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From a Baghdad prison cell to a Tokyo conference to a town under siege in the mountains of Lebanon to the bowels of the McGill University library, the stories in Rawi Hage’s collection Stray Dogs run a gamut of places and spaces. The focus, however, is on what’s happening in his characters’ heads. Is their perception of reality skewed – or is reality itself?

Mediating between the outside world and the inside, between the actual and the observed, are photographs. Many of Stray Dogs’s characters take or study photos – as the Beirut-born Hage was doing when he first came to Montreal in 1992, to enroll at Concordia. The medium has been a motif in his novels, from his International Dublin Literary Award-winning debut, De Niro’s Game (2006), to Beirut Hellfire Society (2018). With Stray Dogs, he says, “I finally tried to join these two forms in a book.” On the phone from his Montreal home, Hage speaks about photography writing, and the cerebral and visceral sides of his art.

In your stories, you seem to assemble characters with different backgrounds and perspectives to explore what will happen – setting forces in motion in close proximity.

None of us is a product of a monolithic culture, and if I want to flatter myself, I think I’m writing something very contemporary. This cosmopolitan writing I do is not about a life of luxury; it’s this constant interaction with different histories – meeting and negotiating our existences. This used to happen with wars, travel or commerce, but now, it’s much more accelerated. In Canada, we’re moving toward a homogenized third space – but even that third space has to interact with something else and change.

Open this photo in gallery:

Hats: A peculiarity in the work of the surrealist painter Magritte is his repeated depiction of hats – and not just any hat in any place, but a particular kind of hat in a particular space. If one looks more closely at this seemingly inconsequential detail in the much grander canvas of the Surrealist Revolution, one notices that Magritte’s hats always appear near to, or in, an exterior space. Subconsciously, Magritte was reinforcing the idea that hats are to be worn outside, and not inside, buildings. Removing one’s hat indoors was the convention inside the most rigid institutions in his world: places of worship, places where military officers gathered, dinners at respectable homes. One might argue that despite his wild and unconventional paintings, René Magritte remained a prisoner of the norms of his time, and his own latent, subconscious visions. Caption written by author Rawi Hage, who also took photo.Rawi Hage/Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

When your third novel, Carnival (2012), came out, you said your photography is “probably why I write in the first person. Much like in photography, I have to be present, portraying things.” What does it mean for you that some of the stories in Stray Dogs are in the third person – including the last one, The Colour of Trees, in which a retired philosophy professor tries to stop young people from falling off a cliff while taking selfies?

Photography is such a rich medium, from entertainment all the way to surveillance; the diversity of people who have been attracted to it or used it is tremendous. This book looks at its relation to society, and that dictated something beyond my own experience. It’s a short book; if you wanted to cover the whole spectrum of photography you would need thousands of pages, but I wanted to show how diverse and how ambiguous and precise this medium is. Also there’s a theological dimension to photography; there’s economics, class and humour too. Especially in commercial photography, which I had to do for a long time – as an art student exposed to all this kitsch and weddings.

Every time we take a selfie, it’s defining our relationship to each other. The story The Colour of Trees is all about the self. How do we define the self? How do we project our own selves? Is it necessary to turn ourselves into mere representation – an image?

The medium is so mutable, and it keeps surprising me how much it has changed and how people still find ways to use it. If anything, photographic film is having a resurgence now. I still photograph with film. I once got kicked out of an apartment because of hipsters and gentrification, but I don’t hold many grudges: If it wasn’t for hipsters using analog photography, I wouldn’t be able to find film!

Open this photo in gallery:

Beirut Opera – The photo was taken in 1996, after the end of the Lebanese civil war. It shows the Beirut Opera, a well-known theatre where many of the grandest singers and musicians had played. My cousin, who was in charge of security in this area of downtown Beirut, led me through rubble that included unexploded land mines. What looked like a small forest grew along the green line between east and west Beirut. I remembered how, when we were children, my cousin and I had snuck into this theatre and watched a war movie. We sat in these chairs and disagreed on the colour of the seats. Today, the opera building has been demolished and a superstore erected in its place. Caption written by Hage, who also took photo.Rawi Hage/Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

In the story The Whistle, the narrator recalls trying to photograph bombs in Beirut as they fall. All photographs capture and freeze images forever, but this attempt seems particularly poignant.

Well, that part of that particular story was true. In my youth, a cousin of mine and I were doing photography, and somehow we wanted to freeze bombs in the air, maybe subconsciously as a way to not let them fall and explode – some kind of wishful thinking. Looking back on it, I’m not sure why I decided to do something so foolish and adventurous and dangerous. But it was a confrontation – confronting war. I think my writing is confrontational. Maybe that was the seed of using art, writing, as a means of honesty, confrontation and courage. Also, I always used art to express myself – sometimes in a violent, poetic, emotional way.

Open this photo in gallery:

Anonym: Portraiture must surely be the most narcissistic art form we humans have developed. Visiting the grottoes that contain the earliest cave drawings, one is struck by how scarce human figures are; and when such a figure does appear among the magnificent renderings of animals, it is small and distant. When and how did we attain our sense of self-importance? Why did we begin to admire ourselves, then replicate our figures in stones and then in image? In 1995, I photographed thirty-some Montreal artists. Those who agreed to be photographed had various reasons to do so, and in all fairness most resisted or were apprehensive. The person who resisted most went by the name of Anonym Sans Regret. He had meticulously covered the space in the building where he lived on St-Hubert Street with dots, which combined into one large abstract painting that englobed everything, including any objects or packages he acquired. These he covered with more dots so that letters in words and names were changed – some turned into puns that became a political statement against consumerism. When I asked Anonym why he’d finally agreed to be photographed, he replied that he was planning to disappear, and whatever image I took would be covered over by his future disappearance. Caption written by Hage, who also took photo.Rawi Hage/Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

One story ends with an image of someone moving toward an area of destruction, while protectively clutching children …

I guess it’s a comment on our deep attraction to violence and destruction, as a species. Also there’s a certain sense of absurdity – everybody’s trying to escape by pushing things to a certain extreme. All my characters tend to be defiant against the impossible. I don’t know if it’s a suicidal wish or realizing to an extent this universe is unfair. You know you’re going to lose, but still, in an existentialist way, you take a decision to protest. And why not? It’s literature. It’s one of those places where we have to confront these aggressions, transgressions and ourselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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