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writers' trust prize

Author Clark Blaise in Toronto on June 6, 2011.

This week, The Globe and Mail is running a series of excerpts from the five books shortlisted for the 2011 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. Today's offering is from Clark Blaise's short story Isfahan , found in the collection The Meagre Tarmac . Blaise, who currently lives in San Francisco with his wife, author Bharati Mukherjee, has written 20 books of fiction and non-fiction. The Meagre Tarmac was on the long list for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Blaise's fellow Writers' Trust Prize nominees are Patrick deWitt, Michael Christie (whose excerpt appeared on Wednesday), Dan Vyleta (whose excerpt appeared on Tuesday) and Esi Edugyan (whose excerpt appeared on Monday). The winner of the $25,000 prize will be announced on Nov. 1 in Toronto.

* * * * *

When I came back from visiting some of our facilities in South Asia, I was still of a mind to stay in California and enjoy my second first-marriage and the baby, and our new house, and perhaps fund a few interesting projects in India from long range. The customs agent flipped through my American passport, observed that I sure do a lot of travelling, to which I merely smiled, to which he reiterated, "A lot of South Asian travel," to which I said, "Family, you know," and he responded, "Family in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Malaysia and China?" and put a number on my declaration form. I'm scrupulous about keeping receipts and not exceeding the customs exemption.

This was at JFK. All I had to do was claim my bag and roll it to the domestic conveyor belt, none of it easy without a wheelchair, then move on to the domestic departures lounge. Nothing comes easily unless I'm met in SFO by my driver. But I didn't make it to the conveyor belt. I was still waiting for my bag at the carousel when a uniformed office came up to me, specifically to me, no one else, and said, "Let me see some I.D."

He was holding a sheet of paper, which appeared to be a faxed photo. He kept looking down at it, then up to me. I still had my passport and customs form out, but he didn't bother to open it. "Not some fake passport. Some other I.D.," he demanded. I travel in loose-fitting Indian clothing, without pockets. My wallet was in my briefcase. When I started to bend over to pick it up, holding carefully to my cane as well, the officer said, "Not so fast there. I don't want you to open that briefcase."

Now I was starting to get irritated. "You asked for more I.D., and that's where I keep it."

He looked down at his fax one more time, then at me, and something clicked. His mind was made up. "I said, back off the briefcase. And give me that stick."

"I can't stand without my cane."

Very evenly he said again, "Give me the stick. Handle end first."

"I refuse."

He waved his hand over his head, and shouted, "Back up!" and two younger guards materialized. They conferred, I heard "apprehended" and "unco-operative" and "resisting."

"You're coming with us, Abu."

I took a deep breath, as I went through a list of options, all of which began or ended with variants of do you know who I am? Forbes 500! Hell, Forbes 35! I can call senators, mayors, cabinet members, lawyers and bankers. My captors would not take it well. "As you can see, I'm standing here peacefully waiting for my bag. I'm not going to leave it here. And I have a domestic connection in an hour."

To which the lead officer put his hand on the top of his holster.

Excerpt from The Meagre Tarmac © 2011 by Clark Blaise. Published by Biblioasis. Printed with permission.

Clark Blaise reads at Toronto's International Festival of Authors on Oct. 26 and 28; in Hamilton on Oct. 27; and in Windsor, Ont., on Nov. 4 (