The Clothesline Swing by Ahmad Danny Ramadan is one of those books that makes me feel privileged just to have gotten the chance to read it. One of the most amazing things about reading (and there are many) is how it allows you to get a glimpse into other people’s lives and places that you might otherwise never have access to. The Clothesline Swing is set partially in Vancouver (where I live!), but also Syria. It features a gay Syrian couple who end up coming to Canada as refugees. It’s so special to get to spend some time seeing the world from the perspectives of these people. But The Clothesline Swing is not only an incredible window for readers who are different than the main characters, it is a mirror for readers similar to them. It’s also a beautiful piece of literature reminiscent of some of my favourite living writers.
The Clothesline Swing is a poetic, elegiac novel, Ahmad Danny Ramadan’s first published work in English (he’s also the author of two short story collections in Arabic). Knowing the book was about Syrian refugees going from Syria to Canada, the narrative structure surprised me. Instead of chronicling the journey chronologically going from Syria to Canada and leaving the story with a “happy ever after” after they have arrived in Canada (this expectation likely stems from my Western position and its fondness for linear narratives), Ramadan makes the fascinating choice to tell the story from the perspective of one of the men as he is elderly. I tell you, when did you last read a queer book from the perspective of a gay elder? This elderly gay Syrian man is unnamed but you know him as Hakawati, which means storyteller. So, of course, he is the narrator of the novel and spends the narrative telling stories as he looks back on his life while his partner is dying.
The stories go back and forth in time, taking place in Canada, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey. Hakawati tells us about his childhood in Damascus, early queer relationships, homophobic violence he suffered at the hands of supposed friends and family, leaving Syria only to return to war, meeting the man who became his life partner, and the surreal experience of trying to maintain a semblance of a life as war rages around him in his beloved hometown. He also tells traditional, fairy tale-like stories that sometimes stand on their own and are sometimes embedded within other stories. All of these stories are addressed to a ‘you,’ making the narration feel startlingly intimate, even though you know the ‘you’ is Hakawati’s partner.
Although the setting changes often, the spectre of Syria lies heavy in most of the stories, even in the ones told in the present of the novel (which is actually the future). Hakawati says: “We were all children of this dying nation; although our mother’s steady march toward death brought us destruction, we didn’t want to abandon her.” This haunting affects the tone of the whole novel; the ache of missing a place that exists only in your memories, the pull of wanting to return to a home that is no longer there, these feelings permeate Hakawati’s stories. In addition to the more figurative haunting of the country both men left, and that in reality doesn’t exist anymore, there is also a literal haunting: that of death himself, who is hanging out in the couple’s apartment, joining their conversations, drinking their coffee, smoking their joints, and generally eavesdropping on their lives.
Ahmad Danny Ramadan, via harbourpublishing.com
The timeless, fairy tale feel of Hakawati’s stories reminded me of both Helen Oyeyemi and Jeanette Winterson, other writers who manage simultaneously to write about specific historical times and places, while making their stories feel eternal and ancient. Hakawati’s sacred job as storyteller through which Ramadan narrates the novel adds to its timeless feel; readers feels more like listeners, as if gathered at the feet of a wise queer Syrian elder. When Hakawati asks near the approach of his partner’s death, “What’s a storyteller without a listener? … Who will listen to my stories without him?,” the answer might be us, the readers.
Although The Clothesline Swing is dark at times (content includes suicide, mental illness, gay-bashing, and sexual assault), the book is ultimately life-affirming as well as healing. I know it was for me as a reader and I imagine it would be for other readers as well as the author himself (who is a gay Syrian refugee like his protagonist), for his dedication reads: “To the children of Damascus, This is what I did with my heartache…What about yours?” To reference the aptly chosen epigraph from Gabriel García Márquez, which describes a person “unable to bear in his soul the crushing weight of so much past,” the end of The Clothesline Swing feels like a magnificent lifting of a burden too long shouldered.
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Reviewer Biography: Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature. She lives and works in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle, Book Riot and Inside Vancouver. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.