The Ofi Press Magazine

International Poetry and Literature from Mexico City

Interview: Ibtisam Barakat


Ibtisam Barakat:  ابتسام بركات is a Palestinian-American bilingual poet, artist, and the author of TASTING THE SKY, a PalestinianChildhood, which won numerous awards and honors and is now available in several languages including Spanish under the title: Saboreando el cielo (Bambu). Her new memoir, BALCONY ON THE MOON, Coming of Age in Palestine will be published on October 25, 2016 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux-Macmillan. For more information on the author, visit website at

Interview by Jack Little (UK/Mexico) 

Published in The Ofi press issue 50 

Photo by Steve Fisch.

1. How do your experiences of freedom and oppression impact upon your work?

Freedom and oppression play with my work like thunder plays with lightening. Lightening leaps in all the unexpected corners of the sky in eternal levity. Thunder, the clash between negative and positive, between freedom and oppression, creates the spark.

Both experiences of freedom and the absence of freedom are ink for the storm of poetry. They  enrich my pens and papers and the poet in me and the poet everywhere. 

I do not see freedom and oppression as inherently different experiences in nature, but as names of degrees of the same experience. Life is a massively rich continuum. Sometimes freedom, when one is not educated about how to navigate it is self-destructive, dangerous and self-oppressive also. Sometimes what a person calls freedom another person calls something else. Sometimes the same person experiences the very same conditions as freedom or the opposite. If one looks with their eyes at an object it is different from looking at the same object through the Hubble telescope. Poetry is the Hubble telescope of languages. 

2. As a bilingual writer, do Arabic and English function with different roles in your creative endeavors?

Arabic is what my heart speaks. English is what my mind speaks. They are in a constant conversation all day long. Arabic wants English to have more and more poetry. English wants Arabic to have more and more linear logic. Even though Arabs gave the world the Arabic numbers, Arabs continue to celebrate the oral tradition of poetry that mixes nuances of meaning, nuances of sound, inner seeing, and great intuition and mysticism. Even though poetry as a genre has become less prominent in the Arab world at this time, affording more prominence to the genre of the novel, the collective poetic sense of the Arab world now thrives in the massive celebration of the art of “song”. In my world, Arabic and English live together and need each other like the day needs the night to continue to be day, and the night needs the day to continue to shine with its stars. I love them from my beginnings and this love grows daily. I wrote a poem about them called Alphabets of my Heart. The two languages got married and the “zero of the Arabic numbers is the ring they wear on their fingers.”


3. When writing, to what extent do you feel that you have to guard your vulnerabilities from the world? To what extent, in your opinion, can sharing vulnerability add to works of literature?

Vulnerability is by definition is an ABILITY. So the vulnerable areas are the terrains that require special attention. If I am vulnerable somewhere, millions of people are vulnerable in the same place. The writer often leads by pointing with her or his pen to the pain. And often people don’t want to know about the pain and deny it until finding an insight about how to deal with it. The writer that I am hopes to find medicine by writing, not only point to the pain. Medicine is the number one demand for healing humanity’s many wounds. And humanity has many kinds of wounds demanding many kinds of responses. Word medicine shares its roots with poetry. Everyone knows how one word and a person’s entire being changes. A person can live for months on a powerfully nourishing word. And “I love you” perhaps saves more human lives than does penicillin.


4. What role does faith have in your creative process?

Faith is close kin to fate for the artist. What artist can create anything without faith that they will complete the work and there will be a place for it in the world? Art forever will be built on faith in the unknown, on following the guidance of the “muses” i.e. the uncontrollable inspiration.  Even those who have no “religion” need faith in order to be able to create without assurance of an outcome. Faith simply means trust in the power that gives us ourselves, our arts, our insights, our hope, our experiences. The name for that power differs from person to person, but it remains the same in its larger nature. We are a species that does not agree one hundred percent where it came from or where it is going. There are many theories about that, but only faith can get us to transcend the fear associated with an immense amount of not knowing. Faith and fear are like an acid and a base in chemistry. They neutralize each other. I think we need both of faith and fear. They too are like freedom and oppression, they exist on a continuum.


5. What do you consider to be the strongest marker of your identity?

First my general identity -- like other word artists I am known for  my immense love of language. This love is a prominent feature of myself. Through words I find solutions to non-word problems. Words are my friends and playmates in a massive playground. I find great joy in even the smallest word when I give it my full attention and converse with it.

For my specific identity the big markers are the extremes that are united by my personal world. For example, I grew up under occupation, with severe absence of human rights, then moved to America where compared to my early years, I might as well be living on another galaxy. Also being an author in two languages because a huge amount of diversity exists within me that more than one language has to be used. I feel there are many tribes and cultures and histories that live in the massive unconscious of a human being. For me one language is not enough to represent all that goes on, and would leave a voice feeling not represented. I am like countries that have more than one national language.

Also a strong marker of my “identity” is that I am willing to think that humans are much bigger than any identity. Identities are experiences and knowledge and practices and abilities and groupings, and points of identification. . . Often than not identities can become cages if forced to remain closed. At times social identities thrive on artificial differences and separations. I think identities are there to be celebrated and also simultaneously transcended and expanded for the person to become what they are meant to become. Perhaps our identity is like us, always becoming something new . . . 


6. Do you believe that literature can 'make a difference'?

Why write even one word if one believes that literature does not make a difference. I believe that literature makes a magnificent difference. At times it is the reason people live. . . The generosity of other writers, ancient or present, when I need a word that I cannot find, a word that can open the gate of a world, at a key moment, is what saves my day . . . In the past other people’s writings saved my hope and potential for happiness.. saved my path . . . 

I rely on books when I am down and cannot come up with my own inspiration . . . and as I write and share my creative work with the world I do so in the same spirit of generosity. . I aim to share in that tradition . . . People I never met gave me some of the most important tools and moments of my life through their writings . . . I aspire to uphold this beautiful tradition of writers: Strangers giving their most intimate thoughts to strangers to make the experience of existing less strange and this place called life, more of a home. 

Here is an example: After I wrote my first memoir, TASTING THE SKY, many readers wrote to tell me that my work affects them strongly. One woman who studies nursing in America sent me a picture of a line from my book tattooed on her arm. "Alf knows that a thread of a story stitches together a wound." As a nurse working with stitching wounds, she wanted that line from my book to be part of her body forever. In my wildest dreams I would not have ever thought I would receive such feedback from a reader. But life and literature show us that we know only little about the beauty of ourselves, of others, and how literature lights up the path like stars on the pages. And we gaze into the mystery and learn. 

So these words are directed to any writer who wonders if there voice is important: Please write, create what only you can create, and share that art with others. Someone out there is waiting for your exact expression. So you are not only writing for you. You are writing for others who must find your words to go on. Don’t wait for “success” to happen and give you the green light. The very act of writing and giving the words to others is the small opening of the door that will become bigger with more writing and more readers. And if you don’t get feedback quickly from others remember this: How many people stop to tell a flower that it is beautiful? They see it and think it. They are moved forward by it and go on silently. The artist and the art are this eternal flower.