Host Christopher Merrill talks with Palestinian writer Alice Yousef about the difficulties of writing in Arabic and overcoming the challenges of portraying the complicated subjects presented as a part of the Palestinian experience, as well as her poem, How to Survive an Evening in a War Zone.
Alice Yousef Interview Transcript
I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.
Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.
The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
This episode of Origins features Alice S. Yousef, a writer from the Palestinian Territories.
Merrill: Alice Yousef is a poet and translator from Palestine. She publishes poetry on her blog, “Blooms in Indigo,” writing on the Middle East, the Palestinian experience, and daily life. She has also published short stories and translations, and she holds an M.A. in Writing from the University of Warwick. We are recording this from the University of Iowa on Thursday, September 29, 2016, when we had the chance to sit down with Alice who was a participant in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency. Alice, uh, although Arabic is your mother tongue you write in English, and I wonder if you could talk a little about what it means to be a Palestinian writing in English.
Yousef: Sure, thank you for having me, Chris. Um, it’s not very common these days that you have Palestinians writing in English, it’s actually a very new and very few voices are actually writing in English, and they mostly write nonfiction. Mainly we have [name] and [name] and they do nonfiction based on either their life stories or um, a political area or subject, um, going um, around Palestine it’s um, basically for me it was a big step, because, uh, Arabic fiction and nonfiction and poetry in Palestine is pretty condensed and has a lot of, it has developed quite tremendously over the years and, um, hm, I was just more comfortable writing in English, so I continued doing that, and, uh, it gives me, um, uh, kind of an advantage because I have the, my audience is the world, and then I have the local audience too, so it’s, I get the best of both worlds, which is really good.
Merrill: We’ve had a number of younger Arabic writers who in some way want to write in English because of the complications of writing in Classical Arabic. Is that at least, is that part of, uh, what governs this?
Yousef: Yeah, a little bit, uh, it’s, Arabic is not the easiest grammar to go around, and not everyone can feel the grasp on, a good grasp on the whole grammatical system so, it’s sort of a rebellion on grammar too.
Merrill: Yeah, yeah… So, do you write then for your, more for your reader or for yourself? And your reader, as you say is, is the world.
Yousef: Yeah, uh, when I started writing I was writing more for myself, uh, it’s not like I completely ignored the reader, but it was a good step for me not to be daunted by the readers, because thinking sometimes too much about who I’m, who am I writing to, makes me aware of it all the time and it’s, sometimes it’s daunting when you’re in the middle of writing and then you realize, it’s no longer about me, it’s about the bigger audience reading all of this that I write, and that, it brings along the sense that I have to generate these feelings in them, and that by itself can be daunting for a writer at a ear- very early stage in their career. So um, I write mostly about me, like, not about me, mostly for myself, but I leave the platform open for the readers to go along the journey with me.
Merrill: The wonderful Lebanese poet and novelist Vénus Khoury-Ghata said that early in her career she found herself writing in French, uh, from left to right, but thinking right-to-left as in Arabic, and she’s conducted her whole career in French. When you are writing in English, are you doing something of the same thing?
Yousef: Yes, sort of, uh, it’s, uh, I write from, in English from uh, left to right, and I wri- read from right to left in Arabic, so there’s this place where both languages are active and both languages are working in my brain at all times, which, one of them affects the other somehow, because sometimes I find myself writing a long text, or a, a short poem, and then I’m one word short and that word does not come up in English, it’s coming up in the other language, and it persists, and sometimes I end up actually using it within the text and then having to annotate that and explain it later, but it’s, it’s funny how both languages can, can work. And it’s within the context of my job because I’m also a translator, that I’m always aware of the two languages, not in a clinical way – this is the source and this is the target – but in more or less how they can actually generate and bounce off of each other.
Merrill: And feed each other.
Yousef: And feed each other, of course.
Merrill: So in poems like “How to Survive an Evening in a War Zone,” or [and they are four?] you deal with difficult subjects: war, death, loss, survival, grief. What are the challenges, uh, of trying to write about such complicated subjects which are so much a part of Palestinian experience?
Yousef: Um, there are several challenges, um… Sometimes they’re about me personally and sometimes they’re about the work itself, because, writing about these issues when they are still active all over, when they still happen around, you can generate all these unpleasant feelings for you as a writer as much as it’s for the reader who’s reading about this horrific image that I’ve been describing, um, and this is one of the main challenges. Another one is like, not to be, fa- not to fall into like repetition and numbers and not to become very clinical and very journalistic, sort of, right, like it’s, this is not a piece of news, it’s still artwork, so you have to maintain the art form, you have to maintain the images that get you there without horrifying you the whole time, you have to have the sense of the beginning, middle, and like the release for the audience themselves, and… I write, I started writing about that because I realized there was a pattern whenever something upsets me, the first thing I think of is just “write about it.” And, and, sometimes it’s just for me and sometimes it’s for the bigger audience. I still split between what’s journaling and what’s not to be published and what’s to be published and sent out, so that’s another thing I’m always constantly thinking of when I’m writing about things that are beg- bigger than me. Because I want to understand them and I want other people to also feel them too.
Merrill: So is there a, a therapeutic or a healing quality to the, the work when you’re dealing with weightier subjects?
Yousef: It does. For me it is kind of therapeutic, because it means that once I finish writing about it I just, something, sort of like I look at it as if it’s a door, and it’s like the door has closed, and I can leave it to rest there and move on to something else. And uh, that sense of relief is really good for me, and uh, um, it also makes me feel very conscious and very aware of other people in other places in the world where this happens, and it happens a lot, and le- when you least expect it, that terrible things happen everywhere and then you need to release that trauma or keep it somewhere, so you can go on with your day-to-day, um, life.
Merrill: Well, that trauma has been a part of your life from earliest childhood, and I wonder if that, um, prompts you to think about what a writer’s duties or obligations or privileges or responsibilities might be when your country is at war, when it’s under occupation, um… What do you, how do you, how do you manage all that?
Yousef: Um, I manage this with my writing, uh, by trying as much as I can to be honest to what I’m writing about. I try to be very clear of what I’m writing about, and sometimes I don’t see where, where a certain text is going, sometimes it leads its own life, but I think that one of the duties that is mainly on my shoulder is like, especially that I also write in English and I’m good with the language, uh, as in like I practice it a lot, is that it gives me sort of a responsibility that I’m voicing and I’m speaking to some of the people who cannot speak, or cannot… not cannot speak, but who, um, have given me this responsibility to bear witness and to be able to express as much as I can the things that I’m seeing while I’m still loyal to, um, my country, while I’m still loyal to my own, loyal to my own identity and to my own writing, to the piece itself and not to let my, uh, any bias or any feelings intrude or overtake my experience of uh, the work itself.
Merrill: And of course this has all grown ever-more complicated since the Arab uprising in 2011, what was formerly a, an Israeli-Palestinian issue now informs everything in the region, how – has that changed your approach to writing?
Yousef: Yeah, it has, it has, because uh, you see, there are a lot of movements that were calling for freedom and um, the concept of freedom not just changed, but it was also, grown, it matured for me too, so it was no longer just freedom from physical war or physical occupation, that’s on the ground, there’s also these different sides of freedom, was also another thing that was interesting for me to see because, you, sometimes people are struggling and striving for basic things that for me, I would have taken for granted even if I’m under occupation, uh, but it sort of puts me in the p- bigger perspective of the bigger picture and it also caused a lot of confusion in the region with, uh, the younger generation, with how much they were affected by, um, the worl- the world around them and how they no longer wanted to be silent and to voice and to speak up and speak out about the things that they would’ve, few years ago, thought that “oh, that’s nothing, that’s actually just normal,” and then realizing “no, that is actually something and I want to write about it or I want to speak about it,” so it kind of gave a different courage, too.
Merrill: And that prompts me to ask about the, uh, Palestinian writing workshop, and the importance in your mind, um, of creativity in mentoring youth, um, that’s the next generation.
Yousef: Uh, the Palestine writing workshop started when I was, um, still, I’m gonna speak a little bit about it because not everyone is aware of it, it started when I was um, a sophomore in uh, at Birzeit University in Palestine, the West Bank, and um, it was, um, an effort of one of, uh, the instructors, um, who was teaching at the English Department to start something for the students who would like to write creatively and not just write essays the whole time, because there is no creative writing track in, um, uh, at the university and pretty much around the Arab world, it’s still relatively very new, creative writing as a domain, because you basically either are born a writer, or you’re born into it or you become a writer by just having this little spark in you and you keep on working on it and you actually get published sometimes and sometimes you don’t, so… there’s nobody who is mentoring or overlooking, so the workshop started like that, it started having, um, different instructors being flown into the country and then, just like, training younger generations and I was among the first people who actually took some trainings. So um, a few years later I found myself wanting to give back, so I was um, giving workshops, um, attend- still attending most of them, or helping out with events, flyers, distr- distributing, um, coordinating– helping with the coordinators to make sure events run smoothly, and… But I think, um, mentoring the new, um, the new upcoming generation is really important especially in the context of Palestine and like, the region, ‘cause there’s a lot of good writing abilities that need some, someone to cultivate it and to shape it and to help the writer look at how things have been done across the world and how they can do better, how um, they have their abilities. I’ve worked a little bit with children and a little bit with youth, and it’s very interesting to see the perspective by which they see the, uh, even the mundane little daily things, not just the bigger, the bigger pictures.
Merrill: And I’m guessing that you bring some of the lessons that you learned from your time in the UK, studying in a formal creative writing program.
Yousef: Yes, I do, I use, I use, uh, quite a lot of these activities, and I basically sometimes actually use uh, l-l- it depends on the age group, a modified exercise that I’ve had in English and I modify it for Arabic too because I give the trainings usually in Arabic.
Merrill: So how does the exercise go?
Yousef: So I go about at- changing a little bit of it, or like making it so if it’s for uh, youth, the latest one I remember was, there was a reading based on uh, one of, uh, it’s a book and place, so it was about Jerusalem but it was a fiction book, so my exercise to the students after the um, reading went on was “imagine yourself writing a letter to a city. What would you say and how is writing to a city different than writing from a human?” So I was trying to tease out these little things that you don’t always think of when you’re writing, just making them look at the whole concept of playing with words a little bit differently than they would with just, writing to a human being. Which is something they also can’t, don’t do much because of Facebook and all of that.
Merrill: Yeah… It- That makes me think that place is important to your work, so, in this case you have an exercise of writing to a particular place. Um, do you feel that you can write anywhere? In the UK, in Jerusalem, now in Iowa City? Are there certain conditions that are more conducive to free writing?
Yousef: There are some conditions that are conducive for my writing. Uh, I mean, I, I, generally cannot write, uh, in a place that’s noisy or that has any kind of background noise. Even if it’s a café with some music it just distracts me immediately. So it’s usually, I, I write in places like the library, which is really qu- quiet, and I like the place to be very well-lit, for some reason, I really like light, and I always work next to a window or somewhere where there’s a lot of light, if I’m working during the morning, which is kind of contradictory because I like to work a lot at night too, but I think that is mainly for Jerusalem because it’s very noisy sometimes in the daytime and like at nighttime everyone is asleep and I can actually just conduct really good work when it’s really quiet. So it’s quiet is the main ingredient for this whole area.
Merrill: The wonderful American songwriter John Prine was asked when he liked to write his songs and he said “Oh, I like to write my songs in the morning, but with my life I don’t see too many mornings.”
Yousef: That’s very true when you’re at work, or something.
Merrill: You’ve also, uh, you have a collaborative poetry blog, twopoetswrite.blogspot.com, with [name]. How did you start this, and what, what is it about collaboration that uh, appeals to you?
Yousef: Uh, the “Two Poets Write” blog with uh, my friend [name ], we started it, uh, after our, finishing our Masters’ together in the UK because we were on the same Masters’ program. And um, we wanted to still keep in touch somehow other than just letters and random news and Facebook and all of that, we wanted a s- more significant way where we both wrote and we both encouraged one another to do well and at the same time, sort of see and show each other our own little spaces after moving back home or just traveling around the world. So we started uh, the idea of us was just to try one poem via email to each other, and then we said “oh, like, this looks like it can go somewhere” and then we started the blog. So we picked, or we still pick, one theme or one place a week and then we see if it’s available in both cities we’re at and then write about it. So, um…
Merrill: So you write about a particular place.
Yousef: Yeah, it’s a particular place. We ju- sometimes it’s very generic, sometimes it’s very narrow, so one week was we had bedrooms, and one was, like, a few weeks ago it was the reverse, so I went and wrote about the Iowa River and Irina’s currently in Germany, so she wr- wrote about the [Spree?] River, so um, the nice thing that I like about collaboration is that you get your first reader to be another writer or poet and for me this really worked because we, we are good friends, which allows us space to be negative among each others’ work and critical without it being negative for negativity’s sake. It was like honestly, honest feedback to make sure that the poem flows or the work flows, that it goes smoothly and it works for the audience too.
Merrill: The American poet Matt Hart told me once that he and his, uh, best friend, uh, uh, send emails to each, each other at 6 a.m. every day, and they devise new writing exercises for themselves that have to be completed by, I can’t remember if it was nine or noon. But uh, they might be something like, uh, “write a hundred and forty two-line sonnets in the next three or four hours,” sometimes outlandish, uh, imaginative kinds of exercises, but that daily discipline leads to new work being created.
Yousef: That is, yeah, that’s very interesting. I never thought of that. I have a couple of other friends I would like to try that with, maybe.
Merrill: So, some of your early work seemed to come out of uh, the spoken-word, uh, movement. Um, how have your poems evolved, and would you describe your work now as being sound-based, or more subject-based? How, how has it changed?
Yousef: It has changed, over the years, because when I started with spoken-word poetry it was mainly very much into, uh, I started very young and it was mainly me, my own voice, and how I see the world and now it has evolved in subject and it has evolved in voices like it’s no longer just about me and how, what matters to me, it’s also about the bigger pictures, it’s also about other themes, it’s about, it became more complex and more urgent. It’s still sound-based, because I like to use language to mimic music, sort of, because I like also to listen to a lot of different genres of music, but um, it has kind of made a jump from it being, uh, very, uh, teenage, very not ready for, for the, the state or for the public, into something that is actually can be read, and like felt, through different uh, mediums and different people and uh, different collaborations, and it’s available to different interpretations with music, to other images. But it’s also, still, one thing that I haven’t developed much with is imagery and how I pick that up, and how that goes and plays into the poem, it’s still, not the same way of thinking but still, I think, I’m still working on that especially now, with my new poems and how they have become different and it’s also more about places now, and it’s more grounded than when I started with spoken-word poetry.
Merrill: And, would you say that you are more influenced now by Arabic poetry, or English poetry, or other languages, other traditions?
Yousef: Yeah, both, bit of both, and a little bit of other languages that I sometimes tap into and read into, because um, there is a lot of good influence of the styles, the forms, the images, the, the breaking of the poem, where you break your line, what kind of punctuation do you use in this language, how do you twist and image, how do you use, how you allude to other works in your poetry, so I am still, I am pretty influenced by what I read.
Merrill: And, are there particular writers that you return to?
Yousef: For a long period of time, it was T.S. Eliot, I used to love his work a lot, but um it was, it now varies, it’s a lot of female and a lot of male artists and writers from different genres, um, I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s wo- work, I enjoy um, Carol Duffy’s work too, so it’s, it varies across countries, across genres, across genders.
Merrill: Uh-huh, so, American readers are, readers of poetry, we know Mahmoud Darwish’s work, we know uh, Mohammed Ali Taha, uh, are there other writers that we need to know from your part of the world?
Yousef: Yeah, there’s a lot of people who are um, making very good steps and making uh, a good effect, uh, writing-wise across the region and across Palestine especially. Uh, the, I think th- one of the shortcomings is that when they write they mainly write in Arabic, so, the audience stays within the Arab region, but a lot of them are being translated. Um, one of the good, really good Palestinian writers, she’s developing masses and she’s experimenting with a lot of things, her name is Maya Abul-Hayat, she’s been translated in English and into various other languages. She does poetry, and prose, and um, it’s interesting to see how she works on those, um, between the lines, between poetry and prose. And there’s also Dalia Taha, who’s actually doing um, her uh, MFA at Brown University currently here in the States. She writes beautiful work, and also like Marwan Makhoul is one of the very good poets, he blends between spoken-word and performance and Arabic poetry, and uh, it’s, his poetry is very lively. I’ve read uh, I’ve read others who have also been here at the IWP who are doing a lot of good work with craft across the region and I really enjoy seeing their work develop over the years.
Merrill: I’m just going to repeat a question so I get it right, uh… We know very well here in the States the writings of Mahmoud Darwish and Taha Mohammed Ali. Are there other writers that we need to know from your part of the world. You don’t need to answer now, we’ll just, we’ll splice that in.
Merrill: Um, so Alice, before we wrap up this conversation I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now, and what you’re reading, and uh, any other recommendations you might have for our, for our listeners.
Yousef: Sure, uh, I’m currently working on my [something] my first collection of poetry. I’ve been developing a couple of poe- uh, I’ve had sort of started with it, and then left it alone for a while and now I feel like I’m going into a complete circle where I need to finish it and flesh out more material for it. Um, it’s uh, mixture of a lot of things, so it’s still taking shape, I’m not, haven’t completely figured it out, and the title keeps changing every few weeks, which is another thing, but uh, I think that will, by the end of the residency, and for the next few months I will be working primarily on that. I have a little bit of nonfiction here and there that I’ve also, have been writing for journals and uh, for consider- to be considered for publication. Uh, currently I’m reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luiz Zafon also, one of the very good books I would really recommend is A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, um, they’re both, um, not easy to read but um, each, each of the books has its own magic. A realm of its own magic, um, uh… For readings in general this year I also enjoyed reading, two particular books can jump into my mind. One of them is called The Hidden Light of Objects, it’s by Maya Naqib, it’s, um, fiction that covers uh, because we’ve been speaking about this, me and you now, for a while, it covers uh, the region of the Middle East, so it has stories from different countries, it’s a collection of short stories and it’s primarily written in English. And it’s been um, doing well on like the book charts. And it’s very interesting to read, because it reflects a lot of my background and it reflects a lot of issues, uh, with the constantly-changing Middle East. And the other book is, um, Hands Washing Water, it’s by Chris Abani, it’s a poetry collection that I’ve found very very touching and very inspiring to read, so I really enjoyed those and I hope other listeners and people will be able to enjoy them at some point too.
Merrill: Well, we enjoy your work too, so thank you so much Alice.
Yousef: Thank you for having me Chris. Thank you.
The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available October 15, 2017 on iTunes and SoundCloud where I talk with South African writer zp (Priya) Dala.