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Artists in the GTA: Ryad Assani-Razaki is telling our migration stories

Jameson Avenue's 1960s apartment buildings, packed with new Canadians, are home to many stories on migration. But only one of its residents has won a $20,000 provincial prize for telling these tales.

That's 29-year-old Ryad Assani-Razaki, a native of Benin who settled on Jameson in spring 2008 and whose first book, Deux Cercles, won the Trillium Award for Best Book Published in French in spring 2010. The short stories in Deux Cercles are sensitive portrayals of the frustrations of immigration, and Assani-Razaki's anticipated first novel Le main d'Iman, due out in September, promises to more deeply explore these themes.

Sitting at the wobbly kitchen table cum writing desk in his tiny, tidy second-floor studio apartment, Assani-Razaki -- fluent in Yoruba, Fon, French and English -- talks energetically about his writing and its origins.

"I started seriously writing stories when I was 13," he says. Then as now, the driving motivation remains personal. "I just like writing stories for myself. Writing makes you feel good, makes you understand things, makes you release things and that's why I write, mostly. I think the process of writing is more important than the product."

While writing Deux Cercles, for instance, Assani-Razaki says, "I answered a lot of questions to myself. I was in a new environment" -- Montreal, where he was undertaking a master's in computer science in 2007 -- "and the main questions were about immigration and differences. Quebec is a place with a lot of different people who have to interact, but what someone is understanding is not always what someone is saying. I was trying to understand what all these people were feeling and" -- here, he starts laughing warmly -- "Why such a big mess?"

The title story in Deux Cercles, for example, was inspired by a scene Assani-Razaki saw at a Montreal fast-food restaurant while waiting for a friend. An Asian man was trying to order from the menu, but wasn't fluent enough to make himself understood by the Francophone servers.

"I started imagining what was going on with that man and said, I'm going to write a story about it while waiting. I enjoyed the process so much, I decided to write another," Assani-Razaki says. Within eight months, he'd completed all 11 stories in the book, writing first drafts overnight for fear of losing inspiration: "I didn't want to fall asleep and wake up to not see the characters anymore."

Once done, Assani-Razaki was happy to put the stories away, like all the other writing he'd produced through the years. But friends urged him to find a publisher. After doing online research to determine which Montreal houses would be a good fit, he delivered manuscripts to five. Three months later, he got a call from VLB Editeur, whose authors have included Denys Arcand and Joyce Carol Oates.

"Of the nearly 900 works of fiction that arrive each year at VLB, the writing of Ryad Assani-Razaki was immediately striking," says Marie-Pierre Barathon, literary director at VLB Editeur, via email. "In the first work by an author, it is unusual to find a submission that is both topically relevant and of great depth, together with the singular voice of a real author, who, in the case of Ryad, was very young, but who showed an incredible maturity in his texts."

Getting Deux Cercles published wasn't without its challenges, however. One difficulty was getting the manuscript read in the first place due to Assani-Razaki's immigration status, as Canadian publishers forfeit portions of government funding when publishing non-Canadian authors. Another challenge was Assani-Razaki's limited budget, which prompted him to deliver manuscripts himself rather than pay for postage.

After the book came out, Assani-Razaki also felt daunted by the book's marketing, which included newspaper, TV and radio interviews, as well as public readings.

"I'm a very discreet person," Assani-Razaki says, "I wasn't used to going out and talking about myself. In a way, it's opposite to the process of writing, because writing is very intimate and a lot of things you write about, you would never speak of."

Since winning the Trillium last June, Assani-Razaki says not much has changed. He still relishes the sense of balance -- and financial security -- he gets from his "day job" working computer programming contracts. He still plays video games with his friends, who are generally not active in the arts. And he still prefers to hone his craft through solitary reading and writing -- he's never joined a formal writing course or group, and has no plans to do so.

Assani-Razaki admits, however, that the award did tweak his creative attitude.

"When you know your work is accepted and people like it, it makes you think more seriously," he says. "There's more space for writing in my mind now than there used to be."

Even since being nominated for the award, Assani-Razaki has created other kinds of writing space too -- applying for and obtaining an Ontario Arts Council grant that permitted him to take six months off from computer work and complete his novel, which was due at VLB in January 2011.

"You can finish a short story overnight. A novel, you can try that, but it doesn't work!" he jokes. There's other ways the novel feels different, too: he calls it "more complete" and "more mature," his "first real literary project." It's also the first time he was writing fiction to meet an external deadline. "That's very different," he says, "the sense of, 'I must finish it.'"

The novel is also different in that it was completely written in Toronto, and, Assani-Razaki says, strongly influenced by it.

"I write about differences, and Toronto is one of the most cosmopolitan areas in North America," Assani-Razaki says as QEW-bound trucks rumble outside his window along Jameson Avenue. "I write about where people go... and people come here."

Leah Sandals is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Leslieville neighbourhood of Toronto.
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