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The City and the Writer: In Montreal with Dimitri Nasrallah

By Nathalie Handal

Photo credit: Maica Armata

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
                                —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Montreal as you feel/see it?

Montreal is currently in an optimistic mood. The city has recently passed through some difficult years of political instability, with the separatist Parti Québécois having briefly managed to lead a minority government from 2012 to 2014. In an effort to win a majority government and gain the momentum they desired to hold a referendum on the subject of separation, they instigated a province-wide debate on language and identity issues that proposed many narrow views toward accommodating immigrants and non-Christian faiths. But that all backfired when they were roundly defeated at the polls in 2014. Since they were voted out, the city feels as if it doesn’t have to worry about its future on a daily basis anymore, if only for the moment.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I’ve lived in Montreal twice. The first time was in the late eighties when my family first arrived to Canada. We moved to Toronto two years later, and then I returned here on my own for graduate studies. My most heartbreaking memory comes from the first occasion.  When we moved here, I was required by law to attend a French school, even though I had no knowledge of the language and had been educated in English up until that point. I was eleven at the time, and due to the month in which I was born, I was also held back a grade. Quebecois schools had special integration classrooms for immigrants who did not speak the language, and as a result I ended up in a class with my sister, who is three years younger than me. At that age, I used to take a lot of pride in my academic achievements, so these circumstances, tied to my first experiences in a new country, were heartbreaking to me at the time.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

That it has a tremendously rich history of ethnic and cultural diversity that has been, for the most part, swept under the carpet as a sacrifice to the official narrative of competing French and English populations.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are many, but I’m partial to the ones I have a hand in publishing as the fiction editor at Véhicule Press. Namely, the French-language authors Éric Plamondon (whose 1984 Trilogy I’m currently translating for publication between 2016 and 2018) and Geneviève Pettersen, as well as the Croatian-Canadian Josip Novakovich, who was a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Matinees at the local movie theatre, record shopping, several restaurants.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Montreal’s Anglo-Jewish community was instrumental in putting the city on the international map in the mid-twentieth century. Bits of the city reflected in works by Mordecai Richler, Leonard Cohen, and Hugh MacLennan still exist, though many have made way for new developments. These days, the Drawn & Quarterly bookstore seems to be the central place to catch the writers of the moment reading from their works.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I’ve spent most of my years here in Southwest Montreal, an area that was until quite recently ignored by many of the city’s inhabitants. When I lived in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood, I enjoyed discovering the deep-running roots of Montreal’s black community. When I lived in St. Henri, it was the fact that North America’s music industry essentially took root there at the old RCA building at the dawn of the twentieth century. For many years, these stories were overlooked. I wrote about them here.

Where does passion live here?

Passion lives in the multitudes of people who come here from all over Canada in search of a different, more creative way of life.  It also lives in the fact that the French language and people have sustained themselves here over centuries to make this a unique place in North America.

What is the title of one of your works about Montreal and what inspired it exactly?

Niko, my second novel, spends a significant chunk of time in Montreal. The story for that portion was inspired by the events I mentioned in response to your second question..

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Montreal does an outside exist?”

An outside always exists. As someone who has lived in many cities all over the world—as an outsider—I constantly remind myself that no matter how much I feel at home, this sense of belonging cannot ferment without an outside to contrast it.


Award-winning writer Dimitri Nasrallah was born in 1977 during Lebanon’s civil war. His family left Beirut in 1982 and moved to Greece. They arrived in Montreal in 1988, where he has lived ever since. He is the author of two novels: 2005’s Blackbodying (DC Books) won the Quebec Writers’ Federation McAuslan First Book Prize and was a finalist for the bilingual Grand prix du livre de Montreal; and 2011’s Niko (Esplanade Books) was longlisted for the 2013 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and is being translated into French and Turkish.  Currently at work on a third novel, Nasrallah is deeply involved in Montreal’s literary life and culture. Alongside teaching creative writing at Concordia University’s Department of English, in 2013 he became editor for Esplanade Books, the fiction imprint of Montreal’s Véhicule Press. He is currently working on translating Eric Plamondon’s 1984 Trilogy—a Quebecois contemporary classic—into English. The first novel, Hungary-Hollywood Express, will be published in 2016, with Mayonnaise following in 2017, and Apple S in 2018. Nasrallah also hosts a local books & culture TV program called Between the Pages. 

Published Dec 2, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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