Artful Musing

THE ARTFUL BLOGGER: Sonia Saikaley discusses her new book, speed writing, belly dancing, and the benefits of watching gay porn

By Paul Gessell

Local writer Sonia Saikaley wrote her first award-winning novella in three weeks.

Ottawa author Sonia Saikaley launches her new novella The Lebanese Dishwasher on June 5. It’s a rather bleak tale about a young man who immigrates to Canada from Lebanon, works a dead-end job, and faces discrimination from other Lebanese ex-pats for being gay. But he does find love.

The manuscript of The Lebanese Dishwasher was written in three hurried weeks so the author could qualify for a chance to win the Ken Klonsky Novella Contest and get her book published by Quattro Books.

Well, Saikaley did win, although she was asked to rewrite some of the gay love scenes to make them seem more realistically gay. To accomplish that goal, Saikaley did more research, including watching some gay porn to see just exactly what it is two men do together.

Saikaley was recently interviewed by The Artful Blogger:

What is the genesis of The Lebanese Dishwasher? Were you inspired by something in particular to write this story?
The Lebanese Dishwasher began as a challenging writing exercise. I was having a tough time last year and feeling quite discouraged. I was approaching 40 and hadn’t yet had a book published after several years of writing. I actually thought about giving up writing altogether, giving up on my dream, but then I saw Quattro Books’ call for submissions to their Ken Klonsky Novella Contest and thought “why not submit something?” Unfortunately, I didn’t have a short story long enough or a novel I felt I could shorten and the deadline landed during a time that was impossible for me to meet, due to other circumstances in my life. I knew that if I wanted to enter this contest, I would have to complete a manuscript in three weeks. I thought I was crazy to think I could write an entire novella in that short time period, but then a friend said I’m not crazy at all, just ambitious! I was also very fortunate that Quattro Books was willing to give a new voice a chance.

I guess you can say the discouragement and frustration I was feeling in my own life at that moment inspired me to write about my protagonist who hates being a dishwasher and feels his dream has somehow drowned in foamy dishwater. But as I was writing this story, I felt it had to be more than just about a man who is frustrated with his job and so I decided to explore the topic of homosexuality, which is often taboo in Middle Eastern cultures, and other cultures as well. I am intrigued with writing about issues that are not always widely discussed in Canadian literature. It’s important to get these topics out in the open so they spark dialogue and, hopefully, change.

The cover for The Lebanese Dishwasher.

Do you think the hardships and discrimination faced by your character, Amir, are typical of the experiences of gay Lebanese men who come to Canada?
I think that most gay Lebanese men who come to Canada don’t actually come out of the closet. Of course, there are a few who do but in my own Lebanese community, I don’t know any men who are openly gay. Homosexuality is still very much taboo in the Lebanese-Canadian community. I have seen how people react when they suspect a man might be gay. They are often ignored or not taken seriously. Some face harassment at the workplace like my character Amir, and I have heard of certain instances where some young men are thrown out of their houses when they confess their homosexuality to their families. It is this intolerance that forces many gay Lebanese men and women to keep their sexual orientation a secret. The abuse my protagonist and his lover face magnifies the discrimination same-sex couples are subjected to, especially if they live in a society where different lifestyles are not accepted.

Did you undertake some form of research to better understand the experiences of people like Amir?
My father was a wonderful storyteller in the oral tradition and he often spoke about his struggles as a new immigrant in Canada. Through my parents’ memories and my own experience of being a foreigner in Japan [where Saikaley taught English], I was able to understand the loneliness and disconnection some new citizens face in a new country. Because the first draft of my novella was written in three weeks, I had very little time to do major research into the gay lifestyle but thankfully during the editing process, I had more opportunities to research and to speak with some members of Ottawa’s LGBT community. There was a significant problem with my first draft…it seemed I was writing about a male-female relationship, so I needed to beef up the male eroticism. Now that required a lot more research and a few visits to some gay bars! I dragged my sisters along…and we had a blast. Everyone was so welcoming! I love observing people. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this but I also, ahem, watched some gay porn. Ah, the things we do for artistic endeavours!

How is your book being received in the Lebanese-Canadian community generally?
For the most part, I have received positive reactions. Most people are curious about the book and some have thanked me for writing about this important topic. Some have shared that they have a relative who is gay and know the difficulties they face in our community. Many also like the fact that I give a glimpse into our Lebanese heritage by describing the rich foods and traditions of the old country. A couple of weeks ago I attended a Lebanese church event and one of the parishioners approached me, having recognized me from the photograph on the back of my novella, and she said I was quite brave to write about such a taboo topic. She said she enjoyed the book and loved the fast pace of it. There have been others within the Lebanese-Canadian community who are upset with the book’s content, but not everyone will be supportive. I’m hoping those offended by the subject matter might learn to empathize with the gay characters in my novella and come to see that love is love, whether it’s gay or straight.

What kind of reception would this book get in Lebanon itself?
Apparently some of the best gay bars are in Beirut. Gay people exist. Although I believe homosexuality still remains illegal in Lebanon, Beirut’s gay scene is growing. However, from what I understand, most people remain quiet about their homosexuality, worried about their parents’ reaction and the harassment they would face from family members and colleagues if they were openly gay. I imagine being gay in Lebanon, especially in the rural areas, would be very difficult. I’m afraid the book might not receive a positive reception given that homosexuality is still not widely discussed within families and the general public. But Lebanon is more tolerant for homosexuals compared to other Arab countries, so there is hope that my book might initiate further discourse there. It is encouraging to see that my novella has been [tweeted about] on some Gay Middle East and Lebanese LGBT websites.

Tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do when you’re not writing?
I was born and raised in Ottawa. I grew up in a traditional Lebanese household and much of my writing is influenced by my rich Middle Eastern heritage. I have lived in Japan where I taught English and introduced belly dancing to my students. I’m a terrible belly dancer, but it was a lot of fun to share this aspect of my background with my Japanese students. I am a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the University of Ottawa. I have been an office assistant for several years. When I’m not writing, I enjoy long walks. I like travelling and learning about other cultures and people. My personal relationships are of the utmost importance to me, and I love spending time with my family and friends, trying new foods or new adventures and misadventures!

What is your next literary project?
I am currently working on a novel entitled Fishing Season in Gaza. It’s about a young woman who is disfigured after her family thinks she has brought shame onto them. Another difficult, sad story, but one I feel must be told. My poetry collection Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter will be published by TSAR Publications in the fall 2012.

The Lebanese Dishwasher will be launched June 5 at 6 p.m. at BOM Burgers on Main (upstairs), 343 Somerset St. W.