The Hamilton Spectator

Questions of identity

Writer Raymond Beauchemin releases ‘The Emptiest Quarter,’ a trio of novellas inspired by his time in Abu Dhabi


Raymond Beauchemin originally thought he would write a novel about his experience­s living in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. However, the writing had other ideas.

Beauchemin worked for the Montreal Gazette for 15 years until 2008, when he and his wife, author Denise Roig, left for Abu Dhabi, where they worked at the English newspaper the National. In 2011, they relocated to the West Mountain and Beauchemin has worked as a journalist and editor ever since, including — until last year — for Torstar, the Spectator’s parent company.

Upon returning to Hamilton, Roig started working on a collection of short stories inspired by the couple’s time in the Middle East, entitled “Brilliant,” which she published in 2015.

“I thought, ‘There’s some material here, maybe I can do something,’ ” Beauchemin said. “I started working on what I thought would be a novel, but it soon became clear that, through the structure, it was not going to happen … (The novella form) has given me a lot of freedom, structural­ly, and the stories I wanted to tell.”

Released in February, “The Emptiest Quarter” features three novellas, which find their inspiratio­n from the nearly four years Beauchemin lived in Abu Dhabi, which overlapped with the Arab Spring and the start of the Syrian civil war. A book reading was held recently at The Staircase in Hamilton, and a Facebook Live event, featuring Beauchemin in conversati­on with Ola Salem, will take place on Saturday at 12 p.m.

The book opens with “Tent,” a fablelike tale that follows the life of a man who is raised by another family after his mother falls asleep while on a camel and drops her son in the desert. In the story, Beauchemin explores how Abu Dhabi’s environmen­t — sand, desert, sea and sky — can influence people.

“Abu Dhabi is a physical assault on the senses,” he said. “It’s hot, humid, it’s in the desert, on an island surrounded by the Persian Gulf and there’s a big sky around you.”

In “Oil,” Beauchemin writes about an older woman who is reflecting on her life, which includes her falling in love with a sheikh, who is a powerful man.

“It’s a love story but in a centralist way. It’s a love for an idea of what the country is,” he said.

The third story, “Identity,” is set in the present day, during the time known as the Arab Spring that was “a revolt from the ground up … like a small earthquake or wind storm,” Beauchemin said.

When Beauchemin and Roig lived in Abu Dhabi, it was an important time, he said. Their daughter, Georgia Beauchemin, also lived with them then. The couple has another daughter, Ariel Tarr, a profession­al photograph­er whose book, “Ruelles,” was recently launched.

“It certainly made us look at things differentl­y,” he said. “It’s not that we were ignorant about how wealth was created and used, but when you’re up against it every day the way we were, it became quite apparent and you take it to heart.”

Beauchemin said Emiratis grapple with the question of identity — who they are as a nation, a people, as Arabs, as Sunni Muslims — but also how the country balances traditions alongside Western influence in the form of the opening of branches of the Louvre, Guggenheim, Sorbonne and New York University.

And part of the challenge becomes honouring the rights of the people who are responsibl­e for the actual constructi­on and building of this progress, he said.

“And not just Emiratis. People came from all over the subcontine­nt — India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka — people who were not paid well. They lived in labour camps.”

“This was my challenge, too, in writing ‘The Emptiest Quarter’ — trying to capture so much of what I loved about the country while acknowledg­ing the disturbing inequities.”

 ?? ?? “The Emptiest Quarter,” by Raymond Beauchemin, Signature Editions, 200 pages, $22.95. Available online.
“The Emptiest Quarter,” by Raymond Beauchemin, Signature Editions, 200 pages, $22.95. Available online.
 ?? ?? Raymond Beauchemin is the author of “The Emptiest Quarter.”
Raymond Beauchemin is the author of “The Emptiest Quarter.”

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