Author and activist Danny Ramadan hopes his memoir will change you


Danny Ramadan arrived in Vancouver in September 2014. At the age of 30, he had left his home in Damascus, Syria, in search of safety as war escalated in his home country.

Since then, he has married, voted as a Canadian, and helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for 2SLGBTQ+ refugees.

He has also become a respected author: his novels The clothesline swing And Foghorn Echoes have been awarded the Lambda Literary Awards, the BC Yukon Book Awards and the City of Vancouver, and his children’s book Salma, the Syrian cook has won several awards and spawned several sequels.

But Ramadan's latest work is a little different. Crooked Teeth: Memoirs of a Queer Syrian Refugee looks at his own life before and after his arrival in Canada, taking readers from his home in Damascus to his home in Vancouver.

It asks the reader questions and challenges him to think more deeply and critically about the experiences described.

“I hope to write an autobiography that will impress you and change you inside and out – not only in how you think about me as a person, but also in how you deal with refugees and queer refugees in general,” he said.

Ramadan spoke to CBC's the invisible third Host Margaret Gallagher talks about the book and the challenges he faced in sharing such personal stories.

the invisible third18:17Danny Ramadan on his new book “Crooked Teeth: A Queer Syrian Refugee Memoir”

Award-winning author Danny Ramadan explores both vulnerability and strength in Crooked Teeth: A Queer Syrian Refugee Memoir.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you want to write your memoirs?

My novels helped me deal with the traumatic experience of coming to Canada as a refugee and finding a home here. They felt like my shield. In a way, through my novels, I was able to tell you a lot about the truth without giving away much about reality. Now I have a very successful career – I have two successful books, I have a supportive agent, publisher and editor. I have the power to write this book exactly the way I wanted to write it.

A red book cover with an abstract pointed white tooth and black writing.
“Crooked Teeth” is now available. (Penguin Canada)

What was it like to return to Damascus in those early years?

This is my treasure trove of all the images from my childhood that I will never have access to again. My child at home no longer exists. Even if it did, I won't be able to visit him because I have been quite vocal about the Syrian regime, about the civil war in Syria. I don't think I will ever be welcome in Damascus again. So in a way I feel that with these images I am not only trying to tell you about these places, but also that I am trying to protect them, to keep them for myself.

You were born Ahmad Ramadan. How did you come up with the name Danny?

I have this relationship between Ahmad and Danny because for a long time I identified as both. In my twenties, when I hung out in queer spaces, people knew me as Danny. And when I hung out in straight spaces, in mainstream society, people knew me as Ahmad to protect me from the homophobia in those societies. So I created these two identities.

When I was 17 or 18, I started dating—I mean, “dating” is a very generous word—a much older gentleman in Damascus, and we had a wonderful relationship. He was a kind of mentor. And he was the one who picked out the name Danny for me. I pay tribute to this person who taught me a lot about queerness, taught me a lot about what it means to be a queer person, and a lot about queer media. He showed me my first episode of Queer as Folk. He was very important to me. And I appreciate that.

During your time in Syria, you ran a safe house.

Syrian society is a segregated society. It is gender segregated, meaning boys hang out with boys and girls hang out with girls.

As a queer man, I dated a lot of gay men. In 2011, in Syria, I had a lot of gay friends and I started inviting them to my home because I also had the privilege of living alone. Most men and women in Syria, of course, live in their family home until they get married, and then they live in their marital home. Nobody moves out.

But I had my own apartment and that made it a safe place for all these gay people to come and be themselves. And then I met a lesbian woman who started inviting her friends to my house. Again, quite naturally, unintentionally, slowly but surely, this place became a meeting place for queers, transsexuals and lesbians to come and hang out. We watched queer films together. We played backgammon tournaments and had parties together.

Two men kissing
Author and activist Danny Ramadan (centre) from Vancouver marries his husband in 2019. (Danny Ramadan/Twitter)

It gave us a sense of community, and I'm very proud that it did that. Ultimately, it was a safe home, but that wasn't the intention.

You write about your family of origin, but also about your chosen family.

I think it's really important to name the people who consciously chose to be my family. Those people who came into my life, took me in and cared for me. I feel privileged to be surrounded by so many people, past and present, who have been my family.

You also write about how you are losing the memory of the streets of Damascus.

I haven't been to Damascus since 2012. I left Damascus under less than ideal circumstances. I was sitting there writing this book, and at one point I was trying to describe a walk through the streets of Damascus. And I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I can't remember what the street looks like.

I'm obsessed with Syria. I'm obsessed with writing about it. I'm obsessed with writing about what it means to be from this part of the world. And slowly but surely, I'm losing that. I'm losing the essence of my obsession.

How did you decide when the book should end?

I had a plan for this memoir. I wanted to write it up to the moment I settled here, up to a moment of joy. I read other refugee books from Syria and I read other refugee books, lots of them. And the last chapter is about them arriving at the airport, which is wonderful.

But I don't think the story ends there. Arriving in Canada is a beautiful milestone. But it is also the beginning of a new life. I think the balance between life before arrival and life after is what counts.

A man carries a ballot and smiles
Danny Ramadan casts his first vote as a Canadian in 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)