Rye journalism prof on the Governor General’s short list

Kamal Al-Solaylee's book Brown has been shortlisted for a Governor General Literary Award (Ryersonian Archives)

Kamal Al-Solaylee’s book Brown has been shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award. (Ryersonian Archive)

Ryerson journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee’s new book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone), has made the short list for the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award.

It was announced on Tuesday that Al-Solaylee’s book, about brown-skinned perspectives around the world, made the cut in the non-fiction category for one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards.

“It was so surprising … When I woke up [Tuesday] morning, I found a friend tagged me on Facebook. This is how I found out — she found out before me because I slept in,” Al-Solaylee laughed.  

He said it was unexpected because publishers do not disclose to their writers which books they submit for awards. The competition in the non-fiction category is tough, he explained.

The idea for the book began in 2012, when Al-Solaylee started to notice a connection between brown people and cheap labour. “I wanted to give a voice to some people who don’t get a say in issues and global migration and exploitation of labour,” he said.

Al-Solaylee said he noticed this at restaurants and on the university’s campus.

“Even if you go to Ryerson at the Jorgenson Hall cafeteria, tell me, who works at that cafeteria? At the kitchen or at the checkout? It’s all kind of immigrants and largely people of colour,” he said.

“I couldn’t find a book that has all these things that investigates what brown skin means — so, I just decided to write it myself.”

But that wasn’t all that prompted him to write the book.

Al-Solaylee said he took note of the attacks on multiculturalism, immigrants, precarious workers and the troubling treatment that Muslim and other minority communities face in Canada and around the world.

“We are entering a very dangerous phase in history with the rise in popular politics,” Al-Solaylee said.

The sabbatical abroad

Al-Solaylee took a sabbatical during the 2014-2015 academic year. He said he believed it was the only time he would have the opportunity to embark on his ambitious project. He had already begun his reporting for the book in early 2014.

Al-Solaylee wanted to obtain a global perspective, so he decided to take a year and a half to journey across four continents for his research.

[The book’s] not that long but I try to paint a very large canvas. I don’t know when I will get a chance to write a book like this again,” he said.

Aside from reporting in Canada, Al-Solaylee travelled to nine other countries: Trinidad and Tobago, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, France, United Kingdom and the United States.

“I knew this book couldn’t be about one country or two countries. It had to be broad so I could make a big statement,” Al-Solaylee said.

In total, it took about 18 months to complete his research, reporting and first draft.

Al-Solaylee said the he faced challenges finding people in places that he had never visited before, like Trinidad and Tobago and Qatar.

He also added that it was particularly difficult to get people to speak to him in the U.K. and France where, he said, “there is so much suspicion around Muslims.”

A book of stories

“Trying to do all of that in the span of a little over a year was the most challenging. When I finished it, I was physically and emotionally exhausted. So, I am kind of glad it’s getting some kind of recognition now,” Al-Solaylee said.

The author explained that while his book explores complicated social, political and economic issues, Brown is a book of stories.

Here’s what Al-Solaylee wants readers to take away from these stories: “I want to tell them about the construction workers in Sri Lanka who are dying [one per day] in Qatar. I want to tell them about the exploitation of Filipino workers in parts of Asia. I want to tell them about undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and how their lives depend on the mercy of police and immigrant officials. I really want [readers] to think about the people whose stories I’m telling in this book. If I can accomplish that, I will be very happy.”

In addition to telling the stories of other, he’s also included stories of his own experiences as a brown-skinned person.

“I keep a very personal thread throughout. I am writing about myself, my skin, the world I live [in], the world I grew up in, so there is also a very personal connection here,” he said.

School of journalism chair, Janice Neil, said, “I think this book was a lot of courage writing, courageous reporting. It’s a global look … We are really proud of the reporting he has done. I know that the book and topic is engaging people, and it deserves to not only be nominated but does deserve to win.”

The Governor General’s Literary Awards winners will be announced Oct. 25.

It was announced on Tuesday that Al-Solaylee’s book, about brown-skinned perspectives around the world, made the cut in the non-fiction category for one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards.

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