Dimitri Nasrallah's Hotline brings a moving portrayal of an immigrant family to Canada Reads 2023
Gurdeep Pandher is championing Hotline on March 27-30
Dimitri Nasrallah says his novel Hotline is "a love letter to resilience, to the immigrant experience and to life in Montreal."
Leaving Lebanon during the civil war in the 1970s when he was just five years old, Nasrallah emigrated with his family to Montreal in the late 1980s by way of Greece and Kuwait. Since then, he has authored four novels, including The Bleeds, Blackbodying and Niko which was longlisted for Canada Reads in 2016. He also works as a fiction editor at Véhicule Press in Montreal.
His fourth novel, Hotline, is loosely inspired by his mother's journey.
The story centres on Muna Heddad, a widow and mother who has left behind a civil war in Lebanon for Montreal in the 1980s. The only work she can find is as a hotline operator at a weight-loss centre, where she fields calls from people responding to ads in magazines or on TV.
These strangers have much to say about their challenges, from marriages gone bad to personal inadequacies. Although her life in Canada is filled with invisible barriers, Muna becomes privy to her clients' deepest secrets.
Hotline was longlisted for the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize and named one of the best works of Canadian fiction in 2022 by CBC Books.
Now the novel is being championed on Canada Reads 2023 by bhangra dancer, teacher and viral video star Gurdeep Pandher.
The great Canadian book debate will take place on March 27-30. The debates will be hosted by Ali Hassan and will be broadcast on CBC Radio One, CBC TV, CBC Gem and on CBC Books.
A mother's love
Nasrallah remembers the yellow boxes that would show up at his family's tiny, downtown Montreal apartment.
When his mother could not find work in her profession as a French teacher because, as the author noted in an interview with CBC's Let's Go, "no one wanted a newly landed immigrant to be teaching Quebecers French," she took a job at a weight loss centre.
The yellow boxes carrying the company's subscription food service were a staple of Nasrallah's childhood. The meals they contained became snacks and school lunches that, along with radio and TV shows, were some of Nasrallah's first connections to a culture he existed on the margins of.
She had moved to a new country with two suitcases and built a new life from there. I wanted to go back and revisit that and pay homage to that challenge that ended up shaping all of our lives.- Dimitri Nasrallah
"It seemed so novel to me, this idea that there were companies that existed to help people organize their weight loss regimens, which, coming from Greece and from Lebanon, was not something I'd ever encountered before," he told The Next Chapter's Ryan B. Patrick.
Thirty years later, it was sitting down to write about those yellow boxes that sparked the idea for a novel partially based on his mother's experiences.
"When I became a father and began raising children, I began to see the complexity of the ordinariness of the task and just how immensely delicate it is to raise and guide young individuals through daily experiences. I wanted to reflect what [my mother] had gone through, which was a much more difficult situation than what I was going through," Nasrallah told CBC's Here and Now.
"She had moved to a new country with two suitcases and built a new life from there. I wanted to go back and revisit that and pay homage to that challenge that ended up shaping all of our lives."
LISTEN | Dimitri Nasrallah on the inspirations behind his book Hotline:
Calling in connection
"I've always been an outsider and I think Muna finds herself in that position as well, where she becomes very good at orbiting around the culture," Nasrallah said in an interview with The Next Chapter.
Casting his protagonist as a hotline operator enabled Nasrallah to deftly explore the emotional and material impacts of displacement. Separating voice from body, the phone both amplifies Muna's sense of dislocation and becomes a tool for connection.
"She fields calls from people whose lives have, under their own definitions, gone off track," the author said in an interview with The Next Chapter. "She realizes that even though she is a newly arrived immigrant and she's feeling ignored by the culture, that in a largely individualistic environment, a lot of people feel as though they don't get the attention they deserve."
I've always been an outsider and I think Muna finds herself in that position as well, where she becomes very good at orbiting around the culture.- Dimitri Nasrallah
"That's what I found fascinating about the immigrant experience: you're trying to attain what people living in the country already technically 'have' but then these people are already living lives of isolation and frustration. So there's this weird disconnect when you're trying to be where they are but they are not appreciating the status level they're at."
In this way, Nasrallah explores how privilege, race and citizenship status insulate some Canadians from the challenges newcomers face while also drawing comparisons between people's plights.
"I wanted to put these two dynamics almost at the same level. There is the xenophobia that Muna is facing and then the fat phobia that the clients are facing and in a lot of ways, they are both illnesses that come from this vision of the body," Nasrallah said in an interview The Next Chapter.
LISTEN | Dimitri Nasrallah on his literary career and writing Hotline:
Sharing Canadian stories
Canada Reads panellist Pandher told CBC's Radio Active that he chose to champion Hotline because the novel is "an honest portrayal of the innermost struggles of a immigrant family."
Pandher is a bhangra dancer, artist and educator who currently lives in an off-grid cabin in Yukon. He is known for creating joyful videos of him dancing in unusual locations, such as in nature and in the winter cold and on the CN Tower.
His videos have been seen by millions of people around the world and he has toured Canada, dancing bhangra with minor hockey teams, performing to traditional Indigenous drumming, creating bhangra-Celtic dance fusion and teaching the dance to members of the Canadian Forces.
"When I was a newcomer to Canada, suddenly I had some new challenges, including loneliness. When I was reading Hotline, I found those connections and parallels. I went through these things and more people need to learn about it because learning creates understanding," Pandher said.
Hotline is an honest portrayal of the innermost struggles of a immigrant family.- Gurdeep Pandher on why he chose to champion Hotline
In the lead-up to Canada Reads 2023, Nasrallah told CBC's Here and Now that "it's been really interesting to speak to Gurdeep and hear his story."
"Our stories, even though they are separated by a few decades, have a fair bit in common. If anything, this showcases that the challenges of immigration in this country are still universally felt and still have some underlying principles that have not changed in the last few decades."
The two are not alone in their similiarities. On March 27-30, millions of Canadians will have the opportunity to hear a version of their story championed on the national stage.
LISTEN | Meet the Canada Reads 2023 contenders:
Nasrallah's comments have been edited for length and clarity.