Origin Story by Jess Rizkallah

i was born to refugees,
i was named a miracle still,                    they wait
for something greater than
what i know how to be.

i’m alive, and therefore enough.

i have space for an extra organ
that never came home
and every year the sea levels rise.

or                           i have a twin that never followed me out of the womb,
is still stuck where a shrieking echo
comes down on a mountain village          and the telepathy between us
is a gold thread so warm, it hums.

i’ll never know its language                         older than the polaroids
falling out of my mothers mouth               older than the lute
in my father’s whistle

or                          mama gave birth to me & i came out a hyphen
i was born the big hand on a clock

or                           i was born an arm                with a hand at both ends
taking both lands back at once, like they’re mine

or                           i was born an arm with a hand at both ends
holding a knife                                                    maybe i am a knife,
always spinning                          slicing
at roots and fruits i graft into the hollow
where the ancient humming organ
never made its home.

maybe i am building this organ myself.
maybe this organ will be my country,
where i’m from. no
where i’m really from

where every language is light
pouring out of me. everything it touches
is greater than what i know how to be
& everyone i love
is safe here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terrorism by Gabrielle Spear

“isn’t all of this ugly though?” i say to the young israeli vet || i know he has risked nearly everything to break silences || but i’m skeptical he will ever stop occupying || he speaks of settlers as if he not one himself || of the military as if they have not been carving green lines through palestinians all along || we are looking down upon the nets over the marketplace in hebron || where jewish settlers throw trash and rocks and their own shit || onto the heads of palestinians || and besides the voice of our tour guide || the only noise to be heard across the village || are jewish cars moving down shuhada street || the only bodies free || are stray dogs

words i must tell you || do not have the same meanings here || al-khalil is hebron || shubbaak is a prison || sayyaara is a vehicle for apartheid || kalb is an animal with more freedom than palestinians || shaari’ is a walk of shame || souk is a dump for your enemy’s shit || and out the mouth of a palestinian with a thick accent || the english word “tourist” || sounds like the word “terrorist” || and “terrorist” like the word || “tourist”

“don’t the settlers want to live in a beautiful place? || why live here at all || if it’s not beautiful?” i ask || i can see our tour guide is confused || my questions come out stupid, obvious || “the security makes the settlers feel protected,” he says || maybe for the tenth time || and gestures to the windows that palestinians || must live inside to make their colonizers || feel comfortable on a car ride down shuhada street || but —that’s not what i’m asking

i want to understand how can you can live so incubated || you don’t even see the walls || and barbed wire || and shit in your line of vision || at what point do the walls fold back || melt into your landscape || your own geography || that your body itself || becomes a wall too

 

at the end of the tour || the former soldiers take us to meet issa amro || how gracious and kind of them || finally letting a palestinian speak for himself || issa shows us the only weapon he has ever owned || language || i have already told you || words are different here || from the ears of a settler || issa’s weapon is more violent than a bomb || he believes in a different world || and when this one passes || as he assures us it eventually will || words will be restored to their rightful meanings:

al-khalil will be a thriving city that once survived the worst of apartheid

         shubbaak will be a portal to palestine

                        sayyaara will take its owner on road trips through freedom

                                     kalb will be a dog, just a dog, and not a name for an arab

                                             shaari’ will breathe the memories of martyrs long gone

                                                           souk will smell like home again

we board the tour bus out of hebron || and i leave feeling self-righteous || my weapon of choice is poetry after all || i will never search for words through the barrel of a gun

yet || how quickly i forget that || on this land || poetry makes a terrorist out of me too

 

3 poems by Fady Joudah

Chamber Music

You say thalamos, I say thalamus
and hypostasis, I fancy, is invention
as the mother of need. For everything a body
and in our version of Willie Pete
few babies make it out of nativity complete.

To seduce you, reduce you to myself, corrode
myself at the anode for you, tremors
for holy water, Hagar’s hands and feet,
I pant and plead “Gather,
gather,” in a dead language.

The dead split in two: one camp
house-warm their graves with the living’s
carnation and chrysanthemum while in the other
children hide and seek in ice cream coolers
of vendors turned morticians.

To wait out burial
the body rusts the neighboring soul.
Or sits in the needle’s eye,
not chasm but chiasm that holds off
incoming thread and helps another through.

I’m staying right here. You go
look for horses that bait the initiate
who neglects the peace
forged between beasts. I’m staying right here
with all I have on loan

as tone flickers
its penultimate oxygen pair. You go
be the beginning.
It was already the beginning
when love was one of its traits.

Echo

One right move
no place to go

we goat through tombs
eviscerated of their residents

It was lovely
to see you defeated after dinner

with splanchnic blood
shunted from your brain’s hollering terrain

lovely the wet ashes
of your voice the evagination

of palm-sized cantaloupe
our conversation

of a year ago has changed
the body has changed

our guest
that hosts us


Maqam of Palm Trees
for Rahim El hajj

His amphibian torso
to leg ratio a frog’s

or imitation (fiddler) crab
soluble salty rubber of two waters

at the confluence of steady eddy synapse
in a museum’s dark room

his triceps’ fat pressed to hers
she in her movement

he in his stillness
what the moving know about stillness

the still don’t know…She asks
Are you a Sufi?

Is all my longing
born equal to your ears

the devil’s a devoted angel
with personality disorder

or what will we do tonight? He says
I’ll make us coffee and tea

we’ll play chutes and ladders
and in the morning

we’ll feed a bale of turtles
and a bevy of swans

our bagels on a deck
settled in lake-drought mud

where I was born…She says
Then maybe a heron will join

and leave us a calamus
so big it can wound

5 poems by Noor Ibn Najam

black girl freest girl on earth

she throw arms to sky
grow wings. her ascension

stronger than chains.
stronger than rage & this magic

carry her to god. & god shine
through her as she rise. & the spirit

consume everything else,
& cleanse as sage do.
it is always you, sista, who raises me

from the dead. praise your music, your poultice and ointment. this. this is black girl magic. that a sista’s song could bring back what i mistook for crucified. that a sista’s touch could resurrect hope from the grave it made of my body. your voice a harmony with every scream i swallowed last night, humming in my throat until my voice box loses what was stiff & dances.

i’m at a gathering of sisters – they look like me. frankincense and lavender curling out our ears. the glory of heaven through our teeth. our scalps dripping with sweat, rosemary; eyes full of tears. & this the only place

i deem holy today. black girls sing out the ancestors’ names like a prayer for rain. libations crash down to earth from a bottle. we let the first tears fall in these months of blood. we drench ourselves, we let ourselves be glory. we become the heaven we pray to. we become a mercy, a split in the sky & the earth

does not drink our blood today. only our fresh water. only joy that is deeper than us. only gospel like a small river cutting itself into the ground after a storm. i let myself feel everything that we are today. & i feel no fear when i look into my eyes & see

rain.

scar // story

my scars are an invisibility cloak. no one will look

at a ghost’s flesh // no one wants to see flesh’s ghost
my scars are skin-memories // textured melodies
passed down // child to woman
hide the child inside the woman // hide the story inside the scar

and no one will ask about them

 

ode to mouth

the plump cupid’s bow pink and brown
black hair above
bathing in the light of a glowing lotus
ring hanging from my septum.
the sloping upper lip uneven, its asymmetrical
spread as i smile. the big beige teeth,
peekaboo-shy. the smile, mouth
closed when it wants to be pretty.
the pursed lips that come natural
when it’s kissing or impatient or tense.
the lips easily parted. the involuntary
pout. the lines of the skin, how they bathe
themselves in rouge for a night out.

 

iftar when she kisses you

rise as a crescent moon. bite her lip
as you would a date. break your fast
on her brown honey

The Women in my Family Cook

            don’t cook while you’re upset. you’ll poison the food with your anger
– my mother

A woman dark as silence cooks her well-earned rage
down like collards. An off-white woman, pumice-skinned, simmers
resentment in a pressure cooker – tender lambflesh, made ready to eat
by bitter steam, water of cloves, of allspice,
of salt agitated into the air. When the nightmares slunk
between my sheets, I roughened
as my hair, silk scarf torn
from my head by the thrashing, pillows of cotton
scratching at my follicles. I tossed and turned
like water, agitated. I told my mother
that my sleep was haunted. She said, perhaps not.
A ghost is just another mirror
pointed into your mouth. What had you eaten for dinner?

 

 

Favorite SWANA Poetry Books of 2017 by George Abraham – Poetry Book Reviews

As 2017 comes to a close, I cannot help but reflect upon the words of Kaveh Akbar: “we are living in a Golden Age of poetry.” The poetry world is alive & thriving, but I think there’s further dimensionality to this statement outside of today’s exciting breakthroughs in poetic craft. We are living in a day and age where poetry is becoming increasingly diverse, with poets of color subverting euro-centric norms and traditions; a day and age where my children will grow up actually being able to see themselves in English Literature.

In comprising this list, I have chosen to use the word SWANA, i.e. Southwest Asian/North African, as an identifier to not legitimize the term “Middle East” for its white colonial undertones. I also chose this term because, while there may be some linguistic & cultural threads among SWANA narratives, this term allows space for this unification simultaneous to the complexity of individual narratives, as we are not a monolithic entity. That said, I am proud to present my favorite SWANA poetry books of 2017!

  1. Louder than Hearts by Zeina Hashem Beck (Bauhan Publishing LLC)

Louder than Hearts, for many reasons, is the perfect starting point for this list. Being an Arab-American reader, I felt like I could both live & die with these poems; the relatability of poems like “Ode To My Non-Arabic Lover,” is very different from that in “3Amto.” In the former, Beck writes, “how will I ever translate my Arab anger, my alliterations, those rough sounds that scratch their way out of my throat, which you will merely find sexy?” and gives voice to an annoyingly familiar fetishization. The latter is a portrait of an elder family member with cancer, and is written in a voice that is eerily familiar, interspersing of Arabic and English throughout phases of sickness & dialogue with different family members. While both pieces left me feeling simultaneously breathless & rebuilt all at once, Beck’s poetry shines in its ability to encompass a versatile array of emotions, which paint a portrait of her experiences which is not only visceral, but human. The urgent drive of this work is felt from the very first poem, “Broken Ghazal: Speaking Arabic,” and the book never loses momentum thereafter. Even through the manuscript’s conclusion, Beck’s imagery never ceases to surprise and captivate; for instance, Beck writes, “for a moment, it seemed the bird was choking, the fish diving upward for air. By this I mean do you see us dance?” at the ending of her piece, “Piano,” which was arguably my favorite in the book. With Louder than Hearts, Zeina Hashem Beck has produced one of the most exciting, dynamic poetry collections I have read in a long, long time.

  1. The January Children by Safia Elhillo (University of Nebraska Press)

“verily everything that is lost will be // given a name & will not come back // but will live forever.” So begins Safia Elhillo’s The January Children – a book I have not been able to stop thinking about since the beginning of the year. Elhillo’s lyrics are haunting in a manner that is both fluid & immortal, weaving across time, and language. From portraits with famous singer Abdelhalim Hafez, to erasures from interviews with members of the Sudanese diaspora, Elhillo gives a multiplicity of languages to diasporic wounds, in a way which questions her very relationship to the English and Arabic languages themselves. Elhillo writes, “the lyrics do not translate// arabic is all verbs for what// stays still in other languages,” and “no language has given me // the rhyme between ocean & // wound that i know to be true,” hence turning questions about giving language to displacement & trauma into questions of language itself. This collection simultaneously develops a lyrical reclamation of self & body, of praise, despite; Elhillo writes “our mouths open & a song falls out   thick// with a saxophone’s syrup” and finds a music amidst the sorrow. In perhaps my favorite work in the book, Elhillo writes “& what is a country but the drawing of a line       i draw thick black lines around my // eyes & they are a country     & thick red lines around my lips & they are a country” & so a reclamation of the body becomes a reclamation of everything the body was born into. The January Children is the type of book that transcends time & space; the type of book that will still be taught in classrooms decades from now; the type of book I will pass onto my children & their children & their children to come.

  1. the magic my body becomes by Jess Rizkallah (University of Arkansas Press)

In a similar spirit to Elhillo’s book, Jess Rizkallah’s the magic my body becomes does the work of building countries. Rizkallah writes, “i was born an arm   with a hand at both ends// holding a knife     maybe i am a knife,// always spinning slicing// … // where the ancient humming organ// never made its home.// maybe i am this organ myself.// maybe this organ will be my country,// & everyone i love// is safe here.” The urgency and velocity of Rizkallah’s imagery is not lost at the expense of tender, intimate moments; in one poem of a larger sequence of poems in the voice of her mother, Rizkallah writes, “never forget that softness is strength, unflinching// against the knife     and it is also the knife,” and creates a space in which softness can be a revolution. Softness carries the weight of inherited trauma from the Lebanese Civil War in the family portraits throughout Rizkallah’s manuscript; in “when they ask me who i pray to,” she writes, “saint of the lemon tree his father put there… saint of the blue peaks by the ocean where we began// saint of the way we say what again,” and paints the softness of her family in a light that is nothing less than divinity. But at the core of this manuscript’s heart is the body, in all its imperfection, in all its holy: “Ghada says, the spine is a river the rest of you will always return to.”

  1. I Am Made To Leave I Am Made To Return by Marwa Helal (No Dear/Small Anchor Press)

Marwa Helal’s debut chapbook, I Am Made To Leave I Am Made To Return, was such an immaculate success that it sold out within days of releasing. Helal is not afraid to take risks with form, from “)[[:”.’.,:]]( REMIXED,” written after Phil Metres’ abu gharib arias, to “if this was a different kind of story i’d tell you about the sea,” a poem which repeats that phrase for its entirety with different emphasis, and even “poem to be read from right to left,” written in the Arabic – a poetic form Helal invented. Helal’s work not only subverts expectation, but actively resists & decolonizes both the space it takes up and the space it cannot occupy. For instance, in the poem “photographs not taken,” Helal writes “the light the day i left; mezo’s big toe// before i left; all the dawns i slept through// before I left; my own face// looking back at his// before i left,” and constructs a portrait of an inaccessible past; a space which is definable but not constructible in some sense. A similar use of negative space is seen in “the middle east is missing,” which uses the Oulipian beautiful outlaw form to bring an extra dimensionality to the physically missing “the middle east” in this work. Helal’s I Am Made To Leave I Am Made To Return proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Helal is one of the most brilliant, and necessary voices in American Literature. If you missed your chance to buy this chapbook, stay tuned for her first full-length collection, Invasive species, forthcoming with Nightboat Books.

  1. Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (Alice James Books)

“I’ve given this coldness many names   thinking if it had a name it// would have a solution   thinking if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs,” writes Akbar in the titling poem of his manuscript, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient).” This manuscript is divided into 3 sections: Terminal, Hunger, and Irons. The first (Terminal) throws us into the world of the speaker, taking us from an intimate portrait of praying with his father wherein Akbar writes, “I knew only that I wanted// to be like him,// that twilit stripe of father// mesmerizing as the bluewhite Iznik tile// hanging in our kitchen, worshipped// as the long faultless tongue of God,” to moments of rage and confusion: “it felt larger than it was, the knife// that pushed through my cheek,” begins Akbar in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly.” Akbar’s voice shines not only in these personal, intimate moments, but even in writing outside the self. His poem, “Heritage,” written for Reyhaneh Jabbari, an Iranian woman who was hanged for killing a man attempting to rape her, gives voice to an erased history: “there is no solace in history   this is a gift// we are given at birth   a pocket we fold into at death   goodbye now you mountain// you armada of flowers… despite all our endlessly rehearsed rituals of mercy     it was you we sent on.” Akbar’s work interacts with spirituality, as it intersects with not only his family and culture, but with addiction as well; his poem “Thirstiness is not Equal Division” begins with the lines, “I swear to God     I swear at God   I won’t// mention what He does to me.” Poems like this and many others in section II (Hunger) are haunting, intimate portraits of addiction & its cyclical, resurgent nature; Akbar writes, “at twenty-four my liver was// already covered in fatty// rot my mother filled a tiny// coffin with picture frames,” and there is never a moment when this urgency is lost on us as readers. As the book draws to a close, Akbar reminds us that sometimes healing is the hardest route of all: “I won’t lie this plague of gratitude// is hard to bear   I was comfortable// in my native pessimism… I had to learn to love people one at a time,” writes Akbar. I am left with no words upon finishing Calling a Wolf a Wolf; it is rare that a single book can haunt, live, and breathe with me as much as this book does. Kaveh himself once said that we were living in a golden age of poetry, and to that I say, “yes, Kaveh Akbar is the golden age of poetry.”

  1. Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing by Charif Shanahan (Southern Illinois University Press)

The word stanza is derived from the Italian word for room; I’d like to think of Charif Shanahan’s book as a collection of rooms, brought under one unified house, wherein the rooms themselves travel fluidly through space, time, and history. Each room is decorated and structured in its own manner; some rooms are even left empty, such as part III of “Homosexuality,” a suite of poems where each is a small vignette of the speaker’s experience in a different city. Some rooms are brief but haunting & beckoning return; for instance, in “Little Saviors,” Shanahan writes, “So many men playing god. // Father left a wounded child// Cavorting in the public bathroom.// So many holes being filled” and creates an entire universe, a specific smallness, in just four lines of text. Shanahan is aware of shifts in perception & landscape as he invites us into each room. In “Self-portrait in Black and White,” he writes, “If I said I did not want to live anymore,// Would you understand that I meant like this?… I see in colors because they are always so much// A part of the problem,” and the entire perceptual universe of this poem is given a new meaning. Many of Shanahan’s poems deal with the intersection of blackness and queerness within the context of SWANA culture. In “Asmar,” a poem written for Safia Elhillo, Shanahan discusses some of the difficulties with internalized colorism: “Our mothers tell us we are not like them: les Africains sont la bas!// Our mothers defend what oppresses them…// Our mothers defend an idea of a self that is not their own.” Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing transcends space in a manner that is both timely and timeless; every time I re-enter this collection, I come out with new meanings and insight. Shanahan’s book is absolutely required reading for everyone reading this list.

  1. Water & Salt by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha (Red Hen Press)

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s Water & Salt is also a manuscript that fluidly travels through space & time, from Palestine where the speaker would “coax fruit from the trees, press it into liquid gold,” to Damascus wherein a poem about a dowry chest, she writes, “paradise, carved meticulously, mother-of-pearl inset into a landscape of wounds,” to Jordan where Tuffaha writes “every day we are picture-perfect in Amman,” and beyond. Tuffaha also travels backwards into history, saying “we travel back so that you can become who you are.” Tuffaha resurrects historical wounds in poems like “Intifada Portrait,” which is about her conversations with a Palestinian friend over coffee; Tuffaha writes, “who can erase those days from the memory of time? The land will never forget our footsteps, pounding against bullets and tear gas. My skin remembers it,” and gives the readers access to memory of an erased history, a history the land will remember even when the body cannot, even when the oppressor writes it into nonexistent. Tuffaha also meditates on the generational distance between these historical wounds in “My Mother Returns to her Childhood Home,” which ends with the lines, “we are not from here anymore. We too will die on foreign shores.” But amidst the memories of diaspora, Tuffaha finds nostalgia, light, and comfort despite the traumas; images of war and displacement are given weight and presence simultaneous to the familiar nostalgia in the smell of zaatar, the grinding of coffee, and the harvest of an olive tree. In one of my favorite poems of the collection, Tuffaha writes, “I love to tell you where I am from. I look forward to the moment when the nine letters I utter evoke a contortionist’s masterpiece on the faces of polite company.” There is power in naming our narratives, in naming history, in giving these things the name they earned, which is not always the name they are given. Tuffaha’s collection is the language diasporic readers, especially of Palestine and Syria, need, today and every day.

  1. My Arab World & Other Poems of the Body by A. T. Halaby (jubilat)

Halaby’s chapbook, My Arab World & Other Poems of the Body, also contemplates the weight and distance of diaspora. Halaby writes, “Lebanon// I can hear your love// I came for your gifts// Take this fury from inside me// I want to be filled with you.” And while there is a longing and desire to belong & to know the separated homeland, Halaby approaches this topic with newfound excitement and wonder; she writes “a beauty I haven’t met// but I’m curious about your form// a ghazal, whirling like a leaf…// a ghazal told me// ghazals are all around me// like a wind storm,” and brings to life a poetic wonder amidst the inaccessibility of home’s sounds. Halaby does the work of making every question about home a question about the body itself; “what does a home do for the body,” Halaby questions. In the opening poem, which is one of my favorites of the entire collection, Halaby writes “these hands// want// Arabic, its body// its everything,” and later continues to say, “I don’t// know// how// to put// Arab// in a // familiar// space.” One of the qualities I love most about Halaby’s chapbook is its ability to make space for softness within the context of diasporic bodies; “Degrees of The Delicate and Body” opens with an image of “the space between// your // lips// as they stop// after my name.// This measurement// of your body// is what I feel// I will// become.” The short line-breaks and fragmentation, in this poem & throughout, force the reader to pause & slow down to take in the narrative in its most authentic form. My Arab World & Other Poems of the Body were part of a limited edition print run of 50. If you missed your chance to get these immaculate poems, stay tuned for Halaby’s forthcoming work; she is most definitely one of the voices within Arab diaspora whom I am most excited about!

  1. Bone Light by Yasmin Belkhyr (Akashic Books/the New-Generation of African Poets Series)

As is usually the case with SWANA people, this too is something to end in light. Bone Light, a chapbook of prose poems from the New-Generation of African Poets Box Set, undeniably positions Yasmin Belkhyr as one of the most urgent, and necessary voices of our diaspora and generation. In one of the most memorable and intense opening poems I’ve read in a while, “Surah Al-Fatiha,” Belkhyr draws us into the world of Bone Light through a portrait of her earliest memory of seeing a goat slaughtered in her house. Like many artists on this list, Belkhyr interacts with distance and diasporic wounds; she writes, “I was sick every visit… I would cry and everyone else would tsk, murmer American. Once, I kissed someone and I’m afraid it ruined the world. I’ve learned that it’s not what you do with the knife – it’s how you hold it after,” and the question of diasporic distance becomes a question of the body. In “Eid Al-Adha,” Belkhyr writes “When I speak of bodies, I mean: there is too much inside of me. I mean, burn the car and all its histories.” The body, within the context of cultural & gendered violences, comes into question through various means, including that of myths and retelling of religious stories; the haunting ending lines of “& the song of the crow shrieks” read, “In myth, they called the dead girl River and she bled and bled and bled.” Belkhyr shines best in her ability to hone in on single moments, albeit wounds or praise, and expand them into an entire universe of complexity. Every word and lack thereof is precise, and not a bit of momentum is lost anywhere throughout this spectacular manuscript. In the final poem, Belkhyr writes, “the story begins and ends here, a mouth unopen, the girl buried as she is born,” and gives voice to historical, ancestral, and ever-present erasure. Belkhyr’s voice is doing the work of country-building, and carrying an ancestral weight despite an active erasure. I will never stop thinking about these poems.

    1. The Future

As this list draws to a close, I want to mention some of the SWANA books I am most looking forward to, rounding out 2017 and entering 2018, are Ruth Awad’s Set to Music a Wildfire (Southern Indiana Review Press), Noor Hindi’s Diary of a Filthy Woman (Porkbelly Press, 2018), Hazem Fahmy’s Red//Jild//Prayer (Diode Editions, 2018), and 2 chapbooks forthcoming from Leila Chatti: Tunisya-Amrikiya (Bull City Press, 2018), and Ebb (New-Generation African Poets Series, 2018). We are living in a truly exciting era of poetry, and I know there are people reading this list who needed these books as much as I have. Bless every SWANA poet for existing & writing in spite of colonization & everything this language has taken from us. Bless every word, every page fragment, every unsung lullaby that refused to burn.

 

bounty by K. Eltinaé

I don’t want to hear you confuse
‘protecting’ with ‘stealing’.
The pharaohs you made away with
did not sleep while you bombed and
buried families who weighed
much more than gold.

I don’t remember what it felt like
before that shot in the arm ate my soul up.
I’m admired for how well I preserve
because your bounty saved me.

Your children count sheep
that disappear into the sky
I count the lives lost to ebola
someone believed deserved to die.

 

 

 

Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me and Muhammad Ali – A Review By Eman el Shaikh

Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me, and Muhammad Ali is brimming with nostalgia. Not the inert kind, that encloses and preserves memory in amber-colored warmth, but the disruptive kind, that threads everything with an aspiration for the distant and interrogates memory persistently. The thirteen short stories in this collection are threaded with a potent, cutting nostalgia: nostalgia for the wholes that now lie fragmented, for other spaces and times, for faltering imaginings, for possible worlds that never existed. This nostalgia is promiscuous, recruiting history only to watch it dissolve in an array of contingencies and tensions.

This collection of stories palpitates and trembles around these tensions. Pleasure and grief weave together to create an intricate sensory synthesis. Faith and doubt play together dialectically, peeking out, whispering to one another, and being tucked away when they cause too much mischief. This balancing of tensions does not result in a permanent anxiety. Rather, Jarrar masterfully draws upon them and inflects her writing with humor, surprise, and elegant subversions.

These tensions persist, exploding the life-worlds Jarrar brings forth and yet binding them together. And it is in this and through this that Jarrar’s meditation on Arab identity arises. She shatters Arab and Arab-identity identity and lets the fragments speak and refract kaleidoscopic life-worlds that Jarrar makes palpable. Her characters are too abundant to be collapsed into single subjectivities, and so they overflow, replete with tentative imaginings of belonging, dreams of flight, grand visions to capture the moon, small hopes to survive another day, and triumphant subversions of inherited trajectories.

Though Jarrar’s use of magical realism is striking, her imagination lives most visibly and profoundly in the writing of the ordinary lives of Arabs and Arab Americans, which through her beautiful, poignant, and witty writing are wrought as a very different kind of magic. There is magic in unexpected and partial love affairs, in strategic mistranslations and omissions, the switching (and inventing) of fortunes, and the persistence of the pursuit of pleasure. And pleasure is the most magical aspect of these stories. Across nation, class, gender, and age, one can trace a commitment to—indeed, an ardent belief in—pleasure, which often sits alongside and converses with many “familiar oppressions” in order to give birth to this set of marvellous stories.

 

Sukoon Interviews Jess Rizkallah – by Rewa Zeinati

Rewa Zeinati: Congratulations on winning the 2016 Etel Adnan Poetry Prize! Tell us a little about your collection, and how you came up with the title.

Jess Rizkallah: Thank you so much. The collection is made up of poems I wrote during and after a lot of firsts in my life: first time living away from my family, first loves, first heartbreaks, first loss of someone close to me, and all of that interacting with the inherited stuff that manifested in very new ways for me when held under the stress of entering adulthood. The timing of the acceptance was perfect, too. Right at the end of a lot of things in my life, and right before I moved to a new city and started at a new school. I’m so happy it worked out that way. I’m not used to closure I don’t have to make up myself! I’m very thankful I get to look up to Fady and Hayan after working with them. They helped me come up with the title the magic my body becomes, after a line in one of the poems in the book. At first I was resistant to this title because that’s what it is to be a woman sometimes, feeling sheepish about owning the power of your experience in a world that doesn’t take you seriously when you’re speaking your body and complexities with your own mouth. I thought “is this too feminine of a title?” but then I thought “who cares if it is? if the title turns someone away, they weren’t going to listen to anything I’m saying anyway. it’s not for them anyway.”

RZ:  You posted once on Facebook not too long ago that you didn’t want anyone to ask you what you’ll be doing after you graduate. So… what will you be doing after you graduate?

JR: Betrayal! Just kidding. I don’t know. I’ve been doing publishing and editorial work for eight years now, so hopefully something there. I really hope I’ll make a good teacher. I visited my family recently. While the water simmered on the stove, my Teta went outside and under the full pisces moon, picked rosemary for our tea. I remember thinking “why the fuck do I live so far away from my family?” The scarier the world gets, the more frequent that thought is.

 RZ:  You mention that your poetry has appeared, among other places, on your mother’s fridge. Tell us a little about your family’s response to your creative path/growth. This question comes from my personal Lebanese experience of the cliché that most every Lebanese parent dreams of seeing their child grow into a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

JR: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the (upheld binary) difference between Lebanese sons and Lebanese daughters, and my being one of two daughters in a son-less nuclear family is impossible to divorce from my answer because I’ve found it tied to every expectation someone has had for me. Gender is always a shadow trailing behind my name: it’s a pretty traditional Lebanese thing to think that this is just a cute thing I’m doing to pass the time until a doctor or whatever wants to marry me. I’m lucky enough that I can recognize this and laugh in its face, instead of letting it hinder me. This is because my mother supports me and countered every sexist lesson the world tried to teach me. In turn the rest of my family has become supportive, too. (for which I’m grateful and full of love.) Busting your ass to prove yourself feels like an Arab kid rite of passage. To answer your question more directly: I do think my parents held a small hope that writing would just be a hobby, but I literally have no other skills, so writing was always going to be it whether anyone liked it or not. There were definitely a lot of “or not” periods growing up but overall and overwhelmingly, I always felt supported by the only people it really mattered to be supported by. I also feel really lucky that my family lets me share their stories inside my own. This was a hard answer to phrase, I don’t want to make anyone mad, but I feel it is important to be honest, and I know you must know what I mean.

RZ: Lebanon or USA?

JR: Both.

RZ: What are you reading right now and why?

JR: Right now I’m reading The Whale by Philip Hoare because whales are the most fascinating creatures on the planet, I’m convinced they’re aliens. They feel too cosmic to grace us with their presence on Earth, yet here they are and I want to get a closer look.

RZ:  Who are your biggest literary and artistic influences?

JR: Sandra Cisneros, Kevin Devine, Lady Lamb, Lynda Barry, Frank O’Hara, Sylvia Plath, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Safia Elhillo, Tiffany Mallery, Ada Limón, Mckendy Fils-Aimé, Franny Choi, so many friends, so many witchy creative femmes on the internet.

RZ:  Crayons or ink?

JR: Ink

RZ: How important are literary journals in your opinion and/or experience?

They’re so important. I want to know what everyone is saying and feeling at all times because otherwise I don’t know how I would get out of bed and face the world we’re all trying to fight for. I’ve made so many friends in the poetry community through the network of literary magazines we all read and contribute to.

RZ:  Why Pizza Pi Press?

JR: I can’t sit still, I always need to be making things and I always need to be collaborating with other people. I wrote Pizza Pi Press on the back of a messy zine I made in college, kind of as a joke. Like “ha! it looks like this silly thing came out on a press!” but then I kept getting more ambitious and my friends wanted to join in and now it’s my favorite thing to be part of and I hope we continue to grow and remain a platform that amplifies those who feel silenced elsewhere. Also, I really love pizza.

RZ:  What advice/insight would you be compelled to offer other young writers?

JR: Read as much as you write, maybe even more. Read people of color. Don’t be mean to yourself. Write even when people around you make you feel like you’re wasting your time. Keep a journal with you at all times and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not always writing pages and pages of work. Even just a thought a day is an entire world you’ve recorded and that’s so cool if you think about all the possibilities waiting to shoot off into a million synapses as you turn that thought over in your head before going back to the page. Think of your journal as an archive and every word an artifact of substantial magnitude. Don’t stress out about getting published – social media makes imposter syndrome feel more urgent than it used to be, but social media doesn’t show us all the nights where even our favorite writers feel stuck or defeated or sad or on their seventeenth straight episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Flaming Hot Cheeto Dust stuck to their face.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

JR: I just threw all of the contents of my closet and desk into the middle of the room and I’m not leaving my apartment until it is once again habitable and just as ready for this new season as I am. Thank you so much for making room for me at Sukoon.

 

 

 

 

 

4 poems by Tara Ballard

Women

We sit in an upstairs room
where the air conditioner wheezes

a lackluster attempt
at cool. It barely rustles our seven

floor-length cloaks of black
hanging near the closed door.

Arabic coffee steams. Our thimble-like cups
half-full with golden-yellow, stirred

saffron, perfume of cloves. Cardamom
making thick

the heat-damp air
that Septembers us by the sea.

Again

Dressed in black, a circle
of women sip from cups

of bitter coffee. No one
speaks as evening takes

shape in what is now
empty. I tilt the porcelain,

and grounds drift from
thumb to index finger.

I mourn with the other wives,
back turned to my husband

who drinks of a different kettle,
remembers the same man.

5:09 AM

The Adhan releases us
from sleep, remembers
us to place.

Cool under
bedroom fan and duvet
blue as above
will surely come, we
curl against one another
without clothing like
we are once more near
the beginning:

our legs and arms
nautilus. My husband, his hands
he travels across my skin
as I am mud and he
river. We shape
in the room’s dark.                        

Grains of sand
fold at the window sill,
cling to pulled security shutters
as we again immerse
in ritual waking.

Today one
hundred and thirty
mortars will fall south
of here. Fifteen missiles will break
the border. Evacuation
will continue.

 

Haboob

You will smell the sand before it arrives.
It will wake you from sleep, tugging at window panes
like an orange blanket over the sky.

Your breath will catch. You might find yourself
thirsty, but the water bottle on the nightstand won’t quench.
You will smell the sand before it arrives,

and even though all windows are closed,
grains will filter through and on and in
like an orange blanket over the sky.

The front door begins to rattle and shake, heavy
frame of wood accosted by desert. Wind grumbles.
You can smell the sand before it arrives,

but all you can do is sit up in bed, stare
as the tide washes across your world
like an orange blanket over the sky,

and you think of pharaoh and the ninth plague
as you breathe in this different breed of darkness.
You can smell the sand before it arrives
like an orange blanket over the sky.

My Father’s Daughter by Kathy Shalhoub

My father once told me that women were all the same; they made promises they didn’t keep.

I was a freshman sitting cross-legged on my dorm bed holding the receiver to my ear.

“They’re full of bullshit,” he said. I couldn’t remember his face but his voice sounded so much older than his fifty-seven. It sounded like someone else’s and very far away.

“I really will come see you this summer,” I said again after his declaration. I was ready at last.

“Whatever. Happy Birthday. I love you,” he said.

I didn’t reply because I didn’t want to lie.

I am four years old and I’m a Princess. Dad is the King. In a house of six people I see only him. My brother and sister are invisible. My mother is at work and Teta, my grandmother, busy in the kitchen. We sit on the marble steps that connect upstairs with downstairs. He soothes my knee where I have fallen. A dark blue bruise is brewing beneath the skin. The tiles are cold. He picks me up and carries me up the stairs.

“Is my Princess okay?”

I am safe and warm in the throne of his arms so I smile and nod.

“You know, your Grandfather was a Count,” he says. His English is accented. “You have blue blood. Royal blood,” he says, his chest swelling and his eyes looking deep into mine. Teta passes by and rolls her eyes.

I lift my chin an inch higher. The blue knee makes sense now. Some months later, I am in the garden carrying a box of tools for my brother. It is too heavy and my hands are sweaty. It starts to slip and I can’t hold it. I drop it on my ring finger and the finger splits open. I bleed crimson.

I am five years old. I am bouncing on my dad’s leg and laughing. The TV is on and a blonde Miss Universe struts around the stage with her diamond crown. The perfume of tobacco on his fingers is warm and delicious.

“You will be Miss Universe one day,” he says, gripping his pipe between tea-stained teeth. Maybe, but I have yet to see a Miss Lebanon on the show.

But when he lifts me up and sits me in his lap I feel like Miss Universe. I am loved. That summer we are on the beach, me in my one-piece stripy bathing suit and blue floaters sucking at my arms, him in his Speedos. He is so tall and handsome. His hair is dirty blonde. The tips curl perfectly around his ears. Golden body hair sparkles on his bronze skin. He gives me change and lets me go buy a Merry-cream. I feel like a grown up.

I hurry back to share my ice-cream with him but he’s not on the slippery white benches that surround the pool. His blue towel is still damp with sweat. I look up and scan the tall hairy bodies all around. I see the back of a man in Speedos standing near the wall overlooking the crashing waves. The oil on his bronze skin glistens in the sun.

He is talking to Miss Universe in a tiny turquoise bikini. The chocolate and vanilla swirls melt onto my hand and drip down to the hot cement.

I am six years old and it’s been a long, sticky summer. The electricity is out again. This is normal in Lebanon. It is late afternoon and my sister and I have exhausted our list of games. Mom is still at work. Dad is awake and better today.

“Get changed,” he says. “Let’s go outside and take pictures.”

My sister doesn’t want to participate. I run to change out of my nightie and into my new ballet outfit. Outside in the dimming sun, hibiscus flower in my hair, I am the most beautiful girl that ever existed.

“My prima ballerina,” he says.

I preen.

That school year I begin ballet classes – a gift from Aunt Hoda. At home after class, I dance in front of the mirror, sing to myself, do a plier, a pirouette. My father wobbles in the doorway.

“You want to be ballerina?” His voice sounds strange.

“Yes!” I screech, and jump at him to pick me up. He squats down instead.

“Then you gonna be a poor starving artist all your life,” he says.

Dad likes taking photos but he is an engineer. We are poor anyway.

I am seven years old and we are in the red-tiled kitchen. My father is very angry with my brother for not eating his tomatoes. The number of tomatoes does not equal the amount of anger. My brother puts a slice of tomato in his mouth and gags immediately. It’s a texture thing. My father thinks he’s being difficult. He undoes his belt, and in one move whips the leather from his pants and across my brother’s back.

My brother flinches but says nothing. I run out of the kitchen and into the living room. My father comes to find me. I shrink into the corner of the couch. He sits next to me and drops an arm across my shoulders.

“Don’t be scared.” He knows I am because I’m crying. “I would never hurt you.”

I know he wouldn’t but I am sad for my brother, and relieved it’s not me.

A bottle of Smirnoff and a row of beer bottles later, my father staggers into the kitchen in his underwear and grey robe. It feels like he’s been away for a long time but there’s war and I know no one can travel these days. I hurry in after him wanting us to spend time together. I want to hug him but hang back in the doorway. He struggles to open the refrigerator, sways in its mist, still gripping the handle while he scans the inside.

He stoops and plucks the bottle of French’s mustard from the door, wobbles, spins a little then falls on his bum, legs spread out. Laughter bubbles over his lips.

I do not go closer. I do not look into his face. I do not hug him. I focus on the bottle of mustard he still holds. It is very yellow. The King begins to fade and his Princess does too.

I am 10 years old. The man standing next to me outside is my father. I am crying because there’s a dead kitten on the concrete underneath his car. Or maybe I’m crying because Teta died so recently. He pats my shoulder like a baby pats a dog. Stiff. Awkward. Pat, pat, pat. We both seem disconnected, an old toy put together with improvised pieces.

“It’s okay, I’ll take care of it,” he says. “Daddy will always be here for you.”

He hasn’t been anywhere else, but I still miss him. I have never called him Daddy either. I take his words and carefully wrap them up. I put them inside my heart where they still burn.

A few months later, Aunt Hoda is dropping me off at home after a day at her place. A Red Cross ambulance is parked outside our house, the siren is off but the orange lights are spinning. Something happened to Teta? No, Teta died months ago. I sprint inside. A man is lying facedown on the floor next to my parents’ bed.

Mom tells me he’s going to hospital to get better. After that I sometimes see his name embroidered into towels I help mom hang outside. Then one day the towels stay home. I don’t say goodbye and I don’t say I love you because I don’t see him again. He is back in his country, getting better.

My father told me once that women were all the same, they made promises they didn’t keep. I don’t know if he was talking about my mother or me but in either case, he was right.

I was an engineering freshman sitting cross-legged on my dorm bed holding the receiver to my ear. I couldn’t remember his face but his voice sounded so much older than his fifty-seven. I promised him I would visit that summer. Winter got there first.