Author Rawi Hage Speaks

1 octobre 2009 | معتمد Beirut, Canada, Culture, Lebanon, Quebec
    Interview with Rawi Hage, by Rima Hammoudi.


    Photo: Tanya Traboulsi Sky over sea, Beirut, Lebanon.

As we made ourselves comfortable on a terrace at a nearby café, Rawi Hage began scanning the neighboring tables for an ashtray. “Do you mind if I smoke?” I didn’t, and reached over behind me and snagged the seemingly last ashtray that had yet to be claimed. Not lighting up right away, Hage began maneuvering a small, tightly packed cigar between his fingers as he began telling me about his travel plans for the summer: Europe, Australia and all of Canada. There is so much to see, we agreed, and any city, town or far off countryside is as good as any to start with.

Hage was born in Lebanon and grew up in the midst of a civil war. As he left home and immigrated to the States, Hage would later decide to settle in Montreal in the 90’s where he would graduate from Concordia University and spend much of his time as a photographer. Hage published his first novel DeNiro’s Game in 2006, which boasts being a winner of both the McAuslan First Book Prize and the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, along with a number of honorary mentions.

Hage’s novel presents a story about a young man, Bassam, who finds himself struggling in a war inflicted society, leaving him to question his faith in his mother, his country and it’s traditions, his friends and, most importantly, himself and where he stands in a world that seems to do nothing but crumble into small pieces. Bassam searches for peace in his inner and outer worlds. He finally sparks up, and I settle into my chair.

Rima Hammoudi What type of literature did you read growing up?

Rawi Hage We were forced to read a lot of French literature in Lebanon, and a great deal of Arabic poetry, of course. We had to memorize long poems. When I moved to New York I couldn’t find any French or Arabic books so I started reading in English.

Hammoudi Did any authors manage to strike you immediately, given both the cultural and geographical shift?

Rawi Everything. The western novel was not foreign to me. Like I said, I was exposed to French literature at a very early age. I read anything from Hemingway to the whole Russian canon. I really liked Dostoevsky at the time. Crime and Punishment had a big effect on me.

Hammoudi When did you begin looking at literature as a source of inspiration for your own writing?

Hage Yes, some of the inspiration comes from literature; the influence of other writers is inevitable. But I also suspect that some of my influence comes from visual arts. I was trained as a photographer. And that photographic gaze, the needed presence at the shooting of a scene was somehow transferred into my writing. I tend to write in the first person. I also tend to situate my self in the space I am describing, or imagining. There is a close proximity, a need for an almost physical presence that I notice while I am writing. Much like a photographer’s presence.

Hammoudi Did you always write as a kid, or did you begin experimenting later on?

Hage Like I said, I never intended to become a writer. I am an accidental writer. At a later age someone encouraged me to write and I did.

Hammoudi Did you experiment with other genres? Any poetry?

Hage No. That book (DeNiro’s Game) was a product of a short story that kept on growing. I finally, out of nowhere, had a novel on my hands and I sent it to a few places and I got a few responses.

Hammoudi Is there a particular environment that best suits your writing?

Hage Yeah, but that applies to me only and not to everyone. I mean, it’s not a formula. One should be comfortable no matter how or where one writes. There is no method to follow. I’m completely against these notions of systematic formula for writing. I write early in the morning. I have my coffee and a computer, and that’s all I need.

Hammoudi How is it being a writer in Montreal?

Hage In terms of community?

Hammoudi More in terms of the inspirations you encountered in Montreal. I mean, was there a reason why it was in Montreal that your first novel was produced?

Hage I think it was more the fact that I was away from Lebanon, and I wrote about a part of history that took place 20 years ago. But in terms of Montreal, it’s a great city because there are grants, and it’s cheap to live in. It’s an ideal place for struggling artists. It is relatively progressive and in the winter you are confined to the inside.

Hammoudi Now that you’ve mentioned community, how important is it for you to become involved with other local writers?

Hage No, I’m not into that. I’m not a big drinker; I drink but I’m not a big drinker. I’m much more comfortable being on the outside. But you become involved in events and festivals and you start meeting people slowly and you make friends of course. I’m not resisting it, I’m not against it but I don’t seek it really. It comes.

Hammoudi You are trilingual, yet you are predominantly an anglophone writer – does your knowledge of three languages ever leave you facing any inadequacies of the English language?

Hage I guess with writers who combine various influences and live in various languages a particular syntax is bound to form.

Hammoudi I wonder how this sort of fusion affects the way you imagine your stories. Do you have a wild imagination?

Hage When I write I do. In life I think I’m less interesting, I find myself lost in daily details. I’m absorbed by the mundane. But when I am writing, I’m transported somewhere between madness, intellect and creativity.

Hammoudi I read that you once said that “luck” is the most important quality a writer could have. Is it really the most important?

Hage I think that was said in the context of a panel on writing or more likely on publishing. It is hard to get published. It is a competitive and closed process. Of course there has to be some talent. There was a sequence of events that got me into writing and it was very unexpected and the only way I can describe it is luck. Not luck in that superstitious kind of way but more in an unexpected, surprising and, like I said, more as a sequence of events. Luck is a concise way to describe it.

Hammoudi An early theme in Canadian literary criticism is this notion of the writer discovering the land. How important do you think it is for a writer to be aware of their home, their land and the history of their country?

Hage To write and be tied to one place? I think Canada went through a nationalistic phase in literature. It was a smaller country than the States and England and there were a group of writers who took it as project to establish a Canadian identity in literature and they succeeded. But we tend to forget that part of the history making of this land took place elsewhere and it still does.

One of the questions that I often get is: ‘Are you a Canadian writer?’ I consider myself a universal writer. Like someone said, “What is a Canadian writer? Somebody who is Canadian and a writer.” I think literature inherently is not about places. It could be based on a nationalistic agenda and somebody could be writing literature to promote some sort of ideology, but I think literature could be and should be about anything, and any place as long as it is substantial and it contributes.

As much as an important part of Canadian literature is based on the land, the harshness of the land and the people, I believe there is a counterpart that is more universal, and metropolitan, with a strong readership.

Hammoudi In DeNiro’s Game you depict your characters as being part of a war-inflicted Lebanese culture. Did you ever question how that would be accepted by a Canadian audience?

Hage I don’t think about the audience; I just write really. I think that’s what photography taught me. You go and take a photograph and you have to concentrate on the subject, on the exposure and the location you have selected. Maybe now I will think of the audience because now I am going around and talking to people and doing interviews and being forced to think about it and sometimes to justify it. I don’t know what effect it’s going to have but I know that with writing the second book and finishing the next book I’ll need to get away from all of it for a while.

Hammoudi So, you think interviews have a negative effect on the author?

Hage Ideally, I think the writer shouldn’t talk too much. He should just write and keep his or her appearances to a minimum. But then there is a big risk that the work won’t be diffused. It will disappear. It seems that the publishing industry requires the author to promote the work. Writers are pushed now to become more and more visible. It’s an act of survival maybe, I’m not sure. Attention as a form of survival.

Hammoudi How has the writing experience of your first novel affected your approach to any post-DeNiro’s Game writing?

Hage I wrote my first two novels back to back. I was in the midst of the second novel, Cockroach, when DeNiro’s Game came out. Now it’s a challenge, but I do have about thirty pages on a third novel. At the moment I’m traveling and promoting the books. Soon, I’ll have to negotiate a time and space to stop all that and start to seriously write again.

Hammoudi Finally, I must ask: What advice would you offer to aspiring writers?

Hage I have none. Just write. It’s cliché, but I’m not going to tell them to wake up in the morning or the evening, or to use a pencil or a machine, or to take notes or vitamin pills or drink a lot of water. I’m not going to tell them to write double-spaced, single spaced or prescribe them some method. There is no method. I think reading is important. But I’m not in a position to give advice–like I said, I’m lucky. I stumbled on to writing. I’m in no position to give advice.


I would have liked to hear more about Rawi Hage’s political ideas. It is too bad that you did not ask him about his political ideas, which as far as I am concerned are very important. Any good writing is political writing: from Dickens to Ibsen to Gabrielle Roy, all good literature involves politics. From the minute we wake up in the morning until we go to bed at night, every aspect of our lives is the result of a political decision. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the taxes we pay, the schools we frequent, the salaries we make, the homes in which we live, etc.

تعليق Nadia Alexan — 4 octobre 2009 @ 14:16

Great interview. Just read “Cockroach” and thought it was fantastic. I’ll def be going back to read “Deniro’s Game.” Can’t wait to see what’s next.

تعليق thejamminjabber — 12 octobre 2009 @ 11:14

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