x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Author realises dream four years in the making with self-published debut

Having turned her back on the advertising world to follow her dream of writing her novel, Deeba Salim Irfan has self-published her debut, Urma.

Urma is the first of four books planned by Deeba Salim Irfan. Jeff Topping / The National
Urma is the first of four books planned by Deeba Salim Irfan. Jeff Topping / The National

Having turned her back on the advertising world four years ago, Deeba Salim Irfan has realised her dream by self-publishing her debut novel Urma.

What are the central themes of Urma?

Taking the name of its protagonist, the story follows Urma Behdad - a best-selling author - transplanted to Europe by the Iranian revolution of 1979. Finding her way back to the Iran of her youth, she walks through adult life feeling incomplete, and chooses Greece to isolate herself from the memories of her homeland and the life she knew.

The book explores how the Iranian Revolution turns the life of an unsuspecting girl upside down and imparts an entirely new dimension to her life. The story straddles love, loss, hope and triumph, reiterating that materialism and worldly success are poor comforts to an aching heart.

How much of the book is based on real-life events or is autobiographical?

A resemblance does exist in a way, though it is not autobiographical. My dad, an ENT surgeon, worked in Iran and I was living a happy childhood with my parents in that beautiful country until the advent of the Iranian Revolution when my parents decided that I should pursue my education back in India. In a moment, my world had turned upside down.

So, yes, I have experienced a bad separation from my loved ones. Also, I have let my view of Iran creep in a bit. I want readers to see the Iran I knew, the Iran that existed decades back. But Urma is a fictional character and I do not identify with her.

How long had you been wanting to write this book and what was the process like?

I think the seeds of the story were sowed in my being the moment I left Iran. In my mind, I continued to revisit the country, speak its language, recapture its breathtaking beauty and the happy moments spent with my parents. During my stay in Iran, I had the opportunity of having a close look at its society - a very modern society by every measure.

I actually started writing the first few chapters in college in 1989, but didn't feel fully inspired to see it through. Life went on, my career in advertising bloomed. With marriage and three kids, there was hardly a minute to spare, yet I was increasingly driven by a need to write. In 2007, I revisited my old diaries, researched and wrote periodically, drawing a mind map and building characters. My mind was racing all the time. Despite my best efforts to resist, I was totally consumed by my characters, who by now had acquired a life of their own. I walked, ate and dreamt them. In March 2008, I left my job and got into writing full time. I had to get it out of my system to enable me to concentrate on anything else. So, yes, it's taken a long time to write my first novel, almost four to five years of concentrated work from the time I seriously began work on it.

As a first-time writer, what was it like getting your work published in the UAE? How easy was the process and how did you go about it?

It was a wonderful journey. It was rough at times, though, and I stumbled upon road blocks, such as rejection after rejection - but I didn't give up - I just slogged. I love Norman Vincent Peale's quote: "Throw back the shoulders, let the heart sing, let the eyes flash, let the mind be lifted up, look upwards and say to yourself ... nothing is impossible!"

The UAE's publishing scene for English-language fiction is still in a nascent stage; it's not very easy for debutante writers to get published. Though, honestly, I started my search from the UK and US and discovered through one or two authors that in today's dynamic publishing scenario, it is acceptable to 'self-publish' and take the 'traditional route' simultaneously.

In spite of my editor telling me that there is an audience in the US for the kind of novel I have written, I failed to find an agent or a publisher. The ones who were interested wanted me to change the backdrop, which I resisted. Also, being a control freak, the US seemed too far for me to have any control in the absence of an agent, so I decided to self-publish on Amazon, with the rights remaining with me.

Sometime down the line, a publisher from India showed interest in my work, and now Arshia Publications holds the rights for the Indian subcontinent. I also have a distributor for the UAE to ensure Urma's availability in bookstores here.

You are a strong advocate of the liberation of women and the theme is prevalent in the book. Why so?

I believe strength is inherent to women. I always celebrate being a woman myself. I fervently believe that every woman is born with the inner strength to pursue her dreams and rise above her circumstances. Being a nurturer, it is she who has the magnanimity of spirit to share and the willingness to sacrifice for her loved ones. Having said that, I have also met women who are really unfortunate and totally broken, and do not have freedom of thought or expression, or are illiterate. I have chosen to write about strong women and will continue to do so because I believe all women, no matter how oppressed, always look for inspiration.

What topics did you address that some in contemporary Muslim society may deem taboo?

I have not written anything that, in my view, might come across as shocking to contemporary Muslim society or women who are well versed with English-language fiction. However, if debated in the moralistic context of a Muslim woman and society at large, well, there might be a few eyebrows raised for sure. I would only like to say here that I have not written a code of conduct for a Muslim woman. I am not trying to advocate or subscribe to the actions portrayed in the novel - Urma is pure fiction.

Were there some chapters, passages you edited heavily or omitted altogether in the final submission because of their 'sensitive nature'?

Not too much. I have made a few character tweaks to conform to social norms and acceptability. In spite of this, I have been told that the novel is quite bold.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

Have you ever loved and lost? Most people experience it, and most people overcome it and love again. But imagine loving someone so much that you think your world would stop if something happens to him or her, and imagine something does happen. For my protagonist, Urma, the emotional clock froze with the revolution in Iran, when she had to leave her country without her love. At the level of the protagonist, there is this message of love, loss and hope. On a broader level, the book laments the futility of war, the pain it causes and the waste of life and resources.

What's next for you?

I actually see the scope of developing a series, and have started work on my next novel, which I hope to complete by next summer. It's about Ladan, one of Urma's four friends. I am planning four novels about the four who went in different directions after the revolution in Iran.

Deeba Salim Irfan's book Urma will be available in leading bookstores across the UAE from Saturday. Visit www.myurma.com for details


Quickfire round

• Fact or fiction?

I prefer to read fiction.

Classic or contemporary works?

I lean towards the contemporary.

Two literary heroes?

Rhett Butler (Gone with the Wind), and Bathsheba Everdene (Far From the Madding Crowd)

Recent reads?

Paulo Coelho's Aleph, and Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat

• 'Everybody has a book inside them'- true or false?

Most would have short stories. Novels are way more than 75,000 words worth of thoughts all linked up - that can be quite inundating.

• Three characteristics of a good writer?

A reader, a thinker and an individual with bolstered perseverance to ensure he or she does not deter from the chosen path, in spite of obstacles.

• Advice to aspiring authors?

Don't give up. Keep writing, researching and submitting to agents or publishers.

• Complete this sentence: I love to write because ...

It gives me a mental high and a sense of flight from my own core.