You are currently viewing Jaipur Literature Festival Toronto 2021: Najwa Zebian & Shashi Bhat on the Self as Safe-Space
Watercolour by Cain S. Pinto

Jaipur Literature Festival Toronto 2021: Najwa Zebian & Shashi Bhat on the Self as Safe-Space

The Toronto session of the Jaipur Literature Fest 2021 began with a conversation between authors Najwa Zebian, Shashi Bhat and moderator Aparita Bhandari. Here I rehearse some of the key themes they touch on and draw some bigger morals on the idea of the self as a home, or safe space, floated by the authors.

The House that Zebian Built

Lebanese-Canadian poet Najwa Zebian’s self-help book Welcome Home: A Guide to Building a Home for Your Soul is “a guide to building a home” in oneself, rather than in other people. “Investing our love, care and kindness” in other people leaves us undefended against the possibility of abandonment, which is all the more devastating when one isn’t at home in oneself. She enjoins us to make ourselves our first home, even if we do find sustenance outside ourselves. By her admission this philosophy of mi mismo mi casa was born out of the need to grow out of her dependence on external validation from her relatively older parents, elder siblings, and others, who perhaps couldn’t quite give her the unconditional regard and attention she felt she needed to thrive.

While this aetiology is tied down to a particular life, and represents a singularity, the lessons of Welcome Home bespeak the universality of individual experience at a certain level, and are general enough that they have been crystalized many times across cultures. Those familiar with attachment theory will be quick to see that the inability to form secure attachments with caregivers sets the ground for people pleasing behaviour, or other forms of inauthentic modes of relation, among those who share conditions common to Zebian’s upbringing. While one can’t reform one’s primary attachment style, it being constituted in early childhood, one can learn healthy ways to form attachments as an adult. One begins by learning to act as though one’s own personality and desire for connection are legitimate and need no seal of approval from others who don’t present themselves in a parallel stance of vulnerability and connection. This is essentially Zebian’s recommendation, refracted through a metaphor whose vehicle is home and whose tenor is the self. Recognize when you’re acting inauthentically just to get others to give you the regard you deserve, and stop doing it; this is the key lesson.

Teenage Protagonists Are Better at Condescending to Adult Readers

Writers’ Trust/McClelland and Stewart Journey Prize winner Shashi Bhat’s novel The Most Precious Substance on Earth is a bildungsroman without a triumphal ending. A modest tale of a victim learning to live a normal life after a fundamentally unsettling experience, the book traces the story of a trauma victim who gathers her wits and pieces together a life as an English teacher; rising above victimhood not to achieve heroism but a hard-won normalcy. Inter alia the book meditates on the influence teachers can have on the lives of students. This is a promising motif which gels well with the theme celebrating the achievement of not becoming a heel simply because one can’t become a hero, teaching though one cannot do. As the moderator of the talk Aparita Bhandari notes the common note in the two books, Welcome Home and The Most Precious Substance on Earth, is the emphasis on growing out of emotional dependency into a state of emotional self-reliance. There has been an increase in the popularity of the coming of age genre in film and television, as Bhandari rightly notes, but clearly trade publication in its fiction and nonfiction categories hasn’t lagged behind in milking this cash cow.

Bhat emphasizes her heroine’s growth into a self-reliant individual in the aftermath of trauma is animated by something more than superficially similar to Zebian’s lesson: after being let down by others who were meant to be there for her, she finally finds all she needs in herself and learns to lean into that. Bhat is careful to distance her novel from comparable YA offerings, however, by reporting that she’s deployed the “voice of a smart, savvy, funny, teenager” to deliver what is essentially “adult literary fiction.” The purpose of the ploy? Disarm the reader, and then stun them with a profundity they would’ve been loath to attribute to a teen. Or, rope-a-dope themselves into a dark, “uncomfortably realistic and true” adventure even as they’d already expected the teen’s life trajectory to provide a fun filled, escapist romp. 

The Safe-space Within & its Realtors Without

The self is a house of many mansions. In biology, the self is the locus of individuating differentia: anatomic borders, harmonious communication between organs, hierarchical systems of dominance and control, and division of labour between parts that distinguish it from other organisms. In immunological terms, it is the privileged recipient of protection and beneficiary of concinnity. In an economic idiom, the self is an agent willing [and able] to supply [demand] a specified amount of some good in exchange for a specified amount of another. Self-determination theory identifies the self as an endowment of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in service of a cluster of goals, which may be externally or internally motivated. In daily life, the self is a token of account for commitments and entitlements attributed to it by others. Zebian who discovered the therapeutic power of journaling after receiving a diary as a gift from a friend found her writing to be a window into herself, and her fatalistic acceptance of the limitations imposed on her by her family and community. She found her writing bolder than her voice in quotidian life where her expressed emotions were often dismissed, like her reports that she was being bullied at school were dismissed, prompting her to adopt a tight-lipped demeanour when it came to her inner life. Forced into a science degree she was miserable at college, and when she had a chance to teach students in grades 2-8 she took her opportunity to remind them education was about them, “about students…serving them as human beings.” These surprising developments saw Zebian pushed into a productive writing phase: she self-published two books Mind Platter, and The Nectar of Pain, eventually landing a publishing deal for those two and another book Sparks of Phoenix.

Following these successes she gave a TEDx talk about self-identity, improvised on account of having forgotten the speech she had prepared; this talk provided her with the curious metaphor of the self as a house, with “self-acceptance and self-awareness” making for “the foundation,” and because there have to be different rooms [real estate prices in the noosphere being quite affordable] she created a room each for “self-love, forgiveness, clarity, compassion, [and] surrender”—of course, “outside there has to be a green garden.” If you’re going to be building a home within, Zebian says, it’s going to have to be a 5 room independent house with a garden; a floor plan for what you deserve, not what you can afford, presumably.  Bhat who found a lot of Zebian’s life experiences relatable also like Zebian found writing to be a therapeutic enterprise, but chose to distill her learnings into fables rather than poetic pep talks. Her protagonist, while not based on her own life, lives events and experiences that ring emotionally true to Bhat. But are not the experiences of delivering a riposte on the way out the party after the moment of maximum impact has passed, or having delivered what one thought a bon mot only for it to be received like a damp squib, universal? They are, and so are the first teenaged taste of embarrassment, adolescent ennui, and adult acceptance of what must be endured because it cannot be cured. While Zebian found her identity as an immigrant playing a role in reinforcing her sense of not fitting in, Bhat’s fictional  narrator finds her uneasy taciturnity to be a consequence of defaulting to silence every time she is given a chance, or, what is the same thing, challenged, to speak her truth and finding herself choking. Silence becomes “a part of her identity,” and by the end of the novel, when she is forced to speak, her overcoming what have become the limitations of her self-concept betoken her growth as a person, from teen adventurer to adult veteran in the school of hard knocks.

Bhat who believes the short story form better captures lived experience than the novel, which seems to foreground resolution, finds that her characters tend to experience life much like characters in a short story who live through developmental upheavals that don’t culminate in a moment of relief where the “lump in your throat… dissipates.” For Zebian whose sketches and telegrammatic epiphanies, in their Rupi Kaurian way, find a way to say just what poorly read teenagers  are feeling to be the first things of moment anyone has ever felt, writing offers a confirmation that what they’re “feeling in this moment is valid.” Journaling takes her on a journey where at the end she arrives at a place where she believes she is “ worthy” of something or another; standing in her place she knows if this place is hers or not. Bhat by contrast, refusing to conflate the freedom of words with the freedom of the world, is happy to concede that readers are free to decide what they take to be legitimate descriptions of what they’re doing in the world—whether these be words chosen by a YA fiction writer or a relatively well-off self-help writer propelled by a traumatic immigrant childhood.  In advising put upon people pleasers to reclaim their right to exist, in their own manner and at their own pace, Zebian puts out a message that’s worth hearing for a certain demographic. But in a world saturated by self-help, and DIY, manuals for everything from cleaning your room to washing your penis, Bhat’s ploy of using fables to reveal the contours of the possible—admittedly as intuited by her—seems less propagandistic, and more authentic.


JLF Lit Fest. “Najwa Zebian and Shashi Bhat in conversation with Aparita Bhandari on Home Precious Home.” Updated: 7 October, 2021. Retrieved: 22 October, 2021. URL:<>

Leave a Reply