Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

10 Questions with Sonia Saikaley

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10 Questions with Sonia Saikaley

Sonia Saikaley's Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter takes the reader from Lebanon’s olive groves to Montreal’s frigid winters and underground malls. These closely connected poems present a narrative threaded with the rich traditions of the Middle East, from its dazzling varied food to its bustling Arabian marketplaces and passionate politics.

A lover longs to be reunited with his beloved. A woman mourns the loss of her father and must find her place in a male-dominated culture, while another must relinquish her unborn child. Honest, accessible, and humane, Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter is a strikingly moving and powerful sequence of poems exploring themes of alienation, intergenerational disconnection, love, and loss.

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“Sensuous and shocking, a turbulent voyage of a book. I never thought I’d call a volume of poetry a page-turner, but this one is.”

“Sonia Saikaley’s Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter is a riveting collection where sensuous beauty, borne on a quiet music, collides with stark, often disturbing fact. Rich blues and yellows, antique sounds of sheep and worry beads, and textures and tastes aromatic of the Middle East vividly recreate a life left not entirely behind.”

Sonia Saikaley was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada. She grew up in a traditional Lebanese household and much of her writing is influenced by her rich Middle Eastern heritage. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Still Point Arts Quarterly, Things Japanese: A Collection of Short Stories, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and the anthology Lavandería - A Mixed Load of Women, Wash, and Word. She is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the University of Ottawa. Her first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher (Quattro Books, 2012), was co-winner of the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest.


1. Why the title "Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter"?

I wanted to capture the longing for the old world and the challenges of the new world with this title. I remember my parents receiving boxes of Turkish delights from their relatives in Lebanon and how they just loved eating this Middle Eastern treat. They told me they’d eat them back home with flat tea biscuits and sort of make a sandwich out of it with the sweet Turkish delight squished between the cookies. I smiled at the joy on their faces, but there was also a sadness, a longing for the country they had abandoned for the new world and all the snow and frigid temperatures associated with it, hence, ‘Montreal Winter’. One common complaint from new immigrants (and Canadian-born people too!) is our long, Canadian winters. I also find the title very intriguing.

2.The idea of displacement/belonging seems to play a vital role in your writing. How did living in other countries help you write about it?

This idea of displacement/belonging actually came out of being a first-generation Canadian. I was born and raised in Ottawa, but always struggled with finding my place in both my Lebanese and Canadian communities. I grew up in a traditional Lebanese household and my home life was very much Lebanese while the life I had outside my home, i.e. school, work, was English-Canadian. When I was younger, I never felt that I belonged to either one. I always felt like an outsider with one foot in my Lebanese culture and another in my Canadian culture. Luckily, I never split my pants with this balancing act! Now that I’m older I embrace both cultures equally. This is who I am. I am Canadian, but I am also Lebanese. My time in Japan also helped me experience what it felt like to be a new immigrant, the struggles with the language, the isolation and loneliness one can feel when starting out in a new place. All this helped me write this collection because I could empathize with the characters who are trying to adapt the old world to new and struggling to belong to a new culture without losing their heritage.

3. Do you feel the pressure of 'representing' the Lebanese community, and if so, how do you handle it?

No, I don’t feel any pressure of ‘representing’ the Lebanese community. I write what I know, what I grew up with and I also write about my heritage because I hope that a person outside the Middle Eastern culture would come to learn a lot about the culture. I love observing people and I had many wonderful opportunities during my childhood to sit back and listen to such fascinating stories about the old country.

4. What are the challenges of switching from 'novella' writing mode to 'poetry' writing mode? How do you make the transition?

I am very flexible when it comes to switching from ‘novella’ writing mode to ‘poetry’ writing mode. Perhaps my struggles between two different worlds helped me develop this accommodating, flexible nature! I love the character development involved in fiction while I am drawn to the immediacy of poetry. Sometimes I need to take a break from fiction and it’s then that I turn to poetry. It’s a lovely distraction when something isn’t quite working with my fiction.

5. Do you feel the pressure of wearing two hats, with two books of different genres being released in the same year (from a PR perspective)?

I have always worn so many hats! Ah, the life of a writer! Seriously, I don’t feel any pressure with having two books of different genres being released in the same year. From a PR perspective it works well because I can promote one while promoting the other. It’s actually very exciting having two books published in the same year. What a wonderful way to begin my publishing career! It took me a long time to get published so perhaps this is my reward for being so patient and determined. I am so fortunate, too, that both publishers (Quattro Books and TSAR Publications) were willing to give a new voice a chance.

6. You mention that "Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter" took you 10 years to write. When did you know you were ready to let go of it?

After I returned to Canada from Japan, I began to seriously rewrite the poems in this collection and when I started having luck in getting some published in journals/magazines (my Japanese luck must have followed me home!), I knew it was time to let go of this collection and find a home for it and I am so grateful to TSAR Publications for providing this supportive home.

7. Which poem in the collection was the most challenging to write and why?

“The Prodigal Daughter” was the most challenging because it is a poem about the strained relationship I had with my father. This poem describes the heartache I had felt when watching my father die and how I realized that we had wasted many years struggling with our differences. I had often joked with my sisters that my father and I clashed because we were born under the same astrological sign – Aries, the sign ruled by passion and sometimes aggressive action. But our relationship couldn’t be explained through the simplicity and light of stars. Thankfully, we learned to forgive each other and to move forward before it was too late.

8. Do you have any writing rituals? (particular places you have to write, lucky pens or objects to inspire, notebooks you have to use, etc)?

I wake up very early, 4 or 5 am and write at home, sometimes in front of a computer screen, sometimes longhand before I head to my day job. I love the quiet of the early morning hours.

9. Which issues/stories currently fascinate you? Are you writing about them?

I am fascinated with issues/stories related to the struggles against the role of women in Middle Eastern or other male-dominated cultures. My writing often deals with the problems Middle Eastern women face. I am currently working on a novel that deals with such an issue. It’s called “Fishing Season in Gaza” and it’s about a young Palestinian woman who is disfigured for bringing shame on her family. A tough, sad story but one I feel must be told.

10. Who are your favourite poets/authors at the moment?

Oh, tough question because I have so many favourite poets/authors! But if I had to name a few, I would say Julia Alvarez, Dionne Brand, Christine McNair, Gillian Wigmore, Shilpi Somaya Gowda and Nawal El Saadawi.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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