This is a terrific novel. One of the most enjoyable I’ve read over the years and I asked Sonia to tell us the Story Behind the Story.
Sonia has been our guest before. Most recently regarding the release of her children’s book – Samantha’s Sandwich Stand. Read about it HERE.
Her first visit was back in September of 2019 and you can read it HERE.
Sonia Saikaley was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada to a big 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. She has two poetry collections Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter and A Samurai’s Pink House. Her novel The Allspice Bath was the 2020 IPPY Gold Medal winner and the 2020 International Book Awards winner for Multicultural Fiction and a finalist in the 2020 Ottawa Book Awards. She is a graduate of the University of Ottawa and the Humber School for Writers. Her first children’s picture book Samantha’s Sandwich Stand was published by Renaissance Press in 2021
Title: The Allspice Bath
It is 1970. The evergreens are thick with snow despite it being the month of April. In an Ottawa hospital, another daughter is born to the Azar family. The parents are from Kfarmichki, a village in Lebanon but their daughters were born in Canada. Four daughters, to be precise. No sons. Youssef is the domineering father. Samira is the quiescent mother. Rima, Katrina and Mona are the traditional daughters. Then there is Adele, the newest member. “You should’ve been born a boy,” Samira whispers to Adele shortly after her entrance into the world. As she grows, Adele learns there are certain rules Lebanese girls must follow in order to be good daughters. First off, they must learn to cook, master housework, learn Arabic and follow the traditions of their culture. Above all, they must save themselves for marriage. But Adele dreams of being an artist. When she is accepted to the University of Toronto, this is her chance to have a life outside the confines of her strict upbringing. But can she defy her father?
When Youssef surprises her with a family trip to her ancestral home, Adele is excited about the journey. In Lebanon, she meets Elias. He is handsome and intelligent and Adele develops feelings for him until Elias confides to her that her unexpected meeting with him was actually a well-devised plan that is both deceitful and shocking. Will this unravel the binding threads of this close-knit Lebanese family? Crisscrossing between Ottawa, Toronto and Lebanon, The Allspice Bath is a bold story about the cultural gap and the immigrant experience.
The Story Behind the Story:
When I was growing up I heard countless people say to my dad, “You poor man! Four daughters and no sons!” My dad, or what I called him ‘Baba’, just laughed it off. He never once spoke of any regret at not having a son nor that he only had daughters unlike the father in my novel The Allspice Bath. Youssef, the dad, wants a son and is disappointed when his last child is also a girl. The first line of the book: “You should’ve been born a boy” sets the tone of this novel about a Lebanese-Canadian family and the main character Adele Azar’s place in it.
In real life, for my Baba, my sisters and I were his kids and he was our dad, that’s all that mattered to him. He was a shy man who left his village in Lebanon by ship to come to Canada in the fifties to have a better life. An uncle and aunt in Ottawa sponsored him with the hope of marrying my Baba to their daughter but she didn’t want to marry her cousin so my dad was introduced to my mom when she arrived in Ottawa. It was a whirlwind romance and they were married six months later at St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral on Lyon Street in Centretown Ottawa.
The church would eventually move to another location in the city but my parents remained in centretown. It was in this area, namely the Golden Triangle, where my dad and mom began their lives together and started a family and business. Baba loved his grocery store which he purchased in 1965 with my mom from a lively Italian man named Deprato. Over the years, my parents spoke fondly of this gentleman and how he was kind enough to finance my parents’ purchase of the store until they could get a loan from a bank. I wasn’t yet born but arrived in the early seventies to my parents, my three older sisters and this charming yellow grocery store called Jimmy’s Grocery. I loved this store as much as I loved my dad and I wanted to write a story that would let my Baba’s beloved business live long after the store closed and long after Baba passed away.
The Allspice Bath has the yellow grocery store, the shopkeeper, his wife and four daughters. Set mostly in Ottawa, in centretown with the Rideau Canal and old heritage homes of the Golden Triangle, it was easy for me to write about this setting since I grew up there surrounded by a big family and extended family that would visit often. My parents hosted many parties on summer nights with Arabic music playing and my family, guests and I would dance the dabke holding hands and swinging our legs as we went round and round on our small street. My mom barbecued meat in front of the grocery store and our adjacent house (our house didn’t have a backyard so we were like the family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding roasting a lamb out front, well, it was beef from half a cow that my dad would purchase from a farmer on the outskirts of Ottawa). My mom and elderly aunts from the village who came to Canada years earlier would clean the meat and chop it up while I stood in the kitchen fascinated with how fast their hands moved and how they shared their stories of the village with me. They loved their homelands but they also loved their lives in their chosen home: Canada. I sensed their longing too and the hopes they had for their children here. Every generation wants the next generation to do better than the one before and my Lebanese family was no different.
These seeds of hope and expectations planted their way in my novel. Adele wants a life not defined by her parents’ or culture’s expectations while her older sisters follow the culture’s belief of what it is to be a Lebanese woman. I wanted to create a story where the protagonist, this young feisty girl who later becomes a strong woman, decides to live a life of her own, not defined by cultural obligations or expected roles. Of course, here is the dilemma that Adele must face: can she find a balance between the two worlds she inhibits, namely, her Lebanese and Canadian cultures? Furthermore, can she still have her place within her family if she doesn’t comply with the expectations placed on her? This is a dilemma I wanted to explore in my novel since many first-generation Canadians have faced and are still facing this scenario in our diverse world. Is it possible to live in two worlds and not lose one side of yourself? I have lived this and I like to think I have overcome the dilemma since I embrace both sides of myself and still maintain my closeness with my family and culture. It wasn’t always easy growing up with one foot in my Lebanese culture and another in my Canadian, but luckily I never split my pants! I did sometimes find myself answering in Arabic as a child when speaking with my teachers but then found the English words. I also didn’t want to bring hummus or taboulleh to school for lunch so I wasn’t always comfortable in sharing that part of my life with my Canadian friends. But I’d race home after school to stuffed grape leaves and yoghurt (laban) that my mom would make homemade. My mom is in her late eighties and has dementia and although she can’t cook anymore, she still knows how to make laban.
Laban is a staple in Middle Eastern food and so is allspice. I remember growing up with this familiar scent wafting throughout our house and how my mom would use it in a lot of dishes like fasulia (red or white kidney beans) with riz (rice) and beef or kibbeh nayeh (raw ground meat with fine bulgar wheat). In The Allspice Bath, the mother Samira cooks feasts of food and this talent is displayed throughout the novel. She even comes up with a term “allspice dreams” which represents her dream of wanting to be married with children. She wants this same dream for all her daughters. Adele, on the other hand, doesn’t want this dream. She has other dreams and goals. Can one achieve their goals if they don’t have the support of family? I felt inspired to write this novel because it is also about a young woman who wants to be an artist and, therefore, not follow the acceptable professions like doctor, lawyer, engineer or accountant or even become a homemaker. My mom was an amazing cook before the onset of dementia and her delicious soul-soothing food also inspired this book.
Food, family, a yellow grocery store, childhood memories, an old neighbourhood and a desire to find a balance between two worlds provided the inspiration for this novel. The Allspice Bath explores my rich Lebanese culture and what it is to be a woman in this culture while at the same time trying to find a balance between two worlds. Sometimes we have to define our own place in the worlds we inhabit and, in the process, try to keep the ones we love in that dual existence.
A question for you before you go, Sonia:
What is your favorite part of writing and the part you enjoy the least?
My favorite part of writing is the first draft because it is just you and the blank page. I like that freedom of allowing the characters to develop and giving permission for the ideas to flow and take me throughout the work-in-progress. When the first draft is done, this is a big accomplishment that deserves a celebration. Now once the celebrating is over, comes the hard work of rewriting. This is not my favorite part of writing but I know it is essential so I have grown to enjoy it more with every book I complete. Plus it is lovely to work with a good editor who helps you polish the manuscript before it is presented to the world.
Thank you so much, Allan, for your support and for always promoting other writers!
My pleasure Sonia. Thanks for being my guest once more. Wishing you continued success with your stories.
Thanks to all you readers and visitors. If you love stories, good stories, pick up a copy of The Allspice Bath.