How Dimitri Nasrallah's mother inspired his Giller Prize-longlisted novel Hotline
In Hotline, it's 1986 and Muna Heddad has left behind a civil war in Lebanon and is living in Montreal
Dimitri Nasrallah is a writer from Lebanon. He is the author of novels The Bleeds; Niko, which won the 2011 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction; and Blackbodying, winner of Quebec's McAuslan First Book Prize. Nasrallah lives in Montreal and is the fiction editor at Esplanade Books.
In Nasrallah's novel Hotline, it's 1986 and Muna Heddad has left behind a civil war in Lebanon and is living in Montreal. 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 so much to say about their challenges, from marriages gone bad to personal inadequacies. Although her life in Canada is filled with invisible barriers, Muna is privy to her clients' deepest secrets.
Hotline was one of 14 Canadian books longlisted for the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Dimitri Nasrallah spoke with Let's Go host Sabrina Marandola about being nominated for the prestigious literary award.
How does it feel to be longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize award?
It's quite surreal. I've been doing this for about 20 years. Over that time, I've gotten used to a certain kind of reaction from a rather engaged literary portion of the the community.
It's a real, real honour to be on the list and to have this element of discovery happen for the book.
But this was like a catapult. All of a sudden the book is getting attention from parts of the readership that have never encountered my work before. It's a real, real honour to be on the list and to have this element of discovery happen for the book.
What is that new discovery like for you as the author?
Hotline is the fourth book that I've written. You hope they find as wide a readership as possible, but you never can tell. The Canadian literary scene is quite fragmented, especially if you're publishing in English here in in Montreal. It's quite hard to get beyond Ontario in most cases unless one of these major prizes comes along and gives you the opportunity to speak to a much larger portion of the population.
Can you tell us a little bit about the premise and the story that you're telling through this novel?
Hotline is loosely inspired by my mother's own story. My parents applied for immigration to Canada. One of the things that ended up moving them further up the list was my parents' French skills, specifically my mother being a French teacher by profession.
But when she got here no one would employ her as a French teacher because no one wanted a newly landed immigrant to be teaching Quebecers French. In order to make ends meet she had to take whatever work she could find. The work she ended up finding was at a weight-loss centre.
When she got here no one would employ her as a French teacher because no one wanted a newly landed immigrant to be teaching Quebecers French.
One of the my earliest memories of Montreal and of Canada, where these yellow food boxes showing up in our tiny apartment in downtown Montreal and we would have them for snacks and school lunches. And 30 years later, those yellow boxes were still in my memory. I thought it would be interesting to do something with them. I started writing and eventually it turned into something along the lines of my mother's story.
Have your family members read the book, and what's the reaction been?
Yes, they have. My mother was trepidatious at first because she's wondering why this book is loosely inspired by her life. After she read it, she called me and said, "You know what? This is the first of your books that I've read that doesn't seem like it was written by an angry young man." I took that to heart. I couldn't help but agree.
Now I see just how profoundly complicated it is for someone who just arrives in Canada — and in Quebec specifically — to navigate their way through this society in the first year or two.
I'm in my mid-40s now, and I find myself in roughly the same space that she was in when she first arrived here. Obviously, I have a much bigger head start because of how long I've lived here, but I understand better now what she had to go through.
At the time, I don't think I saw that as clearly. I saw it more from the perspective of this child who was maybe being ignored, who was left to the side. But now I see just how profoundly complicated it is for someone who just arrives in Canada — and in Quebec specifically — to navigate their way through this society in the first year or two.
How much of the Hotline represented that time in your life, and picking up people's stories about what they were living through here in Quebec?
One of the things I realized as a child, when we first arrived in Montreal, was that we were locked out of a big portion of society. No one really cared that we were here. We were invisible.
The only sources of information I had access to came from television or the radio. I began thinking about how Muna in the story was so alone. The only way she could connect to anyone was through this hotline. But it was a feature of her work that she was anonymous to the people she was speaking with.
The people that she connects to are people that she never gets to meet.
They did not know her history, they did not know what she looked like or the fact that she was an immigrant. It was only through that medium that they were able to confide in her and open up to her. The people that she connects to are people that she never gets to meet. It's only through this hotline that she's able to help people or that people will allow her to help them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.