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Write On Ottawa: Fiction, poetry and the joys of a really good love story

By Alejandro Bustos on June 26, 2013

Ottawa author Sonia Saikaley is a fabulous writer.   Her novella The Lebanese Dishwasher was a co-winner of the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, and tells the poignant story of Amir Radi, a Beirut native who immigrates to Canada.  After publishing a poetry collection earlier this year, she is now writing a new novel.   Curious to see what Saikaley is working on, Apartment613 caught up with the wonderful writer/poet.   Below is a transcript of an email interview slightly edited for length.

Apartment613: You are currently working on a second fiction book.  What can readers expect from this new work?

Sonia Saikaley: My work-in-progress is entitled Snowflakes on Red Rooftops.  The story takes place in the city of Beirut and the mountain village of Kfarmichki.  It explores the lives of two women: an aunt and niece.  Set during the Lebanese civil war, the story tackles the struggles and problems faced by these two Middle Eastern women.  The novel also details the old Jewish quarter in Beirut where the aunt becomes involved in a forbidden love affair.  An evocative tale of secrets and family honour, this story is equally ambitious as my first published book, The Lebanese Dishwasher.

Apartment613: In The Lebanese Dishwasher you tackled such themes as homophobia, sexism, the Lebanese civil war and the struggles of being an immigrant to Canada.  Do you expect to tackle any of these issues in your second book?

The Lebanese DishwasherSS: Yes, my second book also details the Lebanese civil war but with more emphasis on the political context regarding the devastation, the divide between East and West Beirut.  Similar to The Lebanese Dishwasher, there is a forbidden love affair in this novel, involving a Jewish person and an Arab.  The love story is very interesting and risky given the history between Jews and Arabs in that part of the world.

The theme of sexism is certainly present because this story delves deeper into the role of women in Lebanese society.  Both the main characters are fiercely strong, independent women who challenge the concepts of sexuality and patriarchal control. This story, however, does not tackle the struggles of being an immigrant but instead tackles the struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated culture.  One theme that seems to weave my books is the idea of freedom. How can people be free under cultural and moral restraints?

Apartment613: How did the publication of The Lebanese Dishwasher change your life?

SS: The publication of my novella was a dream fulfilled.  Since the publication, I have become disciplined and determined to keep chiseling away at my writing.  Having a book published has also made others take my work more seriously.  I used to be the shy writer sitting in the audience at a reading, who would sometimes approach the featured writer with a question and now I’m being asked the same questions I had once thoughtfully asked.  I listen deeply to these questions and answer them honestly as I understand the difficulties in getting a book published and it’s important to provide encouragement to others, who are striving to accomplish the same dream.

Apartment613: You also write poetry.  Is poetry and fiction different sides of the same artistic coin for you, or do you view them as separate things that fulfill different goals?

SS: You are very poetic yourself, Alejandro! Love that – “same artistic coin”!  I would have to say that poetry and fiction are different sides and not entirely separate for me.  When I write poetry, there is a more fluid, musical feel to the actual act of writing, the words pour easily onto the page in front of me, but this could be the fact that I almost always write my poetry longhand while my prose is often typed on a computer.  Maybe that closeness with the ‘feel’ of the words is slightly lost in the tapping of my keyboard and on the computer screen.  However, I think my prose incorporates my poetic side and vice versa.

Both my poetry and fiction deal with topics of a political nature so the long-term goal is always the same: challenging the notions of certain things and touching someone with moving scenes/images, hoping they will reflect intensely on the world around them and, to a larger extent, the world beyond their own countries.

Apartment613: Besides working on your second fiction book, are you currently involved in any other literary projects?

SS: Five years ago, I had the opportunity to teach English in Japan and my experiences there are providing the inspiration for a new poetry collection called The Samurai’s Pink House.  The poems in this collection are threaded with the transformation of the seasons from Matsuo Basho’s travels to a love affair between a kabuki cross-dresser and a lonely geisha.  Ah, I am always drawn to a good love story!