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Danny Ramadan Is a Book Person

The Syrian Canadian novelist likes a lush setting, dark plot and conflicted characters. And cursing.

Michelle Cyca 18 Oct

Michelle Cyca is a writer, editor and book enthusiast living on unceded territories of the Musqueam Band, and the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Her writing has appeared in The Walrus, Macleans, Chatelaine, SAD Mag and more. Find her on Twitter @michellecyca.

“You can take all the swearing out,” Danny Ramadan tells me, midway through our conversation that includes his next work of fiction, his comic book aspirations and the murder-robot series he’s going to read once his husband is finished with it. But I tell him I’d rather leave them in. “Please do!” he agrees, laughing. “They’re part of my charm.”

And it’s true, they are. Ramadan is an engaging, generous, thoughtful conversationalist, despite his packed schedule. I’ve caught him in the brief lull between two major events: An Evening in Damascus, the annual fundraiser he organizes in support of Rainbow Refugee society, and the Vancouver Writers Festival.

For the latter, he’ll moderate a discussion between authors Ian Williams and Ben Philippe on Oct. 22, and host his 7th annual Night of Storytelling on Oct. 24, which brings queer, trans and Two-Spirit authors together for readings and discussion on the theme of evil exes.

“I do this to myself,” he sighs. “Every year my husband says, ‘Don’t put these events in the same month.’ And I say yes. And then I go and put them in the same month.”

Despite his talent for hosting events, Ramadan is best known for his writing. He wrote two short story collections in Arabic before making his English language debut in 2017 with the elegiac, lyrical novel The Clothesline Swing. When we speak, he’s just putting the finishing touches on The Foghorn Echoes, his second novel that will be published next year by Penguin Canada. After that, he’ll be diving straight into work on a memoir, Crooked Teeth. But he’s game to talk about his beloved books, which periodically topple into frame during our Zoom call.

“The thing is,” he says, pivoting the screen so I can see books on all sides, “We live in a 700-square-foot apartment, me and my husband. And I was allowed this amount of books. I cannot have more books. But two years before the pandemic I travelled to Israel, and I bought myself 42 Arabic books there, because it was the only place in the vicinity that allowed me to get Arabic books. You can’t buy Arabic books here in Canada, they’re not easily available. And when I brought them back my husband freaked out. So, half of them are down in storage until we move into a bigger house.”

A book interview is also a welcome reprieve. “I get the same interview requests all the time,” he says. “I’ve been Canadian for three years, I came from Syria seven or eight years ago now, and I do fundraising for LGBTQ+ refugees, but not everything refugee-related has to do with me! It’s lonely being the only Syrian refugee on the market... I don’t want it to be the centre of every fucking conversation. Excuse my French!”

The Tyee: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Danny Ramadan: I get this question a lot, and truth be told, I have no idea. It’s like my sexual orientation. I didn’t wake up one day knowing I was gay, and I also didn’t wake up one day wanting to be an author.

The story that stands out from my childhood is that when I was 12, my father wanted to embarrass me in front of the whole family, and was like, “Hey, what do you want to be when you grow up?” and I said an author, and everyone laughed.

Why did they laugh?

Because it’s such a feminine thing in my culture, wanting to be an author. It’s a poor man’s career; very few people become successful being an author. My father expected me to say doctor, lawyer, engineer — but I said author, because that’s what stood out to me.

I always wanted to be an author.

Was there anything you read as a kid that really inspired you?

My family is very blue-collar, very hardworking people, and literature was not a thing in my house. We didn’t have a library; we didn’t have a bookshelf. But I had a neighbour, this lonesome 40- or 50-year-old man, who had walls and walls of books. I used to go borrow books from his library. He had a lot of Russian literature translated into Arabic, so I ended up reading Anna Karenina when I was like 12.

I think that’s actually a perfect age for Anna Karenina.

Right? It was very emotional, very heightened, and I think those are the kind of emotions you get when you’re 12. So yeah, I read a lot of Russian literature when I was young. I read a lot of translations of Shakespeare plays. The classics, basically.

But the story that stands out to me the most, if I’m going to be completely honest, was when I was 19 and read One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez. When I finished it, I remember having two completely contradictory feelings: I want to write as beautifully as this, and I can’t write as beautifully as this.

What do you read for pleasure?

I just finished Blue-Skinned Gods, by SJ Sindu, which was stunningly beautiful. I love SJ’s writing because — well, they don’t give a fuck who their audience is. They don’t try to walk the white man through their fiction as they’re taking him to places in India or Pakistan where he’s never been to. They just stare that white man down until he reads the book.

The next one is The Bone People by Keri Hulme, which I’ve never read before but apparently it won the 1984 Booker Prize, and a friend of mine recommended it. On my list as well is Eddy Boudel Tan’s The Rebellious Tide. I read After Elias by Eddy back in March, and I thought it was fantastic.

What else am I reading at the moment? Oh, I just also finished my friend Charlie Petch’s collection of poetry, Why I Was Late. I would never be able to write poetry, poetry is inaccessible to me, specifically English poetry — makes no sense whatsoever. But I appreciate people who can write poetry, particularly people who can write it and not take themselves too seriously. There are poems here about orgasms, but also about being late to work and hanging out at the bus stop. This is the kind of poetry that makes sense to me.

How many books are you usually reading at once?

At the moment, I’m reading Disorientation by Ian Williams and Sure, I’ll Be Your Black Friend by Ben Philippe. I just finished Blue-Skinned Gods, so I was reading three books at the same time, but that’s for work. When I’m on vacation and I don’t have to worry about reading books, I usually like to stick with a single book until the book kicks me out. As long as you’re keeping me engaged, I’m with you. But sometimes a book refuses to be inviting.

What do you find inviting in a book?

The books that stay with me the most are those that feel complicated but are presented simply. I love a character that is convoluted and navigating multiple things at the same time and making decisions that make sense but are contradictory. I love following them through and finding out how they’re going to ease their existence.

I also love a lush setting. I love books set in sunny, beautiful places that are dark in nature. So put me on a Pacific island, but then tell me about the depths of darkness in the human heart, and I am there for it.

After Elias by Eddy Boudel Tan was great for that — it’s set in a Mexican resort, but it’s very complicated, very insightful into the experience of someone navigating grief in a unique circumstance.

Can you tell me about your next book, The Foghorn Echoes?

Well, I’m in copy editing hell with it. It comes out a year from now. The book follows the experiences of two Syrian queer men who were were lovers when they were much younger, but they broke up after a traumatic experience that they both share. The first chapter of the book tells you why they left each other, and the rest of the book is about these two characters never meeting again. One is in Vancouver, the other is in Damascus, and I’m telling you about that trauma back in the day and how it affected their life and left them with their own tangled emotions to navigate. It’s a lot of fun actually. There are ghosts, there are a lot of drugs, there are some sexy scenes — I love writing sexy scenes.

It sounds like it has some shared DNA with The Clothesline Swing.

It’s funny, I was on a panel a few years ago, and I was working on a draft of the novel then so I gave the general idea of it — and they said, that sounds quite familiar to The Clothesline Swing. And I was like, when you read the book, it’s completely different. We tend to generalize one experience of the LGBTQ+ refugees, of Black people, of Indigenous folks, folks who are trans. Like one example is more than enough to navigate all of the different examples. But I intentionally wanted to write a different book about two queer Syrians and present you with a completely different story. I want to show you there are unique stories to be told. And I think the next novel after will also navigate two queer Syrian refugees.

I’m always working on the memoir, which navigates queer Syrian refugees — so I guess I am a one-trick pony (laughing).

No, but I feel like you need another queer Syrian refugee novelist, so that you’re not the only one getting refugee-related media requests.

Well, if you know any, please point me in their direction! It’s fucking lonely up here. I feel like the #CanLit scene has this mentality of, you know, there’s a table, and there’s one seat in the corner for the queer Syrian refugee because they’re unique in that way, and now that Danny has filled the seat we don’t need to go out there and find other queer Syrian refugees.

That breaks my heart — because I also want to write comic books, I want to write Iron Man, I want to write a stupid romantic comedy and have sexy scenes and romance. I want to do things that are outside of this box. And maybe I will. But at the same time, I feel like there’s a space where I need to represent, and there’s a lack of someone else to carry that torch with.

Did you say you want to write comic books?

I did before, when I lived in Egypt. I worked at a children’s magazine for three or four years, and I had multiple comic book characters that I wrote for, and then an artist who would draw them. It was this high fantasy sci-fi. I love writing sci-fi stories, but specifically in the form of comics. I don’t know how to write a sci-fi young adult book. I can’t do that, but what I can definitely do is create comics that way. I’m hoping that one day I can just write a comic story.

Do you read sci-fi too?

I’m re-reading the Foundation series [by Isaac Asimov], all eight volumes of it. I also just bought the [Galactic Empire] robot series, because I’ve never read them before. Unfortunately, I’m realizing as I’m re-reading Foundation — because I read it for the first time at 16 — that it’s extremely fucking racist and sexist!

There’s also a robot series that my husband is reading at the moment, [The Murderbot Diaries], about a murderous robot. It’s very interesting. It’s about a robot that becomes sentient, but he uses his time to watch soap operas and concludes that all of humanity is insanely dramatic, overzealous and should be destroyed. I haven’t read it yet.

Do you enjoy writing for kids in particular? You’ve written comics, and a children’s book, Salma the Syrian Chef.

What I enjoy is that as a writer, you’re playing such an interesting role in navigating not only your art but also presenting your art in a palatable way for your audience. And I’m good at navigating my audience. With children, I’m good at creating a story in a way that fits a child’s mind, while also delivering the story I want to deliver. This feels like a puzzle to me, and I love putting creativity into a puzzle.

Coming up with a story for kids is easy to me — there are three bears, they’re in the woods, one is selfish, there you go! But presenting that story in a way that respects my art, that presents the things I want to present, but also is translatable to the mind of the audience. But it also has to be translatable to their parents, who are the ones with the wallets who are going to pick up the book. It feels like a balancing act, like a circus act, and I find it a lot of fun. So yeah, to answer your question in a very convoluted way, I love writing for children.

What books have you gone back to in your life to re-read?

I rarely read the same book twice, but there are a few that I’ve read multiple times. There’s a book called Granada by an Egyptian author called Radwa Ashour, and I must have read that book five or six times. Another book I’ve read a lot is called Moon over Samarqand, which is also by an Egyptian writer, Mohamed Mansi Qandil.

In English, there’s a book called Big Fish. They made a movie out of it with Ewan McGregor. For some reason, that book meant a lot to me when I read it a long time ago.

What brings you back to it?

Granada because Radwa Ashour was one of my mentors when I was 19. She passed away a couple of years ago. She won the Arabic Booker [the International Prize for Arabic Fiction] multiple times. She taught at the University of Cairo, and I wasn’t even a student, but I just walked into her office and was like, “Here’s my collection of short stories, they’re coming out in a couple months, I was hoping you’d read them.” I left her my email address and never really expected to hear back from her, but two weeks later I got a long email from this award-winning author. We hung out after that, and she was a lovely human being.

She was also magical in her writing. She revisits historical events from the perspective of tiny little characters that have no power. In Granada, it’s people who are Muslim, who were born and raised in Andalusia, and lived there for generations, but then the Spanish come back to take over. And this family is navigating the complexity of being colonizers, and of other colonizers coming to take over — and what it means to be Muslim, to convert in public while keeping Islam in private, and how such a big event would alter you. I find that quite beautiful.

With Big Fish, it was the first book I finished reading completely in English. Back then it took me maybe a week, but now I can read it in like three hours. So just the fact that I managed to read a book in a language other than my own from cover to cover just means a lot to me.

My pandemic question of choice: are there any hopeful books you’d recommend?

I think the book that uplifted me during the pandemic would be Jillian Christmas’s The Gospel of Breaking. That collection of poetry, it just washes over you. Jillian’s voice is so soothing. Especially because I know Jillian personally so when I’m reading the poetry, I can hear her voice in my head. I was in a really dark place when I got that book and when I read it, it was very helpful.

Any last favourites you haven’t mentioned?

Locally speaking, jaye simpson is definitely on there. And Michael V. Smith, he’s in Kelowna. I loved I Am Ariel Sharon by Yara El-Ghadban, that was fantastic.

I also love We the Animals by Justin Torres. That book is a work of mastery. I hope he writes another book but that feels like a peak. To have that book as your debut? Like, leave some space for the rest of us.

Oh, and speaking of debuts that are impressive, Five Little Indians by Michelle Good. That was a stunner. I can go on — this has been a great reading year for me. In 2020, I read like 10 books, and this year I have read maybe 100 so far. I’m very in touch with my reading again.  [Tyee]

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