By Ian Vandaelle
On Monday night, the luminaries of the Canadian non-fiction scene gathered to crown a winner of the hotly-contested Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. While Candace Savage walked away as the winner for her book A Geography of Blood, Ryerson journalism professor Kamal Al Solaylee was one of just four others who were finalists for the prize.
Al-Solaylee’s memoir, Intolerable, details his early years living in Aden, and Sana’a, Yemen, and Cairo, Egypt, and the struggles he faced as his once-secular family slowly shifted towards hardline Islamic tendencies.
Many of the most poignant scenes in the book involve Al-Solaylee’s relationship with his mother, the depth of which he didn’t initially plan to include.
“In my original proposal, she was a figure, but not as large of a figure, and I think her death has freed me to talk about her more openly” he said of his mother, who died shortly before he began writing in earnest.
“I think everyone should write a memoir, because they have a better understanding of their own life in a way. Until I wrote this book, I did not fully comprehend her influence on my life.” While Intolerable has garnered a degree of critical acclaim in Canada, Al-Solaylee said he had heard from readers in the Middle East, notably family members who were split on their reaction to the book.
“It fell on generational lines, basically.
So my sisters and brothers, they were not happy about the gay content in the book. Those are the choices they’ve made, they’re happy with that, that’s my reading of their life and they were fine with it. But they were very upset about the gay content and about coming out as gay in such a big way,” he said. “However, my nephews and nieces, the generation of the Arab Spring, not all of them, but the three or four of them that are more in touch with Western culture have surprised me with their generosity and their support. Actually, they think I’m cool and they’re so proud of what I achieved and they love me, and being gay doesn’t mean anything to them.”