Sonia Saikaley was born and raised in Ottawa. She grew up in a traditional Lebanese household and much of her writing is influenced by her rich Middle Eastern heritage. She has taught English in Japan. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Still Point Arts Quarterly, Things Japanese: A Collection of Short Stories, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and the anthology Lavandería - A Mixed Load of Women, Wash, and Word. She is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the University of Ottawa. Her first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher (Quattro Books, 2012), was co-winner of the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. Her poetry collection Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter (TSAR Publications) will be published in the fall 2012.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book The Lebanese Dishwasher was launched in April and that was an exhilarating time for me. I have been writing for several years and I’ve received my fair amount of rejection letters, so it is quite sweet that my first book was released in the month I turned 40. Perseverance and hard work do pay off…eventually! With this first book publication, I feel that I can be taken seriously as a writer. I am very fortunate to have found a publisher in Quattro Books. They were willing to give a new voice a chance and I am grateful to them and I am also grateful to TSAR Publications who will be publishing my poetry collection Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter in the fall 2012.
My novella is quite a change from my other work. It’s written from a male perspective whereas most of my other pieces are written in a female voice. It wasn’t easy at first to enter the voice and consciousness of my Lebanese dishwasher but somehow I managed to do it. As well, the first draft of the novella was completed in three weeks. I woke up at 4 am to write before heading to my day job and raced back home to continue writing in the evenings. It was an ambitious project and a complete change from my usual work. At times, I thought I was crazy to think I could complete a novella in three weeks. When I had seen Quattro’s call for submissions to their Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, the deadline landed during a time that was impossible for me to meet due to other circumstances in my life. I knew that if I wanted to enter this contest, I would have to complete the manuscript in three weeks. I hadn’t expected to win, only thought of the whole thing as a good writing exercise and voila – here we are talking about my first book! Sometimes life can be unpredictable and there are moments when we can get so discouraged but then something wonderful happens and you realize that you can fulfill your goals and dreams by not giving up and by encountering people who want to help you move forward.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
My parents were both born and raised in Kfarmishki, a small mountain village in Lebanon. They were children of hardworking farmers but had left Lebanon to pursue other opportunities in the new world. Ironically, my parents had only been introduced to each other when they arrived in Ottawa. Although illiterate, they managed to build a good life for themselves and their family in Canada. Sadly, my parents could never read a book to me and when I would receive a book as a present from neighbours or friends, I treasured it and took good care of it, sounding out each word until I became a better reader. Fortunately, my three older sisters were willing to read to me, or if you ask them, were forced to give into their whiny baby sister. Poetry came to me first because it was shorter and easier for me and I enjoyed writing it as a way to entertain my friends and classmates. I also loved the immediacy of it. My earliest poems were often written about others as a joke or gift to them. Rhyming and all! Fortunately, my style has evolved from the early childhood poems and nowadays my poems are more political than personal and they rarely rhyme!
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Generally, I have to think about a project before I even begin writing it. I take long walks and try to imagine characters and scenes. Sometimes the writing comes quickly (like the novella!) and other times I have to force myself to sit down and write. I rarely make notes. I just plunge right into the writing and write from my heart and ignore the inner editor. Only during the rewriting stage do I allow the inner editor to start chopping and restructuring sentences and scenes. I feel that the initial writing process must be fresh and raw. When I first began writing, I despised the revision process but now I’ve come to find it necessary and enjoyable, well, for the most part!
4 - Where does a poem or prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Ideas for poems or prose usually come to me on my long walks (there are so many wonderful paths in Ottawa and therefore no shortages of muses!). My mind often travels to foreign countries, too, like Japan where I had the wonderful opportunity through the JET Programme to spend a year in a port city called Shiogama. Lately, I have been travelling to the Middle East (unfortunately, only in my mind for now!) and I find that most of my poems and prose begin with experiences, be it my own, or those of others in the world. I believe Henry James emphasized imaginative experience and I tend to write using this method. Events in the world influence my writing too. I tend to work on a book from the very beginning rather than combining short pieces into a larger project.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
No, public readings are not part of my creative process but I do enjoy attending them. By nature, I’m shy and I tend to get nervous before a reading but I’m hoping with time, I’ll get used to them. However, I do enjoy chatting with and meeting new people at public readings.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My writing often deals with questions of the role of women in Middle Eastern cultures and the clash between old and new worlds. I also think it’s important to give a voice to those who are sometimes silenced because of their gender or sexuality. We have a certain freedom in North America that, unfortunately, some other countries are not privileged to. I believe, as a writer, it is important to tackle questions and issues that are not always easy to write about or comfortable for readers to read but it’s the responsibility of a writer to explore uncomfortable and difficult topics and to help those who are not so fortunate to be heard. This is my personal philosophy.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The above answer applies here.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Absolutely essential. I am fortunate to have worked with wonderful editors who have been both tough and compassionate. Luciano Iacobelli of Quattro Books was one of the best editors I had the honour and privilege of working with. His wonderful suggestions and insight helped me move forward and grow as a writer.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A few years ago, as I was preparing to embark on my journey as an assistant language teacher in Japan, I attended a reading and talk by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Something she said stuck in mind - “Do what you think you can’t do”. I was quite nervous about starting fresh in a new country without the language and without the support system of friends and family but when MacDonald said, “Do what you think you can’t do” it provided the encouragement that I needed to head to Japan and her words also applied to my writing. I had doubts about my writing ability and when she shared that inspirational advice, I thought okay, maybe I can’t write a book but I can at least try, I can at least “do what I think I can’t do”. And it worked…
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
It’s very easy for me to move between genres. I love trying different things with my writing even if the final result is not always successful! Each genre has a different appeal to me. I love the immediacy of poetry and love the rhythm and metaphors. As for fiction, I like the development of a story and its characters.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I wake up very early, 4 or 5 am. I’ve always been an early bird, showing up at the schoolyard bright and early to play or chat with friends. I like the quiet of the early morning hours. I write every day. I have become more disciplined and stable with age!
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Even if I don’t feel inspired, I make a point of writing every day. The writing is not always good but I feel it’s important to sit down and write. Taking long walks helps too.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lebanese cooking – allspice, cumin, garlic, freshly cut parsley, dried mint leaves, shish kabobs, fried kibbee balls…are you getting hungry yet??
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of the above. The world and its diverse cultures and people are wonderful muses.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Naguib Mahfouz’s work is amazing and I like the fact that his writing often deals with the impact of social change on ordinary people. Hanan al-Shaykh is a fascinating writer as well as Alice Walker and SusanSontag. I admire the works of Japanese writers Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami as well as Canadian writers Barbara Gowdy, MG Vassanji, Alice Munro, Frances Itani, Matthew Firth, Michael Blouin, Ann-Marie MacDonald and many others. Julia Alvarez is one of my favourite writers and her work has been important to me because she often deals with the immigrant experience too. It was so refreshing to read her book How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Although I was born and raised in Ottawa, I could relate to these sisters who were struggling to find their place in the United States. Like many first generation Canadians, I often experience a split where I have one foot in my Lebanese heritage and the other in my Canadian culture. I’m surprised I haven’t split my pants yet! Seriously, it is sometimes difficult navigating between both. As a teenager and young adult, it was not always easy finding a balance between the two worlds but as I get older, it’s becoming easier to embrace both.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
Travel to the Middle East. Although my writing is heavily influenced by my Lebanese heritage, I have never been to Lebanon, believe it or not, well, unless you count the time I was in my mother’s belly and my family went there for a visit! I would also like to wander the cobblestone streets of Paris, volunteer in a third world country, help build a school, teach English again.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
If I had not been a writer, I would’ve liked to have been a psychiatrist or psychologist. The human mind intrigues me and I’m interested in knowing what makes people do what they do. I think these doctors make a huge difference in the lives of their patients and what a feeling it would be to know that you truly helped make a difference to someone who is suffering loneliness, depression, anxiety, etc. How rewarding it must feel to witness a positive transformation in another human being. I guess in a way, when I enter a character’s mind, I’m trying to understand their situation and their predicament and want to help them overcome whatever tragedy might be troubling them.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is a curious calling and I can’t explain what made me write. I just felt I had to do it. There are moments when I feel discouraged with a story or feel the story isn’t going the way I imagine it should and I want to give up, but I just can’t. I take a deep breath or two or three and start all over. I just keep at it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda. Very powerful and moving book.
The Reader – heartbreaking.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am working on a novel entitled Fishing Season in Gaza. It is about a woman who is disfigured when her family feels she has brought shame to them. A tough story but one that I feel must be told.
Thank you, rob, for your generosity in promoting other writers!