Books·How I Wrote It

How The Storm novelist Arif Anwar makes sure his fictional characters feel real

The debut writer explains why his personal perspective informs his writing.
The Storm is the debut novel of Toronto-based writer Arif Anwar. (HarperCollins/

Born in Bangladesh, Arif Anwar is an author based in Toronto. His debut novel The Storm was inspired by the 1970 Bhola cyclone and weaves together five interconnected stories as it explores love and emotion across 50 years of Bangladeshi history.

In his own words, Anwar tells CBC Books how he wrote The Storm.

Salvage operation

"The Storm's opening chapter was actually part of another novel I was writing at the time. I wrote 400 pages that I later abandoned because it wasn't going anywhere. But that one chapter resonated so much with the people in the creative writing class that I was taking that I started thinking about how I could envision a novel based specifically around the character and events from that chapter.

"It took me another couple years before I could come up with a plausible plot for that. Once I did, things moved quickly. I completed the first draft in 10 months and then the second draft in about five. There were, of course, many more drafts after that, but the first two were done pretty quickly."

The colour of character

"What I've recently found wearying is books that only present people of colour as victims of circumstances, and refugees and only in a relational way to the West. This goes for white authors, but writers of colour are also guilty of this, where immigrants are only defined by how they make a new life in North America or Europe, rather than exhibiting these characters in their full complexity of being. And when I was writing this book, I told myself over and over again that I really don't want to write characters like that, where they are some sort of objects of pity. American actor Kumail Nanjiani recently said for years he read books or watched films by white author that showed white people, he was fine relating to them. And now white people can watch our stuff and relate to us.

"Another thing I was trying to do with the characters is not to conflate poverty with virtue. One of the characters in the book, she is poor but she is hopeful and proud, stubborn and hot-headed. Usually when we read about the poor, they're not allowed to have that complexity. Regardless of race or class, we all have the same foibles and can make the same mistakes. That's something I'm trying to achieve with the characters in this book."

A balanced literary diet

"I was born in Bangladesh and I grew up reading a lot, both in my native language and in English. And in addition to all the literary classics — including Joyce, Shakespeare and Homer — I read tons and tons of what I can only call 'crap,' otherwise known as pulp fiction, genre fiction or mass market fiction.

"I value reading all those 'nutritionally deficient' books. I think genre fiction authors have a lot to teach us. They're much less reticent about using their imagination and know how to tell a story. Literary books sometimes get bogged down sort of the existential crises of the characters."

Procrastination punch-out

"I'm a huge procrastinator. I find whatever excuse I can find to not to write because the empty page can be a scary thing. I would notice that I would use research to procrastinate, or delay writing until I thought it was the perfect setting of the perfect mood.

Ultimately, I set daily word goals for myself. I told myself I would write 500 words a day, every day, and I wouldn't try to edit myself or be too concerned with the quality or beauty of the prose at the time. I was laser focused on getting the first draft done. Once that was done, I could go back and revise. It's easier to fix a big chunk of something compared to having nothing written." 

Arif Anwar's comments have been edited and condensed.