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Giller Prize Special 2022: The Chat with Rawi Hage


Our next instalment of this special Scotiabank Giller Prize edition of The Chat features our conversation with Montreal-based author Rawi Hage (Knopf Canada). His short fiction collection Stray Dogs is a 2022 finalist.

The 2022 Giller Prize jury says,

Of the collection, the jury writes, "The short stories in Rawi Hage’s Stray Dogs fuse spare, graceful language with world-spanning design. Haunted by war and movement, families fragment and cultures stretch. As the characters cross borders in pursuit of careers and relationships, they are pulled back through fissures in memory. We follow academics and photographers to Montréal, Berlin, and Tokyo, and yet those geographical distances can appear less vast than the cultural distance between a childhood in rural Lebanon and a privileged adulthood in Beirut. Just as travel is grounded by return, accomplishment is undercut by uncertainty, and urbane arrogance often rests on a foundation of humble circumstances. Movement is met with recurring meditations on the static images of photography. The writing is streamlined and confident, understated and wry. As the stories develop, we are confronted by their surprising, lifelike inevitability."

Rawi Hage was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war during the 1970s and 1980s. He immigrated to Canada in 1992 and now lives in Montreal. His first novel, De Niro’s Game, won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for the best English-language book published anywhere in the world in a given year, and has either won or been shortlisted for seven other major awards and prizes, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award. Cockroach was the winner of the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. It was also shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award and the Giller Prize. His third novel, Carnival, told from the perspective of a taxi driver, was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Award and won the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. His work has been translated into 30 languages.


What advice would you give your ten-year-old self about the future?

Live the same life, but with more acceptance and fewer regrets.


In an alternate version of the world—one in which you are not a writer—what career would you choose?

Photographer or cook or Greek demi-god.

If you could take a road trip with any author, living or dead, who would it be and where would you go?

Mikhael Naimy, and we would go from Russia all the way back to his village Baskinta in Mount Sannine.

What’s the last Canadian book that changed you in some way?

Louis Riel, by Chester Brown.

The characters in Stray Dogs often find themselves moving through various kinds of borders, often finding themselves in-between nations and relationships and states of being. This existential and material liminality comes up a lot in your work. Can you talk more about why you are drawn to this theme?

I think with time I have become more convinced that we ought to seek a universal solidarity that transcends restrictive borders and nation states. My characters are ultimately tragic wanderers, victims of the demarcations and confinements imposed on us by systems of tradition and conformity.


Excerpt from Stray Dogs

In 2011, I was offered a writing residency in Berlin. I was given an apartment in Kreuzberg. I worked on a novel in the mornings and smoked outside on the balcony in the afternoons. Whenever I leaned on the edge of the balcony, I would see below me a street, a lamp and a garden. One day when I was out there, a woman standing in the garden waved at me. A moment later, her husband joined in. I waved back and nodded.

During the day, I spent a great deal of time alone, writing and reading. In the evening, it became my custom to join the couple in their garden for a beer or two.

Lukas was an erstwhile photographer. Hannah held a clerical job.

We talked about our lives, politics, books. We exchanged anecdotes and political opinions. Photography was Lukas’s profession, but he also had a long history of “involvement with syndicates,” and in his youth had been a member of a German anarchist group.

One night, Hannah confided that Lukas had lost hope in the world. He had lost his belief in humanity. He talks about his causes, Hannah told me, but their defeat has been too much to bear. The radical in him has diminished, and he’s retreating into himself.

A garden is every warrior’s final objective, I said.

I wish he would go back to photography, Hannah said.

He was happier back then.

Well, I quipped, every hero is a being without talent. I was quoting the Romanian-French philosopher Cioran, but as soon as I realized my insult, I excused myself and rushed back up to my apartment.

Another night, at a party at Hannah and Lukas’s home, a man who looked like Marx—long beard, round face, broad shoulders and belly—approached and asked me what I was writing about. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and patted it on his forehead, then on his cheeks, and finally inflated it loudly with his nostrils.

I said, joking, I am writing about the German soul.

He chuckled, tucked his piece of cloth in his front pocket this time and asked me to explain.

I said, Germans have a distant and cautious approach to strangers, which I prefer to the overly familiar approach to others in French colonial history.

So, presuming the strangeness of others is right in your opinion? he asked.

It allows for curiosity and the possibility of a future dialogue, I replied.

So long as we are curious, he replied, we tend to tolerate. Indeed, I said. Familiarity breeds contempt, to quote the French novelist Stendhal.

You studied French literature?

I nodded and volunteered that my work dealt with how photographic images appear in literature. The man nodded too and took a sip from his beer. You know, he said. He paused before continuing: This is a tight group. So I was not curious about you, I must admit. I was not interested. If anything, I have some hostility towards your type. I am opposed to the money that our government squanders on foreign artists like you, on getting them to come and live here and spend time on their inconsequential bourgeois projects. This money should go to social programmes. You certainly fit the type they go for. Let me guess: you are French-educated, wealthy—and yet here is our government, sprinkling cash on developing-world, privileged sorts like you. I feel that the money spent on you could easily be put to better use. Because of you and the likes of you, our neighbourhoods now are gentrified, and our Berlin is changing. You are either naive or you’re complicit with neoliberal capitalism masquerading as a cultural contribution to the world.

I think you’re partially right about who I am, I conceded. But what does our host Lukas think?

The same, he said. We all think the same here about your kind.

I felt like leaving at that moment, but Hannah, who was watching from across the room, came over and led me by the hand into the kitchen. Let’s have a photo of the three of us, she said, and she pulled Lukas over.

You looked upset, and I wanted to save you, she said in a low voice. Santa over there can be offensive. Don’t listen to him.

Soon after, I left quietly.

The next day, after my afternoon nap and feeling satisfied with the progress of my writing, I went down to the garden for my customary beer with Hannah and Lukas. I sat down and handed Lukas a bottle. We didn’t talk about the night before. Over time, I had learned that the strength of a close-knit social group lies in its ability to compartmentalize. Lukas asked me what I was up to.

I leave tomorrow for Beirut for a conference on photography, I said. You should come and visit my city sometime.

He nodded and replied, I will.

The conference was to be held at the American University of Beirut. I didn’t expect many people to attend my lecture, as my subject was not directly related to anything overtly political—the Arab world, the Palestinian cause or any such stressful subjects. Instead, my presentation would be on the final passage in James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” and I knew that exploring the topic of the spatial in the work of James Joyce would be seen as an indulgence, a luxury.

In the last scene of the story, the protagonist Gabriel gazes at a window and describes his memories in a gradual visual movement, evoking a series of photographs that simultaneously detail the spatial and the psychological. We see the window, a lamp, the River Shannon and, at the centre of the montage, the burial site of the young Michael Furey, Gabriel’s wife’s once-upon-a-time lover.

In reviewing this passage, I would emphasize the personal, local and national context of the objects and places we observe, expanding on the mention of the river in this text and in Joyce’s work generally, and simultaneously exploring the idea of the photograph as a subject suspended between life and death. I would allude to Barthes’s aphorism in Camera Lucida that every photograph is an image of what has passed, and I would even dare to say that photography functions as a prophecy of death—overtly linking these observations to the title of Joyce’s story, “The Dead.”

The more I thought about the presentation of my paper, the more I felt that I was ultimately describing a particular suspended existence—my own. And now I felt the temptation to introduce another metaphor: my own identity as a person perpetually suspended between cultures, religions and geographies. But a part of me also hated that narcissism and opportunism, so prevalent in academia.

After reflecting on this for a while, I concluded that while my work was indeed about ephemerality, it was not about the ephemerality of the self. Rather, it examined the ephemerality of the image of the self. Every hybrid was a partial death, an incomplete acquisition of the original.

The day after the party at Lukas and Hannah’s—the day before I left for the conference—I strongly felt my state of suspension. All I could think about were the characters in “The Dead,” the woman who had lost her first lover for the incomplete acquisition of another, and the inevitability that she would lose them both.


Excerpted from STRAY DOGS. Copyright © 2022 by Rawi Hage. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Canada. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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