An interview with Rawi Hage

Series: Cross-Communication: Canadian Writers Reflect on Language and Culture

Authors: Zara Diab and Shannon Steele
April 10, 2018

In this series for the Strathy Blog, we explore the theme of “language” in Canadian literature — in particular the implications of a space containing multiple languages and the movement from one language and culture to another — through a series of interviews with Canadian writers. We reached out to a variety of multilingual voices from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds who engage with language in their work. Our interest lies in how language forms and informs their texts. This week we post the final interview in our series, a conversation with author Rawi Hage. Our previous interviews were with Ayelet Tsabari, Mary di Michele and Doretta Lau.

Rawi Hage is a Lebanese-Canadian writer based in Montreal. His award-winning novels include De Niro’s Game, Cockroach and Carnival. As an immigrant to Canada for whom English is a third language, Hage has an interesting perspective on our topic of language and culture, which he explores in his work and shares in our interview.

Can you tell us a bit about your language background? Do you use certain languages for certain contexts?

I grew up speaking Arabic, in particular a Lebanese dialect that was specific to a particular neighbourhood in Beirut. This is, of course, before the standardization of the various regional dialects by the mega burst of TV channels. At the time Lebanon’s multiple regional dialects were more apparent and accentuated. In her early years after her arrival to Beirut, my mother spoke a northern accent that was heavily influenced by the previously spoken Syriac language in the region (a dialect that has its roots in Aramaic). With time Arabic became the dominant spoken language of the region. My father was a first generation Beiruti and spoke with the current Beirut accent.

I studied in a Lebanese school. Arabic was taught as a language (i.e. grammar, reading, writing) as well as Arabic literature and Arab history but most of the other materials such as science, geography and French literature were taught to us in French. Our French textbooks were imported from France.

Are there any words, phrases, or concepts in your native language(s) that you find difficult to express in English, or vice versa? I understand that you grew up in Lebanon during the war. As you lived that experience speaking in Arabic, and surrounded by Arabic speakers, how did you find the experience of expressing it in English when you revisited that environment in your IMPAC-winning novel, De Niro’s Game (DNG)? Do you feel that any elements were lost, strictly due to the switch in language?

By the time I started writing DNG, I had already lived in the English language for 22 years, so English was the language of survival and practicality. I must stress that I moved to NYC in the eighties with a limited mastery of the English language. At the time, before the coming of the internet, access to both languages, Arabic and French – especially in terms of printed material, was difficult. In DNG the thing that I most struggled with to translate were the swear words, profanity and other words related to violence. A good example is the word ‘machkal’ which simultaneously means trouble, problem or a street fight. I am not sure what was lost from the Arabic. I assume nothing was lost because when I read the Arabic translation I recognized the source of the English style. The repetition becomes a kind of incantation. This lyricism was preserved in the Arabic version.

Have you read/worked on translations of your work in other languages, and if so, have you noticed differences in how your ideas are communicated?

I read the French and the Arabic. To my surprise when I read the French version, I realized to what extent I was influenced by French literature, something that I was extensively exposed to as a kid. The translator who translated two of my books to French considers me a French writer writing in English. That’s what she claims.

What do you think about the reception or understanding of your work in Canada versus other countries? What do you hope different audiences glean from your work?

The reception of every book has been different. I would say DNG has been the most widely accepted locally and internationally. It has generated more of a consensus. Cockroach, on the other hand, was embraced in Canada as a new look at the immigrant experience. The book, contrary to the nationalist mythology of the Canadian welcoming society and the stereotypical image of the good, grateful, harmless immigrant, presented a character that is critical of this Canadian national narrative. It is a story of an immigrant who refuses to take part in the wider integration project of the nation-state.

As for my latest novel, Carnival, the reception (or refusal) was more an issue concerning the structure and the theme of the novel. It employs a carnivalesque structure based on movement, ephemerality and marginality within a wider non-geographically specific setup. I think it’s my most profound and artistic work but for minority writers there is always an expectation that we should provide a folkloric or journalistic style of writing. It is not that the book is not political. It is even combative. But no specific geographical, historical event is ‘determined’. It’s a book about universality and that is problematic these days. Literature tends to demand certain defined geographies and ethnicities in the current climate. There is an onus on minority writers to accentuate the political over the artistic.

On the Lebanese front, the reception was affected by the political divide between a segment of the Christian population and the wider left and Muslim communities. I think there is now a more positive appreciation of my work by the younger generation who didn’t experience the war.

I understand that before you began writing, you expressed your art through photography. Do you feel that you are better able to express yourself in images or words? Do you feel that you lost anything when you began art expression through written language? If so, how do words present challenges or limitations to your creative expression that photographs did not?

I have two different relations with both mediums. Photography is still my first love, my engagement with photography is older and more strenuous. I started photographing as a young man in Beirut. One day during the war my cousin and I decided to capture an image of a falling bomb before it reached the ground and exploded. It was a bit of madness or maybe it was our way of trying to stop the shelling and end the war.

In New York I worked as an assistant photographer and when I moved to Montreal I studied the medium as an art form. Most of the critical, post-modern and post-colonial discourses I was exposed to come from these years when I studied photography. Photography politicized me in a different wider way. And then there was the failure of photography – photography ruined me financially. I couldn't make a living at it and it drove me to poverty and hardship. I still take photographs and occasionally I show my photographs in obscure places, sometimes under a pseudonym.

In photography I missed two transitions – the technological transition from analog to digital and the academic transition. Photography like most contemporary arts now is about curatorship and I missed both of these new waves.

Writing on the other hand, and I am embarrassed to say this, was not as costly or as agonizing as photography. I am not one of those writers who struggles for years to produce a novel. I treat the making of a novel a bit like taking photographs – with the same sense of immediacy and speed. In that sense, my approach to literature is similar to a 1970's style street photographer. I situate myself and then capture from reality a small selective, precise event or image and then I elaborate on it in detail. Here literature provides and permits a more extended narrative and this narrative is under my control. This is unlike the traditional relationships in photography where everything operates as a maxim within which the storytelling is a collaborative endeavor between the viewer and the photographer.