Q&A with Kamal Al-Solaylee

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Happening Now Friday, May 05, 2017 View Count = 1435

Q&A with Kamal Al-Solaylee


Smara is excited to once again catch up with the authors shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. The annual literary award is presented by the Writers' Trust of Canada to the best nonfiction book on Canadian political and social issues. The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize winner will be announced at the Politics & the Pen gala in Ottawa on May 10.

Every week, we'll feature a Q&A with one of the featured authors. Make sure you don't miss a week by following our blog

Q&A with Kamal Al-Solaylee, author Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone)


Political_Al-Solaylee_BrownTell us about the genesis of your book. How did you arrive at the subject?

While consciousness of brown as a skin colour has been part of my life since childhood, the idea of writing a book about it came to me during a visit to Hong Kong in 2011. I was taking a stroll downtown on a Sunday afternoon and noticed the spectacle of thousands of brown-skinned women from the Philippines and Indonesia (and other countries in South Asia) having picnics, dancing and playing card games. A few weeks later in Toronto, I got on a bus in Rosedale one evening and noticed that almost all of the passengers were also brown, Filipina maids going home after a long day of cleaning homes, looking after other people’s children or the elderly. That was the spark for Brown: What is the connection between skin colour and cheap or undervalued labour? Why are people of brown and darker skins always doing the low-paying, labour-intensive jobs everywhere I looked, including Toronto. Immigrants are the working class in many countries around the globe.

How was the writing process? Did you face any challenges while writing your book?

It took me almost two years (on and off) to figure out what I wanted to say about being brown and to come up with a decent book proposal to submit to my publisher, HarperCollins Canada. That was the most difficult part of the writing process. Once I figured out what I’d like to cover – focusing more on the meanings of brown skin, on migrant labour globally and on Muslim communities in the West – the challenge was finding stories and people to interview in countries as far apart as France, Trinidad, Qatar, the U.S. and Sri Lanka. And to do it all on a budget. I did the bulk of the reporting and writing during a one-year sabbatical from my work as a university professor at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. So it was more or less 12 months of constant travelling, reporting during the day and writing and reading at night. While intense, that year made me more aware of my privileges as a writer and professor when compared to the many workers and undocumented immigrants I spoke to.

Did any books or events influence your approach to the subject?

I was influenced by Doug Saunders’ magisterial Arrival City (a previous Shaughnessy Cohen Prize finalist), and Marcello Di Cintio’s outstanding (and previous winner), Walls. Many other books about race, whiteness and blackness also influenced my thinking while trying to come up with an intellectual approach to tackle brownness. The Arab Spring of 2011 and the destruction of many countries in its wake (Syria, Libya and my birth country of Yemen) guided me while writing parts of the book as stories of refugees knocking on Europe’s door or languishing in camps in Turkey or Jordan dominated headlines in 2015.  Who would you like to read this book? The subtitle of my book is What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone). I really believe in the “everyone” part. I want white, black, East Asian as well as brown people to read this book. It’s about how skin colour still divides us politically, economically and on deep personal levels. You can’t talk brownness without dealing with the perceived supremacy of whiteness or the history of anti-blackness in the globe. We’re defined by our skin tones, whether or not we want to admit it.

Why is your book important for Canadians and our political culture?

Brown deals with global migration and the political impact of immigration on host societies and countries of origin. Canada plays a big part in that movement as a country that accepts 250,000 newcomers every year and whose economic future depends on the population surge of immigration. But the book also offers cautionary tales from France and the U.K. where Muslim communities (North African and South Asian, respectively) continue to fight for their place in the national narratives of these former empires. And of course, the chapter on undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. offers a window into the race-based policies of the current White House.   
Kamal Al-Solaylee is an associate professor at the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His first book Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes won the Toronto Book Award and was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, a Lambda Literary Award, and CBC’s Canada Reads. Born in Yemen, Al-Solaylee was the national theatre critic for The Globe and Mail and holds a PhD in Victorian literature from the University of Nottingham. He lives in Toronto. 
Additional information about author and book, including the jury’s citation, can be found here.

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