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Thinking in Arabic, Writing in English: An Interview with Ahmad Danny Ramadan

Ahmad Danny Ramadan is a Syrian-born author, storyteller, and LGBTQ-refugees activist who calls Canada home. His debut novel is The Clothesline Swing (2017). He also translated Rafi Badawi’s 1000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think, and published two collections of short stories in Arabic. His work in activism has supported the arrival of over 18 Syrian queer refugees to Canada and his advocacy has helped shape the queer community in Vancouver into a sanctuary community for queer refugees. He was the Grand Marshal for the Vancouver Pride Parade 2016 and was named among the Top 25 Immigrant Awards 2017. Ramadan has lived in Vancouver since his arrival to Canada in 2014 and currently attends the University of British Columbia for a Masters in Fine Arts – Creative Writing.

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In your TED talk, you mentioned that as a child, you wanted to write poetry and read books. Is that how you came to writing first, through poetry?

I grew up in a household that was not very interested in literature… I was the odd one out. Growing up, [I spent] all my allowance on books, like poetry collections and short stories. I was reading Wuthering Heights when I was 12… For Whom The Bell Tolls, the Arabic translation, when I was 11. I did not understand half of it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless [laughs]. So, I grew up reading whatever literature I could put my hands on; there was a lot of Russian literature, Shakespearean literature, and Arabic literature. [Arabic literature] lends itself to poetry quite a lot. The language is a poetic and flowery language by nature… I remember I was 11 or 12, and I wrote this love poem, and I showed it to my mother, she [said], “You didn’t write that,” and I said, “No, I did”… She said, “But it’s good.”

I grew up wanting to write. I would say, how children are asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”… I grew up being like, “I want to be a writer.” People were like, “No, that’s not a job.”

How did you come to writing fiction (and not non-fiction)? Because it seems that The Clothesline Swing has autobiographical elements, but it’s not about your life. So, why fiction?

Because fiction is more fun [laughs]. I started working on fiction also quite early in my life. I was 15 or 17 when I wrote my first short story. And at the time, I was reading a lot of young adult novels that were published by Egyptian writers. There was a strong movement in the 90’s in Egypt to read young adult novels, like Nancy Drew and James Bond [type] stories, but in an Egyptian/Pan Arab context. So, I started writing young adult novels to myself, [and] I would read them… I was dealing with my queer identity at the time as well, so I was writing queer characters in those novels… just because I wouldn’t be able to read [queer characters] anywhere else… Nobody else other than me read this work. And yeah, that’s how I started writing fiction.

I did a lot of non-fiction work, mainly journalism, but it has always been a career for me, while my actual passion was writing fiction, just focusing on telling stories that I made from reality/the imaginative world my brain prefers being in.

And your journalism work was mainly in Arabic?

It started in Arabic… Around 2009, I started working in English. I was writing for English-speaking newspapers in Egypt. And then, I started writing for The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and then between 2012 and 2014, I was a reporter for The Washington Post in Beirut.

And you don’t seem to be doing anymore journalistic work now. At least, I couldn’t seem to find anything.

Nope. Gave up on it! I think I am a recovering journalist. [Laughs] And I am going to remain sober from journalism. I don’t think I will ever go back to [it].

You mentioned in an interview with CBC, that you wrote a short story when you were 24 or 25, about a storyteller who is trying to keep his partner, a listener, from passing away by telling him story after story. Your character [in The Clothesline Swing] is named Hakawati, which means storyteller, and doesn’t have an actual name – which we can come to later –, but I am really interested in the structure of the novel. It’s framed like One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Can you speak to the structure of your novel?

The structure of the novel came to me from the experience of being a refugee in Lebanon. When I moved to Lebanon, I became a refugee in Lebanon. Many other queer – mainly gay and lesbian – refugees from Syria who ended up in Lebanon, had access to hang out in my house. Like, if they didn’t have a place for themselves to go [to], they would come and crash at my house for months at a time. Just the experience of us hanging out, and talking, sharing stories, jumping from one story to the next, finishing each other’s’ stories, and talking about shared experiences but telling two different versions of the same story, because we each have our own perspective into it – I really enjoyed how authentic our conversations can become… When it’s a group of people who know each other very well, and when they are reminiscing about their stories, they don’t tell you a story in a linear fashion. They jump from ‘When I was fifteen’ to ‘my hopes and dreams about my future’. It’s how humans talk. I wanted to write that [structure], that way of telling stories.

And the structure does that too, it brings into focus the relationship between the storyteller and the listener, almost commenting on the meta quality of stories themselves. That is, stories as objects that can be passed on, as well as stories as objects of healing. Here, Hakawati literally keeps his lover alive through stories. And, you also talk about storytelling as a form of healing, which comes up as a recurring theme in your talks and interviews.

I completely agree. I think that storytelling was a way of healing for me, personally… dealing with my own trauma, not realizing at times that I had trauma, but rather, living my life. As I was sharing my stories, as I was seeing reactions to my stories, I realized, ‘Oh, my god. That was a traumatic experience.’[…] Because telling stories authentically, and showing not just the tragedy in the story, but the human triumph, can be such a healing process for the storyteller.

To go back to my book specifically, I think the person who needed healing the most was not the listener, but [Hakawati], the storyteller. The listener was quite comfortable in most of the book… and quite comfortable to pass away. He just was smart enough to realize that [his] staying alive was a way for the storyteller to reach healing of all [of his] trauma[s], before [the listener] can let go. And I think I tried to reflect that in the book… that telling the story, rather than listening to [the story], is what is healing.

In your Toronto Library talk, you mentioned that most of your characters don’t have names. Can you speak to that decision of leaving your characters unnamed?

Multiple reasons. One is logistical. I really don’t like names in books. In my next work, I have a collection of short stories, where each short story has one named character, and all the other characters around this [main] character is in reference to the main character. [For instance,] One story would be about Khalid, and all the other characters are, Khalid’s lover, Khalid’s mother…

But to answer specifically, I thought that it was important to not give names to my characters, mainly because those characters were the mixture of so many stories that I had heard from other realistic stories that I was touched by, stories of queer and trans refugees that I wanted to melt into one narrative, and allow for those people – who told me their stories, who shared with me their truth – to find themselves in those narratives. I didn’t want to restrict my muses, my inspirations.

In your TED talk, you have said, “Arabic was my water… I left behind the normality of speaking in Arabic”. You have also published two short story collections in Arabic [Dar Malameh and Aria] while living in Egypt. Do you still write in Arabic?

No! [Laughs]

At all? Not even make notes to yourself in Arabic?

I do take notes in Arabic. I could be listening to an Arabic song, or watching an Arabic video on tv, or watching a documentary in Arabic, and a certain thing would trigger something in my mind, so I would take the note in Arabic, but I will be economical in my writing. My writing should be in English and I should focus on that, because that’s my audience.

I also want to write what I want to write. I want to write about queer characters, about the experience of being a refugee as a queer person, and writing in Arabic, I don’t have anyone who’s going to read that. I have a very limited audience in Arabic. To give you an example, a couple of days ago, I was watching a Syrian documentary [Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise, 2010, dir. Soudade Kaadan], and this older guy is in his home, and two wooden columns that’s holding the roof of the house, are bending a bit, and coming closer together. He says in Arabic, “الخشب لما يحن [Al Khashab lama yeheen]” which means ‘when the wood misses its own.’ That’s a Syrian way of saying that when the wooden columns choked towards one another under a lot of pressure, under the weight… [it’s] because they miss each other, they miss the time they were united as one tree. I think that’s a beautiful way of saying things, and so I took that as a note, and said, ‘I have a feeling that I am going to write that somewhere’.

You have mentioned that English is your second language, while your primary language is Arabic. How do you negotiate writing, or existing, in two languages? How has this negotiation influenced your writing process?

I think it has been quite helpful to my writing process because it gave me my own style. I have a voice in English which is very unique to me. It is a mix of my talent of writing in Arabic, my talent of writing things in translation. So, I write in English, what comes out on the page is written in English. But I think in Arabic. And as I think in Arabic, ‘I want to tell a story,’ [my brain] instantly translates it into English… my writing in Arabic is beautiful, honestly [laughs]. What I do is I have figured a way to create my own voice in writing English, mixing my Arabic talent, and my talent in translation.

And, the structure of Arabic is different as well. I remember when I lived in Dubai, we had to learn Arabic until grade nine (which was compulsory).  And even though I cannot speak in Arabic, I can read and write it. I remember the grammar being very different, and I guess that would influence your writing structure in English.

That is one thing. Also, the other thing is that Arabic sentences are much longer, and Arabic words are more inclusive of pronouns. Like, you can say a full sentence in one word in Arabic, and then you will have a long sentence in Arabic that would need a page of translation in English. So, what I believe I managed to do is I am grammatically aware of English’s ability, while also hav[ing] the flowery Arabic to divide my sentences to fit an English reader, who can read it and understand it as an English speaker, but at the same time, [the sentences] are reflective of my Arabic writing.

You moved from Damascus, your city of birth, to Vancouver, which is drastically different. How has the move from one geographical location to another, in terms of landscape, influenced your writing?

They are completely different cities. Damascus is seven thousand years old, maybe some would say, even ten thousand years old. Vancouver is a hundred and fifty years old, and you can tell that Vancouver is a new born city, and Damascus is this old wise woman that is sitting down and telling you her story. If you can imagine cities as personificated, then Vancouver is an excited fifteen year old kid, who’s running around being happy… naïve a bit. Damascus is the way old women[are] sitting down on the floor… knowing that she is the matriarch of all the cities around her, she is wisecracking, she is fun to listen to, and she is a person you feel comfortable sitting down with. I feel like Vancouver taught me a lot of playfulness, while Damascus taught me a lot of [pride]… I grew up in Damascus, and that grounded me, and then I came here [to Vancouver] in my mature years, and that taught me to enjoy life more. That’s how I write [the cities].

In my next novel, I have these two characters in the two cities and each character live in one of the two cities. I think the two cities are reflective of how those two characters are, and how they are leading their lives.

In a profile by Georgia Straight on an event you organize, “An Evening in Damascus,” you said that you see Canada as a space for more queer freedom. But Canada has also been at odds with Muslim people with Islamophobic events like the Quebec Mosque attack on Jan 29th 2017. Have you ever experienced a tension between your queer identity and your Muslim identity in Canada?

I don’t know if there is somewhere that I identify as Muslim. Did you find somewhere online that I identify as Muslim?

No, I didn’t. What I found was a tension between Danny and Ahmad, and I was intrigued by that tension. You said that Danny is a name that you gave yourself, while Ahmad is a name given to you by your father. You also pointed to the complicated nature of the relationship you have with your father, because he tried to impose heteronormative masculinity upon you, like the job he got you at the construction site, for example. Maybe, you can speak to that tension?

Sure. I grew up in a Muslim family. I identified as a Muslim till I was 20, or 22. And when I left the religion of Islam, it wasn’t because I had an animosity with it. I don’t hate the religion of Islam, I think it’s a beautiful religion. I just think that organized religion in general is not my cup of tea. So, I equally respect all religions, and I think people should do whatever the hell they want to do when it comes to religion. And I think that there are people who use religion in so many ways to their own benefit… I think it is a wonderful religion otherwise.

My own personal experience of [Islam] when it comes to Ahmad versus Danny, or the heteronormative views of what religion, and society, and tradition, and misogyny allows for, I think I can see my intersectionality quite clearly… because believe me, the biggest mystery there is for each of us is our own self. I think that I am aware enough of my intersectionality to see the beauty of mixing my upbringing as a Muslim man, my gender identity, the challenges that I faced as a queer person who isn’t hundred percent masc– like, I am masculine, I am not performing on the masculine side of things–

Well, you are queer, but that doesn’t make you not masculine. It doesn’t have to be at odds with each other.

Right? I believe it’s all [on] a spectrum, be it my masculinity, my queerness, [and] I see the intersectionality of those spectrums. And, I also see the intersectionality of what my father expected to see of me. And, I am at the age where I am like, ‘you know what? I am thirty-four, and I am comfortable with myself. And, I am comfortable with all of those identities.’ And they might be at odds, but Ahmad and Danny can sit down together and have a conversation, and leave the table quite comfortable with each other.

You seem to be very self-aware of your positionality, your privileges as well. For example, at your panel at Naked Heart last year, “Arabesque: The Q in the Arabia,” you talked at length on being self-aware about your space in Canada. How do you see yourself and your work within CanLit?

I think CanLit is now facing an interesting movement, where a lot of old guards are like ‘Oh, this whole intersectionality talk is a phase… it happened in the 90’s, and it’s going to pass away’… And there are other people who want [to publish different identities], regardless of how good their stories are, or how representative [they are] of the actual communities they are working on… [they say] ‘whatever they bring, that’s enough’. I see both sides, and I think they are both equally interesting [laughs]. And, I am being sarcastic here. It’s challenging [in CanLit], is what I would say. The way that I am going to continue is to trust in my heart, and trust in my values, and do my thing… I am just going to be me.

I think it’s quite easy for people to navigate the intersectional conversation in the CanLit community when they are sitting in their university offices, or in the living room of their beautiful houses and having conversations while drinking wine… while, it is challenging to be that [intersectional] person, and try to navigate this [discourse]… where people are trying to impose their views on you. And I think the only way you can handle that [discourse] is to not give an ‘f’ about anyone. Just be yourself, do your thing.

That’s good advice, I would say! [Laughs] Moving on, you mentioned Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an inspiration in at least two of your interviews. You also talked about Radwa Ashour as your mentor. Who are your other inspirations?

Mohammed Al Mansi Qandeel is an Egyptian author that I truly appreciate. He is really the master of magic realism… I have read all of [Radwa Ashour’s] books. She has been important in my ability to become an author. And, I enjoy the poetry of Nizar Qabbani, and Qabbani is a Syrian poet who has a lot influence on the way that I write, on the voice that I create, the romanticisim of political themes that I create in my fiction… And, Mohammed Taha is a Libyan [writer], and his writing is very dry, very desert-like. He goes into the tribal [areas] of Arabia, and tells stories of marginalized people within marginalized tribes. I think his stories are just breathtaking. That’s who I read in Arabic.

In English, I read everything. Currently, I am reading Amber Dawn’s Sodom Road Exit. I just finished Alex London’s YA novel, Proxy, that I really appreciated, but I didn’t appreciate that the main character is a person of colour while the writer is white [laughs].

Final question: Current and future projects?

In 2020, my children’s book is coming out. It’s called Salma, the Syrian Chef. It’s coming out from Annick Press in Toronto. I am also working on my collection of short stories, tentatively titled, The Syrian Survival Cookbook. And, my next novel is called Foghorn Echoes, and my agent is very optimistic about it.

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This interview was conducted over phone on January 28th 2019. It has been edited for length.

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