Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Kamal Al-Solaylee on the 'indelicate' question he wants to be asked

The author of Intolerable and Brown answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Kamal Al-Solaylee is the author of Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone). (Gary Gould)

In Brown, Kamal Al-Solaylee — whose memoir, Intolerable, was a finalist for Canada Reads 2015 — explores the social and political realities of being a brown-skinned person across four continents. In the process, Al-Solaylee uncovers troubling stories about the systemic status differences between light and dark-skinned brown people. The book was shortlisted for the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award and won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for political writing.

Below, Al-Solaylee answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Dianne Warren asks, "Newspaper writers keep talking about the current golden age of TV storytelling. Would you like to write for an HBO-type TV show? Why or why not?"

No, not really. I like to have final say on my words. Writing for TV means surrendering all or part of that to the show runners, directors and actors, etc. It's the same reason I will not write for the stage. I'm just not all that collaborative. I also don't have a cable box so I've never seen any of the shows on the premium networks. Yep, I've missed out on Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, etc. I'm still stuck in the land of Sex and the City on DVDs.

2. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Do you forget all the angst when the book actually arrives from the printer?"

I think that's when the angst begins for me. During the writing process, I can still delude myself into thinking I'll change, edit, rewrite material and make the book the best it can be. Once it's back from the printer, it's a done deal. It's now in the hands of readers and reviewers who can be kind or cruel — or, worse, indifferent. So you can say that I'm now entering my angst period. Oh, joy.

3. Billie Livingston asks, "Rilke said, 'A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.' Do you think that's true? Do you feel that writing is an absolute necessity in your life?"

I'd say that I write about ideas (race and migration issues, politics and war in the Arab world, gay rights) that, to me, are an absolute necessity. I happen to write about them because that's the only thing I know how to do. Had I been a painter or a photographer, I would have chosen different platforms to explore the very same.

4. Johanna Skibsrud asks, "What non-literary inspirations inform your work?"

I draw a lot from history because I believe that much of what's happening in the world today is a replay or unintended consequences of past events. The cast of characters changes and the patterns of exploitation and dehumanization get more extreme with time, that's all. I don't think we're capable of learning the lessons of the past.

5. Tomson Highway asks, "If you were a musician, which instrument would you play? That is to say, which instrument would you choose to tell your story with?"

It'll have to be the piano and the mood more jazz and standards than classical. In my fantasy life, I'm a crooner who sings the Great American Songbook for his supper. "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" in a quiet jazz bar is my idea of heaven. This may influence which part of the stories I tell will translate to stage. But jazz and cabaret have roots in political and race-based activism so there's a fit there somewhere.

6. Richard Van Camp asks, "What's the story you'll never write about that haunts you? It could be delicious. Yes, that's the one we want to know. What is your delicious that you'll never write about? What. is. it?"

I'll never write about how lucky I have been at so many stages of my writing life because I want you to think that I've fought the system with my blood and sweat. But the truth of the matter is that I've found myself at the right place at the right time or simply stumbled my way into things on too many occasions to remember. While I've never slacked off after an opportunity, I owe luck, fate or serendipity so much for getting me through the door. I was born in 1964, which makes me either the last of the Baby Boomers or the first of Generation X. We came of age under very different economic and cultural circumstances. I literally walked into the Globe and Mail in 2000 for a job interview and walked out with a "Can you start tomorrow?" offer. Delicious enough for you?

7. Robert Currie asks, "What writers do you read, not only because you admire their writing, but because you think you can learn from them?"

I write nonfiction so I'm drawn to the deep reporting and research in books by the likes of Doug Saunders, Taras Grescoe, Charlotte Gray, Marcello Di Cintio, Hal Niedzviecki, among others. But I also love the passionate, urgent personal notes in Ta-Nehisi Coates and Mona Eltahawy. Both travel between the personal and the political with such ease and wisdom.

8. Sharon Butala asks, "What is the main question that you wish somebody would ask you, although nobody ever has?"

I've just written a book about the meanings of brown skin. I wish someone would ask me if I wish I were white. I assume no Canadian journalist or author will ever be so, well, indelicate. My answer will not be a straightforward yes or no. I love the skin I'm in but I'm also aware, and sometimes envious, of white privilege and the safety of being in the mainstream.


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