Local author wins award for exploring taboo subject

A Centretown author has won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest, but the significance of the story goes deeper than an award and having her first book published.

The novella The Lebanese Dishwasher, written by Sonia Saikaley, delves into serious issues facing immigrant communities in Canada, including the effects of civil war, working low-paying jobs despite their level of education and the taboo surrounding homosexuality.

“I was struck by its fast pace and dramatic qualities, and during certain critical scenes I was entranced by its poetic style,” says Gillian Harding-Russell, an editor and reviewer who was asked by Saikaley to read one of her first drafts.

The story is about a gay man named Amir who immigrates to Montreal from Lebanon after living through the Lebanese civil war.

The Lebanese Dishwasher was selected because of the elegance of its style and the strength of its story,” says Luciano Iacobelli, co-founder of the book’s publisher, Quattro Books. “It concerns itself with two cultures, Lebanese and Palestinian, that are seldom explored in Canadian art and literature.”

Saikaley was one of two winners of the yearly competition sponsored by Quattro Books to honour Canadian fiction writer and social activist Ken Klonsky, says Iacobelli.

In the novella, Amir works as a dishwasher in Montreal and “feels discouraged and meets this man, and feels less isolated and more hopeful,” says Saikaley.

“My initial response,” says Mark McCawley, the editor and publisher of the online magazine Urban Graffiti, who Saikaley also requested read one of the first drafts of the novella, “was that it was a splendidly written, sensitive depiction of a same-sex relationship . . . that avoided both traditional immigrant stereotypes and any clichéd depictions of gay lifestyle.”

Saikaley wrote the novella in three weeks in order to submit it on time for the contest. She says that after her piece won, she had one month to rewrite it and work with an editor.

Saikaley says she is not a lesbian, but that she could imagine the problems homosexual immigrants may encounter.

The reality of homosexual immigrants from the Middle East is that they remain closeted once coming to Canada.

“In my own background, I find it isn’t accepted or spoken about,” says Saikaley. “The most important thing is marriage and having children.”

Saikaley says she has spoken with friends from the Ottawa LGBTQ community who are curious about the book, even though many have only disclosed their sexual orientation to immediate family.

“No doubt The Lebanese Dishwasher will stir controversy,” says Harding-Russell. “I consider the subject of homosexuality as it is portrayed in this Montreal Middle Eastern community to represent merely an intensification of the less overt taboos in the rest of North American society.”

Iacobelli says he expects some  to be bothered by the content.

“I’m sure some people will be shocked and morally outraged,” says Iacobelli. “It’s stories like this that expose hidden realities. If these realities are not faced, they lead to ignorance and cruelty and the result is unhappiness for all.”