The writer in motion
Taxi job drives Hage’s mix of grit and fantasy
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.”
Rawi Hage, pictured in 2008, liked the constant movement of being a cab driver.