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‘One day, when I am about to win an award of some import, I’ll wear a dress made of tofu to make the statement that wearing a meat dress is as tasteless as congealed bean curd!” I promised my daughter recently. She is both a vegetarian and a Lady Gaga fan.
I am feeling full of defiant exuberance, having just finished writing my first novel. “OMA! (Oh My Allah!),” I want to scream.
Two years ago, I bewildered my family by abandoning a career as a computer programmer to dedicate myself to the noble pursuit of writing. Up to that point I had been the model of good sense – university degree, marriage, children, job.
My mother sat me down over coffee and demanded answers to logical questions: “This novel … is it going to be any good? How long will it take to finish? Will it earn you money?”
My answer to each was a dismissive hand wave: “How should I know? I never wrote a novel before.”
When direct intervention failed to yield results, my family resorted to circular methods of persuasion. For instance, this phone conversation I had with my husband one morning.
Husband: So! what are you doing?
Husband: No, no, no! I want to know what are you doing exactly … right now. Where are you sitting?
Elen: In bed.
Husband: What are you wearing?
Husband: It is 11 o’clock in the morning and you are still in your pyjamas and in bed?
Elen: I have my laptop and I am writing in my pyjamas on our bed.
I could hear the panic in his voice. His inner monologue was screaming: “OMA! My wife has gone bonkers, and I have no idea how to save her.”
This earthquake of a life change was accompanied by a tsunami: My daughter declared that she was a vegetarian shortly after I began writing.
I found myself purchasing my first block of tofu, a white brick of congealed substance devoid of taste, smell and colour. “What am I supposed to do with this?” I wondered. My morning writing adventures were followed by daily exploits in the kitchen.
“This novel … what is it about?” somebody eventually asked.
“It is about a woman who hacks into websites to install elaborate designs,” I said. The family members with the highest degree of self-restraint winced. The ones with less self-control said: “That sounds so weird.”
When they gave up on dissuading me, they decided to become helpful, each in their own way.
My father: Instead of writing this weird novel, write about a man who is growing up in Iraq when political turbulence forces him to leave his country.
My mother: Write a story about a European woman who falls in love with a Middle Eastern man and travels all over the world with him.
My husband: Write about a Palestinian boy who is growing up in Israel, facing discrimination and dreaming about becoming a big-shot university professor.
All three were asking me to write their life story.
My son: Hey, Mom! Write a story about wizards and magic, or maybe vampires!
I thanked each one for the worthy suggestions and explained, simply: “I have to write what I feel inspired to write.”
So, I became a weird woman writing a weird novel about a weird woman doing this weird thing – as weird as the idea of an Arab woman cooking stuffed grapevine leaves with tofu.
“I don’t hate tofu, I don’t hate tofu, I don’t hate tofu …. tofu is my new friend” became my mantra.
Did you know that you can deep-fry lightly floured wedges of tofu, add any sauce or dip, and it will taste all right? Sweet-and-sour, soya, teriyaki, guacamole, tomato sauce – it makes no difference. Everything goes. You can also steam, stir-fry, barbecue or bake tofu. The possibilities are endless.
As infinite as the possibilities of an empty page.
My fingers caressing the keyboard, I dived into a terrifying pool of imagination. I yelled “OMA!” a few times. I stopped caring about what anybody thought. I sat down to write with no purpose other than the sheer childish joy of it.
My novel is weird. It doesn’t have the standard beginning, middle and end. It is circular. It breaks all the rules of what a novel should be. It tells the story of the East-West cultural clash without mentioning politics, religion or any other topic you might expect it to bring up. It has stories inside stories. The most important aspect of the novel is untold, left for the reader to figure out.
I have written this thing with one hand holding onto my laptop and the other holding onto everybody I love, bringing them along on this crazy ride kicking and screaming. I have crossed the finish line without letting go with either hand. I do feel proud of this.
As I send this thing to publishing houses, I don’t know if I’m about to become the Lady Gaga of the Canadian literary scene or the indie band that’s so indie its members can’t agree on a name.
But I know this: I am an expert at everything to do with tofu. I might as well figure out how to construct a dress from the stuff. Anybody with expertise in making garments out of food, please share your knowledge. I have won the biggest award already.