The Clothesline Swing
By Ahmad Danny Ramadan. Nightwood, 288 pp, softcover
Trauma is a difficult thing to write about. “Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable,” Judith Lewis Herman notes in her seminal work Trauma and Recovery. “Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried.…Folk wisdom is filled with ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves until their stories are told.”
Few contemporary CanLit authors tackle this theme with more breathtaking virtuosity than Ahmad Danny Ramadan, a Syrian refugee who was granted asylum in 2014. The Vancouver writer’s English-language debut, The Clothesline Swing, is a lesson in both artistic mastery and human resilience. And, unexpectedly: joy.
The novel follows a gay Syrian couple who, in 2012, escape the violence of both homophobia and civil war to build a new life in Vancouver’s West End. Almost four decades later, one is dying as the other tells him stories in an attempt to keep him alive. All the while, Death, a sinister spectre, plays cards in the kitchen.
Ramadan’s unique voice—fragmented, poetic, and rich with magic realism—lends the narrative the quality of a dream. “There are tremors around us; it’s like an unwritten piece of music,” runs the opening line of the first chapter. “That hidden melancholy is creating a routine for us. Every action we take in our lives is like a gentle touch on the strings of a violin.” His prose throughout is lush and lyrical, infused with a longing for home. The Damascus of days past comes alive on the page: the labyrinth of narrow avenues; the glimmering streetlamps; the rooftop gardens with blooming jasmine—all seen from a makeshift balcony swing, constructed from an old clothesline and a pillow.
There are many things to recommend this read, from its take on the gay experience in the Middle East, to the snapshots of Cairo, Istanbul, and Beirut, to the tenderness of the central love story.
But perhaps the most striking aspects of The Clothesline Swing are Ramadan’s determination to draw out the beauty in even the most dire of circumstances, and his faith in the power of stories to heal. As such, one of the most powerful lines of the novel is its first: the dedication. It reads: “To the children of Damascus, This is what I did with my heartache… What about yours?”