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 and 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 different than the main characters and 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, Ramadan’s first published work in English (he’s also the author of two short story collections in Arabic). The structure surprised me when I started the novel with the knowledge that it was about Syrian refugees coming to Canada. 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 you in your 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’s hangs out in the couple’s apartment, joining their conversations, drinking their coffee, smoking their joints, and generally eavesdropping on their lives.
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.