Interview with Etel Adnan

By Rewa Zeinati

“MORE THAN EVER, OUR ARAB WORLD IN PARTICULAR, NEEDS POETRY AND THE ARTS, NEEDS EVERY FORM OF THE AFFIRMATION OF LIFE”- Etel Adnan

Rewa Zeinati: Etel Adnan, you are a multidimensional writer and artist; an author, a novelist, a poet, and a cultural critic. You have written documentaries and operas, short stories and plays and you are a visual artist in different media. You were born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925. You studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, U.C. Berkeley, and at Harvard. In 1972, you returned to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two daily newspapers—first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient le Jour. Your novel Sitt Marie-Rose, published in Paris in 1977, won the France-Pays Arabes award and has been translated into ten languages. At least eighteen works have been published in English. They include The Arab Apocalypse (Post-Apollo Press, 1989); Sea and Fog (Nightboat Books, 2012), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry and the California Book Award for Poetry. In 2011, you received Small Press Traffic’s Lifetime Achievement Award. And, in 2014, you were awarded one of France’s highest cultural honors: L’ordre de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. What drives you on?

Etel Adnan: What drives me on? I really don’t know. Have never been asked such a question ever. I was a turbulent child and remained a restless person. When I enter a house I go immediately to the windows. And I remember when I was about 18 and I had a Russian friend in Beirut (there were many Russian refugees from WWI and their children) and I told her that we were living always projected into the future – a future with no idea or image attached to it – and she agreed with a great melancholy about her. My encounter with poetry came about the same time and age and I thought we were born for reading poetry. Nothing else mattered, of course there were the great French poets such as Rimbaud, Verlaine, Gerard de Nerval, Baudelaire; they really never left me.

What really drives me is the history of our area, the Arab World, and the Islamic World, and mainly because the trouble in them never stops. It’s contemporary History that writes my books.

There are two other major concerns of mine. One is love, the failure in love, due to so many things, and the fact that the first person we really loved haunts forever. There is also my love for Nature, my need for it. So all this can keep me going.

RZ: In solidarity with the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), you began to resist the political implications of writing in French and became a painter. In your own words, “painting became a new language and a solution to my dilemma: I didn’t need to write in French anymore; I was going to paint in Arabic.” Then, through your participation in the poets’ movement against the Vietnam War (1959-1975), you began to write poetry in English and became, “an American poet.” What does it mean for you to be self-labeled, or thought of, as an American poet?

EA:- I lived the Algerian war of independence while living in California. I was teaching philosophy, and following the news. It seemed to me then, and I think I was right, that the loss of Algeria was going to be a defeat like the loss of Palestine. Those were the Abdel Nasser years and the dream of Arab unity was a real goal. It remains that it has been a positive model for the Third World, an incredible achievement.

I felt great being an “American poet”, I had a home.

RZ: What makes good art/good writing?

EA: What makes good writing? Many, many things… you can’t tell, in a way. It’s also related to the times we live in. But The “Iliad” is still great writing! There is something that the reader recognizes, the soundness of a rhythm, something convincing, I don’t know. But there is no proof. You do what you can… but there will always be some people that will like it and some that won’t.

RZ: The sun is a central subject in your work. Is it your biggest inspiration? What inspires you?

EA: The sun was a powerful element of my childhood in Beirut. As I was an only child, the world surrounding me was of great importance. The sun particularly, as it is very present over there, and the city had low houses, three floors at most, and I was aware of shadows too… I remember trying to look straight at the sun very often, and my eyes [would] burn and blur, and also in the summer I don’t know how my mother found one of those colonial headgear, all painted white that I saw later in pictures of mostly British people in the colonies and I was then aware that the sun was a very dangerous being and I had to deal with it. So the sun is an omnipresent being in our countries, both beneficial and dangerous. No wonder our ancient gods were led by sun-gods, the pharaohs as well as the Babylonians had as a supreme god, a solar deity.

RZ: You have a way with writing that may appear, to the naïve mind, to be dizzyingly simplistic, yet, in fact, it is superbly full and brilliantly philosophical. I’m always struck by how your lines or sections end; you simply know when to stop writing and let the image or word resonate with the reader; always at the exact right moment, with the exact right word, not a moment too soon or too late. As simple as, “In the morning they all went to the small cages they call their offices. Some of them made telephone calls.” What is your secret?

EA: We are in a period of cut and dry poetry, of minimalism; it has become natural to avoid developement in our writings. It’s both new and very ancient. Look at the Greek pre-Socratics, their thinking is expressed as geometric equations, and it makes it very poetic.

RZ: Is there a difference between poetry and philosophy?

EA: Is there a difference between poetry and philosophy? Yes and no. There used to be a difference in western philosophy. Western philosophy was involved in the search of some truth, of some system explaining reality. From the English philosophers on, the possibility of reaching absolute statements, statements about the absolute, was dimming. But it’s Nietzsche [who] demonstrated, or discovered himself that philosophical works are constructions, personal constructions that cannot pretend to be any definitive view of reality. That neared philosophy to thinking, brought it closer to intuition, to sudden “revelation”. Heidegger followed that line and ended up asserting that the greatest form of philosophy is to be found in the great poets such as, for Germans, in Hölderlin and Rilke. I very strongly believe, I find that the great Islamic Sufis are theologians/philosophers/poets, the greatest poets of that world.

RZ: Is one born a political poet? Or is all poetry political? (Or should it be?)

EA: Poetry doesn’t need to be political in its subject matter. It’s not the subject matter that’s important, it’s the way you treat it. Of course if you manage to convey the importance of something that gets you, your passion for it, how existential is for example the political/historical situation of your country, or of a country that matters to you, then that text could be poetic. You speak of a rose, or of the situation of Palestine, you can write something that will be a poem. How? It’s up to you, and to the reader… But in a way, everything is political, in the sense that everything says something about you that goes beyond the subject matter, and also that whatever we do affects the world, in minute ways generally, invisible ways, but it becomes part of the becoming of everything that is. In that sense, washing your hands is also a cosmic event.

RZ: Is there room for poetry and art in a region bursting with absolute turmoil; where fundamentalism, religious figures and politicians have taken over home and street?

EA: More than ever, our Arab world in particular, needs poetry and the arts, needs every form of the affirmation of life. The forces of death are very active, due to the abysmal mediocrity of our politicians, and also due to outside interference. So all we have to counterbalance that evil is to be alive, and to sustain life. Poetry, art, is what will remain of these dark period … I am always comforted by the existence of the great deal of creativity in our countries; they are suffering, but they’re going ahead, they’re surviving, and much more… we will not go under.

RZ: You mentioned once in an interview that, “It’s possible that in the past, unconsciously, people paid less attention to women’s work. Things are changing; there are more and more women curators, and more women gallery owners. It doesn’t mean that they will automatically pay more attention to women’s work, but it’s changing. We can’t complain.” Are things changing fast enough, though, for women writers and artists?

EA: Our region is changing in good directions in spite of all our defeats and destruction. There is a civil society that’s emerging from the ashes of our patriarchal societies. It’s a good sign, even if that society is regularly repressed.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers and/or artists?

EA: Giving advice is usually a pompous affair. If I have to give one, it is “don’t be afraid, go ahead, pay the price it [will] entail, and you will certainly feel free, and probably creative too.

RZ: “Not seeing rivers is also another way of dying.” Do you remember where you were or what was happening around you when you wrote this magnificent line?

EA: River, oh rivers… I don’t know where and when I wrote the line you quote, but it is utterly true… without the sea, the ocean, or a river in my vicinity I am a dying plant.

RZ: What are you working on right now?

EA: Working on what these days? I am painting, mostly. For a whole year, I have a poem already written, NIGHT, following SEASONS and SEA & FOG and I don’t know why I keep it waiting… must reread it carefully and let it go…

RZ: How important are literary magazines, if at all?

EA: Literary magazines are dwindling, for money reasons… and indifference for literature – young people prefer dance, music, where physical goes, but they are indispensable… they keep the pulse of the thinking of a society… it takes courage nowadays to run a magazine or a publishing house for poetry and literature in general.

Interview with Nathalie Handal

By REWA ZEINATI

Exploring convivencia

“Although, we did not have solutions for what was going on nor could we explain or define the East so rigidly, we felt a deep need to respond in any way we could. So we went to our natural prayer, poetry. We went to the human voices that have enchanted us and that have changed our lives and spirits,” says Nathalie Handal, award-winning poet, playwright, and editor. In this interview, Handal talks honestly about her craft, her role as a woman writer, and what she discovers to be “home.”

RZ:  In your new collection, Poet in Andalucía, you re-create Federico García Lorca’s journey, Poet in New York, but in reverse. What inspired this collection?

NH: Poet in New York is one of the most important books written about the city. Lorca is a poet who continues to call us to question what makes us human. Andalucía has always been the place where racial, ethnic, and religious forces converge and contend, where Islamic, Judaic, and Christian traditions remain a mirror of a past that is terrible and beautiful. Eighty years after Lorca’s sojourn in America, and myself a poet in New York of Middle Eastern roots—and this being a crucial moment in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—I wanted to explore convivencia which in Spanish means “coexistence.” The Spanish convivencia describes the time when Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in relative harmony in Islamic Spain. There are numerous debates surrounding notions of tolerance in al-Andalus during the Middle Ages. However, one cannot deny the rich and prosperous cultural and artistic life that existed during that period—a life that these communities created together. Mahmoud Darwish’s words kept echoing: “Andalus… might be here or there, or anywhere… a meeting place of strangers in the project of building human culture…. It is not only that there was a Jewish-Muslim coexistence, but that the fates of the two people were similar…. Al-Andalus for me is the realization of the dream of the poem.” So recreating Lorca’s journey in reverse became increasingly important to me.

RZ: What was the most challenging part of writing this collection?

NH: Coming to the understanding that although peace is possible if we desire—because what people want most is to live—we stand far away from that reality. It was challenging to weave hope into the poems, staying true to my vision while also understanding the fundamental forces that continue to lead us into conflict states instead of conciliatory ones.

RZ: How is this new collection, Poet in Andalucía, different than anything you’ve written before?

NH: I had a blueprint, a map of the book before I started it.

RZ: You were listed as one of the “100 Most Powerful Arab Women in 2011” and one of the “Power 500/The World’s Most Influential Arabs” in 2012 and 2013. Where has your inner strength and powerful voice sprung from? And how do you cultivate it?

NH: Staying faithful to my vision and understanding that every challenge is an opportunity for transformation, and a deeper more fundamental power.

RZ: How are women, writers or not, in your opinion, empowered? How do they get that fierce fearlessness, do you think?

NH: From what they have endured, from those who inspire them, from other women, from love, from that luminous-kickass-energy-force-inside.

RZ: Where is ‘home’ for you?

NH: I suppose I’ve given versions of the same response over the years. Today, I will simply say that home is where you can see the most profound side of yourself.

RZ: You have promoted international literature through translation, research, and the editing of the groundbreaking The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, an Academy of American Poets bestseller and winner of the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Book Award and the W.W. Norton landmark anthology, Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond. How important is it to promote international literature, and why did you feel these anthologies were necessary?

NH: It’s vital—one of the most fundamental ways to understand other worlds; their history, culture, traditions. Coming for the Middle East but also having a global identity, I almost didn’t have an option. Thank goodness I enjoy editing and translating. It’s a tough job.
The Poetry of Arab Women was prepared to eradicate invisibility: to provide an introduction to Arab women poets, to make visible the works of a great number of Arab women poets who are virtually unknown to the West, to make visible many Arab-American women poets who are marginalized within the American literary and ethnic scenes, and to demonstrate the wide diversity of Arab women’s poetry, which extends to other languages besides Arabic and English.
Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond was conceived following the events of September 11th, 2001. Tina Chang, Ravi Shankar and I started this journey together because we felt troubled by the negative views showcased in the media about the East. Although, we did not have solutions for what was going on nor could we explain or define the East so rigidly, we felt a deep need to respond in any way we could. So we went to our natural prayer, poetry. We went to the human voices that have enchanted us and that have changed our lives and spirits. We hope this adds to the ongoing dialogue between East and West. This anthology celebrates the artistic and cultural forces flourishing today from the East, bringing together the works of South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian poets as well as poets living in the Diaspora. The collection includes 400 voices from 55 different countries writing in 40 different languages. The work included is diverse in style and aesthetic from political, to apolitical, erotic to experimental.

We are currently planning the 5th year anniversary celebration of the publication of our anthology in Hong Kong this summer. Simultaneously, we are launching the Language for a New Century website intended to reach educators and to assist them in adopting and teaching the contents of the book. Beyond this, the LNC site will be an energetic space where teachers, professors, students, readers, poets, and anyone interested in this anthology and the amazing voices from the East can go to for more information.

RZ: What do you think of Arab writers who can only write in English? Do you think they owe their heritage the ability to express, and the insistence upon expressing themselves in Arabic as well?

NH: We don’t owe our heritage as much as we owe ourselves—whatever it is we feel or need. We can’t force connections and alliances. We have our personal circumstances and histories, and shouldn’t be judged by those realities nor assigned expectations. After all, a person might speak Arabic and not feel connected to the Arab world and culture. And another might not speak the language and feel very linked to his/her heritage.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once in an interview that what makes us human is our ability to answer thoughtfully, and change our minds later. That resonates with many people, surely, many of whom are probably afraid to perhaps voice this resonance. What is it about changing our minds that terrifies us so much? And is this confirmation an integral part of what makes us creative? What makes writers, writers?

NH: It doesn’t terrify all of us. I find it rather reassuring, comforting. As for what makes writers, writers. I can’t speak for all of them, I can only tell you, as a writer, I’m a romantic of sorts in search of an impossible perfect.

RZ: You have been asked this question countless times before, but I will ask you again, forgive me; how do you define yourself in terms of identity?

NH: A Bethlehemite—who is also French and American—with Latin American, African and Asian influences. A Mediterranean who is also very much a city person.

RZ: You’ve mentioned once that, “homeland is one thing and home is another.” How so? And do you find yourself constantly in search of one or the other in your writing?

NH: Not any more. They appear and disappear but I’m very clear on what each means to me. Home is the place I have chosen to exist in, my cities, Paris and New York. Homeland is where I am originally from, Bethlehem.

RZ: You’ve lived in Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Arab world. You are of Palestinian descent and write in English. Does the Arab in you feel empowered?

NH: I only write in English but my poems include French, Spanish and Arabic words because they are an integral part of my English or maybe I should say, the way I communicate. These languages coexist inside of me harmoniously. Speaking various languages has expanded my interior and exterior world in a multitude of fascinating ways.

RZ: In an increasingly globalized present, where the world seems to be shrinking faster than a new phone app is created, (or maybe not!) and the distinctive, discerning features of each Arab culture seems to be vanishing, how can art reconcile us with the idea that we may become increasingly obsolete? (or maybe not?)

NH: Arab or any other culture will not become obsolete. It’s our fundamental pulse, and we instinctively preserve our cultures. We re-imagine them but will not let them disappear. I don’t see the distinctive features of each Arab culture vanishing. I can recognize certain unifying spaces especially when it comes to social media but every Arab country is graced with its unique and ancient histories, cultures, traditions, art and literature. We continue to cherish, nourish, and add new twists to them. Even if every generation complains that certain elements of their culture have been lost, the essence remains very much alive.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

They are an important meeting field of ideas, minds and creative talent,
where we communicate, challenge, change, learn, and are exposed to a
constellation of voices.

NH: What advice would you offer emerging writers?

Read as diversely as possible, and don’t be in a hurry to publish. If you
persist and are dedicated, you’ll find the bus that will take you to the
terminal where you’re meant to begin your writing life.