Category Archives: General
Introducing Omar Khan’s Sawdust Castles: A Memoir
Omar Khan was born in India and moved to the Gwalmandi area of Lahore in Pakistan with his family in 1947. His memoir begins, “When migration is forced upon people to escape the brutalities of political and social upheaval, it increases their pain that much more.” From there, we join the Khan family’s struggles, challenges, and celebrations as they build new lives in a place where they are made to feel like outsiders: “People in our area never reconciled to our way of life. The dress we wore was a source of ridicule …The unfamiliarity of Urdu was an additional source of amusement for the locals …”
Set against this political and social backdrop, this memoir is about a family and the heart of their experiences. What makes it such a compelling read is Khan’s brilliant way of building short narratives, each balanced with tension, humour, and raw emotion. His rich storytelling allows readers deep into his soul. Sometimes the pain is gut wrenching. As a teenager, Khan helplessly watched Yasoob, his cousin and best friend, descend into “the dark world of paranoid schizophrenia”. Khan does not hold back. Vivid images, rich in description with turns of phrases that are eloquent and evocative draw the reader into each scene.
Indeed, Khan does not shy away from the intricacies of relationships or the day-to-day struggles he and his family faced. His often challenging relationship with his mother, a woman who beat him regularly for the smallest infractions, is explored in depth. Khan’s own coming of age and the consequences of his choices and actions are relayed in an honest and often humorous manner that captures his vulnerability and resilience.
A powerful read, Sawdust Castles portrays the complexities of love, family, sacrifice, and growing up. It will not only resonate with readers because of the universality of the themes it explores, but engage and delight them with its candid and inspired storytelling.
Knowing an author colours your reflections on any book. Perhaps that’s why it’s best to keep a distance from writers you may have the opportunity of knowing: the separation between the writer as a personality and the writer as a creator becomes blurred, and your engagement with the text and the story becomes weighted with the baggage of familiarity.
That’s a principle I couldn’t abide by when my father, Omar Khan, wrote his memoir, Sawdust Castles. It was an inevitability that I would read it. I was part of the process, in a sense, giving him advice, acting as a sounding board for ideas as he navigated his own personal history for the vignettes that would form that arc of his story. I hadn’t read it in its entirety once it was completed, only snippets and anecdotes, parts that would make the whole as my father needed another eye during the writing and editing process. Once completed, I thought reading the memoir through from its beginning to the end would have been a mere recapitulation of the snippets of text I had read, or the conversations I had during this process.
This wasn’t the case when it came to diving into the story of my father’s early life. The immersion into the narrative all readers feel when absorbed in a book became a strange experience for me. I was pulled into seeing “Omar Khan” the character not as my father or even as an author so much as a boy in a hostile world, suffering from loneliness, witnessing and being the victim of considerable violence, but also finding joys in small pleasures: glimpses of young girls on parade, experiencing the camaraderie of school mates, feeling the ecstasy of religious fervour at Sufi shrines.
To say that I had learned something new about my father after finishing his memoir would only be partially true. Many episodes I read were certainly new. Some of those individual stories were harrowing explorations into parts of my father’s life that were understandably kept hidden (the incidents involving the policeman and my father’s schizophrenic cousin Yasub being particularly arresting). Other passages were familiar the way family legends become part of your own personal lore. More than anything, however, reading my father’s memoir was a fascinating experience in literary possession. “Omar Khan” the character became an avatar for my own childhood, my experience of childhood isolation, my longing for a better way of living, the particularities of those feelings that I had thought so specific to my childhood and early adulthood reflected in my father’s life.
“I am naive enough to read incessantly because I cannot, on my own, get to know enough people profoundly enough,” says Harold Bloom. Reading Sawdust Castles has left me with more than a profound understanding of my father. It has left me with the realization that our parent’s lives are more than artifacts of our familial history, that the variations of their lives echo in our own. Sawdust Castles, my father’s story, has, in a very personal and unique way, become my own.
Sawdust Castles is available on Amazon.ca.
For more reviews on Sawdust Castles, please see this review in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.
Canadian author Dennis Bock has penned many highly acclaimed books, including The Ash Gardens. His most recent work, Going Home Again, was short-listed for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. He also teaches creative writing.
As former or current students in the Creative Writing program at the University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies, many of us in the 11th Floor Writers writing circle have taken a course or two with Dennis, who teaches, among other courses, “Writing the Literary Novel: Master Class”.
When it comes to offering advice to his students, Dennis doesn’t pull punches. He’s honest and direct, and often says things that linger in our thoughts long after class has ended. As a token of our thanks to Dennis, we’ve compiled a list of our favourites to share.
“I’m a huge fan of something actually happening. Make your character do something.”
“Always create scenes.”
“Mention all the people in the room at the outset of a scene.”
“Don’t be obscure –mysterious or cagey is not attractive.”
“Never rely on abstractions.”
“Take the reader out of the story sometimes – don’t keep them stuck in the present.”
“Be wary of putting too many plot threads.” (e.g.,“I’m confused,” said a character in one of our stories.
“So am I,” replied Dennis.)
“Send your character up a tree and have him figure out how to get down. This makes your story much more interesting.”
“Don’t be afraid to take risks with your characters.”
On the narrator
“The narrator’s purpose is to give the reader a sense of what will happen, a sense there is a story, and a sense of urgency.”
“The narrator recounts something when time has passed and can comment and add wisdom on the subject.” (Similarly, when introducing a new character).
“The narrator knows the point of the book and should drop this in early on.”
“Find the narrator’s voice to keep the story focused.”
“Establish that the narrator is dead immediately.” (Only when your narrator is dead, of course!)
“Dialogue should be made up of only how the speaker thinks and talks. No information dumping and no stage direction. ” (i.e. “It’s 4:30,” he said.)
“Don’t use dialogue to advance the story.”
“Avoid non-words like ‘huh’ in dialogue.”
On the reader
“A reader will like a fighter, not a sufferer.”
“You have to earn the reader’s confidence.”
“Keep on writing.”
We’ve added the guidelines that we use to run our writing circle meetings. Click here to see them.
I used to write stories. Now I write jokes.
I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for almost a year and a half. When people ask if I enjoy it, I respond enthusiastically. I tell them that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been, though I wonder sometimes if that’s true.
There is an addictive vice like nature to this new path of mine. I am always looking forward to the feeling of being on stage. My nights are spent in bars. I drink too much and don’t sleep enough. There are days when my head hurts and I don’t want to get out of bed.
So maybe I’m not happier than ever.
But I do love it.
There is something wonderful about writing a new joke. Coming up with an idea, crafting it into a bit, and seeing how an audience reacts is thrilling. It’s never close to perfect on the first try, or even the second, and sometimes it takes well over a dozen attempts, with varying edits along the way, before it’s polished and ready.
Still, I miss writing stories.