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!