Published July 2008
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The journeys of Rawi Hage
From Beirut to New York to Montreal, from photographer to novelist, and from cab driver to Giller nominee
After his first novel, De Niro’s Game, came out two years ago, Rawi Hage traded in his job as a cabdriver for that of a full-time writer. But in some ways he’d still rather spend time with his old co-workers. “I stay away from writers’ gatherings – I discovered there was nothing for me to learn at them,” says the Montreal author. “People talk about the ins and outs of publishing. They don’t really talk about writing. I’d rather hang out with my old taxi driver friends. They’re great storytellers.”
Hage’s aversion to meet-and-greets isn’t that surprising. There’s a shyness, a wariness, to the 44-year-old author, who was raised in war-torn Beirut. He’ll have to put in time at more literary events this fall, though – including some award ceremonies, if history is any guide. House of Anansi is publishing his second novel, Cockroach, in August; De Niro’s Game was shortlisted for multiple prizes, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award. (It didn’t win either, but it did earn two Quebec Writers’ Federation awards.) At Q&Q’s press time, De Niro’s Game was also on the shortlist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, worth €100,000. [UPDATE: Hage has won the prize.]
I meet Hage on his home turf in Montreal’s Mile End district, a multicultural neighbourhood that’s home to struggling artists and working-class immigrants, hipsters and Hasidic Jews. The café we’re in boasts fine espresso, served on scratched-up, battered tables. We sit on mismatched chairs, huddled close together so we can hear each other over a nearby piano player loudly banging out tunes – a kind of urban symphony that’s reflected in Hage’s own fiction.
By Hage’s own admission, his current literary success is wildly improbable. “When I was young, I was a terrible student. I hated school,” he says of his early life in Beirut. But he was still a reader. His Jesuit-trained father “was a well-read man, and we were surrounded by books at home.” And in the Beirut of Hage’s youth, electrical power was frequently disrupted. “When there is no electricity, you can’t watch TV. So I read.”
The violence and uncertainty of life in Lebanon drove Hage to New York City in the early 1980s, but he doesn’t recall his time there with much fondness. He was lonely and broke, and took on a series of lousy jobs, including a backbreaking two years in a warehouse, in an area ravaged by the crack cocaine trade. He also experienced racism for the first time, he says, noting that for all the hostilities between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, there it never felt personal – it was simply about being on different sides of a war.
On the upside, New York did force Hage to perfect his English (his third language after Arabic and French): he wanted to keep reading, and his non-English options were severely limited. And as he bounced from job to job – salesman, waiter, cabdriver – Hage began working for a friend in a photographic studio and discovered that he had a knack for taking pictures. So in 1992 he moved to Montreal to study photography and visual arts at Dawson College and Concordia University.
From there, Hage acquired a rep as an up-and-comer in art circles; both the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Musée de la civilisation de Québec have acquired his work. Hage credits photography with making him a better writer. “In visual arts, you’re encouraged to be more experimental.” He tries to bring that attitude to his writing; his prose style, for instance, often displays a dreamy, feverish sensibility.
As with photography, Hage edged into writing almost accidentally. Commissioned to take pictures of other photographers for an exhibition, Hage was instructed by the curator to maintain a ledger to keep track of the people he was shooting. To amuse himself, Hage transformed his encounters with his subjects into a series of fictitious short stories. After that, he began publishing short stories in small magazines and eventually produced De Niro’s Game, which Anansi plucked from the slush pile. “It happens once every 10 years or so that you get work of that calibre coming out of nowhere,” says Anansi publisher Lynn Henry, who has edited both of Hage’s novels.
While De Niro’s Game is set in Beirut during the troubled early 1980s, Cockroach is set in contemporary Montreal and explores the immigrant experience. “You could almost view the two books as a pair,” says Henry. “It’s almost like taking someone from the world [of De Niro’s Game] and seeing what would happen if he came to Montreal, trying to build a new life for himself. It’s an examination of how well we integrate newcomers, from the perspective of someone who is living on the edges of society.”
Of course, it’s one thing to point out how brutal life can be in a faraway land, and another to zero in on flaws closer to home. “I do wonder what kind of reaction Cockroach will get,” admits Hage. “Will I be portrayed as the ungrateful immigrant?”
In fact, Hage is happy to call Montreal home, and several relatives from Lebanon have joined him here. He’s grateful for Canada’s affordable university tuition, and for the grant support that helped launch his writing career, and he appreciates Quebec’s arts scene, leftish politics, and diversity.
Hage also likes the fact that Montreal is a community of minorities where everyone – whether anglo-, franco-, or allophone – feels a little out of sorts. “Cities as such tend to be more cosmopolitan in nature,” he says. And he’s seen firsthand what happens when tribal ties become toxic. As an anglophone author who spoke French first, Hage also has a nuanced take on Quebec’s language tensions. He identifies himself as a federalist but understands the concerns francophones have expressed: “Languages have disappeared in other countries.”
Much of the acclaim for De Niro’s Game centred on Hage’s ability to vividly convey the day-to-day details of life in a city under siege. It was a world seldom explored in Canadian literature, where novels based in the Arab world are few and far between. Hage takes pride in the way others who’ve lived through similar experiences have praised the book’s authenticity, but he’s also uneasy. “I do fear that I will be labelled as the writer who lived through the war and wrote about it,” says Hage. “That wasn’t all there was to that book. I don’t want to be summed up so easily.” He thinks a lot of critics missed out on some of the dark humour of his first book, and on the lyricism of its narrative voice (which he attributes to the Arabic poetry he studied as a youngster). That’s the Rawi Hage paradox: he’s become an important Canadian writer by offering Canadians a compelling glimpse into a world we rarely see.