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Solitude essential for writer-in-residence

Award-winning writer Rawi Hage is the Department of English’s Jack McLelland writer-in-residence for the 2016 spring term, so the novelist has uprooted himself from his Montreal home for four months to live in Toronto, writing and teaching.

Photo of: Rawi Hage

Rawi Hage. Photo courtesy of House of Anansi Press | Groundwood Books.

Being transplanted is nothing new to Hage, who grew up in war-torn Beirut and Cyprus, left for New York City at 20 and relocated to Montreal a decade later to work and study.

“Like many Canadians, I have a dual identity,” Hage said.

Once transplanted to Montreal, Hage studied photography and visual arts at Dawson College, Concordia University and the Université du Québec à Montréal. The city, which he now calls home, is also where his successful writing career began.

“I wrote something and someone said, ‘You have a [unique] voice, keep on writing,’ so I kept writing,” Hage said. “Writing gave me confidence and eventually a bit of financial security.”

Exploded onto the literary scene with first novel

Hage exploded onto the literary scene in 2006 with his first novel, De Niro’s Game, a tale about living in a war-torn country written in his unique lyrical, visual style. It won Quebec’s Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the McAuslan First Book Prize in 2006 and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2008, and was shortlisted in 2006 for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award.

His second novel, Cockroach, winner of the 2008 MacLennan Prize, offers a fantastical look at the immigrant experience. It, too, was shortlisted for numerous prizes and was chosen by CBC Radio as its 2014 Canada Reads selection. Hage’s third novel, Carnival, was published in 2013, and he is currently writing a fourth novel that deals with death and burial, a work he hopes to have finished when he leaves U of T in April.

“The last couple of years, I have lost so many friends and relatives that it made me think about death,” Hage said. “Literature is almost always about death, but this time, I’m admitting it.”

The University of Toronto has been lucky to snag him for a term on campus where he will be teaching a weekly writing workshop to 14 students from the U of T community. More than 50 applied and Hage chose the participants solely on the quality of two pages of their submitted writing.

“I’m excited, but a bit nervous,” Hage admitted. “I’m not a professor or a teacher.

“We’ll discuss writing and have exchanges between students. I’ll try to direct the class and give also my opinion. I want to discuss things beyond writing and the methodologies of writing. Writing has a wider side that is experiential and intellectual and includes the emotions the writer has to deal with.”

Hage is eager to portray writing to his students as it is, “not at is perceived, not as the romantic notion of being a writer.

Writing a way of being

“Writing, I’ve discovered, is a way of being.”

It’s a way of being that suits Hage to the core.

“Always in life I’ve chosen jobs where I don’t have to be accountable to anyone,” he said. “Writing requires necessary solitude, and I like the fact that it’s fairly basic. You don’t need too many tools or complicated logistics.”

Successful writers, however, do need talent and imagination, which Hage has in abundance.

Hage will give a public reading at U of T’s Massey College on Thursday, January 21 at 4 pm.