Writing “Brown”: Kamal Al-Solaylee discusses reporting, researching his Governor General’s Award-nominated new book

Staff Reporter

Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Governor General’s award-nominated book, Brown, explains what it means to be Brown in the world today. (Jasmine Bala)
Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Governor General’s award-nominated book, Brown, explains what it means to be Brown in the world today. (Jasmine Bala)

Journalists need to think of the bigger picture and understand the craft of structuring a long argument if they want to do reporting for book-length work, said Kamal Al-Solaylee, author of the Governor General’s Award-nominated book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone).

Al-Solaylee’s second book explores the meaning of brownness, which he describes as somewhere between black and white, through research and anecdotes from 10 different countries. He argues that brown people have emerged as a source of cheap labour and become a stereotyped source of Western anxiety surrounding security and terrorism.

Brown, said Al-Solaylee, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, developed as a book concept right from the beginning.

“[A] book has to be about something else bigger than just the story you’re telling,” he said. “You have to have a coherent argument that can sustain 250 to 300 pages. [You need] to know the craft of structuring a long argument because you’re not going to do one chapter that is 300 pages. You’re going to have to break it down into sections or chapters that are self-contained but also advance the narrative.”

Al-Solaylee’s best-selling first book, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, initially appeared as a magazine piece. He said he realized during the process of translating a piece of long-form journalism into a book that it’s not just about extending your story, it’s about starting anew.

“There’s always that risk of a really bloated book that is really a magazine piece that has been sort of stretched to 60,000 [words],” said Al-Solaylee. “[My] advice to people who have done a magazine piece and want to turn it into a book is that they have to start reporting all over again. They have to find a bigger story; they have to add other countries or add other context.”

Al-Solaylee said there was no way he could have written Brown as anything but a book – he needed the length to explore the subject more in-depth, to let it “breathe” and to fully develop a philosophical thread with a thesis and argument.

“I like the freedom that I have with books. I mean, there is a word count, but it’s so generous, like mine was 100,000 words,” he said. “When you work with a magazine, [however], you’re actually working very closely with an editor, and the editor tells you what they want, basically.”

He said Brown is “a personal book, but it’s also a very deeply researched book that relies on academic studies a lot. Daily journalism would not have liked four pages about Sri Lankan returnee workers, for example.”

Al-Solaylee said that time, money and logistics all presented challenges during the course of his research and reporting.

“The biggest challenge was that I had about 10 chapters to do in just over 12 months, so on average about a month a chapter … I’d be in one destination and already be planning the next destination and corresponding with people to say ‘I’m coming next month’ or ‘I’m here already,’” he said.

“The second one is actually money because books like this require an investment, really. I get money from my publisher – I get a grand – I get a couple grand here from Ryerson, and the rest I actually take out of [my own] pocket basically.”

Al-Solaylee said he did advance work that involved establishing contacts with people who could connect him to sources – a strategy that did not always work.

“Things happen, you go to a destination and people are not as generous as they sound on email or on Skype. You have to improvise very quickly; you have to find an alternative. You have to work social media very well and you have to be [aggressive]. I mean, I’m not aggressive by nature at all, and I’m very quiet. I was an arts journalist, I wasn’t really an investigative reporter or anything,” he explained.

“But I’ve learned to be a little bit pushy just because I knew if I was in the Philippines for one week, I couldn’t afford to go back. So that one week has to be impactful, it has to have everything lined up. And what actually happened in the Philippines is that I didn’t realize that the Pope was going to be visiting at the same time I was there, and that meant a four-day national holiday…. So I lost a bit of time [and] I had to do the reporting in four very intense days.”

Al-Solaylee said he also discovered that coordinating visits around local events is a great way to network and meet potential sources. He said this worked well, for instance, when he sought information from the Muslim Council of Britain, the main group representing Muslim interests in that country, and ended up at the organization’s annual general meeting in June 2015.

“So that was a great thing because it was a day-long event and by the end of it, I was exchanging business cards like crazy and asking to interview people on a one-on-one basis later.”