The writer in mo­tion

Taxi job drives Hage’s mix of grit and fan­tasy

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - KATH­LEEN KEENAN

Rawi Hage has earned more than his share of hon­ours, but the cab­driver-turned-nov­el­ist says he doesn’t al­low awards buzz to af­fect his writ­ing process: He iso­lates him­self while he’s work­ing on a novel, and only starts to worry af­ter he’s fin­ished.

“Be­ing ac­knowl­edged is very re­ward­ing,” Hage says, but it has not caused him to com­pro­mise on his writ­ing. In­stead, he is learn­ing to live with in­se­cu­ri­ties and high ex­pec­ta­tions.

Since he burst onto the Cana­dian lit­er­ary scene a few years back, Hage has been show­ered with the type of recog­ni­tion that most writ­ers can only dream of. His first novel, De Niro’s Game, was dis­cov­ered by House of Anansi ed­i­tors in their slush pile and pub­lished to in­ter­na­tional ac­claim. It won the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Lit­er­ary Award, one of the most lu­cra­tive lit­er­ary prizes in the world.

De Niro’s Game and its fol­lowup, Cock­roach, were both nom­i­nated for the Giller Prize and the Gover­nor Gen­eral’s Award, among oth­ers.

With his third novel, the tradition con­tin­ues for the nov­el­ist and visual artist: Carnival was just short­listed for the Rogers Writ­ers’ Trust Fic­tion Prize.

“I don’t think I’m dif­fer­ent than any other writer,” says Hage on the phone from Montreal, where he has lived since 1992. He was raised in Beirut and has also lived in New York.

The high ex­pec­ta­tions for Carnival didn’t scare him from ex­per­i­ment­ing with a non-lin­ear nar­ra­tive. Struc- tured in five acts, the novel fol­lows Fly, a cab driver and keen ob­server, through the streets of the un­named Carnival city as he be­friends pros­ti­tutes, home­less boys, drug deal­ers and other ne­glected mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

Hage wanted to write some­thing “multi-faceted and colourful,” a re­flec­tion of the coun­try he now calls home. This will­ing­ness to ex­per­i­ment marks Hage as a dis­tinctly Cana­dian writer — and lands him, again and again, on the short lists for Canada’s most pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary prizes.

Hage en­vis­aged the novel as “a col­lec­tion of sketches, small per­for­mances.” He was in­spired by his own ex­pe­ri­ence as a cab driver, but said: “I al­ways trans­form these ex­pe­ri­ences. I use them as a start­ing point.”

His favourite part of driv­ing a cab was the con­stant move­ment from place to place, which he con­sid­ered the most “in­spir­ing” part of the job.

Carnival shifts flu­idly be­tween Fly’s carnival- in­spired flights of fancy and his hy­per-re­al­is­tic en­coun­ters with pas­sen­gers and fel­low driv­ers. This mix of fan­tasy and gritty re­al­ism, which Hage calls “the most nat­u­ral thing for me,” comes from his work as a pho­tog­ra­pher.

He says visual art has been an “un­con­scious influence” on his writ­ing. “When I’m writ­ing, I al­ways feel like I’m present in it,” he said.

De Niro’s Game and Cock­roach are both grounded in real-world cities, and drew praise for their por­tray­als of ur­ban life. But Carnival com­bines Hage’s roots in Beirut, days driv­ing a taxi in New York, and cur­rent life in Montreal.

Hage looked for the ties that bind his char­ac­ters to­gether. He is in­spired by “rebel writ­ers” who have lived on the mar­gin. He sees Carnival as a kind of homage to “the long tradition of re­sis­tance in lit­er­a­ture.”

Hage de­scribes the novel as a “a comic tragic play,” adding that he chose the five-act struc­ture as a nod to Fly’s past as a cir­cus per­former and the “el­e­ment of play and spec­ta­cle” in a carnival. “Fly is at one point a per­former,” even when he gives up per­form­ing in favour of wan­der­ing.

Ul­ti­mately, de­spite the am­bigu­ous set­ting, “it is a Cana­dian book,” Hage says.

“I would never ap­proach Cana­dian so­ci­ety as ho­mo­ge­neous. I’m like any other Cana­dian ci­ti­zen. The fab­ric of Canada is a very lib­eral, pro­gres­sive, egal­i­tar­ian ex­per­i­ment we have suc­ceeded in.”

Frank Gunn/the Cana­dian Press

Rawi Hage, pic­tured in 2008, liked the con­stant move­ment of be­ing a cab driver.

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