The book club had the pleasure of sharing a delicious dinner with Kitchener author Tasneem Jamal, author of Where the Air is Sweet. The story is a brilliant blend of Tasneem’s family history, incorporating events that the author remembered, anecdotes told by family members along with fictional characters and a storyline with artistic license. Many characters were reflective of family members yet they were part of the fiction that Tasneem weaved to tell the story of Asians in Uganda.
Tasneem generously shared her experiences while writing the novel. She and her husband bravely quit their jobs and left their comfortable home in Kitchener to fulfill their dreams – she to write and he to gain more hours as a pilot. The moved to Tanzania and visited many of the locations described in the novel including Kampala with their young daughters. Tasneem followed the footsteps of her grandfather who had bravely moved from India to Uganda in the 1920s.
We started out talking about the first scene in the book when Shama was swimming as Idi Amin arrived at the hotel pool. This description left our group with a feeling of unease and for me, I felt like it cast a shadow of impending doom over the entire story. Tasneem had lived this event and shared how uncomfortable she had felt, as a child, being in Amin’s presence and that of his young son in the military uniform. With childlike memories, she shared that Amin seemed friendly yet there was a feeling of unease and she knew that he was ‘bad’. Tasneem stated that she had always thought that this scene was a dream and discovered it was a memory when researching the book.
The author was inspired to tell the story of Asians in Uganda. There are limited historical details available – “just a paragraph in the history books” which steeled her vision of sharing the story which was one of the “few stories that have not been told”. She reflected on the many Asians who had been born, lived and died in Africa and how she, herself, would skip telling the part about her time spent in Uganda when talking about her own family history. Leaving this experience out was a way of making the complex story easier to tell. For these reasons, Tasneem felt a “sense of responsibility” to write and share this story.
It was very interesting to learn about the writing process – how Tasneem would write while her daughter was at school and her need to shut things out and write in solitude. The process took about 5 years from the beginning stages of writing to seeing the book in bookstores. It was very interesting to learn about the detail checking of the copy editor and that her lesson learned was that when her back would go up about changes, was when she really needed to listen to the advice.
The book club had a fantastic evening of conversation and is looking forward to Tasneem’s next book which is in the works. We are also looking to read her article in the next Chatelaine magazine describing her experience of moving to Tanzania with her young family. Where the Air is Sweet is a story that needed to be told and NEEDS to be read. It reinforces that you never know the experiences that individuals and their families have lived through and that in getting to know people, they may have a rich story to share. Thank you again to Tasneem Jamal – we will continue to recommend Where the Air is Sweet!
One final plug – we dined at Borealis Grille, in Kitchener and had a fabulous meal of sustainable, local food. The chef took the time to talk to us about our food and where it came from. The restaurant is in an old school house and we enjoyed eating in the wine cellar which was a cozy, private space.