By Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi
“Life’s a jigsaw puzzle that comes with no instructions. It’s up to us to choose to sow seeds of peace or destruction.” Life in Toronto’s inner city community at Regent Park, isn’t one easily navigated by teens. Fawad is faced with the dichotomy of cultural expectations, and what drives his inner passions. However, he is continuously challenged by the circumstances with which he is faced in his neighbourhood, experience with violence, relationships, social status and simply being himself.
Humayun Khan’s upcoming book Wrong Side of the Court brings light to challenges youngsters face while growing up in inner city communities. He draws upon his personal experiences, which presents a raw, and unfettered account, which we as readers experience through the eyes of Fawad—whether it is the excitement of each basketball game, his battle with dodging a prospective marriage, to Fawad’s love for his mom’s potato and meat filled parathas.
Thank you so much for your time, Humayun, and congratulations on your upcoming book. As an educator who taught in Toronto’s inner city schools, your book really captured the realities kids and families face on a daily basis. What has been your journey towards writing this book?
I’ve wanted to be a writer for a very long time. It was actually in middle school that I was really into basketball, and I kept a notebook or journal of training regiments and exercises for me to do. That evolved into poetry, and I wrote a lot of poetry growing up. In Grade 12 I serendipitously ended up taking a writers’ craft course with this really incredible teacher. It really changed my life.
I wrote a few short stories after high school, but I didn’t really go past the first draft. What I didn’t really have, which I later learned, was grit—the ability to keep at something. I get bored pretty quickly, and I like to do new things all the time.
Fast forward 5 to 7 years, I was going through a really rocky period in a relationship and ended up separating and being divorced. There was a moment where I thought, “What is something I’ve always wanted to do?” and writing a book came to mind.
That was the genesis of this project, which was 4 to 5 years ago now. My boss at the startup I was working at the time suggested that I read a book called Grit, and it was talking about perseverance. One of the things my Grade 12 writing teacher once told me, bumping into him in the hallway was, “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”—very corny but it was an “aha” moment. The idea doesn’t really matter, but how much are you willing to stick with it?
I grew up with a lot of literary fiction, so I obviously wanted to write literary fiction. I’m a huge Jhumpa Lahiri fan. I would like to grow up and write like Jhumpa Lahiri. There was something very sweet and soothing in the way she wrote. We obviously have very different experiences, she was very academia, from the Boston community, and I grew up in a pretty rough neighbourhood.
Then I read the a book called, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and it was the first time I got this glimpse of this very raw, unfettered fiction that was very guttural and it just hit you—like whoa, what is this? I thought at the time that there was something interesting about the confusion and raw absurdity of being an immigrant and being exposed to all these different dimensions—culturally and societally.
So I wrote a draft, and I still had my Grade 12 writing teacher’s email and I reached out to him. I asked if he could give it a read and he did. We met up for coffee, and I asked, “What do you think?” and he was like, “I’m going to be honest, it’s shit. I’ve had students forward me stuff and I’m usually very forward with them, but you know what? There is something here. There is a story here that deserves to be told. You need a lot of work, but I think you can do it.” He suggested that I sign up for a correspondence program with Humber’s College of Writers, and I did.
I got paired up with an incredible gentleman named Tim Wynne-Jones, who had published a lot of books in the YA and children’s book space. I got to work with him on my manuscript. It was a tough experience because you really learn about the ins and outs of storytelling, and there was a big learning curve.
By the time we finished, I felt like I had something we both thought was worth querying and to see if there would be some interest. Luckily, I found an agent who was building her list as part of a bigger literary agency called The Rights Factory. She read it, was really interested, and then all of a sudden I had an agent.
That was a huge catalyst to “Oh wow, this could be something,” but obviously you think you’re done, but you are never done! There were several months back and forth with her, and she was very familiar with the YA space and knew a lot about it and all the books that were doing well. To be honest, I didn’t even know what young adult was before I started to write the book. I didn’t even know it was a whole category of books—I grew up reading books by Dostoevsky, Rushdie…because that was what my sister had lying around.
When my writing teacher read it, he said, “Oh yeah, this is a YA book.” I thought, “YA? I want to write literary fiction!” He said, “No no, this is YA.” Then my agent gave me a huge laundry list of YA books, and I read everything. I didn’t even read the Harry Potter books growing up. I read through all those, Hunger Games, you name it—one by one.
We got the manuscript to the point we were happy with it, she pitched it, and then she came back a few weeks later and said, “I think I got somebody who is interested.” I said, “Really, who?” “Penguin Teen.” I was like, “What? Ok.” They bought the rights to the book and fast forward several months later, it’s going to be out soon. It still feels surreal.
Reflecting on the experience, working in tech startups we’re so used to speed and being able to publish with a click of a button. Then there is the publishing industry. It’s been a good teacher of patience. It’s all been worth it. I cannot believe where the manuscript ended up from where it had started—12 to 15 drafts later. It’s like watching a child grow.
That’s where the grit comes in. Learning in itself is a process. Life is really a process. You learn from your experiences. You go back, fix things and come back and experiment again with what you learned from. It’s a cycle of what life is really like. It’s the whole concept that needs to be realised. Some may see it as “failure” in quotations, but it isn’t failure but the process of learning and making those realisations.
It’s inspiring to hear the process you went through. You hear many people out there who say, “I want to be a published author.” From what I am hearing it is not a black and white process. It’s work. What you start with is not what you end up with.
Anna Lamott’s book Bird by Bird has a lot of little snip-its from when she’s teaching writing at a college. She says everyone in her class wants to be a published author, but then asks them how many of them actually want to write? And realising that there is a big difference. There are all these corny quotes like, “The journey is the reward” but when you really get into it, that is really what writing is really about. It’s the rewriting, the back and forth. I’ve really developed a great appreciation for the process.
What compelled you to write Wrong Side of the Court? What was it about this story that you wanted to share with YA readers?
Honestly, growing up in a housing project there were a lot of experiences and a lot of people I encountered. I felt compelled to show this side of reality. I grew up very confused. I grew up polarised between my life at home and this life outside my home. My love for basketball, but then needing to be a good student, [along with] religion, culture, hormones, technology, and I wanted to encapsulate that confusion because I felt like…for so much of my life I felt invisible. Now things have changed quite a bit. I think if you’re not diverse it’s the opposite problem. Growing up not seeing billboards with people of colour or seeing TV shows or movies with no one who reflects your experiences or that looks like you—it is very alienating.
As I reflect on the “why” behind the book, what I came up with is that the opposite of feeling alienated is belonging. And the only way we can feel that we belong is if we can see ourselves mirrored in some way or represented. That is where my drive to tell stories comes from.
This book in particular, I came across a lot of peers and a lot of friends of friends, my younger brother and his group of friends, who went through a lot of harsh realities. Whether it was with crime, gang violence, guns, and there was a need to capture that side as well and show different ways of coping with that reality, which was important for me.
I think reading in general is on the decline among that age group. I’m 33 now, and I think being a teenager today is vastly different from when I was growing up, but I think there is a little bit of rawness to it that I hope resonates with that audience and people who are growing up in adverse circumstances.
I think that it was very interesting how you said you wanted to capture the reality of what individuals in that environment go through, how they feel and don’t have that sense of belonging. What does it feel like to have a book written that has that same perspective? I feel the same problems are present in different communities.
I am a bit older than you, with the same cultural background, and I didn’t grow up in an inner city community. It was the opposite and privileged. However, the themes you cover were similar. They look different, but the issues are the same. If I was to read your book as a teenager I would have agreed with you. Such as the identity crisis, the polarisation, not being able to see yourself represented in the media, or being preconceived as being a part of a particular group, or whether it is from a neighbourhood. The attitudes are similar.
When I was going through my teacher training I learned about gang violence, inner city culture and social justice issues. Many of the dimensions of your book covered it very realistically.
While reading I have to admit there were moments where I laughed out loud, got the sense of excitement particularly during the basketball games, annoyed, and I even got teary eyed. Particularly when Fawad was talking about his father and his absence after his death, his mom and family situation. I felt that you successfully portrayed your characters fully, because walking away I feel like I know them.
How did you achieve this? Were the characters individuals or personalities you personally knew as an author? Are you drawing from experience?
Yeah, definitely a lot of personal experience. Experiences that my siblings had. I come from a family of seven, so I get to see what all of these individuals went through and their experiences. Jamila, Arif, Omar, Yousef—all these characters are kind of amalgamations of different people from my own journey.
It was interesting how even the mispronunciation of names was captured in your novel. You would think certain names would be easy to say, but no.
It’s funny how one can spend one’s entire life being mispronounced. There is something invalidating about it in a way, because there is a sense of feeling that something is wrong. Even after you correct someone, and of course names vary and you can’t expect everyone to know how to say your name.
Fawad was an interesting name because there was Fuckwad and so many other ways to distort the name. Kids would use different slurs, and you would come to school and that was what you were called. Then you just hope that in the next grade these kids would go to different schools, and you don’t have to deal with that. It’s definitely very trying. Sometimes I think that it’s incredible that we survive those years because they are so brutal.
It’s very important to convey that message as well—yes, it is so invalidating. I think that is such a powerful word, “invalidating,” when someone doesn’t say your name properly. As I was reading your book, every time the mispronunciations came up, I would just think, “Not again!”
There were many themes that ran throughout the novel, such as cultural expectations, friendships, bullying/violence, inner city life vs. family and school life, and the role of identity.
What do you hope to achieve by sharing these themes with your readers?
Empathy would be fantastic. I think the human brain being what it is, and how we absorb what we see in the media or the news, we’re really prone to characterising entire groups of people into stereotypes, and I think that we forget that [their experiences] are not that dissimilar from what we experience. Whether it’s family or just their wants and needs and other challenges they encounter.
The situation with Yousef, and trying to navigate his experience with losing an older brother to gang violence and showing this fork in the road. Do you choose to seek revenge, and get further enmeshed into that, or are there other ways to deal with that grief? Like art or talking therapy?
Culturally speaking, there is a lot of tension at home because there are so many different sets of expectations and ideologies that exist and are at odds with one another. I think it is very confusing as an individual navigating that but even more confusing when our parents are so ingrained in a certain kind of mindset, and then trying to impose that on us.
Boundaries are already very challenging, culturally speaking. Fawad struggling with the cousin marriage narrative was something I dealt with as a teenager. From a very young age, it was a given that my dad’s brother’s youngest daughter and I were going to get married. So I grew up with that. Similarly, at 13 to 14 years old, I was like, “Mom, this is not going to happen.” She would be like, “What do you mean, it’s not going to happen?” So we got into a lot of fights over that.
My family doesn’t come from means, even in Pakistan. We’re farmers. We come from a rural village. I visited recently and it’s like my family won the lottery. My dad somehow randomly MacGyvered his way into bringing his family into Canada! It’s incredible to see the stark differences. Culturally speaking, there is such an emphasis on controlling and owning and making kids submissive to a specific ideology or thought process. I wanted to express whether it could be a conversation. Could it be something that’s negotiated? Or something that is more of a dialogue, rather than a one way conversation that so many of us experience.
Thinking about the title Wrong Side of the Court, is the title inspired from Fawad’s perspective of being on the wrong side or is it related to those who interact with him in the novel?
It’s a mix. It’s a bit of both. For me, I grew up on the other side of the street and looked out at a whole other reality. It was hard not to fantasize about not having to share a washroom with eight other people. Having to coordinate schedules, and what would it feel like to have a backyard. Growing up, there is this sense of, how do I get to the other side? What does that look like? A street away, it’s so close but so far. There is a drive to prosper and do well for oneself.
There is the other side of it where you’re branded for being a part of a certain neighbourhood, without getting to know a person, and then judging them for it. This plays up with Ashley and Fawad and her family. That is just relationally. Then there are teachers.
The interesting thing about Regent Park is that there is no high school inside the community. So if you want to go to high school, you have to commute. I was in the second cohort of this organisation called Pathways to Education, which transformed the community. Before that organisation started in Regent Park, the high school dropout rate in the community was 52 to 54%. So literally one in every two teenagers was dropping out of high school. It wasn’t until the organization intervened and created this groundbreaking program, that within 10 years they were able to turn it around to 9 out of 10 kids graduating from high school.
I would hear from my peers that I would go into a classroom, and as soon as a teacher found out they were from Regent Park…they would just write you off. If you’re struggling with something or being a bit of a challenge…they would just write you off. Teachers wouldn’t want to invest their time and energy. Not all teachers, but there would be incidences where they felt othered in the classroom setting.
Then the child starts to think, well if no one is going to believe in me then what’s the point? Having seen that growing up, I feel very fortunate and blessed to be where I am at right now. I’ve had a glimpse of life on both sides of the spectrum. There was a sense of community and all these families who moved there from very difficult situations could be refugees, immigrating with very little money, and somehow everyone was making it work.
I’m 33. If I were to pick up everything, move to a foreign country, and adapt…would I be able to do it? It feels like they are like superheroes. It’s hard.
What are three words that would describe your novel Wrong Side of the Court?
Inspirational, hopeful and rebellious.
Will there be a sequel? I felt there could be.
I kind of want to turn Fawad into a superhero. I love the new Spider-man movie, the animated one where he’s in the multiverse. It would be cool if Fawad could turn into a Spider-man in the multiverse, but…no sequel as of yet. I do have a romcom that my agent is going to start pitching soon, which is quite different. A sequel would be kind of interesting now that you mention it.
What were some of your favourite novels growing up?
Kite Runner, a classic. I loved reading Crime and Punishment. Anna Karenina, was like another one that as a teenager I didn’t really understand the complexities of but want to revisit it. Rohin Mistry’s A Fine Balance, that was a very very tough book to go through and left a mark. Shalimar the Clown, by Rushdie, was also really cool. And obviously anything by Jhumpa Lahiri, she wrote mostly short stories like “Unaccustomed Earth,” “The Interpreter of Melodies”—I could probably reread them multiple times.
What else would you like to share with the readers of We Need Diverse Books?
I’m very grateful that the platform exists, and there is that concerted effort to highlight and champion the cause. In today’s day and age, it feels like it is kind of obvious. Not so long ago diversity in the media wasn’t on the top of the mind for a lot of people. Recently I just read that the Golden Globes got cancelled because of a lack of diversity. It’s insane to kind of see how top of mind it has become.
I hope my book helps inculcate kids with a love of reading. We live in a world where everyone is bidding for attention. Honestly, if I were a teenager today…I don’t know how I would have the attention to get anything done. I work in tech. I know how addictive technology is. Even myself, when I find myself on YouTube, you just get stuck in a vacuum. That is possible with a book too! By exercising imagination, it’s amazing how just by reading these letters on a page, we form this picture in our mind that somehow is a sequential narrative. I also hope it helps someone develop a love for storytelling and for sharing their stories, and hopefully for others to realise that there’s no archetypical writer’s journey. If you have a story that is inside of you, with the right ingredients like grit, tutelage, mentorship, and just patience, you too can get your work out there. The actual writing is what is fulfilling more than anything.
Thank you so much, Humayun, for your time. Congratulations again on the publishing of your first book, and I wish you all the best in your writing journey.
H.N. Khan is a first-time author. Born in Pakistan, he immigrated to Canada at age seven and grew up in Regent Park, a low-income community housing project. After graduating with a business degree he decided to drop out of law school to pursue a career in Toronto’s start-up scene. Since then, he’s helped build and market software that’s used by millions around the world. He is a recent graduate from Humber’s School of Writers correspondence program.
Yasmine Aslam-Hashmi is an international educator who is passionate about inclusive education. She has taught various age groups from primary all the way up to Grade 12. She is a trained teacher in Special Education, English as an Additional Language, Geography, Science, and an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge Teacher. Yasmine strives to advocate for inclusive practices, promotes and supports diversity, and speaks up for injustices no matter how small they may be. She’s a Canadian at heart, born in London, England, but a global traveler who has lived in the Middle East and the US. She currently resides in Switzerland.