Assimilation, belonging and culture in Dimitri Nasrallah’s “Hotline”


Dimitri Nasrallah and his latest book Helplineof Vehicle Press, have a lot to say about home and identity.

Home, wrapped in emotions and family ties, is a difficult term to quantify. Through the eyes of a new immigrant to Canada and single mother, Muna, Help line explores the delicate balance between acclimatization and assimilation. Devastated by the rejection of jobs for which she is qualified, Muna begins to work as a consultant in a weight loss center. As part of this, she anglicizes her identity, becoming Muna. As Muna, she fits in, finds success, and is able to provide for her young son Omar.

Much of her early cultural exploration begins with the yellow lunch boxes she brings home from work, in an attempt to save money on groceries. An assortment of low-calorie and mostly tasteless soups, dumplings, pizzas and pâtés sees her and Omar through their tough first winter in Canada.

Nasrallah will discuss Help line as part of the What Home Means panel at the Vancouver Writers Festival, taking place October 18.

Prior to this event, Nasrallah and I talked about many aspects of the book that appealed to me as a recent immigrant who often struggles with her own identity and sense of belonging. I loved Help linethe interaction of Arabic and English, for example. Nasrallah wanted Arabic words to reveal themselves through context, repetition and usage. Adding a footnote, he said, or italicizing the language would only serve to make it exotic. “It was definitely a big consideration for the project,” he said.

Here is my conversation with Nasrallah, edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: The idea of ​​identity is explored extensively in Help line thanks to the experience of Muna who moved to Quebec from Lebanon. How does this reflect your own experience?

Dimitri Nasrallah: This story, or its inspiration, has been with me for more than 30 years now. I moved to Quebec with my family when I was about 11 in 1988. We lived in a very similar apartment. My sister and I shared the bedroom and my parents the sofa bed in the living room for an entire year.

I still look at this year as a year of discomfort and almost impoverishment. We lived in Greece before that, and we had a relatively comfortable existence compared to what followed. When we arrived [in Canada]it was as if everything had been lost and everything had to be rebuilt.

Although we’ve lived in several places before where we didn’t feel like we had to sacrifice our identity so much, moving to North America in the 80s before the internet was quite isolating and required you to start all over again. . This experience really stuck with me.

We were put in this situation where we had to decide if we were going to keep parts of our identity that we knew pretty well, but ultimately, weren’t very useful to us here, or if we wanted to be pushed into these new identities, especially in Quebec, where I had to learn French which basically replaced my Arabic because then there was nowhere to use my Arabic. Identity has become a type of choice. You couldn’t mix the two.

We didn’t really have a community to connect with. People who moved here with us and retained more of their Lebanese identity struggled and eventually returned to Lebanon after several years.

At the end of the novel, Muna decides to take on a relatively new (for her) identity, in what seems like a fresh start. Would you call that assimilating?

I think I would because it’s not necessarily a happy ending. Muna sacrifices that self that she knows very well no one really should have to sacrifice for the sake of their environment. But at the end of the day, she is worn down by the constant obstacles and challenges of this new life. So she negotiates with herself and ends up deciding to let some of it go to move forward more easily. It’s a bit tragic.

Systematically, it is quite difficult to maintain your identity and face the challenges of having to navigate this new life where you are not very familiar with the rules around you and have to learn as you go. On the one hand, it marks the end of a very difficult year for them, but on the other hand, it also marks an abandonment to a world which is not going to bend for her and which forces her to bend towards him at the square.

Language can be a huge factor in assimilation, as we see in the case of Omar’s teacher, Monsieur Pierre, who insists that Muna speak French at home to improve her language. Was this also your experience?

This teacher was based on the teacher I had in my early years [in Quebec], which was quite like the one in the book, fiery enough for the use of the tongue. I remember being given little story assignments so neatly annotated in red ink that halfway through, the teacher told me he had decided to drop even the marking of my work. It stuck with me.

It made me unconfident in learning French beyond that point, and I didn’t want to learn the language anymore, which really hurt my experience and education at the time. So I really felt a lot of those same challenges and emotions that Omar experienced in the book.

What was the defining thought or experience that inspired you to write this novel?

I think, on the one hand, it was the yellow food boxes that appeared in our house right after we arrived. I always remember them as this curiosity, being part of a new culture that I had never really experienced before in the Middle East; this idea that you could market weight loss in this way and sell diet plans. It just wasn’t part of the language I knew. Since back then we didn’t really have access to culture, we were largely invisible and alone when we showed up, we just had the radio, TV and those boxes my mum brought home from work. He always stayed with me.

As I got older and became a parent, I began to see the boxes as a symptom of a larger problem. The systemic issue — why my mother couldn’t continue her profession when she came here and what I thought as a child about that year when I was largely ignored and felt like my needs were not fully met.

I had childish complaints about this episode, but the older I got, the more I started to see the challenges that my mother specifically had to overcome when she came here, and I wanted to write this book to show her that I see that side now and communicate it to him.

What was your mother’s reaction to the book?

This is the first book, she says, where I no longer feel like an angry young man. And I think she’s right, there’s a maturity to the book that wasn’t there before.

In my forties, I started to see things differently – less with myself in the center and more in contrasts, grays between blacks and whites. There is a greater understanding and sympathy for what people are going through than what may have existed in my previous work.

As you raise your own child, you begin to see that you need to be more sympathetic to the trials of others. It’s not a sign of weakness to let your emotions show. There are things that I had to relearn along the way since I am now responsible, not only for myself but also for my family. A lot of that really came from being a parent and navigating someone else’s experiences for them. You always want to avoid repeating what happened to you when you were a parent, especially if it’s a matter of apprehension.

What do you hope readers take away from Helpline?

Even though this is a historical novel, not much has changed. We still have these systemic barriers in society. We talk about immigration in a certain way, but the reality is quite different. We say there is no problem because we choose not to look at people’s situation once they are here.

I think there’s always work to be done on how we see people and how many people we don’t see. And it may wear a different skin now than it did in the 1980s, but I think the central problem is still the same. Beyond that, I think I’d like people to see that a lot of people who come here are showing great resilience and overcoming very serious systemic obstacles in trying to build their own communities on an individual level, with the people they need around them. .

We live in societies that are filled with individual kindness, but still have systemic feelings placed around that individual kindness. Thus, many people who integrate into society still find themselves navigating between individual advances and the brakes of society as a whole.

I’ve also heard from several readers and a lot of people really see themselves, either their own stories or their parents’ stories, and that we tend to want to wash the whole story with the brush of overt racism sometimes, but sometimes that kind exteriority is more moderate than open complaints about race and culture. It is this invisibility that people experience. This is really the great indignity that accompanies immigration. Ultimately what I wanted to do with this book was to articulate that loneliness in a particular way and I think a lot of people relate to that.

Dimitri Nasrallah will discuss ‘Help line‘ as part of the What Home Means panel at the Vancouver Writer’s Festival, taking place October 18.  [Tyee]


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