The Next Chapter·Q&A

Danny Ramadan's second novel The Foghorn Echoes traces the fallout from forbidden queer love in war-torn Syria

The Vancouver author and former refugee speaks with Shelagh Rogers about his sophomore novel — a story of forbidden love between two young Syrian men whose paths diverge later in life.

'There's a specific stereotype of what a refugee is that I had to challenge every single day'

The Foghorn Echoes is Vancouver writer Danny Ramadan's second novel. (Amanda Palmer)

Danny Ramadan says the hardest year of his life was his first year as a refugee in Canada and adjusting to a new way of life.

His second novel, The Foghorn Echoes, echoes that sense of dislocation through the interweaving stories of two young men in Syria and their forbidden love. As adults, one stays in Damascus and is forced into marriage, while the other is sponsored to come to Canada by an older man — but neither can escape the ghosts of their past.

Based in Vancouver, Ramadan is a Syrian Canadian author, public speaker, and advocate for LGBTQ+ refugees. His debut novel, The Clothesline Swing, was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award, longlisted for Canada Reads 2018, and named a Best Book of the Year by the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star.

His children book, Salma the Syrian Chef, won the Nautilus Book Award, the Middle East Book Award, and named a Best Book by both Kirkus and School Library Journal.

Ramadan's memoir, Crooked Teeth, is scheduled for publication in 2024.

He spoke with Shelagh Rogers about crafting the queer immigrant story at the heart of The Foghorn Echoes.

Everything in The Foghorn Echoes is set in motion by a love affair between two teenage boys in Syria. First of all, how is homosexuality regarded there?

Danny Ramadan: Well, it's quite interesting, because a couple of hundred years ago, homosexuality was quite common in Syria — and then between the Ottoman occupation and then came the French, there was a Westernization of the ways of living over there, and slowly but surely it became more ostracized by society. 

There is an underground society of of LGBTQ-identifying folks that I belonged to for the longest time that I found a lot of comfort and love in.

There is an underground society of of LGBTQ-identifying folks that I belonged to for the longest time that I found a lot of comfort and love in. That is truly something that pushes me forward every single day.

What chance then are Hussam and Wassim taking by making their love real?

Danny Ramadan: I think they had no option but to make their love real. When you are a queer person growing up anywhere in the world, be it here in Canada or back in Syria, the desire for yourself to express love, to feel the love of others and to be part of a community is just overwhelming. You don't have any other option but to act on it.

And yes, it is a troubling road. There are a lot of challenges — being ostracized from your family, being rejected by your society. But sometimes that desire, that need to express love and be part of a loving bond, is just too overwhelming, I think.

Hussam goes through an adjustment to his life in Canada — we see him grow, but it is hard. And you've said your first year here was hard for you. What challenges were you up against?

Danny Ramadan: I think the first year in any immigrant experience is always hard, because you don't just come here and just settle. There's a lot of effort that needs to be put into settlement — learning the language, finding a job. 

And I came here as an immigrant who speaks the language, and with a large resume and having done journalism before. So it wasn't hard for me to adjust that way. But at the same time, Canadians and Syrians are completely different species of people. We interact with each other differently. We get to know each other differently. We we have different social cues that we communicate through, and learning that was extremely difficult. 

There's a specific stereotype of what a refugee is that I had to challenge every single day.

At the same time, when I came to Canada, there's a specific stereotype of what a refugee is that I had to challenge every single day.

Because the idea that we have about refugees and immigrants is quite generic, really — it feels like there's a flood of refugees, and when you're thinking about a flood, you don't identify every drop of water; you're just thinking of the river.

I needed to be that specific drop of water — I needed to be that specific person, and challenge that perspective of who I am. I'm here and trying to dance to the same beat that everybody is dancing to. But my dancing feet are still back in Syria — it just felt very disorienting.

When did that change for you?

Danny Ramadan: I have found a place in the middle that allows me discomfort where I am both Syrian and Canadian — I'm not just Syrian anymore, and I will never, ever be just Canadian — I will always be this unique creature that lives on the margins of both societies and and navigate them in my own unique ways.

I guess at one point, I just decided to dance to my own beat — and that worked.

Watch | Danny Ramadan on CBC News:

The journey from Syria to Canada

7 years ago
Duration 5:07
Danny Ramadan fled war-torn Syria in 2011, and eventually came to Vancouver in September 2014

In the book, there is a lot about dancing and clubs in Vancouver. Hussam loves to party — he has lots of sex; he does drugs. How effective is this in helping him kind of obliterate his past?

Danny Ramadan: Hussam is navigating a lot of mental health issues, and the way that he navigates them is he tries to numb them. It's a constant effort — you're always pressing the emotions down as they're pushing up at you.

It's a constant effort — you're always pressing the emotions down as they're pushing up at you.

And sometimes I think what happened is that Hussam had forgotten that effort existed — that constant pressure of pushing down on his emotions — and the drugs, sex and alcohol are helping him numb that fear of releasing his hands. Every time that he lets go of the emotions, they explode — because that's exactly what pressure does.

In the meantime, back in Syria, Wassim has left his wife, who his father arranged for him to marry. And by then, there's also a child, and Wassim is squatting in a house in Damascus. What is his life like?

Danny Ramadan: When I created Wassim, I wanted to show two different responses — while Hussam is trying to numb the emotions repeatedly, Wassim opens up to it, and he cannot put it down. And that's really alienated him from his society. So he had to leave his father and he had to leave his wife and child. And the only place that he can be comfortable was to squat at somebody else's home. 

He is just overwhelmed with all of those emotions that he has to navigate with all of the mistakes of the past. He feels like he's an illness to his society. Then comes Kalila, the ghost that lives in the house. I loved writing her — she is just so calming and relaxing. She is embracing the guy and allowing him to navigate those emotions in a safe environment. 

What is it about Kalila that helps balance Wassim?

Danny Ramadan: The approach of kindness, acceptance and inclusion that Kalila presents to Wassim are things that are inspired by my own therapist, truthfully. Wassim is chaotic and his energy is all over the place.

He's fearful yet curious about the world around him, and Kalila is accepting of him every step of the way — she never judges him for any of his actions, and if anything, she shows him that it is okay to make mistakes.

There's a dramatic scene with Hussam being woken up by a foghorn that's blowing in Vancouver harbour, and another reference of how the song of children singing is like a foghorn. So how did the foghorn come to be part of the title of the book?

Danny Ramadan: On Dec. 17, 2017, I woke up at three o'clock in the morning to the sound of a foghorn. Now, I've never lived near the coast. I had just moved into my future husband's home near English Bay, and I had never in my life heard the sound of a foghorn. I was traumatized — my partner woke up and he said, 'You're shivering — what's going on?'

And I kept asking, 'What is that sound?' He explained what a foghorn is and he made me some tea and we sat down and talked, and then the poor thing went back to sleep. And I sat there in the darkness.

On Dec. 17, 2017, I woke up at three o'clock in the morning to the sound of a foghorn.

And then I wrote that scene with the children singing — that was the very first scene I wrote for the novel, and it became the driving engine of the book. It became the thing that made me write all of those characters and create the story that it is.

So the title makes sense in my head.

Danny Ramadan's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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