There Is a Country to Be Built: A Conversation with Jess Rizkallah, Winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize




LEBANESE-AMERICAN POET Jess Rizkallah’s the magic my body becomes is the inaugural winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize for a first or second book by a poet of Arab heritage, a series edited by Hayan Charara and Fady Joudah and published by the University of Arkansas Press. Here she and Carol N. Fadda discuss, among other things, Rizkallah’s practice, the space she occupies between two cultures, the role of the body, spoken word poetry, and Ms. Marvel. This is the second of two interviews focusing on this award and its meaning. Here is part one.

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CAROL N. FADDA: First, tell us a bit about your work and what this prize means to you.

JESS RIZKALLAH: I think, at this point in my life, my work springs from the conflicting space I’ve always occupied between being American and being Lebanese. I didn’t have the words for it until I was writing poetry long enough to confront the tension I felt. I was talking with my friend and fellow poet Emmanuel Oppong-Yeboah last spring, and he expressed the same feelings, but put them into words that helped me realize there is a lot to embrace in this space we occupy between two cultures, and how they clash in our psyches but also our bodies. I’ve always been interested in illustration and mixed media art, and that is reflected in the way I approach my writing. I am not interested in seamlessness, or one side of any binary. I’m always trying to unlearn those binaries. I like when languages and values and traditions clash on the page and on my tongue. I think there is a country to be built in this space that many diaspora kids are always trying to escape. I was shamed by both sides for so long — because my Arabic was never quite right, or my American assimilation was never quite on the mark — that I didn’t realize I could mosaic the pieces I have into something just as organic. This has also helped me reclaim my womanhood, which feels less like baggage and more like celebration the more I write about it. I’ve also always been fascinated by the surrealism of nebulous spirituality, and I feel that informing how I write about these things. Winning this prize feels so special, and I’m very thankful that Fady and Hayan believe in my writing and what I’m trying to navigate with it. It’s a new and warm feeling to be understood at first read in such a way. I’m honored my book gets to ring in this prize that will no doubt help bring diaspora Arabs together. I think a lot of us have felt kind of lonely for too long.

It’s so interesting to hear you talk about occupying and negotiating this space (between being American and Lebanese) and the tensions, as well as the possibilities, it yields — something that is such a compelling and recurring concern for many Arab-American writers. I love the image of building a country in this space of in-betweenness, rather than caving in to the pressures of choosing one side of the binary. This spatial element is provocative, and I found it stunningly pervasive in your poems. I was especially struck by the intimate descriptions of places, and how they’re woven into the poems — places like Sin el Fil and Deir el Qamar in Lebanon — and how memories of these places make up, and at the same time puncture the reality of American life. How does your relationship with the tensions of these places shape your poems, particularly in terms of point of view, perspective, voice, diction, et cetera?

My relationships with these places are half my own and half learned history. They’re very informed by stories from my family members. There are details that are always the same, then there are ones that come to the surface as time eases trauma. And then there are the physical artifacts that survived abrupt unhoming. Like, when they had under an hour to grab what they could from their house before fleeing, they almost forgot the photo albums. I hold objects like that in my hands and find myself fascinated by what residual energy must live inside them. I have my own vivid experiences in Lebanon from all my visits, but there is often a double exposure effect that descends on the landscape when I compare their experiences and mine. Their trauma versus my privilege. The deviations civil war made in the geography and how I don’t know any other Lebanon. Then there’s my family’s inherent Maronite faith versus the path I took in my own spirituality — I am so much of what they raised and always will be, yet how much of who I am now is a betrayal? Am I, too, a double exposure? I suppose that’s where poetry comes in, taking the place of both roadmap and prayer, yet staying in that realm’s diction, and then navigating all the implications of that. I’m sorry if that strayed in any way from what you were asking.

No, that’s so interesting, making me think of recent studies showing how our DNA carries memories from one generation to another. Your poems often use body imagery to depict psychological pain, separation, shame, alienation, et cetera. Can you talk a bit about the centrality of the body (especially Arab female bodies) in your poems?

There are always critical lenses on the body, but writing about it must be a way to reclaim the body. We’re not our bodies, but they’re grafted into our self-perceptions, so we might as well rewrite what we’ve been taught to hate into whatever we need it to be — a weapon, a landscape, something supernatural. For some Arab/Middle-Eastern women, there are more consequences for resistance, since you’re carrying your history on your back, too. But viewing your body however you choose is revolutionary, too. I think the centrality of the body in many meditations of Arab/Middle-Eastern women owes to the fact that both ancestry and patriarchy lay claim to it. Being an Arab/Middle-Eastern woman means you’re told more explicitly that your body doesn’t belong to you. If you talk about this in mixed company, your people tell you that you’re only giving ammunition to American racists who want to ignore what their culture does more seamlessly.

Speaking of writing and rewriting the body, how do you think your poems take on a different life when you perform them, compared to their published form?

I think about this a lot because of the assumptions many people make about spoken word poetry, which I’ve found to have a very earnest community that I’m so grateful for. Before I’m set to perform, I’m honest with myself about where my energy is, and that’s where I read the poems from. Maybe when they’re on the page they settle into a specific emotion and call out to the other ones. I know where the poem originated, but where it lives in my body depends on the day. Of course, there will always be lines that I’m attached to, which I make sure to deliver in a very specific way. Usually these are lines that continue to hurt even after the rest of the poem has healed me.

Can you give us some examples?

“staple this to my dental records” remains an urgent poem to me, especially the last section. When I use those swear words, I try to channel the inflections Arab men have used against me or the women in my life, or when speaking about women in general in the media, et cetera:

sometimes no one asks me for my name, they just call me

“shlike”

slut

“sharmuta”

stupid bitch

“t’obrini”

my love, bury me

“habibi”                        my sweet

or            “farhet areece”                        better luck next time, she’ll make a husband so happy one day

that bullshit notion that i’ll always be the sound from a man’s mouth

when he decides to change my name…

I wrote that after I heard a Lebanese man say that his wife told him she wanted to keep her last name. He told her, if she wanted to do that, she could go live with her father. I leaned over to a family member and said, “Don’t worry, I’m keeping our last name.” And they said, “No, you can’t, that’s not the way it is, I’m sorry.” Actually, that is the way it is. It’s my name. I’m not sorry.

Another poem I usually perform very deliberately is “i am but im not,” because I’m not just sharing my own stuff, I’m talking about my family, too. It’s about the privilege I have, as someone who sometimes passes as a white girl but sometimes doesn’t, and all the situations that complicates in the space I live between Americans and Arabs. There’s a line in there — “I don’t look like most of my family, I look like the people who hurt my family” — and I carry that reminder with me.

You mentioned earlier that the Etel Adnan Prize can help bring diaspora Arabs together. Can you speak a bit about how you have been influenced by and connected to other Arab-American writers? How do you see a prize like this one continuing to shape these connections?

I met most of the MENA-American writers I know through the slam poetry community, because we were all looking for each other, writing through restlessness, throwing out transmissions, and hitting black holes. Since my book was selected for the Etel Adnan Prize, I’ve connected to a lot of other Arab-American writers who live in a different pocket of the writing community. I think they found each other a while ago, in the same way I found my friends last year. Discovering their writing has given me energy. Their ages range, but their arms stay wide open. I’m learning so much. There’s a lot of generational pressure in Arab culture, but I’m happy to learn that this is suspended in the Arab-American writing community. I can see this prize pulling together the satellites we’re scattered on until we all feel less out of orbit. (I really like outer space.)

Can you mention the names of some of these writers who inspire you?

George Abraham, Marwa Helal, Safia Elhillo, Noura Jaber, Zaina Alsous, Adam Hamze, Nader Helmy, Hazem Fahmy, Amir Safi, Aria Aber, Fady Joudah, Hayan Charara, Randa Jarrar, and a lot more. My social media is always filled with my friends’ writing. My bookshelves are filling, too. I love it.

Who are you reading these days?

I don’t know how to read one book at a time anymore. Between my readings for class, I’m enjoying Etel Adnan’s collected works, To look at the sea is to become what one is, Safia Elhillo’s The January Children, Hala Alyan’s Hijra, and Daniel Chamovitz’s What a Plant Knows. I always keep books by Ross Gay, Claudia Rankine, Ocean Vuong, Solmaz Sharif, Ada Limón, and Alejandra Pizarnik close by. And, of course, whatever volume of Ms. Marvel I’m catching up on — she is required revolutionary reading for empowered brown millennials trying to resist villainy (fascism) from where they are, caught between cultures. Now more than ever, given the current administration.

Any particular Ms. Marvel volume to recommend for the uninitiated?

Start right at the beginning with No Normal. I don’t know how not to be an emotional nerd about this, but I’ll just say that Kamala Khan’s story is relevant to everything I’ve been talking to you about, except she’s much cooler than me.

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Carol N. Fadda is from Beirut, Lebanon, and is currently associate professor of English at Syracuse University. She is the author of Contemporary Arab American Literature: Transnational Reconfigurations of Home and Belonging (NYU Press, 2014).


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