It’s great news for an author to receive recognition for their dedication to the art of writing. Our guest this week co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Competition for her debut novel – The Lebanese Dishwasher. Great news is that she is our guest this week. A 4Q interview and an excerpt from her work.
Sonia Saikaley was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada to a large Lebanese family. The daughter of a shopkeeper, she had access to all the treats she wanted. Her first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher, co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. Her first collection of poetry, Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter, was published in 2012 and a second collection, A Samurai’s Pink House, was published in 2017 by Inanna Publications. A graduate of the University of Ottawa and the Humber School for Writers, she lives in her hometown of Ottawa. In the past, she worked as an English teacher in Japan where she introduced belly dancing to her students. Her novel The Allspice Bath was recently published by Inanna Publications.
4Q: It is a wonderful feeling I expect to be a co-winner in a writing competition. Please tell us about that and the novel that won.
SS: It truly is an amazing feeling to be selected as a co-winner in a writing competition. What was even more amazing was that I was on the brink of giving up writing when I found out that I had co-won the contest. I had been working on my craft for almost twenty years and I wasn’t having any luck finding a publisher for my work. I was getting very discouraged. It was also an extremely difficult time for me as I was struggling with some health issues and awaiting to undergo major surgery. Then I saw Quattro Books call for submissions to their Ken Klonsky novella contest. The problem was that the deadline was fast-approaching and I didn’t have a novella manuscript. If I wanted to enter this contest, I would have to write the story within three weeks while at the same time working full-time and dealing with my health challenges. I made a bet with myself that if I didn’t win this contest, I would give up on writing, let go of my dream. Well, I managed somehow to write the manuscript and sent it off in time to meet the deadline. Two days after the deadline, I underwent surgery but before doing so, I told one of my sisters about the contest in case the operation didn’t go well. Fortunately, everything went well and after my recovery and return to my full-time job, I checked my emails on my lunch hour and opened a message from Quattro Books congratulating me on co-winning the contest. I actually cried and one of my coworkers asked if I was all right. Crying and smiling simultaneously, I told her I had won a literary contest and my first book would be published. Winning this contest uplifted me at a time when I needed encouragement and strength.
4Q: You also have published two impressive collections of poetry. Can you tell us about them?
SS: The same year The Lebanese Dishwasher was published, I was also fortunate to have my poetry collection Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter enter the world. This collection is about the immigrant experience. The characters in Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter find themselves in situations that reveal the grafting onto or adapting of the old world to new. This collection takes the reader from Lebanon’s olive groves to Montreal’s winding stairs. Distant steamships push the immigrant dream into Canadian harbours where new citizens must maneuver through fading memories, prejudices and hopes for a better life. My second poetry collection A Samurai’s Pink House also deals with the transformation of lives from Matsuo Basho’s travels to a love affair between a kabuki cross-dresser and a lonely geisha and the struggles of women in ancient and modern-day Japan. The collection takes the reader on a journey through the fascinating culture of Japan across rice fields, tea houses, cherry orchards and narrow alleys where characters, at different stages of life, strive to find identity, peace and love. I wrote the poems in A Samurai’s Pink House when I lived in Japan teaching English and introducing belly dancing to my students. It was an amazing experience that helped me grow as a person and writer.
SS: Growing up as the youngest of four sisters meant that I was the queen of hand-me-downs and also the one my older sisters would tease. Every now and then my parents bought me something new and shiny. On my ninth birthday I received a purple velvet tracksuit. I loved it! I wore it often. Eventually, I grew out of the velvet pants but the jacket still fit me and I wore that jacket with jeans, with shorts, with pants. The velvet began to fade and then one day, the jacket vanished. I frantically searched all over the house for it. How hard could it be to find a purple jacket? But I couldn’t find it anywhere. I asked my sisters where the jacket went and they said they didn’t know while looking slyly at each other. I knew something was up. Being the youngest, I could get away with crying and making my sisters feel guilty. So I whimpered until my sisters finally admitted they took my jacket. One of my sisters pulled it out from its hiding place. I clutched the jacket close to my chest. My sisters groaned, “You wear it every day! It doesn’t match anything. It’s time to give it up.” “But I love this jacket!” I said. “More than us?” one of them asked. I looked away from them for a second then gazed up with my big brown eyes and big smile and said, “Of course not, even though you tease me.” They ruffled my curly hair and apologized for hiding the jacket. “But you wear the tacky thing every day! Too purple like grapes!” I laughed and said, “I love grapes just as much as I love this purple jacket.” In the corner of the family room was a bag filled with clothes my parents wanted to donate to the Salvation Army. When my sisters told me that someone else could use the jacket more than I could, I knew my sisters were right. I folded my beloved jacket and tucked it gently in the bag. My sisters told me they were proud of me. Smiling, I hugged them. That day, I learned about giving even if it meant giving up something you love.
4Q: Your website tells us you are working on your next novel – Jasmine Season on Hamra Street. What can you tell us about this?
SS: I have been working on my novel Jasmine Season on Hamra Street for the last nine years. The story is set against the backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War of 1975 and tells one woman’s struggle to find her independence. The novel approaches the universal question of how much should one give up for family. It is also a love story between this Lebanese woman and the Jewish man she meets in Beirut. It has been a long haul but I am hopeful I will finalize the latest draft soon.
4Q: Where is that favorite spot for your writing Sonia? What are your writing habits?
SS: My favourite spot to write is in my home office with the birds chirping in the background. I wake up at four in the morning to focus on my craft. I need silence when I work except for those lovely chirping birds! I write and/or edit every day before my day job. When I compose poetry, I write the initial draft by longhand. There is something soothing about letting the words flow on the pages of my journal. With prose, I use my desktop and set aside about two hours a day for my writing. I am disciplined when it comes to my writing routine. It wasn’t always this way but for the last ten years I have carved out the time and working in the early morning hours is best for me since it doesn’t take away time from my family.
4Q: Anything else you would like to share with us?
SS: It took me twenty years to get my latest novel The Allspice Bath published. Everyone kept saying ‘no’ to it so whatever you have in your heart, go for it because you never know when you will find the right people to help you and who will equally believe in your dream. Here’s to dreams and never giving up!
An Excerpt from The Allspice Bath:
Elias turned the car into a small alley, barely wide enough for two vehicles. He parked the old Mercedes around the corner. Adele stepped out of the passenger’s side and followed Elias through the cobblestone street, and down a flight of stairs that led to the entrance of a small café. When Elias pulled the door open, the smell of sumac and thyme enveloped Adele along with the warmth of a large stone oven that was radiating heat at the far end of the establishment. Six small tables covered with flower-print tablecloths filled the room. A water pipe was positioned behind the cramped counter where an old man sat on a wooden stool, his eyes half-closed. He looked to be in his mid-eighties; his cheeks drooped and deep wrinkles lined his forehead. Beyond him, two windows were open wide, allowing a gentle breeze to enter the softly-lit, tiny restaurant that was empty but for the old man and one other customer. The old man was dressed in what appeared to be a woman’s polo shirt and baggy trousers common to older Middle Eastern men. He greeted them with a broken smile and a large space between his two front teeth flashed when he opened his mouth. “Marhaba. It’s a beautiful morning,” he said, wiping his hands on the grease-stained apron around his protruding belly.
“It sure is,” Adele answered in Arabic.
“You’re not from here. I can tell by your accent.”
She smiled timidly; she was surprised the old man could tell immediately that she had an accent. She spoke hesitantly and now wondered in the warm heat of the café how she had lost this language that had been her first as she looked at her reflection in the mirrored walls behind the cash register. Her curly hair dropped over her shoulders and her face was unusually pale compared to Elias’s and the old man’s equally dark complexion. Yet, unmistakably, she looked like them.
“Come on,” Elias said, waking her from her thoughts. He placed his hand on the small of her back. She didn’t move away and let his hand ease into her spine. He guided her to one of the small tables, pulled out a chair for her to sit on, and then dropped his hand to his side. Immediately, she missed its warmth. She sat down and she sighed loudly as she followed Elias’s movements, his long legs striding elegantly across the restaurant back to the old man, who handed him a plate filled with zahter and two cups of steaming ahweh.
When Elias returned, she smiled up at him. He stood beside the table and began to serve her as if she were his guest. The aroma of the flat bread powdered with dried thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds caressed her nose. As he placed the dish and coffee cups down, he smiled then smacked his large hand on his forehead. “Oh, I forgot! You’re not a coffee drinker. Back in one moment with your halib.”
Affection filled her heart for this thoughtful man. She touched his wrist and said, “It’s okay, Elias. Sit down. You’ve done so much for me already. Sit and share this wonderful meal with me.”
“Our last breakfast?” he said, slipping onto the chair opposite her.
“I suppose. But does that mean there will be a resurrection of sorts?”
A smile lifted his mouth. “Most definitely. Resurrected from family obligations…”
“And guilt,” Adele added quietly. They ate in silence until the old man came to their table and placed a round bowl of zeitouns in front of them, the oil glistening on the green olives.
“These come from tree in yard at home,” he said in broken English. He also handed them a basket of pita bread. “I make bread too. Well, not right. Wife make bread,” he said, kneading his knuckles on the tabletop. “She make on ground. Hard on knees. She yell every time she do bread. Allah, she say, why you curse me to be woman?”
Adele raised her eyebrows and frowned. She didn’t like this last comment because it seemed that being born a woman was indeed a curse, the worst possible fate. She looked away from the old man and out the window. A few feet away a young man dressed in military garbs with a finely-trimmed beard and crew-cut was standing with a rifle flung over his left shoulder. His slender body bent forward as he questioned people in their cars. She imagined his voice resonant with forced authority. He looked boyish. She guessed he was only a few years older than herself. Twenty-two at the most. Adele sensed the old man’s eyes on her. She turned her attention back to him.
“I say something bad? You mad?”
Adele asked quietly, “Why does your wife think it’s a curse to be a woman?”
“Life not easy for woman. They cook, clean, take care of child, husband. They work hard and for what?” He slapped his hands together. “Nothing. No respect, only grief. A woman lose lots. Husband boss, child make body fat then break it in birth. Not easy to be woman, that why curse. Man have easy life.”
She stared at the man. There was neither coldness nor meanness in his eyes. He wiped his hands on his apron and smiled.
“Now eat. Enough about man, woman. Can’t live with woman. Can’t live with no woman, right? This American phrase?”
She nodded and popped an olive in her mouth.
Thank you Sonia for being our guest this week.
Thank you, Allan, for having me! I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity. Thank you for helping other writers share their work with the world.
For you readers that want to follow Sonia and/or discover more about her and her writing, please follow these links.
Twitter: @SaikaleySonia https://twitter.com/saikaleysonia?lang=en