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How journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee learned to write books fearlessly

By Nathan Maharaj • April 02, 2021Author Interviews

Kamal Al-Solaylee teaches journalism at Ryerson University and is the author of two works of non-fiction, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) and Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes.

He’ll be judging the Non-fiction category in the 2021 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize

What are you reading?

I’ve been reading a couple of non-fiction books simultaneously, sort of dipping in and out. Azadi, Arundhati Roy’s latest book of essays and Charles M. Blow’s The Devil You Know. I’d been waiting for bookstores to open, and as soon as my local shop opened I grabbed these.

I’m also reading a novel, Camila Gibb’s The Relatives. I’ll be interviewing her soon.

During the pandemic, have you been able to read like you used to?

Well, with the non-fiction, the essays, I’ve been reading one essay or chapter at a time. It feels natural for how all our brains are working at the moment. I can’t concentrate on one thing very long, but I also don’t want to stop reading -- so I read in chunks.

Lately I like having at least a few books on the go, usually one work of fiction and a couple non-fiction. That’s not exactly the type of reader I was before the pandemic, but I was starting to become that type of reader. The pandemic accelerated the transition.

Until December I was working on my new book, so my reading was almost entirely related to that. I was almost a year behind schedule, but I’ve found that with the collapse of my social life, I became one of those annoying people who was highly productive during the pandemic. I’m single and I have no children, so when the external things that would normally take me away from writing were gone, I was able to focus completely on writing.

As a writer on race with your book Brown, what did the extra attention on race last summer look like to you? Was it surprising?

What was surprising to me was how many media outlets seemed to suddenly discover race all at once. For some reason in that moment, with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, everything coalesced around this topic. When I see established academics even saying, “We hear you, we see you,” I just shake my head and wonder why it took until the summer of 2020 for these people to realize there’s an issue around race and representation in their profession, in policing, in politics. I just wonder, where have you been?

Publications everywhere were reaching out, and I was asked by some to refer them to racialized writers so they could commission more pieces. It’s hard not to be cynical and see this as defensiveness or a gut reaction, rather than a deeper reflection on privilege -- who gets the breaks, who’s using unpaid internships, and that kind of thing.

As a teacher of journalism, do you have any advice for writers setting out on book-length topics? Or doing journalism with an eventual book in mind?

I think it’s good for a journalist, especially one established in their career, to work on a long piece, something that takes a year or more to research. Maybe it will become a book. My book Intolerable came out of a piece I wrote for The Globe & Mail. I think we in the book business need to change how we speak about books, as these gigantic undertakings, as hundred-thousand word monuments. Because a book isn’t a single piece of work. Sentences make paragraphs, which make sections, which make chapters. It doesn’t have to be daunting -- it’s a manageable task. To me, writing a book is no longer a scary thing.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

In the 1960s, Kamal Al-Solaylee’s father was one of the wealthiest property owners in Aden, in the south of Yemen, but when the country shrugged off its colonial roots, his properties were confiscated, and the family was forced to leave. The family moved first to Beirut, which suddenly became one of the most dangerous places in the world, then Cairo. After a few peaceful years, even the safe haven of Cairo struggled under a new wave of Islamic extremism that culminated with the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. The family returned to Yemen, a country that was then culturally isolated from the rest of the world.

As a gay man living in an intolerant country, Al-Solaylee escaped first to England and eventually to Canada, where he became a prominent journalist and academic. Meanwhile, his family slowly fell into the hard-line interpretations of Islam that were sweeping large parts of the Arab-Muslim world in the 1980s and 1990s. Part memoir of an Arab family caught in the turmoil of Middle Eastern politics over six decades, part personal coming-out narrative and part cultural analysis, this is a story of the modern Middle East that we think we know so much about.

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