Ahmad Danny Ramadan is a writer intent on reshaping the narrative around refugees, shifting the focus from tragedy and trauma to joy and human resilience. It’s a theme the Syrian-Canadian knows intimately – he’s lived it himself, and he says storytelling was key to his journey.
“Syria is a nation of storytellers,” Ramadan says. “We tell stories to each other.”
Ramadan, who published his first collection of short fiction, Death and Other Fools, in Arabic at the age of 19, worked as a journalist in the Middle East, documenting the horrors of war for The Guardian and The Washington Post. “I kept telling myself, ‘At least I’m telling the right story,’” he says. “‘I’m not standing with the regime, or the rebels, or the terrorists, or anybody. I’m standing with the people, and telling the people’s stories.’ But after a while, I was like, ‘I am telling people’s stories, but nobody is listening.’”
In 2014, after assignments in Egypt, Turkey and Malaysia, and several years living as a refugee in Lebanon, Ramadan was granted asylum in Canada, becoming an active figure in Vancouver’s gay community, and serving as grand marshal for the city’s Pride parade in 2016.
Ramadan recently published his English-language debut, The Clothesline Swing (Nightwood Editions). The novel centres on two Syrian lovers who’ve fled the violence of civil war and homophobia, seeking solace in Vancouver’s West End and each other’s arms. Decades later, one is dying and the other is telling his beloved stories to keep him alive. Meanwhile, Death sits in the corner, smirking, a reminder of the pain of the past.
The Clothesline Swing started as a short story in 2004. It lingered for years in Ramadan’s mind, but never felt quite deep enough to become a book. “Then I went through the experience of becoming a refugee myself,” he says. “The joys of life that I was trying to find in a very grim reality felt like exactly the kind of story that I wanted to tell.”
Ramadan also wanted the book to serve as a window into old Damascus, the city of his youth. He relished painting a portrait of a place few westerners are familiar with: the fragrant jasmine blooms, the mosques and their twinkling lights, the sun rising behind the mountains, the yellow taxis with cracked paint, the enchanted streets and cozy cafés, the warm bread and baladi cheese. “I grew up in that beautiful city,” he says. “At the same time, the city itself has this echo of all the years it has [gone] through.”
Publishers initially rejected The Clothesline Swing, suggesting he remove the magical realism, structure the book chronologically, and drill down on the tragedy. But Ramadan felt the story needed to be told in a way that reflected his culture. Finally, Silas White, publisher of the Gibsons, B.C.–based Nightwood, heard Ramadan speak at a conference and offered to run with the book as it was.
Ramadan takes satisfaction in knowing he’s written against the grain, challenging reader perspectives – an aim that animates much of his work. “People will come to me and they’re like, ‘At the beginning I pitied you, but now I see you, I empathize with you,’” he says. “That is very important for me, because it changes the way that people see us. Rather than these weak creatures that are running away from war, that deserve our charity – those are our brothers and sisters who are coming to join the Canadian society.”
The 32-year-old currently makes his living in the non-profit world, as a volunteer specialist at the Greater Vancouver Food Bank. He gives frequent public talks; he also writes a column on LGBT issues and the immigrant experience for the website Daily Xtra.
“A lot of people look at me and they’re like, ‘You speak the language, you are contributing to society, you’re working a full-time job, and you are doing all those public speaking events or charity things. And writing books.’ And they’re like, ‘Okay, we want more of you here.’”
The power of storytelling is the thread that runs through all of Ramadan’s projects. “If you look at the structure of stories, you have a protagonist that goes through a conflict, they have a setback, and then they come out the other side and triumph,” he says. “And that is where the power of storytelling, when you’re talking about trauma, comes. Sometimes I tell the same story so many different ways, but I always find a way to come out the other side triumphant. I always find a way to say, ‘Yes, but it showed my resilience. Yes, but it saved my life in a different way. Yes, I went through the trauma, but that made me stronger. That made me better. It made me a better writer, it made me a better public speaker. It made me a happier person.’”