Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with Kamal Al-Solaylee

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Kamal Al-Solaylee

Today's edition of our Weston Words series features nominee Kamal Al-Solaylee. Kamal is the author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes (HarperCollins Canada).

The Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction is the country's newest and biggest non-fiction prize. To be awarded on November 12, 2012, the prize honours the country's finest work of non-fiction with a $60,000 prize purse. Now in its second year, the prize has emerged as a tastemaker for readers and a career highlight for its winners and nominees.

Kamal talks to Open Book about screening calls, multiple versions of the truth and the non-fiction book that changed his life.

Join us throughout the week as we speak with all five finalists for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction!

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Kamal Al-Solaylee:

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes is a personal memoir set against the last five decades in the life of the Middle East, using my family’s experience (and my own) as a thread. My main goal was to trace the shift in the region from the secular world and the promise of the postcolonial era (the 1950s and ’60s) to the current confrontations of political Islam and the Arab Spring. It’s also a coming-out narrative and a love letter to Canada and Toronto where I found my home and place in the world.


Where were you when you received news of your nomination? Did you celebrate your nomination in any way?


I was home getting ready to go to work when I got the call. I’m a compulsive call screener and rarely pick up the phone. When I saw the “Writers’ Trust” on the call display I thought someone there was trying to get me into jury duty and was about to let the call go into voicemail when, on a whim, I picked up the call. (This is all on my landline, which, I realize, makes me look like such a relic. So many of my friends and almost all of my students don’t have landlines anymore.) I didn’t even know that my book would be eligible for, or was submitted to, any award. So when I say it was a surprise, I really, really mean it.

I didn’t celebrate until after the news was officially announced on Sept. 25. I didn’t want to jinx it. My colleagues at Ryerson’s School of Journalism took me out for drinks at the Queen and Beaver pub on Elm Street. The faux-colonial setting seemed just right.


What unique experience or benefit does non-fiction provide for readers?


While I believe that a good novel tells us more about life than life itself, I’ve become quite enamored with nonfiction’s disciplined approach while writing this book. Readers have some kind of guarantee that, despite the fictional techniques, the writing is anchored in the historical or personal truths of the moments being recalled or reconstructed. I say truths because, of course, common sense dictates that there are several versions of the truth in any given situation. Still, the adherence to truth telling, verification and attribution in nonfiction — qualities that I describe as journalistic — invites readers not to suspend their disbelief and share the author’s journey, warts and all. Part of me thinks suspension of disbelief is highly overrated anyway.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


I have to go with a former finalist (2010) for this very same prize, The Dog in the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships by Erika Ritter, because it’s a book that changed my life. I converted to vegetarianism after reading it, but that’s just the lightest of its impacts. The book came into my life at a moment when I was struggling with the weight of family and romantic issues. It helped me find a release for my emotions in the world of animal rights. I have a dog that I absolutely adore. His unconditional love never fails to astound me. If only we can learn from our pets. I know this makes me sound naïve and wide-eyed but it’ll be a better world when we actually discover that all that matters in life is this: love, food, a roof over your head and a daily walk in the park. All else is gravy.


What can you tell us about your next project?


Not much, I’m afraid. It’s still in the early-development stage. But it’s a book that looks at race in an entirely different light from the traditional black-versus-white dichotomy.

Kamal Al-Solaylee

has a Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham and is an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. Previously, he was the national theatre critic for the Globe and Mail. He lives in Toronto.

For more information about Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, please visit the HarperCollins Canada website.

For more information about the Writers' Trust of Canada, please visit their website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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