As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Competition, we're introducing the readers who read hundreds of your stories in search of the best.
Here's Kamal Al-Solaylee on liking show tunes, teaching journalism, and being imaginative but not cavalier with facts.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I’ve lived in Toronto since 1996 when I moved to Canada from the United Kingdom where I was a graduate student in English. I’m first and foremost an arts critic (theatre, books) and a feature writer. I was a theatre critic for the Globe and Mail for over four years. I’ve written features and reviews for the Toronto Star, Elle Canada, Xtra!, The Walrus, Toronto Life, Literary Review of Canada, and Quill & Quire, among others.What's your day job?
I’m an associate professor and the undergraduate program director at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. Although it’s hard to call it a day job because it bleeds into my nights and weekends for eight months of the year. Students (and some colleagues) expect you to be on your email 24/7—which I am because I’m totally addicted to my iPhone. I can’t imagine what my life was like when I had to wait to get home to check my messages. How did I survive such barbarism? I think I’m a more civilized person for being able to check my messages every 60 seconds or so. Agree?
What's your literary street cred?
Oh my. Street cred and I have never been in any close proximity or even in the same sentence. Ever. I’m so terminally unhip. I mean I like show tunes, for crying out loud. (Real Broadway stuff and not the crap the kids listen to on Glee.) But, for the record, I’ve written a family memoir called Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes (HarperCollins Canada) which was a finalist for the 2012 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, a Globe and Mail book of the year and a nominee for the Lambda Literary Awards in the gay memoir/biography. I hope that gives me some literary street cred.
What are you working on now?
I’m extremely secretive about my writing projects. I don’t trust other writers. So I’ll just say that I’m working on a book of nonfiction that is not autobiographical but touches on my racial and ethnic identity. I hate vague and suspicious people and I’ve become the poster middle-aged man for both demographics with this answer.
What do you like most about creative nonfiction?
I do like a certain commitment to the truth or at least a version of the truth. I’m a former journalist and a current journalism professor so I’m a bit obsessed with verification and standards of proof. Creative nonfiction allows me to be imaginative but not cavalier with facts. It connects me to my roots as a journalist.
When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most compelling ones, what are you looking for?
Well, I did read more than 500 stories so I found myself gravitating to two things: first is a freshness or originality of subject matter. Second is elegance and beauty in expressing any subject matter. A familiar story of, say, first love or childhood trauma is not necessarily out of the running because the tale has been told before. It’s eliminated when there’s no original take on the familiar or the everyday, when it’s just a rehash of a dinner-party anecdote. Racountours who can write are a dying breed.
What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
I walked away from my reading duties convinced that there are two main narratives this country and each one is as vital as the other in creating the Big Book of Canada, as it were. I read several traditional Canadian stories of growing up in the Prairies or Alberta in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s against harsh winters and expansive landscapes. I think I would have frozen to death had I been born two generations ago. (I don’t believe this country has experienced a mild winter between 1930 and 1959.) These are largely Euro-centric narratives and capture the roots of modern Canada. And then there’s the new version of the same story from the ’80s and ’90s with a more urban migration and a more culturally diverse cast of characters, largely but not exclusively from South Asia and the Middle East. So if the former lived and worked on farms, the latter relocated to community housing or the suburbs and toiled at call centres or as limo drivers.
Has being a reader changed anything about how you approach your own writing? Would you do anything different if you were to submit to the competition?
Yes, yes, yes. I’m more convinced than ever that the best writing is poised and confident and doesn’t try too hard to be gimmcky or grab attention in a look-at-me-I’m-clever sort of way. I let my writing take its course and not try to win the reader’s attention by verbally startling them every other line. So many entries tried to do just that and I felt both disappointed and offended. Why would you assume the reader to be jaded and in need of a verbal jolt?
Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
I liked “Newcomer” for how it distilled the new immigrant experience of the Russian community and the reality of the new Canada — more urban, more culturally mixed — in prose that was as sparing as it was powerful. I also gravitated to “Wolf Howling at Moon” for what it said about a certain mother-child relationship on the extreme end of love and endurance. Stories about mothers or parenthood touch a nerve with me since I’m now orphaned and have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about my own family for my memoir.