“So now you’re biracial and bisexual,” Malika teased, her grin taking over her round face . . .
“You know I hate labels.” And then, just to goad her, I said, “You should try a threesome one day. You might like it.”
Born in Hamilton, Ontario, and now working in a Mexican holiday resort, Ameera is the hero of Farzana Doctor’s latest novel All Inclusive, a funny, wise and heartbreaking book that, like the fruity drinks at Ameera’s workplace bar, takes different ingredients — pansexual sexual interludes, anxious office politics and a terrible family tragedy — and blends them into something frothy and refreshing. As she discovers the joys of sleeping with tourist couples at the resort, Ameera quickly comes under scrutiny by her less-than-swinging superiors. Can she keep her sex life quiet to keep her job? Should she? And why did the Lambda Literary Award–winning Doctor choose a tropical paradise as the setting for all this office intrigue?
“I did go to an all-inclusive resort about six years ago,” Doctor says. “Our tour rep was a Canadian, who sparked my curiosity. How did she live at a resort? What was it like to be her? Opening Up by Tristan Taormino, a book about non-monogamy, was my beach reading that week. A sort of idea collision happened and I was inspired to create a character who worked in a setting and who was somehow part of the swinger scene. My goal was to explore sexuality as a metaphor for the character’s growth.”
Ameera spends much of the book opening herself up to pleasure but also becoming increasingly anxious about not being “professional.” Isn’t that just a corporate code word for slut-shaming? I’m reminded of a leatherman I once met who enjoyed wearing a harness underneath his jacket and tie at the office. “Makes me feel like I have a superhero secret identity,” he said.
“Yes,” Doctor agrees, “sexuality is such a fraught thing in our culture, especially in the workplace, so I really wanted Ameera (and the reader) to sit in that tension. She has to struggle with her internalized shame in order to move forward and closer to her ‘truest’ self.”
As she works to uncover which colleague is undermining her chances at a promotion (if the novel has one real flaw, it’s that this eventual revelation isn’t particularly surprising), Ameera’s past comes back to haunt her in the form of Suzanne, a woman who enjoyed her fling with Ameera less than her husband did. She’s dreadful, yet Doctor is resolutely fair-minded in keeping even her most annoying characters more human than caricatures.
“I work in a private psychotherapy practice too,” Doctor says, “and this work has given me practice in trying to understand the complexity of situations and people. But it might just be the Sagittarian in me too,” she says with a laugh. “I loved writing the messiness of mistreated, unaware and vengeful Suzanne!”
In Doctor’s previous book, the City of Toronto Book Award–nominated Six Metres of Pavement, a new friendship helps a man recover from a devastating personal tragedy and now, in All Inclusive, Ameera’s family history includes the 1985 Air India bombing. It’s a strange compliment to Doctor to say that she writes about such horrors with great beauty — clear-eyed, unsparing yet tinged with comfort.
“I think writing tragedy is difficult,” Doctor says. “I empathically connect to my characters, and this tuning in does make me feel deeply. But writing emotion — and any form of creative expression — helps feelings to flow, versus getting blocked.”
The tragedy of the book is that Ameera never gets to meet the novel’s other main character, a kind and nerdy fellow named Azeez who shares a mysterious bond with her. Early chapters are amusing in how Azeez’s sexual ineptitude is contrasted with Ameera’s freewheeling bravery, but by the novel’s end, they are joined together by something deeper and more powerful than life itself.
“Sex is loaded with judgments and fears and hopes and desires,” muses Azeez. “It can even be magical.”
In the worlds that Farzana Doctor creates, ordinary people are wondrous and complicated, and all these things that divide us — countries, professions, sexualities, genders, races — are mere distractions from what truly matters. Her stories ring true enough to think our world could be that way too. One can only hope.