Danny Ramadan (he/him) is a Syrian-Canadian author and advocate for LGBTQ+ refugees. His debut novel, The Clothesline Swing, was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award and longlisted for Canada Reads. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and lives with his husband in Vancouver, BC.
A deeply moving novel of forbidden love between two boys in war-torn Syria and the fallout that ripples through their adult lives. Masterfully crafted and richly detailed, The Foghorn Echoes is a gripping novel about how to carve out home in the midst of war, and how to move forward when the war is within yourself.
Nancy Pearson (NP): Danny, with The Foghorn Echoes, you take readers into places most have never experienced, physical places such as Arab-Spring Damascus; Syrian homes; a lifeboat filled with refugees; Vancouver nightclubs; an abandoned mansion in Damascus. You also take us deep into emotional spaces of forbidden relationships; loving…and violent sex; refugee trauma; the drag queen lifestyle; guilt; despair; lost love; found love; and so much more. It’s a story incredibly lush with very human experiences, growth, and wisdom. At the core is a yearning to find peace and belonging, something you spoke about in an online interview. I’m wondering if you could tell me more about this and how it propels your storytelling.
Danny Ramadan (DR): Firstly thank you for putting it this way. I got emotional hearing you. It’s an obsession of mine. This obsession with finding the sense of belonging, figuring out how different characters would be able to find a sense of home. And navigating those spaces is in its way a journey towards finding a person’s place in the world. A lot of refugees when they immigrate, a big part of their immigration process is trying to figure out where they fit into the new world that they are propelled into. Many of them find solace in the weirdest places. Many of them find solace in hiding who they were before they arrived. Others find solace in exploring who they are and holding on to their old identities. For me, to be honest, my own personal experience is that I wanted to experience both: I wanted to hold on to being Syrian, but I also wanted to embrace being Canadian. So, that is something that strikes me in my writing, trying to navigate that, trying to understand it for myself. When I wrote The Foghorn Echoes I wanted to look at the trauma that these two boys went through. They are identical in every way. They grow up in the same culture. They are of the same background. There are some class differences, but they still are of the same neighbourhood in Syria. And then they reacted so differently to the one singular trauma that affected them both equally. And I wanted to see how that evolved. I wanted to send one on a flight and the other on a fight kind of road and see where that would take them. So that is something that I navigated while writing this book and those characters. I think about them all the time, just sitting in my office, staring into the abyss.
NP: One element I found so compelling is the portrayal of the body as landscape and, if I may be so bold, as homeland. One example on page 144 is Wassim’s description of his beloved Hussam when he says
I instantly recognized Hussam with his red-and-white scarf covering his face. Only his eyes were visible, but I knew his body like the geography of my own neighbourhood and the hills surrounding Damascus.
Could you expand on this wonderful approach to illustrating what I see as being partly based on your immigrant experience?
DR: There is a Palestinian writer that I find to be compelling. His name is Ghassan Kanafani and he wrote a poem that reads: “A home is not necessarily a large land. It could be as small as the space between two shoulders.” And that stayed with me. That’s truly something that stayed with me for years, honestly. The idea that you can dissect your own identity in the way that you navigate yourself until you find it in the core of who you are in your own body and in the geography of your own curve, if that make sense. That is something that I wanted to instil in both my characters. I wanted them to know their bodies, to see how they experience it. Wassim in one side is very protective of his body. He is closed upon himself; he’s aware of every twitch in his body throughout the book. But Hussam is willing to give away his body. He doesn’t see himself as valuable, so, therefore, he doesn’t see his body as valuable. And that is something that he experiences in the book in his anonymous sex and, in one specific scene, where he is sexually assaulted. I think, at the end of the day, sometimes you can bring with you, I don’t know, your favourite necklace that brought from Damascus or the best shoes that you’ve ever worn, but those will be lost. The only thing that will remain are your own memories and the way that you see your own body and the way that it reacts to the walls around you. And I think that is something that stays with you that’s virtually the only way where you can plant yourself and find the flowers of the past fading.
NP: Thank you. And I have to say that the sexual assault scene was so real and disturbing. It was so well done. It was so devastating to see what was happening to him.
DR: Thank you. When I wrote it honestly and truthfully, I wanted to imagine it from two points of view. One where somebody is standing outside and doesn’t know what’s happening inside of the mind of the character. From that person’s perspective, those are two boys having sex. There’s no sexual assault there. The guy is being a bit rough, but the other guy continuously is giving his consent to what is happening really. And then I wanted to write it from the perspective of Hussam from inside of his head, how he’s trying to navigate that sexual situation and it has nothing to do with the other guy in the room. It has everything to do with the way that he sees himself, with the way that he values himself.
NP: That leads into my next question which is that Hussam and Wassim’s culture and society don’t permit them to be open about their love for each other. They must be secretive and silent. Years later, Wassim’s trauma leaves him mute for months. He says that he looked at the people who tried to help him “with dark eyes and kept my voice to myself.” On the other hand, Hussam’s silence is described in violent imagery: “There’s a sewing needle in my mouth, ready to stitch what’s left of the root of my tongue. My severed tongue wiggles in my palm, incapable of speech…” Silence and the inability to speak shout throughout the novel. Can you tell me more about how this relates to the LGBTQ+ and immigrant experiences that are integral to the characters and the novel as a whole.
DR: When I immigrated to Canada, I had this naïve idea that I am shedding all the pressures of society behind me. That I am going to let go of the homophobia and the family rejection and all of the things that caused me to be silent about my own identity as a queer person. And then, of course, I came to Canada and realized slowly but surely that there are other factors that are forcing that silence back in a phobia in the way that we have a certain idea what a refugee is, as well as, of course, racism. That is something that I truly tried to navigate. The other thing is that we treat the word ‘trauma’ like it is some sort of a dirty word. Like saying it out loud somehow makes it happen. And I think that’s something that both characters are navigating—they think of their trauma as something that they need to hide, that they can’t speak about. But the only way that you can deal with trauma, maybe, is to talk about it, to explore it in a safe and authentic environment. I think that’s what happens to the characters as they move in the book. One of them is offered that safe environment with Kalila the ghost and the other is offered the safe environment with Dawood the drag queen. And I think the emotions that we have a lot of times because we’re so afraid of them, we pressure them. We would put them inside of a box and we hold that box with both hands to try not to let the lid open. But the more you pressure something, the more it will push back. Like, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And I think emotions have the exact same way of navigating the world. The more that you push that emotion down, the more it crystallizes and becomes more painful, more sharp. So, that is something that I also wanted to also navigate in the book.
NP: That comes through very clearly. Of course, we can’t not talk about the ghosts! One haunts and torments, and one advises and helps heal. Both are vivid and real to the characters and readers. Please tell me more about Kalila, in particular, and why you chose her to help Wassim re-enter the world and life.
DR: Kalila was born as an answer to the ghost of the father. So, the ghost of the father came first. I wanted to create the character of Hussam to be haunted by his past in what is more present on the page than the actual physical representation of the death of his father just haunting him everywhere that he goes. So, I created that character that way. And, of course, the ghost of Hussam’s father is in his head. And then I wanted to echo that back with Wassim. So now Wassim has his own version of that. And then Kalila was born as the opposite of everything that the ghost of Hussam’s father is. Kalila is a female while the ghost of Hussam’s father is male. Kalila is funny and joyful and calming, while the ghost of Hussam’s father is quiet and menacing and scary. That was the first draft. In the first draft, the character of Kalila was quite cartoonish, to be honest. She almost didn’t have a dimension to her. But then I thought of my own counsellor, my own therapist, and she is this beautiful Indigenous woman that I went to with my own traumas, with my own post-traumatic stress disorder back in 2015, 2016. She sat there and she listened and she offered corrections and ideas, and she pressured me when I needed pressure, and challenged me when I needed challenge, and was there for me when I was crying. And I couldn’t help but install all of this into Kalila. I thought that Kalila would be a perfect representation of therapy in a way. She’s friendly but at the same time she is willing to use her firm voice to remind Wassim of where he is and who he is and what value he can bring into his own life.
NP: One last question, Danny. As Wassim discovers more about Kalila, he also learns that she was ‘unnamed’ when she married and when she died. In the end, he resurrects her name. Thinking about this made me notice that you published your first novel under a fuller name—Ahmad Danny Ramadan. Would you be comfortable with telling me why you published The Foghorn Echoes without including Ahmad?
DR: Sure, I am happy to talk about that. I was named Ahmad by my father, and I was named Danny by my first boyfriend when I was nineteen. And I navigated the world back in the Middle East for years where whenever I needed to be straight—so, in my workplace; when I was around my straight friends; in publishing my first couple of books back in the Middle East—I was Ahmad Ramadan. And then whenever I navigated queer spaces, whenever I went to the underground scene of LGBTQ+ folks in Egypt and in Syria, I used Danny as my name. When I arrived in Canada, I wanted to marry the two names together, so I went with Ahmad Daniel Ramadan. I was known across all of Canada as Ahmad Daniel Ramadan. But, truthfully, Danny is my authentic self. He is the person I was most authentic with back in Syria. I didn’t need to lie about who I am when I was navigating the world as Danny. When I was Ahmad, I had to hide a lot of who I am. And I think I came to the conclusion a couple of years ago that the name that rings true to who I am as a person is Danny. I just wanted to go with that.
NP: Thank you for explaining that. I think it’s really meaningful and that a lot of readers will find that very significant.
DR: Thank you. I appreciate you for asking that question.