Saturday, August 23, 2008

A tough act to follow for Rawi Hage

Toronto Star

He found his comfort zone in Montreal, but Lebanon-born Rawi Hage is still coming to terms with literary fame, fortune and the great expectations for his imminent second novel ... Privacy has been an increasingly precious commodity in Hage's life since June, when his debut novel, De Niro's Game, won the Impac Dublin Literary Award, the English-speaking world's most lucrative book prize, with a payout of nearly $160,000.

By Vit Wagner
Publishing Reporter

MONTREAL – Rawi Hage, the generally reserved, soft-spoken and contemplative novelist, is suddenly seized by a convulsive fit of laughter as he recalls his adjustment to life in Montreal.

"For the first two years, I was never invited into the home of anyone who grew up here," says Hage, 44, who left Lebanon in 1982 and landed here by way of New York a decade later. "Even after I started to make friends, it took a while to be invited into anyone's home.

"I'm not criticizing, but there is an obsession with privacy in this culture. I'm a part of it now, too. When I go back to Lebanon, I'm horrified by what little privacy there is over there."

Privacy has been an increasingly precious commodity in Hage's life since June, when his debut novel, De Niro's Game, won the Impac Dublin Literary Award, the English-speaking world's most lucrative book prize, with a payout of nearly $160,000.

It wasn't entirely a bolt from the blue. The book, originally published in 2006 by Toronto's House of Anansi Press, had previously been nominated in Canada for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, as well as winning a handful of awards in Quebec. It already counted as an impressive achievement for a first-time author.

But the international recognition vaulted De Niro's Game , which has now been sold in 16 countries, into the stratosphere. And its author has unexpectedly become a sought-after personality, with escalating demands on his time.

That's unlikely to change anytime soon.

Hage's hotly anticipated second novel, Cockroach , arrives this month, followed in the fall by the obligatory, cross-country promotional tour, including an appearance in October at Harbourfront Centre's International Festival of Authors.

"The book (De Niro's Game ) has been successful. I'm not going to deny it," Hage says. "I won a very prestigious award. I won a gold medal for Canada in literature.

"I understand the public dimension is necessary. And a part of it is really enjoyable. But it's intrusive. And it's getting really overwhelming. I have to protect myself. After the Canadian tour, I'm going to give myself a few months to disappear."

As he talks, Hage betrays little residual sense of himself as a Montreal outsider. Sitting on the leafy patio of a comfortably casual coffee spot near his apartment in Mile End, he talks passionately and authoritatively about the multi-ethnic neighbourhood's heritage as a dividing line between the city's predominantly French and English cultures.

In his acceptance speech in Dublin, Hage spoke poignantly of the human desire to both "roam the world" and "have homes to keep and build upon" – a balance he seems to have struck in his own life. Although he is about to embark on a September vacation that will take him to Paris, Beirut and Shanghai, he has lost whatever appetite he had for impermanence.

"This is home," says Hage. "I have friends here. And at a certain age, you get tired of wandering. If I went back to Lebanon or moved to some other place, I'd have to go through another immigration."

Unlike other émigré authors, who sometimes devote entire careers to writing about where they came from rather than where they live now, Hage has wasted comparatively little time bringing his literary talents to bear on his adopted city.

Cockroach, following its Beirut-set predecessor, is a Montreal novel. But it is a Montreal novel in which Canada's English and French solitudes are pushed into the background, supplanted by newcomers struggling to make a life for themselves in a new land. The city's Iranian community is a particular focus.

"I find mainstream characters horrifying. They bore me," Hage says. "I like to portray marginal characters. I like to explore and create that world. The Iranians in Montreal are a very small community. And they are Anglophones for the most part, which makes them even more marginalized."

The story is narrated by a jaded, resentful young Arab immigrant, who inhabits a filthy apartment while craftily meeting his need for nourishment and sexual gratification with minimum expenditure of effort. A thief, he does not wait for an invitation before entering the homes of others.

"In a way, he is forcing his welcome," Hage says. "By forcing himself into people's houses, he is forcing himself into their lives."

Real and imagined cockroaches figure prominently in the story, although the author insists he was not inspired in any way by that most famous example of literary beetle mania, Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

"I chose the cockroach because it's close to the earth," he says. "The cockroach is a survivor, not very welcome, resilient and a creature that penetrates people's homes very easily."

Instead, Hage happily credits the pantheon of Russian greats – including Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Turgenev – as influences on his writing.

"They have this great sense of humour, but there's also a lot of darkness. I've always been really attracted to that.

"Also, growing up in Lebanon, we had to memorize a poem every week and stand in front of the class and recite it. The delivery was as important as the memorization. That gave me an appreciation for the music in my ear."

The greatest assist, however, goes to Anansi publisher Lynn Henry who – as publishing legend will now forever have it – plucked De Niro's Game from the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. Henry also has worked as editor on both of Hage's books.

"She takes chances on me. She's amazing that way," says Hage, who spoke Arabic and French but knew very little English prior to emigrating from Lebanon.

"I like editors who are forgiving, who actually see something in the imperfections. My writing is all about the imperfections. It's so convoluted. And it's so bastardized by other languages."

Apparently unburdened by expectations already engendered by the Canadian success of De Niro's Game, Hage is "embarrassed" to admit that he wrote Cockroach in four months. "I'm always surprised at how much stuff I have. And how easy it is, at least so far.

"I start with a very vague plan. But I always end up with something totally different. I take tangents and don't hold back.

"There's something very experiential about my writing. I'm concerned with the world. I'm engaged. I have something I need to say."

And now, an expanding audience is listening.

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