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Off Script: Kamal Al-Solaylee

By Ally Foster      

The 2017 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize winner discusses the enormous—and emotional—undertaking of writing about the shared experiences and untold stories of the world’s brown population.

Kamal Al-Solaylee is a Yemeni-born journalist, professor at Ryerson University, and the author of award-winning 'Brown: What being brown in the world today means (to everyone)'
Photograph courtesy of Gary Gould

Curry and chemical skin peels. Bollywood and Islamophobia. Work visas, taxi drivers, and the tech geniuses of Silicon Valley. What do all of these elements have in common? Canadian author Kamal Al-Solaylee—the recent recipient of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing—explains that these are some of the threads that weave the complex yet generalized experience of the global brown community. Some are projected stereotypes, and some of them are accurate.

Kamal Al-Solaylee at the Politics and the Pen gala with his Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. P&I photograph by Jake Wright

In his prize-winning non-fiction narrative Brown, Kamal Al-Solaylee, a Yemeni-born journalist and professor at Ryerson University, layers personal anecdote, historical research, and on-the-ground reporting from 10 countries across four continents to tell the story of what it means to be brown in today’s globalized world, and also, what that experience says about humanity more generally.

“You may be brown, white, East Asian, aboriginal or black. Male or female. Gay or straight. Some or none of the above. However you choose to identify, these stories are in essence about us, all of us—about the world we’ve inherited, created, fought for or against,” writes the Canadian author in the book’s introduction. “We’re all in this together, regardless of skin colour or country of origin. To write about brownness is to write about whiteness. To experience brownness is to recognize blackness, as a colour and a political experience.”

Brown, which took home the prestigious Shaughnessy Cohen Prize (and the $25,000 cheque that comes with it) at the May 10 Politics and the Pen Gala in Ottawa, is at once alarming and uplifting. It includes healthy doses of humour, as well as stark examples of some of humanity’s shortcomings.

For example, Al-Solaylee writes about walking his dog near his affluent condo building in Toronto, only to be stopped and asked for his business card by another resident who assumed (because of his brown skin, he presumes) that he was, professionally, a dog walker. He also mentions the regular occurrence of being stopped at the airport, exchanging knowing glances with the other brown-skinned travellers who have also been pulled aside for a more thorough examination.

These personal anecdotes exemplify two of the less-positive brown experiences that Al-Solaylee focuses on in his book: the expectation of cheap labour, and an increase in racial profiling and Islamophobia.

The book touches on a variety of elements that illustrate some of the bonds that connect the world’s brown population (two billion-plus strong, and growing) including: statistics on the shocking multi-billion dollar skin-lightening industry; tales of migration; stories about the hard work and sacrifices made by parents to create a better life for their children; stereotypes about food preferences; exploitative labour; the economic and political power of the brown community in North America; as well as Canada’s own refugee and immigration system.

Al-Solaylee spoke with P&I via Skype while travelling in Hong Kong, fresh off his win of the Shaughnessy Cohen prize, to discuss the crafting of the book, what he learned along the way, and what’s next.

This interview has been edited for length, style, and clarity.

Did you come to any surprising realizations while working on this book?

“One thing that I noticed in almost every country I visited … is that the pursuit of whiteness, the pursuit of lighter skin, is so pervasive among brown communities. The gradation of community among skin tones was prevalent almost everywhere I went.

“That really took me by surprise because in places like Qatar, Sri Lanka and Trinidad, society is almost organized along skin tones. You do better in life if you happen to have a lighter skin tone. People spend billions of dollars—either through skin lightening creams or more invasive surgical procedures like laser peeling and chemical peels—and that really took me by surprise; that people would be so, literally, uncomfortable in the skin they’re in that they’re trying to change it.”

You’ve won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. Let’s say that all of Canada’s parliamentarians were to sit down and read your book. What is the primary message you would hope policy influencers would take from it?

“We are living in a global world where people are on the move constantly. People come in and leave and come back. We have to have a different understanding of immigration, as a fact of our modern world.

“As situations in places like the Middle East deteriorate politically, and parts of South Asia, politically and environmentally, more and more people are going to be on the move. I think politicians need to understand that and have a better strategy [other] than closing doors and saying who can come and who can’t come in. And if you come in, what kind of values should you have. All these conversations belong to an earlier world.”

Did you have any emotional moments while working on this book?

“There were so many, but one thing was how generous the Sri Lankan construction workers were in Qatar, to me, and how willing they were to share their stories.

“Most of them work in 40-45 degree weather in the summer. They basically sacrifice their lives and their bodies in order to create a better world for their children. And I think the same of the domestic workers from the Philippines here in Hong Kong. The one thing that connects them and the construction workers in Qatar is that all they’re doing is trying to help their children go to better schools, and have better shots at life.

“I was really struck by the sacrifice of parents for their children; it’s kind of a universal story…I was really struck by how consistent that message was everywhere I went.”

Recently, there was a rather heated debate in Canadian media circles about cultural appropriation. Do you think someone who is white or black could have written—or should have tried to write—this same book about the brown experience?

“They would have just written a completely different book. I wrote a book that starts with a very personal point of view, but there are books written about global immigration by white scholars, and I actually think that if they’ve done the work and…they’ve shown that they know the communities they’re talking about, I don’t see why they couldn’t write that book.

“It would never have that personal narrative that myself or another brown person would bring into the story, because throughout the book I tried to mention my personal reactions.

“But, listen: I am an academic, and a tenured professor at a university in Toronto. I have a lot of privilege, and was talking to a lot of people who wouldn’t even understand the idea of a sabbatical, and I was on sabbatical when I did this work, so I constantly brought into this book that I am brown, but that doesn’t mean I have that much in common with the people I’m writing about.”

In the future, do you see yourself writing a book or working on a project that is very removed from what you know, or what your own experiences have involved?

“I started journalism as an arts critic—I was the Globe’s theatre critic—so I wrote a lot about middle-class white people and their problems, so I have done that as a critic for 10 years or more.

“But for books, I am the one who always says that white writers always write about the universal, and people of colour write about the particular—and I do see a problem with that, but I don’t think we live in a world where I can write about things that don’t affect me. There are a lot of stories from the communities that I belong to—whether it’s the gay community or the brown community or the Muslim community—that still need to be told, and I have a responsibility to tell it.

“In an ideal world, I would write a book about technology or space, because that interests me on one level as well. But until that moment, I’m going to be writing about the people whose stories have not been told.”

So, what’s next?

“I’m not blowing away my prize money in Hong Kong, or anything! That money will actually go towards buying me a half- semester of unpaid leave to work on my third book.

“I’m working on a third book—a non-fiction book—and have already started developing it. It will take another five-to-six months to develop, and a year from now, I would like to go on half-sabbatical and do the bulk of it.

“I would also like to turn Brown into a TV documentary series, but that world is such a bureaucratic and difficult world to crack … I’m just starting to have conversations around it.”

Can you give us some hints about your next book?

“All I can tell you is it will be partly set in the Middle East. The concept is still a little bit fragile.”

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