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The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Kamal Al-Solaylee

This week, we’re in conversation with Kamal Al-Solaylee, author of Brown: What Being Brown in the World Means Today (to Everyone). 


This week, we’re in conversation with Kamal Al-Solaylee, author of Brown: What Being Brown in the World Means Today (to Everyone). Through powerful vignettes and on-the-street reporting conducted in 10 countries around the world, the book takes a look at social, political, economic, and personal implications of being brown in a highly mobile, globalized world.

Writing in Maclean’s, Sujaya Dhanvantari says Solaylee’s book “identifies a sliding colour scale that blurs the traditional black-white dichotomy and traces new, complex hierarchies, with their gradations of brownness, from dark to light .... Al-Solaylee implores us to look sideways at our browning world for a more universal and empathetic experience.”

Kamal Al-Solaylee, an associate professor at the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, was previously a theatre critic at the Globe and Mail. He has written features and reviews for the Toronto Star, National Post, The Walrus, Toronto Life, Chatelaine, Quill & Quire, Canadian Notes & Queries, Literary Review of Canada and ELLE Canada. His bestselling memoir, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, won the Toronto Book Award and was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the Lambda Literary Award, and Canada Reads. Al-Solaylee holds a PhD in English from the University of Nottingham.



Trevor Corkum: How was the idea for Brown born? Can you talk about how Brown came to be a book?

Kamal Al-Solaylee: As with all books, Brown came from a very personal place. It’s a book about my skin, the people I was born to, and some of the places I lived in. But if I were to choose an origin moment for the book, it would have to be the spring of 2011. I was in Hong Kong and still working on my memoir, Intolerable, when I saw a group of Filipina maids take over the business district for a huge outdoor lunch picnic. I started thinking about the fact that so many brown people work in the service industry and wondering what, if any, was the connection.

I started thinking about the fact that so many brown people work in the service industry and wondering what, if any, was the connection.

I put that aside to focus on the second and third drafts of Intolerable and returned to it in the spring of 2012. By then, I started to compile lists of jobs and ethnicities that are associated with them. I mean, you can’t think of cab drivers in a city like Toronto without noting their brown skin. It took me about two years, on and off, of researching, reporting and reading to put together a proposal for a book to be called Brown. I wanted a title that’s as straightforward and simple as possible. I needed to spend my time figuring out what I wanted to say and how to go about saying it. The blueprint for the book took almost as long as the actual writing of it. I also wanted it to be global and reporting based. I didn’t want to write an identity politics book, to be honest, or an extended think piece—the kind where you pontificate on the world without leaving your desk.

TC: One of the central arguments of the book is that a person’s skin colour has profound implications for how the world is experienced and negotiated. You also demonstrate how our understandings of skin colour are unstable, complex, and ever-evolving, according to the political, economic and cultural circumstances of the day. Why and how are these ideas so important at this particular moment in time?

KA: It’s fair to say that ever since Obama was elected on that historic night in November, 2008, we in North America became more conscious about race and skin colour—while also pretending that neither mattered anymore. You know that whole post-racial society nonsense. Ethnic roots and skin tones have become the dividing line between life and death, as anyone following stories of police killings of black men will tell you. We live in a world with unprecedented global migrations which means two things at once: The first is that migrants live in countries and cultures that they have never experienced before, adding to a sense of alienation and disenfranchisement.

Ethnic roots and skin tones have become the dividing line between life and death, as anyone following stories of police killings of black men will tell you.

Second, the potential for exploitation and modern slavery has never been greater. As wars, political instability and environmental degradation continue in the Global South, you can be sure that these waves of migrations—and all the issues that come with them regarding borders or depression in wages for native populations in host countries—will keep the spotlight on differences in race and skin colours. While brown people will be front and centre there, changes will also encompass black and East Asian populations.

TC: Your book covers a remarkable amount of geographic ground, exploring what it means to be brown for particular lives in Trinidad, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Qatar, the United Kingdom, France, the US, and Canada. What similarities or common experiences did you find across such diverse countries? What surprised you most in your research?

KA: The one thing I noticed in almost every country I visited was the outsourcing of menial or low-paid labour to people whose skins are either darker or who can be identified as an ethnic minority or outsiders. The Brits farm out low-wage jobs to the South Asians; the French to the North Africans; the Americans and Canadians to Latinos and Filipinos; Qataris to Sri Lankans and Nepalese, and so on. There are overlaps, of course, because parts of Central and South America and large swathes of South and Southeast Asia have been exporting people everywhere. I write in Brown that the Philippines has become the world’s largest human resources department.

While I wouldn’t say it came as a surprise, researching the book highlighted the idea that tribalism is alive and well and even thriving in the twenty-first century. It’s possible that it is some kind of reaction to globalism, but I think it’s just human nature. We haven’t evolved past it yet. We still think in terms of who is my tribe and who is outside it.

TC: Underlying many of your stories are the twin spectres of colonialism and global capitalism—how these phenomena have re-organized and disrupted entire cultures and societies, and the impact of these disruptions on individual lives. Globalization and large-scale economic growth, such as that underway in Qatar, has the chance both to provide economic opportunity for some brown lives—like the South Asian migrant workers you interview—but also perpetuate abysmal working conditions that treat many brown bodies as invisible and expendable, as you suggest. In what ways have your own understandings of the intersections of class, race, and economic opportunity changed through researching and writing your book?

KA: Your analysis is spot on. The idea of brown bodies being dispensable really struck me. When one Sri Lankan falls to his death in Qatar, there are thousands like him waiting to take his place.  

But I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t aware of the connections between, for example, race and economic mobility until I started talking to some of my characters and experts. I’m a middle-class, professional gay man who has been insulated from much of this. As always, geographic and political context determines everything. One of the most enduring myths of neo-liberalism in the West, for example, is that hard work and industriousness trump race—in other words, that the neo-liberal society is colour blind or not race based. The success of so-called model minority—your South Asian doctor, Chinese business tycoon or Yemen-born journalist and professor—is offered as an example.

But outliers don’t represent the full story. For every brown and high-achieving surgeon, there are hundreds of thousands of taxi drivers, gas station attendants and office cleaners who have come to places like Canada and the US with high hopes but have ended up stuck in jobs that are precarious and offer no path to economic or social mobility. I must stress that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these jobs. Work is work. However, I do think that the concentration of migrants and new immigrants in low-paid and labour-intensive sectors says something about how our economy depends on their cheap labour. In many ways, brown migrants and immigrants, legal and illegal, have become the working class of Canada and the US.

In many ways, brown migrants and immigrants, legal and illegal, have become the working class of Canada and the US.

TC: Finally, the shadow of 9-11 and the increase in global terrorist attacks and anti-Muslim prejudice figures prominently in your book, particularly in the North American and European chapters. In many Western countries, anti-immigrant sentiments have been stoked by nationalist politicians, and economically disenfranchised electorates, seeking scapegoats, are increasingly blaming migrants of all sorts for their own woes. How do you understand the link between racism and the current anti-establishment political climate, in both Europe and North America? Do you think there is reason to fear that the scapegoating of brown bodies (in particular, Muslim bodies) you explore in your book will heighten in the West in the coming months and years?  

KA: One of the things I set out to prove in Brown is how resistance to multiculturalism and the rise in nationalist politics in Europe and North America is largely code, and not a subtle one, for anti-Muslim sentiment. The religion has become “colourized” as that of brown and given the face of mysterious men and women hiding behind beards or heard scarves. I despair when commentators call these movements “populist” and not “far right” or “racist.” We’re not willing to confront the xenophobia and pure racial animus at the heart of these movements so we direct attention to the “economically disenfranchised electorates” and hope that we won’t offend the racists among them. This makes me feel less optimistic about where these anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements will take us. I suspect toward a less tolerant and more ethnically divided world. I’m seeing echoes or even a revival of 1930s European politics. I’m glad I don’t have children, to be honest. It’s a dangerous time to be brown in the world today.


Excerpt from Brown

I remember the moment I realized I was brown. My brown face, my brown legs and my curly black hair began to weigh on my mind in a way they never had before. Let me take you back to Cairo, early 1974. For several days, one of Egypt’s two state television channels had been promoting the small-screen premiere of Oliver!, the 1968 film version of the British musical. It was a big deal in Cairo, and probably an omen for a city whose future poverty levels and income inequality would make Victorian London look like a socialist paradise. I write that with the full benefit of hindsight. I was a 9-year-old boy growing up as part of an expatriate Yemeni family, so I can’t say that I knew much about the economy or the distribution of wealth back then.

I can’t remember why I decided to stay up so late on a school night to watch a period musical about English orphans, pickpocketing gangs and prostitutes with teachable-moment altruism. I had but a passing familiarity with the story, and western musicals were an artistic taste I had yet to acquire. (I caught up with them as part of an education in all things camp and old Hollywood when I came out as a gay man in my early 20s.) The film aired just a few months short of my 10th birthday.

Life in Egypt had returned to normal after three weeks of fighting and humiliating—or so the propaganda machine would have Egyptians believe—the Israeli army in a war that had started on Oct. 6, 1973. The end of hostilities meant a return to regular programming and a break from the rotation of military- and nationalist-themed songs and documentaries. My father, a lifelong anglophile, probably insisted that we children watch this slice of Merrie Olde England—a display of all things English that only a hardcore colonial like him was permitted to find jolly or nostalgic.

About 20 minutes into the film, though, he lost interest. You could always tell when something he longed for turned out to be a dud, because he’d start talking through it. Probably he hadn’t realized that this was a musical version of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. He didn’t particularly like musicals, unless they starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, his childhood idols.

I, on the other hand, trembled on the inside as I watched the film. My world tilted in that moment, and I’m not sure it’s been set right since.

Excerpt from Brown by Kamal Al-Solaylee © 2016. Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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