'Excavate the past': Danny Ramadan's Crooked Teeth uncovers truths of a Queer, refugee experience

If it were not for the deeply colonial legacies embedded in the practice of archaeology, it might be tempting at first pass to say that UBC creative writing alum and author Ahmad Danny Ramadan’s newest publication, Crooked Teeth: A Queer Refugee Memoir, is a fundamentally archeological endeavour.

Especially as Ramadan himself contends that his responsibility as a memoirist is to “excavate the past and bring you [the reader] pearls of wisdom from [his] lived experience,” it may seem that to be his reader is to be a spectator to this great dig site, anxiously waiting to witness Ramadan uncover truths of a Queer, Syrian, refugee civilization.

But for the same reason that archaeology and the museums it stocks are flawed, this approach would be as well: no artifact — nor person — can be asked to represent something larger than what they are without adversely warping reality.

Western audiences seem to grasp this point when it comes to understanding that small sample sizes are unsafe predictors of larger populations, but conveniently ignore it when it comes to tokenizing people of colour, 2SLGBTQIA+, disabled or otherwise marginalized individuals. As a result, the bits of discourse that Ramadan initiates throughout the text between himself and the reader almost all appear riddled with an overwhelming feeling of anxious bracing and preemptive frustration.

There are many truths embedded in Crooked Teeth, but two emerge most prominently for me: it refuses to be what anticipated readers want and it deserves better readers than it anticipates.

Whether is is largely because of the demographic reality of those who will pick up this text, mostly those who are not Queer, Syrian, former refugees or from personal history with white women on planes and in Tahrir Square, Ramadan is understandably convinced this book will find itself in the hands of those who tokenize the experiences of marginalized persons as readily as they draw breath. More than that, though, he seems to anticipate this inclination will unfortunately define most of his readers, and I can only hope this fear does not bear fruit.

Though he introduces the book with the condition that this text is a two-way trust exercise between himself and his reader, I would challenge any frustrations that arise from finding he does not trust fully or readily — that the text is rich with boundaries he will not cross, and despite all of his trauma, he firmly refuses to write trauma porn of his brutal imprisonment (even if it may sell better).

After all, though Ramadan and the reader may both agree to trust, only one party actually holds any risk of harm if the trust is broken. And when tokenization is ultimately a process of objectification and dehumanization, this is no small wronging.

This memoir is not a dig site, because there is no greater identity that Ramadan will uncover truths of besides his own. Instead, reading this piece is almost like being an invited fly on the wall in one of his therapy sessions or reading over his shoulder as he writes in his journal. Crooked Teeth deserves readers who believe that what Ramadan offers is a privilege rather than a compromise.

For those readers, who I cross my fingers will not be the minority, the combination of what Ramadan writes — and what he refuses to — produces a spectacular book.

While beginning on the very first page by noting the feeling of uncertainty daunting him as he faces writing this text as a fiction author, he holds tight to the prowess he has in fiction in these new literary lands. Crooked Teeth is as creative as it is political, and is a particularly good read for those who are drawn to political texts but find themselves frequently struggling with the pacing of non-fiction books. This book is wonderfully propulsive, and for those who are willing to put in the legwork to learn more on their own outside of these pages, it can serve as a tremendous catalyst to more intimately understand recent histories in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Canada.

The book includes points of discomfort, from childhood abuse in Syria to emotional abuse in a Marpole apartment, but also explores places of refuge in YA books read in Damascus apartments, in friends’ laughter in Beirut and in found and made community in Vancouver.

Ramadan’s writing is a resounding reminder that this comfort is one of the most guarded tenets of white supremacy. Therefore, creating a comfortable life for yourself as someone for whom these systems of power were not built is one of the most profound and beautiful acts of resistance.