The Story Behind the Story

There is no doubt that Kamal Al-Solaylee’s new book “Intolerable – A Memoir of Extremes” has all the elements of a fascinating biographical and socio-historical epic: a young boy growing up in an Arabic family in Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon that gets caught up in the economic, religious, and political upheavals of the region over the past fifty years; his fascination with the allure of western pop and artistic culture that is denigrated by family members and his society; a dawning sense of his gay sexual identify and his desperate struggle to liberate himself from the strictures of his upbringing so as to carve for himself a life in a different part of the world where he can pursue freely his intellectual and emotional aspirations. 

“Intolerable” hopefully will be adapted for the screen some day. It would make a great film.

But I found myself drawn not so much to the dramatic narrative as to—I’m not sure what to call it—the backstory or the subtext or the metastory. I was profoundly moved by Al-Solaylee’s on-going internal monologue as he struggles to understand what is happening to him and his world, grapples mightily with the limited options available to him to escape from what he finds so intolerable, and then, most poignantly, deals with the consequences of his decisions as they relate to his self-induced separation from his family and cultural roots.

This on-going personal reflection by Al-Solaylee about the psychological and ethical dimensions of his life choices is often heart wrenching for us as readers to witness. While he is thrilled with the life that he eventually creates for himself in his new adopted home of Toronto, his enthusiasm is overlaid by two dampeners: firstly, a persistent melancholy because of the suffering that his displacement has caused to his family, particularly his mother and his sisters, that is compounded by a deterioration in his family’s quality of life as a result of the political upheavals in the region; and secondly, an existential insecurity linked to his self-identity as Arabic and his feelings about Arabic culture which fluctuate dramatically over the course of the story.

To bear one’s soul in public like Al-Solaylee has done requires a great deal of guts. It can also be cathartic.

I speak from experience. After my long-term partner died suddenly from cancer, I wrote a memoir “August Farewell” in which I detailed the sixteen days between Bill’s diagnosis and his death and integrated into the chronology vignettes from our thirty-three years together as a gay couple. Writing, for those of us who feel drawn to it, can help us make sense of the vicissitudes of life. But of even more consequence, at least for me, are the intimate conversations and depth of relationships with readers who respond to our soul-bearing.

My fondest wish for Kamal Al-Solaylee is that he will find in having written and published “Intolerable” some measure of this gratification at both the personal and relational levels.

* * *

For information on Kamal Al-Solaylee’s “Intolerable – A Memoir of Extremes” see

For information on my memoir “August Farewell” see my website



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