Rawi Hage's short story collection Stray Dogs captures snapshots of the lives of people on the move
Rawi Hage was once asked by a journalist for the Irish Times what his first name means in Arabic — it means storyteller.
Hage is the Lebanese-born, Montreal-based author of acclaimed novels De Niro's Game, which won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2008; Cockroach, which received the Hugh MacLennan Prize for fiction and was defended by Samantha Bee on Canada Reads in 2014 and Beirut Hellfire Society.
His new book, Stray Dogs, is a collection of short stories with characters who shift allegiances, countries and beliefs as they remake their identities.
Rawi Hage spoke to Shelagh Rogers about writing Stray Dogs.
Characters on the move
"Most of the characters, they tend to be wanderers — maybe stray people. Also, I think that Stray People would be an adequate title. It's just about a certain non-belonging. Most are either wanderers in their own mind or wanderers geographically. Just like stray dogs, they tend not to have places to host them or take care of them.
Just like stray dogs, they they tend not to have places to host them or take care of them.
"One of the characters, Samir, is like many people who left the Middle East from a certain generation. He's living in the States and encounters academia, photography, art, etc. His choices of studies is not approved by his family. They were expecting him to become an engineer or adhere to certain traditional conservative norms. But he strays and becomes an academic interested in photography. He was very attracted to the aesthetics of Japanese photography, which is a contrast between dark shadows and very bright light. It's very much about contrast.
"I think Samir made a comparison between his own culture, which tends to be, in his own perception, very gaudy, very flamboyant to a certain extent — and Japanese photography, which is all so austere.
"It's a complex story with many fragments to it. But there's also a theological discussion about the image and what the image represents in the Arabic culture."
Shifting class dynamics
"Lebanon at one point was very prosperous, and the story Mother, Mother, Mother is basically about class. War is an egalitarian thing — that's maybe a controversial thing to say — especially civil war. I think what civil wars do is that they change the fabric of society. And I think to a certain extent, it allows the poor to take power. I've witnessed it. I've seen it.
I think what civil wars do is that they change the fabric of society.
"When I grew up, I saw how the middle class and the rich left, which then generated a totally new class that took power. The story talks about that, but it's also about about how women in certain societies treat women from a different class."
Caught between worlds
"I still do photography, but I don't show it. I studied photography and I come from visual art background. But I was also was one of those people who were caught between a technological revolution. Digital photography came and swept everything when I was doing film, and I couldn't update myself. Technology was expensive to start with. I didn't have the money at the time and I didn't have the technological skills to understand it. I was one of those people who fell between the cracks.
"But my love for photography stayed. More and more, I'm becoming a historian of photography. I read certain histories about the relationship between photography and culture and power, etc. I try to express this in the form of short stories. And I think that's what the book's about. It's about photography, of a certain era.
I read certain histories about the relationship between photography and culture and power, etc.
"In all these stories, I try to give a statement about technology and aesthetics. It's the nature of photography. Photography in a certain way, touched every possible social commentary or utilitarian technological use. That's why I'm fascinated by that medium. It's really a medium that has no identity, no unity. And unfortunately, I think now the trajectory of photography, like many things, ends up in capitalism. Even somebody's image became a commodity. Photography became appropriated by consumerism and capitalism and technology on a very superficial level."
Rawi Hage's comments have been edited for length and clarity.