Where I’m calling from: Dimitri Nasrallah mines the immigrant experience for his new novel, Hotline

Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism provides cover for numerous institutional ills. It ostensibly proffers the opportunity for newcomers to settle here and make a better life for themselves and their families; in practice, economic and social restrictions often force immigrants into crowded, substandard housing, while people with PhD’s from their countries of origin end up driving cabs, flipping burgers, or cleaning toilets.

This is the case for Su-Lin, known as Winnie. An accountant in her native China, Winnie resettled in Montreal only to discover she required special certification to become a professional in Canada. Lacking the money to pursue this extra credit, Winnie works as a chambermaid for a large hotel downtown while her husband spends sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, working the counter at a dépanneur.

Winnie is a secondary character in Montreal writer and translator Dimitri Nasrallah’s fourth novel. Hotline tells the story of Muna Heddad, who flees the war in Lebanon to settle in Montreal with her young son, Omar, in 1986. Muna’s qualifications as a teacher of French grease the wheels of the bureaucracy responsible for processing her immigration papers, but once in the country, she finds that no one is willing to hire her to teach without domestic accreditation.

Desperate, she takes a job at a call centre shilling a diet meal plan called Nutri-Fort. Speaking to clients on the phone, she becomes something between a confessor and a therapist, absorbing people’s loneliness and personal anguish with patience and empathy. The connection she forges with her customers results in sales; Muna quickly becomes the most proficient salesperson in her office, to the delight of her boss, Lise Carbonneau.

Meanwhile, Omar is struggling at school and finds it difficult to make new friends; Muna is totally unprepared for the harshness of a Montreal winter; and mother and son are confined to a cramped flat in a rooming house, which is the only accommodation she can afford. (She saves money on groceries by bringing home meal boxes from work.) As a means of assuaging her combined guilt and anxiety over her ability to provide for her son in their new life, Muna spends time conversing with the ghost of her husband, Hadid, who was kidnapped in Lebanon and whose ultimate fate is unclear.

Narrated in the first person by Muna, Hotline offers a window onto the immigrant experience, vividly illustrating the double bind immigrants find themselves in, at home neither in their country of origin nor in their adopted country. Muna spends much time questioning the validity of her choices and castigating herself for her inability to provide a better standard of living for Omar. She buys him thrift-store winter clothes and his Christmas present is a second-hand Monopoly game set. (The ironic comment on the heartless rapacity of capitalism is clear, though Nasrallah wisely lets it go unremarked in the text, allowing the reader to make the connection without it becoming explicit.)

But those expecting Hotline to traffic in a kind of salacious misery porn are in for a surprise. Though Nasrallah is frank in his straightforward portrayal of the various ways society is canted against immigrants, especially in economic and professional arenas, he also dramatizes the support Muna receives from a number of quarters. Her landlord, Mr. Saltzman, is a kindly older man who lets his tenant plunder the basement storeroom where previous tenants – many of them transient students from nearby McGill University – have left behind personal property when they departed. He also secures Omar a doctor (in fact, a medical student who is renting another room in the building) when the boy becomes ill with a fever. Winnie provides an additional source of income for Muna by hiring her as a French tutor; she finds others in her community willing to pay for lessons and the group is soon so large they must relocate from Winnie’s kitchen to a local church basement. And far from being a stereotypical boss from hell, Lise turns out to be uncommonly supportive of Muna and genuinely praiseworthy when her new employee proves her mettle for the company.

This is a refreshing contrast to many immigrant narratives that appear determined to dramatize only the hardships and injustice newcomers to Canada face; Muna’s inner strength is undeniable, but she manages, by her own willpower and determination as well as a fair dollop of luck and good fortune, to surround herself with a support system that allows her to make a life for herself and Omar. “There are times when it’s easy to believe in yourself, but all that means is that you’re overdue for a crisis of faith,” Muna thinks at one point. “The kindness of life never sticks around for long.” This moment of existential despair occurs just before Mr. Saltzman secures the medical student to examine Omar; a few pages later, Muna is forced to admit to herself that “the world isn’t as bad as [she] made it out to be earlier.”

In Muna – a character loosely based on Nasrallah’s own mother – the author has created a complex woman who is heir to a full range of human emotions, from anguish to joy to longing to desire. As she proceeds through the novel, she is allowed a variety of emotional reactions, from frustration at prospective employers’ unwillingness to recognize her credentials and capabilities to unfettered glee at watching her son play in the first snowfall he has ever experienced.

If this results in the novel bordering at times on the sentimental (Muna is prone to indulging in excessively metaphoric language, comparing herself to something “kept afloat by an air bubble of numbness“ and “flailing like an octopus tangled in the fishing net of bad memories”), this can be forgiven by the fact that the narrative takes us places we’re not expecting it to go. If Muna’s ignorance of Quebec history – “When was the last time a car bomb exploded outside the McGill University gates?” she asks, apparently unaware of the proliferation of bombings that ripped through Montreal during the reign of the FLQ – can be construed as naive, that lack of historical knowledge is contrasted with a resilience in the face of antagonism from Omar’s teacher and her in-laws back in Lebanon, among others. As she makes her way through a sharply rendered Montreal in the 1980s, her experiences, setbacks, and triumphs provide this resonant novel with its beating heart.

Where I’m calling from: Dimitri Nasrallah mines the immigrant experience for his new novel, Hotline
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