of the way that my culture treats, telling our stories, writing it through fiction felt a lot more freeing than trying to write my own story. And that's because I feel that certainly the Fiji and Indian culture that I was raised with is very private and you don't share your family's secrets with the world. And I knew that I couldn't write my story as a memoir kind of in a one linear story, sharing all of the ups and downs of those emotions. So, the memoir that I did write was a collection of essays and really looking more at the universality of migrant experience using my family as a kind of touchpoint that felt very achievable.
But kind of opening up my own chest and excavating and pulling out all of the trauma of going through the kind of cultural clashes that you go through when you are dealing with that difference, not between you and the country that you're in, but between you and your family, the generations within, that was a lot harder. And I knew it had to be a novel. I knew I wasn't going to try and explore the motivations of my parents and me because our experience is actually very different from what's in the book, but I still wanted to tell that story. So, I just couldn't start anything else. And I'm the kind of person who I joke all the time. I'll write in every genre. I love fantasy. I've written a teenage horsey book that I want to get published, literally everything. So, my imagination is big, but I just could not get to the point where I could focus on anything else until this story kind of came out.
ASTRID: Okay. Firstly, selfishly, I would like you to write a fantasy book. I am on a mission to encourage all Australian writers to write fantasy. It is my genre of choice. Secondly, I know that your novel is not your story, and I am also aware as an interviewer that it is the world's worst question to ask you how much of yourself is in the novel? And you've made it clear that there are bits of your story, but also bits of fiction. What I would like you to ask, because you have also published memoir, is how do you protect yourself? And when you have a nosy interviewer like me, asking you things, how do you balance the personal and the professional?
ZOYA: I think part of having the book published at this point in my life has also really made that process a lot easier. And I think maybe that was part of my gut feeling of I'm not ready for this book to be out. There was an understanding that I would be asked questions and it was all a bit raw. And I've written about this now publicly as part of the promotion for the book because finally I'm at a point where I feel like I can share my story and have people read this book in the context of that without feeling like A, it's taking away from the characters and the narrative or B, that it's going to cause any kind of friction in my life. So, I came to it kind of very clear on my boundaries and I think working closely with your editor and your publicist to be clear about what is and isn't okay as part of it.
But I don't think I would've published the book if I didn't feel comfortable to talk about my story because part of what I found interesting in having the book out in the world is when other South Asian readers read it, they want me, they want to share that genuine closeness to the story with me. And I think that's important because when I was going through some of the stuff that I have to go through in this book, there was nothing. I was Googling, I was on Yahoo Answers being how to tell parents about white boyfriend. That's how desperate I was. And it meant something to me to be able to say, I've been through this, and it was okay, and here is what I can share about my experience. And the story that I want to tell though still had to be interesting to any reader, right?
So, I exaggerate everything. Everything is much more intense than anything. I went through my dad's alive, he brought it up in my book launch. He was like, 'I just want a note, you kill off the father very early in the piece'. I was like, ‘Dad, shut up’. So, a lot of it is just completely fictional, but a story still has to have haste and drama and I use a lot of devices in that. So, I think it's helpful for people to know my context and to understand that there's an authenticity behind it and I'm not just stereotyping cultural ideas about arrange marriage or interracial relationships and that kind of thing. But I do find it quite easy to be like, ‘Look, here are some very clear things that are different from my experience like my mom's alive. She doesn't have a terminal illness. I killed off my dad. I have multiple siblings’. I think that kind of helps to set that, the dynamic pretty clearly. But yeah, I do think that sharing some of my story is inevitable just by virtue of what I've written. I
ASTRID: Don't know how to phrase this, so let's see if I get it right. In the book, and this is very much not the experience of your family or your mother, you do give the mother figure, Khadija, MND, motor neuron disease. And I have a chronic degenerative neurological disease. I don't have MND, but I'm always interested in how those neurological illnesses are depicted in literature. And I wanted to ask how you approached it?
ZOYA: Yeah, and a few people have asked me why that disease? So, I have a lot of chronic degenerative conditions in my family, so I have an inflammatory condition. My mother has rheumatoid arthritis. My sisters both have different illnesses. And as a family you can be kind of predisposed to a certain type of hereditary illness, but MND isn't one that I have direct experience with. And ultimately, I chose that specific illness because people close to me have had, family members had MND and pass away from it. So, I understood the kind of pattern of the illness and as a device, it suited the plot that I wanted to shape around it the best. But I also think that I wanted to have the opportunity to give Khadija a reason to be more vulnerable because as a character, she's very strong and I think I used the word unyielding before and that's kind of how she is.
And I think illness felt like the only way that I would get her to soften. So, that and I needed something to push them to come back together. And yeah, motor neuron disease is a interesting one to me. I did a research project back when I was in university. I was studying sociology and there was this blogger who charted his entire experience with motor neuron disease from the beginning to the end. And it's an amazing blog. If you Google ‘Brain hell’, you'd probably find him. No one knows who he was. And this is back in the early 2000s that he was doing this. So, very much a different incident landscape.
And what I found interesting was he charted it from the beginning when he was completely, he still had all functionality in his fingers. He had dexterity, he had language, and then you watch his writing change and shift as it progresses more and more. I still think about that to this day. I will still go find that blog and read it because it moved me so much. So, I think I just had this kind of interest in it, but also it was convenient because it's one of those illnesses that shifts really quickly and everybody experiences it differently and it can rapidly escalate and then it can slow down. And all of those aspects really helped because I could chart the book around it.
ASTRID: That was such an excellent answer. Thank you. I'm going to share my disdain for writers who use multiple sclerosis, which is what I live with as a character-building device. As in if someone has this kind of disease, then that's a stand-in for actual character development. And so, I'm always on the lookout and I greatly appreciate that answer. Moving on to not illness, I wanted to ask how you feel about reviews?
ZOYA: Yeah. What a big one.
ASTRID: Your face has changed.
ZOYA: I was like, ‘Ugh’. I like them when they're good. I think reviews from critics are really interesting. And I say this as someone who does write literary criticism as well. I review for The Guardian occasionally, and for the Camera Times as well. And people have such varying attitudes in the Australian literary community that you feel a bit anxious. I barely do it anymore because I'm like, ‘You know what? I'll just keep my feelings to myself on this’. And honestly, if I read a book and I really don't like it, I won't review it because I just don't, I'm not sure how helpful it really is to people. But from a craft perspective, there is something genuinely very interesting. Having somebody else with literary credentials say technique like this is what worked and this could have been done differently. And I've been finding that fascinating. Reader reviews are terrifying and you don't want to get on Goodreads and start entering that space, but I think they're really important for readers.
As a reader, I love reviews, they really help me. But as a writer, I'm happy for people to do that and preferably not tell me about it because it's just the insecurity of having a book published and then going through the silence of the first few months while you're waiting for other indicators of it's success or not is just horrifying. And I don't think people realise how bad it is. And if I could give readers and listeners one piece of advice, it's don't go up to your recently published author friend and every week be like, ‘How's it going? How's the book going?’ Like, ‘I don't know how the book's going. Why would I know how the book's going?’ Yeah, so I would definitely say, ‘Just leave, people’.
ASTRID: Well said. Goodreads is not a good place for writers to go, but have you looked at StoryGraph?
ZOYA: I have not.
ASTRID: StoryGraph is a better version of Goodreads. This is just my own personal opinion. I have no association with them apart from the fact that I use StoryGraph and I switched from Goodreads. It lets users categorise your novel, fast paced, slow paced, uplifting, a downer, all sorts of emotional categorizations that you can't really get from a blurb. And then, when the reader tracks their reading, it kind of shows what type of books they're reading. So, as a writer, you could be able to see statistically how readers were classifying your book without having the danger of having to read a review.
ZOYA: Yeah, that sounds fascinating. I also think that would be interesting from the perspective of yeah, the way that people are feeling about a book is often different from what the author intends or what you think they're going to feel. And one piece of feedback that a few people in my life have given me is that they feel like the book ends suddenly. And it does. It totally does. But people have been like, ‘You know, I was getting closer to the end. I can see that the pages are running low’. And I'm like, ‘How is she going to resolve all this?’ And of course, I don't because it's literary fiction guys. You don't have to resolve anything. It's not plot driven.
So, for me, it felt like the characters came to a point where I was like, and this is a reasonable spot for them to fit in this. They've grown and there's still a lot ahead, but I don't want to give all the answers. So, it's been interesting to me to be, oh, from a reading perspective, if you have felt engaged by the plot of the book, which frankly I did not see as the focal point, then of course it feels a little bit like, ‘Oh, what happens next?’ So, it's always interesting to be like, ‘Oh no. None of us, my entire editorial team and myself, none of us felt like that was going to be an issue’.
ASTRID: I don't know if it's an issue. I mean I got to the end and I'm like, ‘Oh, I'm glad. I'm glad Zoya stopped it here because if we kept reading, some bad things would happen’. And I'm not sure if I necessarily need to read about them because I know they will happen.
ZOYA: Well, this is the other thing. It's I was like, so she's on the path to death. That's clear from the beginning. So, I don't feel like I need to dive into that. And the way that people resolve conflict of that kind as well in terms of the interpersonal relationship conclusion, I didn't want to labour that because it's so different depending on your circumstances. And I feel like a willingness to reach that point is more important than what you do once you are at that point.
ASTRID: Well said. So, you have now published a memoir, a collection of essays that are memoir and a novel. What draws you next, including the Horse YA book you briefly mentioned earlier?
ZOYA: I love that question because what has been really liberating about having my first two books done is that now I feel like I've been like, ‘Okay, I've dealt with the elephants in the room being cultural diversity, identity, feminism, all the things that I care about. Now, I can have fun’. So, I feel like I'm going to be a fiction writer long term. That's where my long form interest lies. And I write a lot of non-fiction in terms of articles and opinion pieces and things like that kind of generally. So, right now I don't feel like there's any future kind of memoir or non-fiction work that I'm interested in, but I can see that changing. So, I've really been enjoying kind of writing fiction and exploring characters and having diversity and cultural diversity be an element but not the focal point of my work. So, I've been working on another kind of contemporary literary fiction manuscript.
It's more of a coming of age, Bell Hood kind of novel. And yeah, the horsey-thing book is what got me through another lockdown that we had in Canberra toward the end of COVID. And I'm a big horsey person. Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows this. I have three, it's a very odd hobby to have for someone like me. People don't see that coming together with everything else that I'm into. But I loved those books, those types of books growing up. And I just really enjoy writing it. So yeah, I feel like I'm going to be one of those people who is going to be really frustrating for my publishers to put me into a box and I'll probably have to have three pseudonyms, so people don't get confused about what they're getting when they pick up a Zoya Patel book.
ASTRID: Please, please, publish this book. My niece has fall in love with horses. This obsession has been around for a while, it's not going anywhere. And I got her Black Beauty and she kindly informed me that I have terrible taste and need to do better.
ZOYA: That book is so depressing. All of my horsey friends were so traumatised by that book that we can't pick it up again. What's been interesting in writing YA, and especially in this horse world kind of perspective, which was kind of a toxic place for me growing up, is trying to just inherently do better in terms of the morals and the ethics and the values. So, everyone was like, ‘Oh, is there going to be one bad character because it's a boarding school and they go there?’ And I was like, ‘No, everyone's complex’. Everyone of these characters has a reason for why they are the way they are. There's all this horse welfare stuff that's like gently woven in. It's like the workers most millennial version of a Saddle Club that you could possibly get. So, if people could just start gently campaigning, hopefully I can get a publisher to take this on board.
ASTRID: Look, I am totally in and I will interview about this one and I will buy many copies. My final question for you, Zoya, and I have to admit this is a really self-interested question. We're recording this in 2023, the year you've published your first novel, and I happened to be a judge of the seller prize kind of for 2022. I know that you were a judge in 2020 and then you returned as chair of the judging panel in 2021. That was kind of two, three years ago now. I wanted your thoughts on how that process of reading so much contemporary Australian literature across fiction, non-fiction, and then oh, you weren't there when poultry was in, but across fiction and non-fiction, how that has changed you either as a reader or a writer or a person in the industry.
ZOYA: I see this as so, so interesting because I just also have finished judging the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards in the non-fiction category. Just being on two different judging panels is also fascinating. Three now in total. I find that having gone through the judging process as a writer, I would be stoked to be considered for a prize, but I also won't consider myself a failure if I never am because I now understand just how much goes into those decisions. And so, there are so many books that were so amazing. And this sounds really trite to say it, but there was so many books that we all loved that because you're comparing books to each other, we knew weren't going to make the short list or the long list, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't an incredible book. And that was hard. I went to the point of messaging writers to be like, ‘I just want you to know that I loved your book. Please know that it is incredible’.
And I know with the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, we sometimes write letters to people to be like, ‘Just so you know, you were this close to being on this short list, but we only get six books, but we want you to know that we loved it’. Because I think writers can take it really personally and it is really hard and you are literally being judged. So, yeah, I feel like I've come to a more pizzeria place as a writer about it. But in terms of how I read, having to read just because you kind of have to just read the seller prize books in the years that you're judging, you do not have capacity for anything else. Interestingly, consuming so much good fiction and good non-fiction has meant that I'm just reading straight trash at the moment. I've read heaps this year and it's just all been trashy.
I'm literally reading the Colleen Hoover books right now because I want a feminist to review them. But also, there's something so liberating about not having to think awfully hard about what I'm reading. And I'm reading a lot of international authors because I've been in this Australia zone. What does make me sad about that is I've become conscious of how small the Australian audience really is. And I wish that Australian books were picked up more for US and UK markets because some of the most incredible books that I've read will only ever reach the audience that we have here, which is quite small comparatively.
So, yeah, I want our industry to do better at campaigning for those international markets. Also, selfishly for myself, please someone pick up my book for overseas. But yeah, it's changed my reading habits because right now my brain is so fried still from many years ago of judging that I'm like, ‘Just hit me up with anything easy’. I would like to read easy reads.
ASTRID: Zoya, thank you so much for talking to me today.
ZOYA: Thank you so much for having me. I've been so looking forward to this conversation.