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Q&A: Debut author Djamila Ibrahim on her new collection, Things Are Good Now

(Dana Jansens)

The first story that Ethiopian-Canadian writer Djamila Ibrahim sent out into the world after she switched careers from working for the federal government to pursuing her lifelong passion for writing was “Things Are Good Now,” the title story in her new collection, out this month with House of Anansi Press.

The story was originally shortlisted in 2014 for Briarpatch Magazine’s 2014 creative-writing contest. The following year, another piece by Ibrahim, “Heading Somewhere,” was a finalist for Penguin Random House Canada Student Award for Fiction. It’s no surprise then that her debut was deemed by NOW as one of “10 Books to be Excited About in 2018” (alongside the likes of Zadie Smith) and Ibrahim was named one of CBC Books’s “Six Black Canadian Writers to Watch in 2018.”

Q&Q spoke to Ibrahim about her debut collection, her writing process, and her exploration of love.

 Tell us about the choice of title, Things Are Good Now.
It is a line from one of the stories that reflects a character’s assessment of a new regime following a 17-year-long dictatorship. The title begs the question: how bad were things before? And when paired with the image on the book cover, it makes you wonder if things really are good now. I love that ambiguity.

Love is a major theme in the collection. Can you speak to your exploration of the topic?
I think love is central to any human story. In this collection, characters facing great challenges often find strength and meaning in the knowledge (or discovery) that they’re not alone. We often think of love in terms of romantic or parent-child relationships but love between friends can be as intense, complicated and as necessary. And there is also the love and protection a community provides. I wanted to explore this human connection and the many ways we have of loving and hurting each other.

Did you have any profound or surprising moments, story-wise or as a writer while working on this collection?
Writing gave me the opportunity to delve into the lives of people I was deeply curious about. It was a great learning experience, especially in terms of understanding the nuances of people’s motivations and in feeling empathy for characters I didn’t necessarily agree with.

How do you want your stories to impact readers?
I hope these stories resonate with people. I hope readers who feel invisible or underrepresented in Canadian literature recognize themselves in them. I also hope the book triggers curiosity and interest to read more “diverse” literature.

What was your process for writing characters from so many different backgrounds?
When writing about a culture that is not your own, it is important to consult one or more people of that culture to make sure to do the characters and the story justice. I’m fortunate enough to have a diverse group of friends and extended family members that I can call on to help me figure out cultural details that I’m not familiar with but I have also reached out to people I don’t know for information.

If this collection were to be included in a curriculum, which educational level and course would it be in? And in which section of bookstores?
It is an adult fiction, but students in Grade 10 and higher can find value in it. The book can fit in a general-interest creative writing/literature course as well as in special-topic classes such as Black and/or female and/or immigrant writing/writers. In bookstores, I expect to find it in the fiction section.

What do you find indispensable as a writer?
Books, the internet for research (and to waste time!) and coffee.

Now that you are writing a novel about the couple in the love story that concludes the collection, what are you discovering about them and their situation? What excites you about the project?
Right now, I’m fascinated by how much the characters cling on to the cultures and beliefs of their upbringing even when these things stand in the way of their happiness. I’m excited to see if and how they’ll overcome the challenges they’re facing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.