OTTAWA – I used to be part of an all-women’s book club in Ottawa a few years ago. In 2008, I remember recommending to the group that we read the newly-released book, Cockroach by Montreal-based, Lebanese-Canadian writer, Rawi Hage. The book club consisted of mostly highly educated, liberal, middle-aged women, all white Canadians with the sole exception of myself – an Indo-Canadian, new immigrant.
A few pages into Cockroach, I fell head over heels in love with the book. To me, here was the first book in Canadian literature, written by an immigrant, seemingly capturing the essence of what it means to be an immigrant in Canada. The reaction from the other book club members was a lot less enthusiastic: “It’s so dark,” “I couldn’t read it,” “hard to keep going,” etc. I remember thinking to myself, here is perhaps the great divide – these two solitudes of “new Canada” and “old Canada” separated by this wide chasm. And this divide is what Hage distills in his books, which he calls, “a celebration of the permanence of flux”.
CanLit is enriched by the literary contributions of several well-known immigrant writers. Names like Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje, Shauna Singh Baldwin, etc., are top of mind. They situate their fiction in far-off countries, and the social problems their fiction evokes are wonderful book club discussion material.
It is fashionable to discuss poverty in Bombay (Mumbai) or about female foeticide in Punjab. What about social issues faced by immigrants in Canada? Hmmm … they should be grateful that they have been allowed into Canada. “Be grateful and shut up,” is the unspoken message by mainstream Canada, remarks Hage, when I met him at the first annual Arab Canadian Studies Research Group (ACANS) conference held at the University of Ottawa on February 15 and 16, 2013.
In contrast to the themes that occupy the vast majority of immigrant writers, Hage’s protagonists are first generation immigrants condemned to living in ghettos in Montreal and doing jobs that Canadians do not want. Their existence in the First World is such a reproach to the otherwise egalitarian societies that these countries claim to be, that Hage calls them insects – roaches (in Cockroach), flies and spiders (in Carnival, his latest novel). They never occupy centre stage – like cockroaches, immigrants in Canada live a peripheral existence and likewise proliferate because, “no one can barricade against the powerful, fleeting semen of the hungry and the oppressed.” Hage captures the cold heart of Montreal where the immigrant is left wondering, “Not even a nod in this cold place, not even a timid wave, not a smile from below red, sniffing, blowing noses … Where am I? And what am I doing here? How did I end up trapped in a constantly shivering carcass, walking in a frozen city with wet cotton falling on me all the time?”
While Hage is a master at outlining the hopeless, grey, dreary existence of the Canadian immigrant, he does not fail to poke fun at mainstream Canada. With tongue-in-cheek humour, he writes, “The Québécois with their extremely low birth rate, think they can increase their own breed by attracting the Parisians, or at least for a while balance the numbers of their own kind against the herd of brownies and darkies coming from every old French colony on the run from dictators and crumbling cities. But what is the use, really? Those Frenchies come here, and like the Québécois they do not give birth. They abstain, or they block every Fallopian tube and catch every sperm before the egg sizzles into canard à l’orange.”
Good literature is always political. Hage, who was born in Lebanon and worked as a cab driver in Montreal for a while, sees the novelist as an “interpreter” or even an “actor,” who assumes certain roles. His writings display an undercurrent of political criticism. This rumination from the Cockroach highlights the point:“These countries we live in talk about democracy, but they do not want democracy. They want only dictators. It is easier for them to deal with dictators than to have democracy in the countries we come from … Do you think if the mullahs go away there will be democracy in my country? No! They will put back somebody else who is a dictator.” Hage does not hold out hope in the political changes happening in several Arab countries. He warned the assembled congregation of Arab academics at the ACANS conference that the current revolution spreading across Arabia, popularly dubbed the “Arab Spring”, has once again left liberal minds marooned.
Hage who attended the ACANS conference with his girlfriend, another celebrated immigrant writer, Madeleine Thein, was the big draw at the conference. For a writer celebrated for his prose, I found Hage tongue-tied when it comes to speaking in public.
I asked, are his books based on his own life? For every writer, the “experiential is essential” expounded Hage, without elaborating how autobiographical his books are. He spoke briefly about Carnival, in which the protagonist is a cabbie in an unnamed city that at times appears to be a lurid version of Montreal, and then preferred to listen to other speakers who were dissecting his work. The reticent writer had this to say by way of explanation, once a book is published, “the work of the artist is to distance yourself from your work.” – New Canadian Media