Canada Reads, Canadian, Fiction

Canada Reads Along 2023: Hotline

Cover image for Hotline by Dimitri Nasrallah

by Dimitri Nasrallah

ISBN 9781550655940

“I’m so sad for him! It breaks my heart every time he tells me about some little sharmoot at school who insults him or pushes him or takes his lunch. I want for him to love and be loved by this new world, to make this city his own if only it will let him. My only solace is that being pushed around at school is an improvement from not going to school at all or worrying a car bomb will explode as we return from the grocery store. This has to be better.”

When Muna Heddad arrives in 1980s Montreal with her eight-year-old son Omar, she is still grieving the loss of her husband Halim to Lebanon’s civil war. Immigrating to Canada was always Halim’s plan for their family, but now it falls to Muna to carry it out alone. While Muna’s credentials as a French teacher get them into Canada, she quickly finds that there no jobs teaching French in Montreal for someone who isn’t Quebecois. With the money from her husband’s family running out, Muna accepts a job working the phonelines for a diet food plan company. Hotline follows Muna and Omar through their first winter in Canada as Muna listens to the stories of struggling Canadians on the phones, while trying to rebuild her life from the ground up.

Hotline is loosely Inspired by the true story of Dimitri Nasrallah’s mother, who brought him to Canada from Lebanon as a child, after first passing through Greece and Kuwait. In Montreal, she found a job at a weight loss centre. Making Muna the point of view character requires Nasrallah to imagine her—and therefore his own mother—not just as a parent raising her child, but also a stranger in a new land, a woman who is missing her husband, and a person with her own dreams and ambitions. While the story is largely realistic, there are portions where Muna vividly dreams or imagines that her husband Halim is there with her, the invisible partner to this new life in Canada. It is a grief that never goes away, a wound that never really heals, and yet life must go on.

Although Muna’s job is at a hotline that sells weight loss products, diet culture is not a significant focus of the story. The people on the phone lines who are struggling with their weight provide Muna with an unexpected window into the lives and problems of the Canadians who are so slow to accept her on the streets of Toronto. On the phone lines, under the pseudonym Mona, her Old World accent is charming, soothing. On the streets of the city, hunting for a teaching job, it marks her as Other. These sad, lonely callers are the people who have the lives she is supposed to being aspiring to when teachers and government official urge her to integrate into Canadian life and culture. Later in the book, when a student doctor comes to visit Omar when he is sick, the medical student tells Muna she should stop feeding him the sample packs she is allowed to take home from work, because they are just low-calorie junk food, and that she should probably stop eating them herself. This non-food has helped keep them alive, but it is also a symbol of the shadow that lurks behind the promise of the Canadian dream as they struggle to find a way into their new lives.

Hotline is defended by bhangra dancer Gurdeep Pandher on Canada Reads 2023, airing March 27-30 on CBC. The theme this year is one book to shift your perspective.

“The book explores racism, belonging, loneliness and single parenting, but there’s also hope. The story is set in the 1980s — but is as true today as it was then.” – Gurdeep Pandher

You might also like:

What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad

Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez

Brother by David Chariandy