Interview by Logaine Navascués
Danny Ramadan is a Syrian-Canadian author and LGBTQ-refugees advocate. His debut novel, The Clothesline Swing, won the Independent Publisher Book Award, The Canadian Authors Association’s award, and was shortlisted for Evergreen Award, Sunburst Award and a Lambda Award. The novel is translated to French, German and Hebrew. His children’s book, Salma the Syrian Chef is nominated to the Forest of Reading’s Blue Spruce award, and named amongst the Best Books of 2020 by Kirkus Reviews and Library School Journal. It won the Middle East Book Award 2020. His forthcoming novel, The Foghorn Echoes, to be released by Penguin Canada and Canongate UK in Summer 2022. Danny graduated from UBC with an MFA in Creative Writing and lives in Vancouver with his husband, Matthew Ramadan.
Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
A couple of years ago, I woke up longing for a traditional Damascene breakfast. I did not want another protein shake or pancakes. I wanted oily Labneh and stuffed Makdoos and yummy fresh Foul Shami. So, I invited many friends over to my house for a brunch gathering (remember those?!) and I tasked each one with bringing an item for me to make this Damascene feast.
Some of my friends are from my own culture, while others are from neighboring cultures, or were born on the other side of the world. It was almost hilarious looking at my text messages as they traveled from across the city toward my home, and sought ingredients that they never heard of before. Pictures were shared, voice notes were sent, Google Translate was heavily used to find the English names of rare spices. A couple of hours later, and around lunchtime by then, I was finally in the kitchen making these delicious dishes for my friends. They awed and wowed, and we had a marry good time gathering around our food, talking about our cultures, and the similarities of our cuisines.
By that evening, I had the rough first draft of Salma the Syrian Chef written down.
Did you have any ideas in mind for the illustrations?
I honestly did not. I wrote children’s stories before for Arabic magazines through my twenties, and you quickly learn that you as the author have to leave space for the illustrator to have their own full range on their art. Otherwise, you become limiting and almost guard-ful of your work.
I hoped for an honest and authentic representation for my culture, and I knew that the folks at Annick Press were quite respectful of that. So, I knew that I would play a role in supporting the illustrator finding the right tones and motifs for the artwork. That, however, came months after we finalized the text.
The text is so visual and evocative, while maintaining a child’s innocent and still simple view of the world. Can you tell us more about the process of finding Salma’s voice and creating the beautiful similes that bring her world to life?
For every piece of writing I do, I try to imagine a tree of metaphors. All the metaphors in each piece of work I do have to work together, and feel like they belong together. I wouldn’t write a simile about the waves on a sea on one page, then a metaphor about alien abduction in the next. That would simply be jarring to the reader.
Also, metaphors and similes have very little to do with the author, and everything to do with the protagonist. Salma, as a protagonist, is a young child who is driven, adventurous, curious about her surroundings, cares about her culture, and extroverted. Dreamy purple walls, gardens like necklaces, umbrellas in countries with no rain, and the like—they just work for her own perspective. What she would notice, and what would be beautiful for her. I wouldn’t include a simile there about a racoon, for example, simply because there were no racoons in Syria for her to notice.
Two visual elements that immediately stand out while reading the story are the architectonic ornamentations that frame the pages, and the use of colour as a narrative device. Could you tell us more about these features? Were they your suggestions? Anna’s? The product of a collaboration between both of you?
That’s a question for Anna. Anna had full reign over the illustrations of the book, and was fantastic in bringing the culture of the protagonist to the page. She did ask for help, and I provided her with a picture of a young relative of mine for Salma’s design, a couple of pictures of my own Backgammon I bought in Damascus for inspiration regarding the frames, but honestly the colour device, and the attention to details is all truly her fantastic work.
You would also notice that she picked up on how Syrian women wear gold jewelry (not only as a sign of wealth, but as a way to save money—like a bank of sorts), and she had both Syrian characters wearing appropriate jewelry. I think that speaks to a keen eye and a great illustrator.
There is an evident interest in making this a diverse and inclusive story, portraying people from different backgrounds, cultures and sexual orientation. What was the process of creating these characters—and making believable and respectful representations of them, both in the written and the visual form—like?
I honestly had a lot on my mind when working on including diverse characters in the book. I might have some access to authentically represent my own Syrian experience in the book, but I had no right to other cultures. That’s why I leaned in on my community: I asked my Jordanian, Lebanese and Persian friends for help. For example, my friend Evan is from Venezuela, and offered me the name of his favourite meal, and I named the character after him as a thank you.
I think many of the different racial backgrounds and sexual orientations represented in the book share one experience in this narrative, the immigrant experience: However, I ensured that I am writing from a Third Person Limited narrative only to the voice of Salma. I did not assume knowledge of the other characters’ experiences or try to speak on their behalf. I tried my very best to remain grounded in their shared experience I can represent authentically.
(Bonus question.) Even if Salma’s is, ultimately, a story of hope—longing, nostalgia and a sense of loss are very present throughout the text. Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of children’s literature to address difficult or complex topics? What was your strategy to tackle these themes?
I honestly worked with one amazing editor on this book: Claire Caldwell, who I asked this very question early in the process of editing and she answered it so well. She said that I needed to focus on Salma’s agency as a character, and on the fact that Salma is capable of independent thinking and problem solving. By focusing on Salma’s ability to face these challenges, I didn’t only represent these difficult complex topics, but also showcased to the child reading that they are approachable and solvable.
I think that when we write complex topics into children’s literature, we offer the children the respect they deserve: they deserve to know the world as it is now, rather than a fantastical projected version of it. They deserve to participate in the change we are hoping to see in the world, and they deserve to be leaders for their own lives, and their own communities. I think offering such complex stories in an appropriate way to children is truly the way to build up empathy.
Our reviews of Danny Ramadan’s books: