By Menaka Raman-Wilms
The Ottawa Review of Books spoke to Rawi Hage in Toronto last month. Hage’s first two books, De Niro’s Game and Cockroach, were nominated for the Govenor General’s Award, and Cockroach was also a 2014 Canada Reads finalist. Hage recently released his third novel, Carnival. He is the winner of the International IMPACT Dublin Literary Award, the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and the McAuslan First Book Prize. He lives in Vancouver with author Madeleine Thien. ORB spoke to Rawi Hage at the Windup Bird Cafe in Toronto as he was preparing for an evening of literature and cuisine with the WBC's Sang Kim.
ORB: De Niro’s Game and Cockroach are both highly acclaimed stories with political undertones. Do you ever feel a personal responsibility towards writing? Do you think writers ever have an obligation to politics, or a duty to tell certain kinds of stories?
RH: It’s a choice. Every writer chooses, there’s no obligation in writing. Maybe there’s morality to a writer’s own political views, or maybe not. Some writings are apolitical and very successful. I guess it is more of an individual thing. Ultimately though, everyone is contributing to culture, whether it is inherently political or not. And is culture political in nature? I personally think it is.
ORB: Does fiction have power in a way that nonfiction and other art forms do not when it comes to dealing with political issues?
RH: Fiction had a power, and it still has a certain status. But I don’t know what the future holds. I think the medium is becoming a bit too long for this new generation, who doesn’t have the same attention span as the older generation. With Twitter, everything has become so immediate and shorter, and life has become faster. I don’t know to what extent people will still be reading a book of 200 pages, where the language is figurative, where there are all these images. It might shrink and become an academic study field eventually. That’s the pessimistic view. But then again, I meet a lot of young people who still read, so I might be totally off about that.
ORB: Cockroach got a lot of press last year when it was chosen as a finalist for Canada Reads, CBC’s annual book debate. Samantha Bee passionately championed the novel – do you think her defense of it has changed the way people approach Cockroach?
RH: Canada Reads gave the novel exposure, of course. Cockroach is a critical book; it’s a dark book. I think fundamentally Samantha Bee is not just a comedian, she’s an activist, and not surprisingly, humour is becoming more and more effective in this political game. Interesting to see, but not surprising. There’s dark humour in Cockroach, a lot of dark humour, and maybe Samantha related to that. But I think what she really rallied around was the poverty, and ultimately she championed marginality. There are a lot of people who relate to the book and her defense of it, especially immigrants. They relate to that kind of experience, but there’s no collective immigrant experience.
ORB: Cockroach has certainly added to the discussion on the experience of Canadian immigrants. Do you feel that Canada’s conversation around immigration is evolving?
RH: I think immigration has started to take a different toll on Canada. It’s become more and more about money. I don’t think a poet gets much of a chance to arrive here these days – it’s all about money now. The nature of immigration has changed. Immigration is now based on how individuals fit economically within Canada, not culturally. Maybe Cockroach is about the last poor immigrants that came to Canada. I don’t know. I think we’ll see more of a changed society in the future. With time, Cockroach might seem more and more unlikely. There might be historical value to it, because more and more the immigrants who are coming here are rich. I think our views on immigration and immigrants might really change over time. And this is specific to Canada: Canadians excel at this type of systematic immigration. It’s quintessentially Canadian. In Europe, immigration is a mix, because you have all classes, you still have refugees, illegal immigrants: Europe has a totally different immigration, that’s why it’s much more confrontational. Ours is becoming immigration where you have to have a certain skill, or you have to have money.
ORB: In the last few years you’ve begun mentoring emerging writers – what has it been like to teach writing? Does teaching creative writing make you think about the process any differently?
RH: I’ve done a residency that involves some one-on-one consultation, I don’t think of it as teaching. I’ve done a few workshops. My residency was open to the public so anyone could send their manuscripts and we’d discuss it. It was a whole mix of people. It’s very enjoyable. I find it easy. We ended up talking about many things, not just writing. It’s about personal connection. I think most people who start writing really want some kind of assurance whether they should continue or not. So far, I’ve managed to keep all of that separate from the process of my own work. Writing is such a subjective art. I think writing is the result of something, of some kind of intellectual acquisition. It’s the end of something.
ORB: Many Canadian writers are now emerging from post-secondary creative writing programs, which is quite different from previous generations of Canadian authors. You’ve seen this process of teaching creative writing first-hand during your residency at Vancouver Public Libraries. What are your thoughts on this system of teaching creative writing?
RH: I do it, but I don’t always believe in it. I try not to fall into clichés. I try to show the wider aspect of writing. I don’t teach it the same way; sometimes there’s too much methodology and technicality in teaching writing. I still don’t know what character development means. It’s a big industry though, and it’s branching into many things. I feel I’m not really in a position to say because I’ve never taken these courses, but I believe in natural born writers. I tend to think that way. That might be dismissive of many people, and again, many writers went to school and did those programs and are doing great.
ORB: Do you have plans for what’s next? Are you working on something at the moment?
RH: I’m just going to go back to Montreal, sit down and focus on the next project. I am working a bit. But I find that teaching can be a bit of an interruption, so I’m going to take some time away. I’ve seen the world now; I’m going to go back to the cave and write.
ORB: Thank you for taking the time to speak with the Ottawa Review of Books.