By Ahmad Danny Ramadan
I remember when I met André Aciman, author of Call Me By Your Name. I knew of Aciman before his fame with the release of the Oscar-winning movie adaptation of his book, as I read his wonderful, and highly underrated, debut novel Out of Egypt, and fell in love with his detailed, deeply impactful writing. The famed, award-winning author was a guest on a festival we both were invited to, and he was placed in the room next door to mine in our hotel. Busy with the festival, I never paid attention to my neighbours. My fiancé Matthew had a more leisurely schedule. He apparently befriended the older New Yorker, who didn’t bother to formally introduce himself. Matthew, not connecting the dots, ended up spending two days hanging out with a man he was unaware was one of my idols in writing. They had coffee together, ate cake and chitchatted about the world and its politics. A day or two before the festival’s end, Matthew pointed out Aciman in the festival café introducing him as our neighbour, and I almost fell off my chair welcoming the acclaimed author to our table.
“I’m always asked,” I told him, two glasses of wine to calm my nerves later, “if my work is based on my own lived experience.” I added that what bothered me the most was that my fictions were already assumed to be a works of non-fiction and that my characters, therefore, were only a reflection of myself. “I am a queer Syrian man with a refugee experience who writes about queer Syrian refugees,” I reflected. “Maybe it is just expected for people that I only write about my own traumas.”
“Well, I’m a Jewish New Yorker who was born in Egypt. I’m married to a woman and I have kids,” he replied. “Still people ask me if Call Me By Your Name is a story based on my real life events.”
Sure enough, at his event that night, one of the questions asked of Aciman was if Call Me By Your Name, a coming of age story of a queer Jewish boy in Italy falling in love with his professor father’s older male student is based on his real life events.
I remember when I released my first collection of short stories in Arabic. I was nineteen, and I used to publish my short fiction on one of these forums, the original social media platform before Facebook and Twitter. Living in Syria, the only outlet for my writing was publishing these stories for free online and getting feedback from likeminded writers and readers across the Arab World. I was approached by a publisher in Egypt who proposed putting together a collection of short stories and bringing me to Egypt for a release around their International Cairo Book Fest. The publisher couldn’t afford a flight for me, so I took a forty hours bus ride from hell between my birthplace of Damascus and Cairo, the city that would become my home for the next eight years. He published 500 copies of the collection, titled Death and Other Fools. Our audience was mainly other members of the forum where I’d originally published my short stories.
I have two copies of that collection on my bookshelf right here in Vancouver. I pull a copy out sometimes and read through it. I shake my head at the extreme tendencies of my teenage self to over-expose my characters, and their lack of opening belief systems or deep conflicts. I look through my own words and I feel a bit embarrassed. The collection is a series of stories about jilted lovers and broken relationships with enough teenage angst to set the whole world on fire.
I also notice the subtext I left, mainly for myself, between my lines back then.
I was a queer kid living in a homophobic society, trying to hide my sexual orientation under what I perceived as a layer of extreme masculinity. It’s a laughable concept right now, looking back at old photos of myself doing the twink thing and praying to God no one could see through my veil. My writing, however, reflected my conflict with my own sexual orientation to the experienced eye: I wrote stories with a first person perspective using the voice of a female character longing for the love of the boy next door; I used magical realism to draw lines about inner conflicts and finding love even with hidden scars on one’s skin; and I used the second person narrative to avoid gendering the lover in many stories, and used “you” as a pronoun for many of my main characters’ love interests. Elevators were my favourite place for conflicting scenes: the limited space, the lack of windows or gazers, and the ability to find yourself in a place where society is literally and figuratively denied access to your existence. These spaces were the right place for the unspoken in my stories.
I was seen as a writer of fiction back then: no one asked me if the many lovers in my stories were based on actual lived experiences. It was understood, as I was navigating the mainstream society and its stories, that my stories were the daughters of my own mind. I was seen as a young writer navigating concepts rather than narrating life.
It’s funny to me that when I was assimilating the society around me in my stories, my writing was celebrated. It’s funny to me that when I present authentic stories from my own community now, my writing is questioned as non-fiction.
In his review of my debut English novel, my dear friend and loved mentor Kamal Al-Solaylee writes that he “wondered if The Clothesline Swing wouldn’t have been more gripping as a memoir. I’m not suggesting that everything here is autobiographical, nor do I want to conflate the narrator and novelist, but Ramadan could have handled the lines between the two genres with more care.”
These lines from a review that came out over two years ago have stayed with me. I wondered back then, and I still wonder now, how to handle the lines between fiction and non-fiction. I wrote The Clothesline Swing as an attempt to authentically tell a queer Syrian refugee story, and for that authenticity to come through, some of the details of my personal life slipped into the book for sure, as well as the details of personal stories that I borrowed from other queer Syrian refugees with permission. Life is stranger than fiction, and truthfully, some of the stories included in the book are stories of lives lived by myself and others like me. Yet, I still consider myself a writer of fiction; which by its own definition is literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people. Imaginary being the keyword here.
I look at the work I did while I was living in the Middle East and search for myself through the lines and I rarely find me speaking truthfully. My old stories are like negative photos. I look at the imagination in the story, and I can see the truth through its opposite; I can see what’s hidden because of the walls built around it. My debut novel is, in its essence an attempt to tell the story as authentically and truthfully as it could be; to take the photograph and develop its negative into a perfectly coloured image.
Yet that authentic work becomes a window for people to invade my own personal story, and search for clues to my own traumas; as if my writing is only valid if it’s pure imagination of fiction, or a truthful telling of traumatic non-fiction.
I wonder sometimes if navigating the line between fiction and non-fiction and being steadily clear on which side of this line you’re on is a curse only authors of marginalized backgrounds and identities must balance on. The logic holds because, to my knowledge, non-marginalized authors are not asked about the truth in their fiction or the imagination in their memoirs: No one asks French-Canadian Booker winning author Yann Martel about his experiences living on a boat for 227 days with a tiger and a zebra. No one wonders if Elizabeth Gilbert inserted a bit of fiction into her memoir of eating pasta, practicing Shavasana, and drinking wine with a warm-blooded Latin lover.
“You mention in your book that your mother was mentally ill and that she passed away due to a gunshot wound,” an audience member asked me in the Q&A section after a recent event. “Can you tell us more about that childhood traumatic experience and how you handled it?”
“I think you’re mistaken me for my main character, Hakawati,” I responded with a smile. She felt embarrassed for bringing up the question and I assured her that this was not the first time I’ve been asked a similar question. “My mother was mentally ill,” she told me after the event, whispering between the two of us. “You write so beautifully about the experience of growing up with a challenging childhood, I was sure you must have been through it.”
There is a tendency amongst the audiences of marginalized authors, such as myself, to assume that every piece of writing is a reflection of real-life events that the author went through. There is this tunnel vision that many audience members get; it generalizes the experience of one marginalized writer for it to become the general experience of that marginalized community. That tendency is a gaze that engulfs all those who identify within one community under one simplistic version of a narrative. A Disney-like mentality where Aladdin has elements of every Middle-Eastern and Far Asian culture combined together in this unattainable, cartoonish mix that doesn’t feel authentic to any of the cultures it appropriates. While it’s easy for me to recognize the harmless intention of those asking such questions, generalizing as they may, I wonder if the pure intentions are in fact enough of an excuse to erase the harmful impact such mentality affects.
For one, confusing fiction with non-fiction impacts my own identity as an author: my ability to write a novel that describes imaginary events and people is questioned if every piece of fiction I write is confused for my lived experience. In a way, I’m told that I’m not a good enough writer to write fiction because my fiction is rooted in the community I come from and our lived experiences. “Real” fiction, therefore, is by definition an act of cultural appropriation that is attained by navigating experiences that the author has not personally lived, whither that is writing about a different class, a different race, or a different sexual orientation or gender identity; or a combination of some or all of the above.
Another challenge is that under this gaze my future as a fiction writer is limited and possibly doomed. I plan to continue writing stories inspired by the experiences of queer Syrian refugees, mainly because I do believe that there are a million other stories out there that are unique and personal and authentic and that they are all deserving of telling. But, when my next novel, The Foghorn Echoes, comes out, which of my characters is going to become the new me? Which of the conflicts, with their traumatic impact, will be considered my own?
Finally, I wonder if I’m doomed to always perform trauma in order for my work to be relevant. The thing that inspires me the most to write is truly the ability of my characters to show resilience in the face of traumatic experiences; to show their capacity for love to one another and to themselves in the face of civil war, homophobia, xenophobia or racism. My characters will never fit the white-gaze version of what a Syrian refugee would ever be like; they are written to perform truthfully as their authentic selves. Some of them will integrate into Canadian society, others might reject it or assimilate to it. Some of them will bring some of their Syrian culture with them, others might erase their past. Why? Because that’s authentic storytelling. That’s the complex experience of being a queer refugee in a new land, and it deserves telling.
“I wonder if the demand that marginalized artists repeatedly perform trauma—becoming trauma clowns—in our art is a way to contain and oppress us, politely or indirectly, from the comfort of a seat, hands clean,” Vivek Shraya writes in her wonderfully exquisite essay, “Trauma Clown: How did the suffering of marginalized artists become so marketable.” “What happens when the kinds of trauma I have experienced aren’t trendy or traumatic enough to ‘sell’?”
I can’t help but feel that I might be limited to this role; that my writing is only valid and celebrated if I admit to its traumatic roots. When I write a queer refugee story, am I demanded to write real lived experiences I lived through, or would my readers be satisfied with fiction based on truthful emotional experiences that doesn’t require me to unveil my own personal history while I am at it.
We ask too much of authors of marginalized identities. We want them to tell us their truth through their non-fiction, and represent their communities through their fiction, and to be able to run, with no safety net, on both these lines balancing like a circus act. We want them to be social justice warriors standing for the rights of their own community and tweeting away at every interval of change in the landscape of our ever-evolving political mayhem. We want them to be intersectional and informed on every aspect of the challenges facing the human race: climate change, migration, the political far right, the rise of the new Nazi wave, the Honk Kong protests, and all the upcoming elections. We need them to be extroverted on stages, showing us their depth of emotions and telling us about their traumas, while also being strong and powerful enough to bear witness to our own sympathy for their wounds, as they open them up for all of us to see. We want them to fight for a diverse Canadian literature scene, while also navigating the challenges of finding publishing houses and literary agencies to represent them. We want them to be all of that and more, and we want them, on top of all of this, to write excellent literature.
We want these authors to be everything, and I wonder, sometimes, if all I can do is simply be myself: write whatever the hell I want to write, mix genres whichever way I want to, save myself the traumatic experience of unfolding my lived experiences on stages across Canada, or – if I ever wish to, and feel safe to – bleed my true life traumas in front of an audience I trust to cherish them, be empathic towards them and truly respect them.
Today, I might be brave and tell you my truth; tomorrow, I might be tired, and hide behind my fictions; I am fine with myself either way, but will the audience ever be fine with me?
Ahmad Danny Ramadan is an award-winning Syrian-Canadian author, public speaker and LGBTQ-refugees activist. His debut novel, The Clothesline Swing, continues to receive praise, and is translated to multiple languages. He is currently working on his next novel, The Foghorn Echoes, and a collection of short fiction, The Syrian Survival Notebook. His children’s book, Salma the Syrian Chef, published by Annick Press, is to be released in 2020. He was named among the Top Immigrants to Canada 2017, and has received the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Award for Excellency, and the Independent Publishers Book Award for LGBTQ fiction among others. He is currently finishing his Masters in Fine Arts—Creative Writing at UBC and lives with his husband-in-training in Vancouver.