Tell us tales of Canada
Rawi Hage fills Matt Fleming in on his rapid rise to literary stardom, being shortlisted for prizes and his penchant for clowning around
There’s a fine tradition of talented Canadian writers who have earned universal literary appeal. Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Yann Martel and Michael Ondaatje all spring to mind as ‘greats’ – but there’s another author who has been making massive waves since his debut, De Niro’s Game, in 2006. And that’s Rawi Hage.
Hage only has two novels to his name so far. De Niro’s Game won him the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2008 and Cockroach, published in the same year, scooped the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, awarded by the Quebec Writers’ Federation. With his third book, Carnival, due out at the end of June, he has just been in the fragrant harbour speaking to talented young writers on the Creative Writing Master of Fine Arts course at the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of English about literary prizes (he holds an MFA himself from the Université du Québec à Montréal) and other such subjects.
Hage was born in Beirut in 1964, grew up in Lebanon and Cyprus, and has lived in New York. But, since 1991, he has been resident in Canada’s Montreal. A former taxi driver in the city, he’s now very much a Canadian – but the universal appeal of his writing has led to his books being translated into 20 languages so far. No small feat for a relatively new writer. When he talks to us on his visit, his off-the-wall humour and passion for literature shine through…
You have two novels under your belt and some esteemed prizes…
Prizes? At the risk of sounding like a failed clown, my first two novels were shortlisted for 20 prizes. They won three.
What’s the new book about?
My new, forthcoming novel is titled Carnival. It takes place in an unidentified North American city during the month of the carnival. The novel swings between a hyper-realistic style and poetic flights of consciousness. It is divided into five acts, much like a Shakespearean play, and is at times overtly exuberant with philosophical reflections on motion versus stability, among other things. The story includes about 50 transient secondary characters and two main ones.
You’re a former cabbie. What drove you into the world of literature?
I am a former many things – among them a cabbie – but I have held many jobs in my life. I also possess a couple of university degrees, a yellow belt in karate, a bird and a strange sense of humour…
Are you a very Canadian writer or do you have worldwide appeal?
Canada is home but literature is universal. Canada has always been a hotbed for literary talent – and remains so now even though it’s under the rule of a conservative, anti-intellectual government.
You came to Hong Kong to give a lecture to the university’s MFA programme students. Do you think Hong Kong is gaining its own identity in the literary world?
Hong Kong, like most places shaped by many languages and many histories, is bound to be a good place for exchanges and creative endeavours. I enjoy imparting my experiences to students – but only if they get my jokes!
What’s next then for the funny, enigmatic Rawi Hage?
Clown school! I’ll be taking some lessons on how to juggle three books at the same time while I’m crossing a high wire over a vegetable market.
Cockroach is published by Penguin, priced $121.