In his new Hazlitt ebook, Calgary journalist Marcello Di Cintio examines the role of literature in Palestinian society
When Walls: Travels Along the Barricades (Goose Lane Editions) won the 2012 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, no one was more surprised than its author, Marcello Di Cintio. The non-fiction writer and journalist had not considered his third travel-themed book – about communities whose lives are affected by physical walls of separation – to be a political work. “Winning it was the most shocking experience of my entire life,” Di Cintio says from his home in Calgary.
There should be much less confusion about his follow-up, the Hazlitt Original ebook Song of the Caged Bird: Words as Resistance in Palestine (Random House Canada), which chronicles a month in his life as a creative non-fiction instructor in a Palestinian village near Ramallah. With Song, the author returns to and becomes part of the Canadian conversation on the Arab-Israeli conflict – an increasingly polarized and politically charged subject, given the Conservative government’s unwavering support of Israel.
Although Di Cintio set out with the expressed goal of writing the Palestinian experience in terms other than struggle and violence, focusing instead on the people’s relationship to literature and books, he quickly discovered that the conflict “saturates every aspect of daily life. In a way, I would have loved to write an ebook that doesn’t mention it, but that would have been completely ridiculous to even think about.”
Song of the Caged Bird argues that, for Palestinians, writing – political and otherwise – is an act of resistance and a strategy to insert their stories into a narrative from which they’ve either been excluded, or reduced to victims and/or terrorists. Bibliophiles will appreciate Di Cintio’s journey through family libraries that date back centuries, and vignettes set in local bookstores struggling with counterfeit books and copyright infringements.
That it takes an ebook to offer an uplifting commentary on the political and cultural significance of print just adds complexity to the debate on how new technologies are affecting traditional publishing models. But Di Cintio doesn’t sound very concerned with the business case of ebooks: “Let the accountants figure that out,” he says. (For the record, Song retails for $2.99.) What matters to him as an artist is the opportunity of the medium. The 15,000-word length of Hazlitt’s ebook series hit a rare sweet spot, he says.
“My month in June in Palestine did not generate enough material for a 300-page book,” he says. “But it did generate enough for what is essentially a long story that no magazine that I have access to is willing to publish. I loved the opportunity to be able to spend 15,000 words with a topic, not chop it down to a third of its size or less … or have to pad it into something that would be clearly bloated at book length.”
Straddling the immediacy of online magazines and the weight of a book may explain why several Canadian publishers have started their own series of what are often referred to as “short books,” many available in digital formats only. (Length varies, but 10,000 to 40,000 words seems to be the standard.) In Canada, Hazlitt Original ebooks joins, among others, Coach House Books’ Exploded Views series of cultural journalism, available in both digital and collectible print editions.
Hazlitt editor-in-chief Christopher Frey acknowledges that the short ebooks are “still largely an experiment” in financial and cultural terms. While many non-fiction writers have embraced the format, readers seem more cautious. “There are a limited number of success stories … with a huge skew towards the outside success,” Frey says, citing The Gift of Ford, journalist Ivor Tossell’s ebook about Toronto’s infamous former mayor, as an example of a title that found its readership.
Although Di Cintio is “seriously considering” expanding Song of the Caged Bird to a full-length manuscript, he realizes he must return to the Middle East for additional reporting. For Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, he was out of Canada for nearly 48 weeks over a four-year period. Whatever shape and however long the next book takes, it’ll have the Di Cintio hallmark of using sojourns in faraway lands as a springboard for human-interest stories.
Anchoring his books in cultural observations betrays Di Cintio’s own discomfort with the label of travel writer, a designation he finds too wide to be useful. “Someone who does hotel reviews is a travel writer,” he says. “I want to tell stories that are more relevant than having good trips, to meditate in India or eat and pray and love somewhere. I won’t be the guy who writes about a year in Provence.”