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Bookmarked: Farzana Doctor on the Realities of Resort Life

Author of the novel “All Inclusive” tells readers what happens beyond palm trees & margaritas

Bookmarked is a series of interviews with women and nonbinary writers of color about their novels and memoirs of navigating lands, languages, and themselves—and most of all—about taking up space everywhere we go.

At the outset of Farzana Doctor’s novel All Inclusive, about a father and daughter helping each other move on in their lives, I was gravely concerned for its main character, Ameera, who lives and works in a Mexican resort where it seems she is babysitting a small city of entitled toddlers. But Ameera, who describes herself as single, lonely, “and a bit of a freak,” gets by with her weekly three-ways with swinging tourist couples and, of course, an open bar. While she copes with sex, family, and work drama, her father, Azeez, who died before she was born, attempts to communicate with her from the spiritual realm so that she may find the cause of his absence and gain closure. By receiving those messages, she inadvertently pushes him closer to his goal of reincarnation. As our guide, Farzana Doctor gives us an intimate look into lives of the tourist reps who work at Atlantis, the all-inclusive fictional resort—the struggle, the gossip, the boredom—as they compete for a promotion, revealing the tension between locals and foreigners that abounds within the industry. But unlike Plato’s allegory, Atlantis is far from fantastical—the sex is awkward, the ghosts are hilarious, and trusted friends are exposed as foes. I spoke with Farzana Doctor about the politics of resort tourism, portraying sex and travel in realistic ways, and the “voices” that led her to write her novel.

Author Farzana Doctor.
photo by Vivek Shraya

What was the catalyst that brought you to write All Inclusive, and can you give us an idea as to your process in bringing it to life?

As with all the novels I’ve written, there were a few moments or sparks that got the story moving in my mind. About nine years ago, I traveled to Huatulco[, Oaxaca, Mexico,] and stayed at an all-inclusive resort with my previous partner. My beach reading was Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up, a book about nonmonogamy (the chapter on swingers was a specific catalyst). These were the main catalysts for Ameera’s story. For Azeez’s it was different—after a period of struggling with plot, I heard a voice telling me that he was the novel’s missing character. At first I resisted this information, but being blocked and not having any other ideas, I threw out a couple of other characters and their backstories, and Azeez’s story slid in seamlessly in the spaces left behind. He completely changed the story.

The book is full of surprises. You’ve managed to bring mass tourism, terrorism, the afterlife, and swingers together in one novel! Is this the vision you had set out with or were you, too, surprised at how the project evolved over time?

OMG, if I’d thought I was going to do that I wouldn’t have started the project! I had planned on tourism, and swingers, and a couple of other backstory themes for Ameera that I ended up dropping. Azeez’s afterlife and terrorism themes emerged much later, and I was surprised at how the book evolved. I had to trust myself and have a little faith that it would come together in the end.

When I was a child, my family went on a few vacations to resorts such as these—they are very popular for middle-class Canadians who want a break from winter. As I grew older and more aware of privilege and oppression, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with this kind of tourism.

When we first meet Ameera, she’s been in Huatulco, where Atlantis is located, for three years and single that entire time. But she exclusively hooks up with tourist couples on the eve of their departures. She uses the sexualized nature of vacationing and coastal resort tourism to her advantage but also has to contend with its superficiality and temporality, which ultimately leaves her discontent. Were you actively trying to remove romance from the brochure image of travel and show what’s really there?

I was interested in using Ameera’s sexuality as a metaphor for her growth. Her hookups are clumsy, messy, fun, liberatory, and surprising. They also lead to her knowing herself better, both as a sexual person and as a person who is on a journey toward greater self-awareness in general. I wouldn’t say I was actively trying to remove romance from the brochures (although I was trying to show the ugly side of all-inclusive resorts). What I was conscious of trying to do was to be sex positive and to show sexuality as I think it really is—clumsy, messy, and all the things. I was also trying to write about swinger culture(s) in ways that go beyond the stereotypes.

In books where travel and tourism are central, there’s usually a strong sense of place written into the story. With All Inclusive, the rootlessness of the main character and the nature of the resort give the opposite effect. It definitely doesn’t feel like the story takes place in Mexico, which is probably what it feels like at a resort there. Is this what you were trying to convey by basing the story there, or what does Atlantis mean to you?

When I was a child, my family went on a few vacations to resorts such as these—they are very popular for middle-class Canadians who want a break from winter. As I grew older and more aware of privilege and oppression, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with this kind of tourism. During that trip nine years ago, I found myself taking note of the overconsumption of food and alcohol, the racism directed toward Mexican staff, the entitled behaviour of the guests. I learned that the land had been expropriated to create the resort’s fake “wonderland.” I’ve only visited a half dozen of these places, but travel brochures show that all-inclusives are generic no matter what country they exist in. So yes, I was trying to convey all this for the reader.

I also spoke with a friend who did academic work in Oaxaca, and she surprised me when she told me that in some ways resort travel is more ethical than some of the “off-the-beaten-track” vacations she encountered, in terms of employees’ better pay and working conditions.

In your research, did you find anything out about resort tourism that shocked you or that changed the course of this book? 

I interviewed a couple of people who were foreign tour reps (from the US or Canada working in Mexico or the Caribbean) and learned about the really lonely and tedious aspects of the job. I guess I’d assumed, when I began writing the book, that it would be more fun for these (mostly) young folks. I also spoke with a friend who did academic work in Oaxaca, and she surprised me when she told me that in some ways resort travel is more ethical than some of the “off-the-beaten-track” vacations she encountered, in terms of employees’ better pay and working conditions. This left me wondering about the ethics of tourism in general. The research that shocked me most, though, was the digging I did into the Air India bombing. The more I read, the more sad and angry I became. That was an avoidable tragedy for which Canadian authorities are responsible.

And was it that voice you mentioned earlier that got you digging into details of the Air India bombing, when a group of extremists targeted an airplane en route from Canada to India in 1985, resulting in over 300 casualties? What about the research made you want to introduce it into Ameera’s story, into the plot of your book?

Actually, the voice got me writing the story, and from the moment I heard it, I knew how Azeez was supposed to link to Ameera. So I kept on writing the story. I knew quite a bit about the bombing, but I needed to do research to fill in gaps in knowledge and write scene details. So the research was second to the voice.

The story follows Ameera and her colleagues vying for a promotion within their company, Ameera and her white British colleague being the only foreigners at Atlantis, who receive higher salaries and are shoe-ins for the promotion despite having less experience than their local colleagues. These injustices seem to broil with the Mexican staff but are never really confronted in the book. Why not?

Yes, they are obvious and grumbled about but not directly confronted. As I mentioned before, Canadians love to go to these destinations and most have little awareness about the crappy conditions they are supporting. I wanted to raise awareness but not be too heavy handed about it—in the past, one of the main critiques I’ve received from reviewers was that I am a little preachy about politics! So I tried a softer touch in All Inclusive.

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