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The Memoirist's Guilt

09/20/2013 02:54 EDT | Updated 11/20/2013 05:12 EST

Established by Toronto City Council in 1974, the Toronto Book Awards honour authors of books of literary or artistic merit that are evocative of Toronto. This year, the shortlisted authors are blogging for HuffPost about their creative journeys. What follows is the final such entry. See also previous entries from Aga Maksimowska, Kevin Irie and Katrina Onstad.

Among the many comforting stories that authors tell themselves (and their readers) about their craft is the one where the act of writing serves as a personal therapy session or a Q&A period where the Qs are sharp and the As are definitively rendered. Within that narrative, writers emerge from their isolation, their self-imposed confinement, having faced -- and even conquered -- their fears. We've wrestled with our demons and now live in post-exorcism mode. We write journeys for our characters so why not impose them on ourselves as well? I know that I've often used language to that effect in promoting Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, now on the shortlist of the Toronto Book Awards. And I've heard many writers explain (justify, even) their books under such terms. It makes us sound thoughtful, sensitive, brave, tortured in a non-threatening way.

The truth, as always, is much more complicated than a sound bite. Penning a family memoir has unleashed emotions and memories that I've deliberately suppressed for decades. Writing caused as much distress and confusion as it provided comfort. At the end of it all, there was no clarity or better understanding of my relationship to my family or the Arab-Muslim culture from which I've been estranged for more than two decades. In many ways, the book opened new wounds.

No one tells you that and nothing prepares you for it. The occupational hazards of the writing life seem trivial or at least merely existential when compared to the more physical work of, say, construction workers or nurses. In the early planning stages of Intolerable, a former Globe and Mail colleague who has written about her relationship with her father warned me about the "memoirist's guilt." I was too seduced by my book contract to listen. To me the challenges of writing the book back then were of a more practical nature: How do I divide the narrative? When do I write during the busy academic year? If I thought about the psychological impact at all, it was to underplay it. What's one more emotional turbulence in a book that's structured around a series of setbacks and challenges that I and my family have faced?

But if writing about your family history is like inviting the ghosts of your past for an extended sleepover, sharing that story with the public means opening the doors to your house of horror. There will be no more secrets now. Paradoxically for a book that, rightly or wrongly, is a tell-all, I've become more guarded about my own privacy and that of my family after it came out. I'm overprotective of their stories and mine like never before. It's one thing for these stories to be in my book; another to have them recounted or reviewed by someone else.

Nowhere did I experience this discomfort more acutely than when I talk about my parents, both of whom are dead now. Although my admiration and love for both became deeper and more unconditional after tracing their marriage and life together over five decades, 11 children and three countries, I still struggle to "explain" them when I promote or read from the book. How do you explain a man who modeled himself on the post-war English gentleman image -- my father wouldn't look out of place in a BBC period drama -- and a woman who tended sheep as a child, never learned to read or write and was defeated by cutlery? I like to think that I've painted a sympathetic and honest portrait of their improbable marriage in my book but the profound sadness of each haunts me and its reasons elude me.

Maybe that's the point. An individual's life is an elusive phenomenon. Perhaps I'm the one to blame for thinking that not only would I capture past (and current) lives but would make sense of them as well for myself. I bought my own tale of comfort.

Kamal Al-Solaylee will be reading from his 2013 Toronto Book Awards shortlisted book Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes at The Word on the Street Festival in Toronto on Sunday, Sept. 22 at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

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