Rewa Zeinati: Lilas Taha, congratulations on winning the 2017 International Book Awards for your book entitled Bitter Almonds, published by Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press. Tell us a little about the process of starting the idea for this book, up until the moment it was published and then nominated for an award.
Lilas Taha: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my book and writing journey.
As a child of a Palestinian refugee father, I always wanted to tell the story of what happened to his generation—scream it out loud, if I could. Anger and frustration at the injustice of it all accompanied me through the years, much like most Palestinians who grew up watching their parent(s) try to move forward, while clinging to a land—a world—often described as perfect or magical, yet unreachable. Living in exile, my father carried his Palestine in his heart and managed to plant its seeds in mine and my brother’s. Hope flourished, and I arrived to adulthood determined to do the same for my children.
On my father’s last visit to me in the US, however, I saw something different in his eyes, a lack of luster, something was missing. After being displaced three times in his life, hope deserted him. That realization hit me very hard, and I struggled to engage him, to bring him back from the brink of despair. It pained me to see him that way; knowing he would not return to his beloved Palestine. So I started writing about his familiar world, involving him in discussions and challenging him to express more, talk more, remember more. Our daily sessions, when I read to him what I’ve written the night before, became our time together. We argued a lot, stepped into dangerous emotional zones often, and sometimes, we sailed into happy places. I wanted to create characters he could connect to and care about, and describe events as he and others in his generation experienced them, not as history books recorded them. That was my goal, and that’s how Bitter Almonds was born.
It took me a year to write the story and I was on my final edits when a lady, who had read my first book Shadows of Damascus, attended a writer’s event in Kuwait and mentioned my work to one of the editors present. At the time, Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press was under the umbrella of Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishers. The editor got in touch with me, and I sent her my manuscript for Bitter Almonds. A publication contract followed. The book was released world-wide, translated into the Norwegian language, and will come out in Arabic translation January, 2018.
Being nominated for, and winning, the 2017 International Book Awards in the Multicultural Fiction category provides wonderful exposure and is definitely the icing on the cake.
RZ: Your novel is thematically, among other things, about displacement and exile. How do these themes tie into your own life and experiences?
LT: I grew up in Kuwait among a mix of Arab nationalities. I spent most summer vacations in Syria with my mother’s family and my father’s relatives who settled there after their removal from Palestine in 1948. I was fortunate to absorb all cultures, but there was always a sense of being in transition, functioning in temporary mode: living in one place where my parents worked (Kuwait), visiting another where most members of my family lived (Syria), and yearning for a land I never experienced (Palestine).
With the Gulf War, I lost the patch of stability I was floating on. Through difficult circumstances, I ended up in a new land (US) speaking a different language. I pursued my studies, married a wonderful man—a Palestinian—and tried to build a secure future and a family. Eventually, my parents joined me, but by then, they had to resettle again (Jordan). And after the war in Syria erupted, some members of my mother’s family also became refugees. So displacement and exile were persistent companions in my life.
RZ: You are an electrical engineer by training and you mention that creative writing is your passion. Why didn’t you pursue this passion earlier on?
LT: Ever since I was a child, I’ve written short stories and personal reflections, but always in Arabic, and I never really entertained the idea of publication. I kept it as a hobby as I earned my engineering degrees and raised a family. Writing took me to my comfort zone, a respite from the stresses of life, and it stayed as a personal escape tool.
When the sad events started unraveling in Syria in 2011, the uncertainty and worry about my relatives frustrated me to the point that I started writing a story to reflect my emotional upheaval, but I used the English language for the first time. With persistent support from my husband and friends, I joined a writer’s guild and read parts of the story to the mix of writers. Their feedback was surprisingly positive, which encouraged me to keep writing in English and, a year later, I had a published novel. Bitter Almonds came next accompanied by my desire to join writers who shine a light on the Palestinian struggle and other issues pertaining to the Middle East for readers in the west.
I can’t see myself not writing. In an irrational way, I think of myself a girl hugging her security blanket. I hope to be able to stay on this writing track, perhaps publishing original works in Arabic, too.
RZ: What was/is the most terrifying part about your writing journey? Its beginning, or now? Or both?
LT: I don’t think it is the beginning. When I started this journey, I really had no clue what the writing and publishing worlds are like. Don’t they say ignorance is a bliss? I can relate to that. I just pushed forward, learning as I go, and the more information I gathered, the more aware I became of how rocky this path is. After all the hard work I pour into a book—my baby—I let go of it for readers to judge and criticize. There are no training wheels to gradually lift from its bike, no kindergarten to slowly remove it from my care. Once my book is released, the baby suddenly becomes an adult.
Therefore, I’m in constant learning mode. I want to produce a better product, a higher quality book, a more expressive novel. I don’t believe there’s an end of a road for a writer. There’s no ultimate goal to reach. That in itself brings me to the terrified state.
RZ: Your book is dedicated to the loving memory of your father. Tell us a little more about that.
LT: I’ve explained how I started writing Bitter Almonds to engage my father. Sadly, he passed away about three weeks before I signed the publishing contract, so he never really knew I got the story out. But I believe he is smiling at me from his special place up above, perhaps with a new twinkle in his eye.
RZ: You’ve moved around a lot while growing up. What or where is ‘home’ to you?
LT: Although I have many places where I feel at home, in my mind and heart, the absolute definition of home has always been Palestine, a place I had only heard and read about growing up, but didn’t have the chance to see until fairly recently as an adult. Palestine holds a powerful grip on my emotions and imagination.
My Arabic dialect is colored by my mother’s Syrian accent, and sometimes I surprise people when I passionately talk Palestinian, even have my sincerity brushed aside because of it. That infuriates me. The feeling of being Palestinian has been talked about in so many ways, and written in plenty of poetry, wonderful books and articles. Yet, I think it’s an indescribable state of existence. All we can do is hold on to it, try to creatively express it, and pass it on to the next generation.
Just as my mother instilled in me her fabulous culture and values, of which I am very proud, my father did the same, and the both of them together created a special environment independent of the geographical location where we actually lived. My husband and I tried to do the same for our children living in the US.
Spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually speaking, Palestine was always, still is, and will forever be my true home.
RZ: Would you describe Bitter Almonds as more of a political story or more of a love story? Or maybe love is political anyway?
LT: I would describe it as a human story at the center of a political pie with a slice of love, a dose of culture, a pinch of history, and a dash of hope. I don’t believe that romantic love solely transcends borders and politics, for I see love of country and homeland is just as enchanting.
RZ: Are any of the characters in your novel based on, or inspired by, people you’ve met or know personally?
LT: The simple and straight forward answer is no. There isn’t a specific character based on someone I know or met. But I used my experiences with the people in my life to see my characters with clarity and shape them to the way they turned out. My father’s personality was very complex, and I borrowed some of his traits to create both Omar and Marwan in Bitter Almonds, so in a way, their combined personalities were inspired by some of my father’s attributes.
Additionally, I’ve always admired the sincerity of my teachers, and the ingenuity and strength of the women in my family, starting with my mother’s ability to always see the big picture. I drew on all of that to develop the different female characters in the book.
RZ: You were born in Kuwait to a Syrian mother and a Palestinian father, and you left for the United States after the Gulf War. Tell us a little about your experience living in the US, in terms of identity, exile, “otherness” and/or belonging.
LT: Although I was exposed to the western world as a child through trips to Europe that my parents took us on, I experienced cultural shock just like every immigrant who arrived to the New World. At first, everything was difficult. I missed moving within a big homogeneous community. The little things I took for granted became very important and even essential. I longed for the smells, sounds, and tastes of the Middle East. I remember I had a panic attack the first time I talked one-on-one with my professor when I was studying for my master’s degree.
As time went on, I eased into American life, graduated, married, and moved to another state to start a family. My husband and I made the effort to keep our children within a sphere that combined mainstream America and the Arab American community around us. Furthermore, living in the big mix of ethnicities and backgrounds of the US helped me to assimilate while proudly maintaining my cultural heritage.
The sense of being an outsider diminished, but it didn’t completely disappear. I’m thankful for that. I know where I belong, but of all the places I lived in, I’m not sure where I don’t belong.
RZ: What advise would you give budding writers who might be afraid of pursuing this path?
LT: Don’t write as if someone is looking over your shoulder. Write what you want, more so if it is difficult and thorny. Write what is begging to be released, and be patient, for a writer’s vehicle moves slowly. Don’t let your ego stand in the way of improvement, and always, always, seek honest feedback.
RZ: Which writers were you influenced by while growing up? Which writers are you drawn to now?
LT: Growing up, I read most books by the known Arab geniuses, namely Naguib Mahfouz, Ghassan Kanafani, Taha Hussein, Gibran Khalil Gibran, Anis Mansour and many more. I also read a good number of the translated literary classics for western writers like Earnest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Jane Austin, the Brontë sisters, and Leo Tolstoy to name a few. As I gained more command of the English language, I re-read those classics in English, which provided me with additional levels of enjoyment and different angles of understanding for the same books.
Currently, I’m drawn to Arab writers such as Susan Abulhawa and Saud Alsanousi. Other writers I like are Khaled Hosseini, and Jodi Picoult.
RZ: What are you working on right now?
LT: I’m working on two novels in parallel. Something I haven’t attempted before. One is a sequel to my third novel, which will hopefully come out next year. The plot is current in time and it deals with American Palestinians connecting with their roots and themes relating to resistance.
The other novel I’m working on explores a rarely touched topic of Palestinian life, and is entirely set in the Middle East.