Books·My Life in Books

Kamal Al-Solaylee's life in books

The writer shares 6 books that shaped their life and work.
Kamal Al-Solaylee debut book, Intolerable, is a coming-out memoir and a cultural analysis of contemporary Middle Eastern history. (Gary Gould)

Kamal Al-Solaylee was a Canada Reads contender for his memoir Intolerable, an account of growing up gay in the Middle East at a time of enormous political strife and religious intolerance. Kristin Kreuk defended his book during the 2015 debates.

CBC Books asked Kamal to share with us some of the books that have played a significant role in his life.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë is the author of Jane Eyre. (Penguin Classics)

"I started reading children's books in Arabic, but surprisingly — or not given my colonial upbringing — my earliest memory of reading an adult book is of staying up until the early hours of the morning reading Jane Eyre for the first time in Cairo and being blown away. Even if my English wasn't fluent enough at that point to get the full impact of Charlotte Brontë's writing, I still felt its raw emotions. And what young gay boy wouldn't fantasize about the vigour and mysteriousness of Mr. Rochester? — that fine sample of masculinity. I, too, wanted to marry him. Or at least sleep with him. In the crowded Cairo I grew up in, the idea of such an the isolated and sparsely populated English countryside might as well have been another planet. I carry that juxtaposition between what I was born into and what I've moved to later in life in my head and in my heart all that time."

Platform by Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq is the author of Platform. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images/Vintage)

"In 2005, a colleague at the Globe and Mail lent me Michel Houellebecq's Platform just as I was about to leave for a trip to Thailand and other parts of Asia. I didn't know much about the author or the book, but I took it on my journey. I related to the protagonist's loneliness and search for love just as I felt accused and judged by the narrator for being born in a religion that he sees as inherently intolerant. I know I should feel 'victimized' or accuse Houellebecq of stereotyping, but the way he housed that part of the novel in a narrative of longing and sexual fulfillment (and loss) disarmed me. I surrendered to the writer even as I questioned (and still question) the man's politics. I want to read his most recent other novel, Submission, about a Muslim president in a France taken over by Sharia law. It came out just before the Charlie Hebdo killings, but strikes me as an possible embodiment of the French's paranoia and fear of all things immigrant and Muslim." 

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins is the author of The Moonstone. ( Elliott and Fry; Wikimedia/Arcturus)

"I'll have to go with another Victorian novel: Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone. In Intolerable, I wrote about discovering it in Yemen as one of those culturally ambivalent moments of reading colonial fiction in a country that included a British Protectorate in its southern part (Aden, where I was born). I love what Collins was saying about the follies and cultural rapes of empires. Also, in re-reading it in 2013, I discovered a direct parallel between imperialism and the war on terror. In The Moonstone, violence makes its way from colonial India to the English country home in an attempt to reclaim or repatriate a sacred jewel. Similarly, we now see that terrorism and the rise of fundamentalism can no longer be contained in the world of the former colonies or Global South. It's waiting on our own doorsteps, part of our reality in the west. Terrorism is following us. It's a horrifying thought but it's also our reality."

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Angela Carter is the author of the The Bloody Chamber. (British Library Board, Penguin Classics)

"Hands down, this will have to be Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a retelling of fairy tales with sexual and feminist twists. It made me revisit fairy tales more critically and understand them as part of a universal human hunger for narratives that explain and distort our world. I see distortion as part of a writer's mission. We need our house hall of mirrors to see what we really look like."

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Yann Martel is the author of Life of Pi. (Geoff Howe/Vintage Canada)

"I can't believe I waited for more than a decade to read Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I don't understand how that happened. In my opinion, it's one of the greatest novels of the last 100 years, both for what it says about the fallible nature of memory and storytelling and for its wit and cunning wisdom. It messed around with my head and I loved it."

Hellium by Jaspreet Singh

Jaspreet Singh is the author of Helium. (Bloomsbury USA)

"About a year and half ago I reviewed a beautiful, quietly tragic novel by Canadian writer Jaspreet Singh called Hellium for Quill and Quire. It's about a Princeton professor who goes back to India to reconnect with the wife of his mentor who was killed in the 1984 Hindu massacre of Sikhs. Singh traces what happened to the wife, Nelly, over 25 years of quiet resignation and loss of grace. I was going through some difficult time emotionally when I read it. My family' situation in Yemen was getting more and more fragile and I saw their lives, their shattered dreams, in Nelly's sorrow. I had also received news that my dog Chester had terminal cancer around the same time. The idea of losing him — and I did about a year later — broke my heart. Why did an animal who loved so much and needed so little aside from food and love have to suffer so much? In a way, I found solace in Singh's book, but it also made me retreat to my bedroom, draw the curtain and have a good sob. I think you'll see traces of my emotional state in the review. Great writing can tear you apart and pull you back together."