Rawi Hage interview Stray Dogs

Montreal author Rawi Hage on his wild-ride short story collection Stray Dogs

Hage spoke with us about how a fear of dogs and photography gigs informed his writing, life during wartime, Bill 21 and more.

Since his 2006 debut novel De Niro’s Game, Rawi Hage has penned several more, earning an array of literary prizes, critical raves and translations into 30 languages. His writing, often stories of complicated cultural identities told through magical realism, have earned him a base of loyal followers.

His latest book, Stray Dogs is a collection of short stories, disparate tales that are loosely connected by the author’s exploration of ideas around photography. Hage keeps his readers’ heads spinning as he takes us inside the heads of his varied protagonists. His dream-like style is matched by his comic moments, which often enter into the absurd. Along the way, we get analysis of Lebanon’s obesity epidemic, meet a disaster prophet, peer inside the head of Mussolini’s love child and Sophia Loren even makes a cameo.

Hage spoke to Cult MTL from his Plateau home.

Matthew Hays: Stray Dogs is a collection of short stories. Why did you choose the form of short stories over the novel?

Rawi Hage: I wrote some short stories during the pandemic. I noticed that a number of the stories were about photography or light, so I set out to explore ideas around that. It’s a funny medium, but it’s also rich, in terms of its history. It’s been used for anything and everything, from wedding photography to surveillance. You can touch on so many issues: theology, the notion of light and dark, what’s visible and invisible. I studied photography at Concordia, so I have some knowledge of how it developed. It’s still alive, after 200 or 300 years. It’s a major capitalist commodity now. There are aspects of it now that are very narcissistic. But also, when I went to Concordia, ideas around postmodernism were developing, and photography itself, the kind that claimed to hold truth, was under attack. But it also did have a huge influence; if you look at the photos from the Vietnam War, those had an impact. I remember Eugene Smith, who went to places in the 1950s and captured the pollution destroying their communities. That diversity in my short stories reflects the diversity in photography. I could have continued writing about it.

MH: And you have a background as a photographer yourself.

RH: Yes, I worked as a wedding photographer as well. When I finished my degree, I couldn’t find a job so I did that. I experienced that side of it, which was very ugly, very kitsch, very brutal. It was abusive. I did fashion shows and was an assistant photographer at the time — you had to carry a lot of heavy equipment. I liked the dark room, because it was very contemplative. I have a history with photography. I can write about that era now because it’s no longer contested in the academic discourse. Now I can write about it as nostalgic, historic fact.

MH: The title again makes reference to dogs, something that comes up in your work repeatedly.

RH: There was a dogs massacre in my first novel. There are always dogs, I don’t know why. I have a fear of dogs. I’m trying to deal with it. It seems like a recurring theme. I finally faced it and called the book Stray Dogs. One of the stories is about people who photograph dogs. Also, most of the characters are like stray dogs, always on the move, living in the margins, unsettled. I thought I’d call the book Stray Dogs. Maybe I should have called it The Duplicate. It was between those two.

MH: Are you over your fear of dogs now?

RH: Yeah, more and more. I watched a few reality shows on dogs and how to train them and it made more sense to me. I’m less fearful than I was before. It’s a language I didn’t comprehend but now I understand.

MH: In interviews, you’ve said that artists and writers often see themselves as spokespeople for communities. And here we are: many see you as representative of Lebanon. Are you comfortable with that?

RH: I’m comfortable, as I write about it a lot. I write about Canada as well. I have a history with Lebanon. It’s a rich place to write about. It’s a microcosm of that encounter between East and West. There was always this mixture of religions, which now, to a certain extent with our multicultural society, we’re trying to face these things. Lebanon, for the most part, it was problematic, but there was also a period of grace, where coexistence happened. I think that’s what the West is now. If you look at Europe, or Canada for instance — probably Canada is the most successful — these coexistences are still in their early days. Lebanon has already gone through this for many years. In that sense, it is very relevant to the West.

MH: Is writing cathartic for you or do you see it simply as an artistic or creative endeavour?

RH: If you’re an emotional writer, you deal with all of these emotions, so it’s tiring. When you’re not writing, it’s also tiring because you don’t know what to do, and you always feel like you should be writing. So it’s one of those two things.

MH: So being a writer is hell is what you’re saying.

RH: Your only consolation is that you’re doing something.

MH: Bill 21 is now the law. What are your thoughts on it?

RH: Having lived in a place where religion is so dominant and it becomes an identity, I’m a firm believer that there should be a separation between religion and state. That said, everyone should be accepted and be free to dress the way they are. I think there should be a debate and that it should go on. But I’m opposed to (Bill 21); it’s a drastic measure. Society is changing rapidly, and demographics are changing more rapidly than many would like to admit. I think it’s a reaction to that. It’s an archaic argument. It doesn’t make sense.

Stray Dogs by Rawi Hage

MH: In your work, I feel a consistent tension, that between a sense of belonging and place, and on the other a sense of alienation. Both exist simultaneously. Do you feel Montreal is home now?

RH: Yes, I do. I like it here. I feel very comfortable here. People like me, who are crossed between two peoples, are the future. It’s much more cosmopolitan than we think. It’s also a very progressive city. It has some values from elsewhere. I look at the public spaces for example. It still has a very Bohemian characteristic. There’s a lot of sexual liberty here. It’s a different frame of mind. We need this city in Canada. When anglos come here, they come with a certain liberty, they want to live a certain experience. Some people are going to be marginal, but that’s much of the city. It’s not a puritanical city at all — au contraire.

MH: No, you can get an abortion here, even if you’re not pregnant.

RH: (laughs) Yes.

MH: Novels and now short stories — is theatre next?

RH: I guess that would complete my mission as a writer, to do all three. The theatre is full of dialogue, which is fascinating. But I like to describe things, so it would be a real challenge for me. Theatre is for people who like to talk a lot.

MH: What is happening in Ukraine right now must be impacting you, given your own experiences living through war.

RH: Yeah, the sad thing about this is, this whole democracy grace period, as an idea that was dominant, is being challenged on a great big scale. It’s terrifying. It’s now possible that we could experience life in a dictatorship. That’s terrifying. I think the alliances are clear. Europe might change. Some might argue, get rid of democracy because democracy has its roots in capitalism and capitalism is linked to colonialism, but people who never experienced dictatorship, they don’t know how brutal it is. I hear stories from the Arab world of people living in dictatorships. If you buy the wrong newspaper, you’re questioned. I remember going through Lebanon and having to go through Syrian checkpoints. There are so many things that are brutal about them. But many people are much more comfortable living under dictatorships. We’re lucky we’re here. ■

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

Stray Dogs(Knopf, 201 pages, $29.95) by Rawi Hage is out now.

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