Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Faizal Deen, prodigal son, returns to Ottawa

Alta Vista native working on new book, cozying up to his dog

DEEN OF THE ARTS. In his new book, Faizal Deen explores his experience growing up gay and brown and wanting relationships with older men. Credit: Paul Galipeau

I was introduced to Faizal Deen as part of a pair: Deen himself — a neat, compact, round-faced man, and his cocker spaniel, Sabrina, who is a bundle of enthusiastic fur and ears.  It was the last truly warm day in August. Hot, a little humid, with the sun bright and burning. We were down by the canal, and Deen answered my questions with Sabrina marching happily in front of us — as aloof and precise as any campaign manager.

A few weeks later, when the rain started and autumn began to creep up on us, it would occur to me that it was an ironically good day to be talking to Deen about his work. It was a day in between things, between summer and fall — a space in transition.

These sorts of spaces make up the patchwork fabric of Deen’s poetry. Queer, brown, immigrant, anglophone; his work draws on often-conflicting states of identity to create an ideological melange of thought and feeling spiced with his sexual fervour and the imagery of his Guyanese heritage.

“You will see /That first display of bodies/ The grind of them/ Against the coffins of ocean./This will be your last memory of Trinidad,” he writes in his 2003 poem, Young Faggot — a work that first appeared in the anthology, Our Caribbean : A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writers from the Antilles, which won the Lambda Award in 2008. This passage is indicative of Deen’s sometimes poignantly honest, sometimes sharp, sometimes witty style, drawing on the themes of sexuality, place, culture and experience.

“I’m interested in spatial dislocation,” he says.

Sabrina snorts and snuffles at a plump squirrel. He continues.

“The space between how you feel and how I feel. In immigration, between partners… the relationships between fathers and daughters and mothers and sons.”

Deen’s first book of poetry, A Land Without Chocolate, saw him short-listed for the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s AM Klein Poetry Award in 2000.

“I said to myself, is Montreal is ready for a queer, brown, English-speaking poet?” he recollects, “And they weren’t, and I lost. It was around this time that I started giving some serious thought to moving.”

Deen did end up moving from Montreal to Korea in 2001 and then to Japan shortly after. His time in Asia has influenced his work in a variety of ways, he says, through the “preciseness” of Japanese poets, Asian film and fashion, the design of Japanese cities and the experience of “thinking in English in an environment where no English is being spoken.”

“For a lot of people, that would be a total mind fuck,” he says, “but for me, it’s an amazing experience.”

Deen, now 41, grew up in Ottawa amid the suburbs of Alta Vista, having immigrated with his parents when he was a young child. He smiles when he notes that the same buses still run through that area, and how that reminds him of his childhood days.

But he has come back to Ottawa, he says, not solely out of nostalgia. He’s here to work on his third book, a collection of love poems, and to promote his new book, The Best Ghosts in the World. The collection, he says, is about “opening up the realms of desire.” It explores his experience of growing up gay and brown and desirous of relationships with older men as a young man.

“I’ve written it as a sort of a film,” he says, “because that’s how I saw it when I was writing. There is a strange relationship between the cerebral and the verbal.”

The book should be out later in the year, he says, although the exact release date in still undetermined.

Ultimately, Deen says, his poetry is about the “sensuous inscrutable absurd.”

“I want my poetry to insist we haven’t gotten the prize yet [in terms of equality],” he says, “I want it to say, ‘Just because I’m queer, don’t count me out of the revolution.'”