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Under the Cover: A community of development workers in We Meant Well
As a Sustainable Development Consultant for various UN agencies, Erum Shazia Hasan was inspired to write her debut novel We Meant Well (ECW Press) after working in Haiti, and noticing a community of fellow development workers that was seldom mentioned in fiction. She discusses her experiences and how they tie back to the protagonist of We Meant Well, below.
We Meant Well came to me in a UN vehicle in Haiti. I had just landed in Port-au-Prince in the middle of February. In contrast to Toronto’s dead trees, and wintered landscape, Port-au-Prince burst with colour, with red blooms in its Flamboyant trees, and people in the streets. While We Meant Well is fictional, every page is infused with the sights and smells of places I have been through my work. Instead of preparing for a meeting that I had to go to straight from the airport, I began writing Maya’s story—a woman, who instead of being charged by her work, is overcome by a sense of dread, and has to face her true self.
Unlike Maya who is a humanitarian and dealing with extreme crises, I work in international development. My job, so to speak, is to support communities in addressing the vagaries of a changing climate, the erosion of natural resources, the disappearance of water and flora and fauna. At times, particularly this year as wildfires burn wide swathes of land, my job feels ridiculous and irrelevant—how does conservation farming in a tiny community in Senegal, for example, stand up to climate change? But, my job is essentially tied to hope, to the interventions of the few, and most importantly, my work has taught me to be an eternal student. When starting out in this field, I was overcome with the dichotomy of the “experts” usually schooled in Western universities, going to “solve” problems in countries where one has never lived. I never felt like an expert. I could not be an expert on other people’s socioeconomic conditions in which I had never lived. Rather, I walked into every community like a sponge, armed to the teeth with questions, and learning from people who toil the soil, about food, about preservation and survival, knowing that I would never really know, but that I could ask to learn a little bit more.
My observations of fellow consultants, experts, humanitarians, development practitioners, was in large part why I wrote this novel: this was also inspired by a moment in Haiti. I was at a restaurant eating with colleagues, some diplomatic staff, and foreign doctoral students in a beautiful restaurant in Montagne Noir. It struck me that so many of us that are intimately engaged with the fate of funds in this country, were dining while the only Haitians present were those working in the restaurant.
This community of not-quite expats, not-migrants, this community that is tasked with international betterment was something I had rarely seen in fiction (there were splashes of this work in The Constant Gardener and some others). Here were people working in countries that weren’t theirs (an estimated half a million), sometimes through hardship and risk, but not as permanent additions to places, and they were absent in story. I saw relationships, and friendships, conflicts and challenges, and I thought about what a rich community this was to capture in a novel. Humanitarians and development workers are not all the same. Their work is varied and nuanced, and many address their differed tasks in differing ways. Yet, the common thread to their vocation is a notion to do well. And through watching so many over the decade and a half that I have done this, I often wonder, how much do we learn from the mistakes of our colleagues? Where does the line between oneself and a community live? And most importantly, are good intentions good enough?
And through these questions, Maya came to be. She has her blind spots, she has moments of empathy, and she may not always ask the right questions, but she navigates a world and marriage for which she does not have a clear map.
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Erum Shazia Hasan was born in Canada, raised in France, and is of Pakistani and Indian heritage. She designs initiatives to help communities improve their livelihoods, ensuring opportunities for women while protecting biodiversity. A Sustainable Development Consultant for various UN agencies, she lives in Toronto with her husband and their two children. We Meant Well is her debut novel.
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