Nathalie Handal is an award-winning poet and playwright. In November 2011, she gave an exclusive interview by email to The Ofi Press. Please see below for her biography. (Photo credited to Ram Devineni).
Interview by Jack Little, UK/Mexico (Published in Issue 12)
1. Have you always wanted to work in the arts? What was your inspiration to become all the other things you are and have achieved today?
I have always been interested in imagination. The more I discover the more curious I am.
From early on I knew I would be in the creative world and since poetry was my first love, being a writer seemed predetermined. But imagine telling your parents at a young age that you want to be a poet—they think—great, my child has a hobby. With time, new collaborations with music, cinema, visual arts, and so forth, presented themselves and if intrigued, I allowed myself the journey. I am also a playwright—I love the stage.
I believe in the transformative power of art. I am interested in how art can create worlds without borders. Why should we live with so many borders? Why should one person have access to everything and not another?
2. What's the most beautiful thing that you have ever seen?
A sign in the old city of Bethlehem that says, Handal Stairs.
3. You recently went on a trip to Mexico... can you tell us more?
I have a special relationship with Mexico. A large part of my mother’s family immigrated to Mexico in the last century. They initially lived in the north—Torreon and Monterrey. Now they are spread throughout Mexico including D.F.
Mexico never ceases to tease. Its seductive quality is wondrous. It takes the small breaths inside of you and creates a universe. One that takes you to spaces where colors are the silent voices of those you can’t see. Those who keep your stories and the stories history hides. Mexico City is one of my favorite places. It intrigues a part of me that’s quietly chaotic. The shadows of Frida behind random trees, the Zócalo, the old cantina, the painted skull, the food stalls and roaming vendors. The city is a surrealist painting breathing. It revels its strangeness to you only to become stranger in the most captivating way. I am hooked. A few years ago on one of my trips, I stayed for a few months in an old Mexican house in Colonia Roma, a few minutes from Casa Lamm, and although the project I was working on didn’t come to function, I am currently finishing what I wrote while there (hint, the Tlatelolco massacre, Ginsberg and…)
Of course, Mexico has already appeared numerous times in my works—even a love poem like “Javier” in my book Love and Strange Horses, Mexico City is at the pulse of the poem.
4. As an influential woman of Arabic descent, do you feel responsibility towards the advocation of women's rights both in the Middle East and globally?
Society cannot evolve without the equality of women. We are all responsible for making sure that women and children are safe, are given their rights. We are all connected although we tend to be focused only in our small worlds—what happens in a remote village affects us even if we aren’t aware of how.
I want to be more actively involved in helping abused women. I also want to become more knowledgeable about trees and their preservation. Trees are one of my great passions—when two thousand year old trees are uprooted—as has happened in the Bethlehem and its vicinities—it is tragic.
5. Could you tell us about your forthcoming collection Poet in Andalucía?
I recreated Federico García Lorca’s journey in reverse. As I wrote in the preface: He lived in Manhattan from 1929 to 1930, and the poetry he wrote about the city, Poet in New York, was posthumously published in 1940. Eighty years after Lorca’s sojourn in America, and myself a poet in New York, I went to Spain to write Poet in Andalucía. Lorca left as part of his legacy a longing for homeland. My own longing stretches across four continents, due to a life made exilic by the political turmoil in the Middle East. His poems are about discovering a lost self. The poems in this collection confront that same loss and resonate with that same yearning for a sustaining place. The collection explores the persistent tragedy of otherness, but it also acknowledges a refusal to remain in that stark darkness, and it searches for the possibility of human coexistence.
At the heart of this book is what Lorca said, “Lo que más me importa, es vivir.” On this journey, I discovered peace is there if we want to find it, because as was true for Lorca, what people want most is to live.
The book has been translated into Spanish. I hope it will be published soon.
6. How does your work as a teacher and university professor help you as a writer? Do you find it hard to find a balance between work and finding time to write?
I have a rhythm. I travel a lot so when I am home, I wake up very early—five or six in the morning. I am most creative in the mornings and the rest of the time, I enjoy my solitude. And I am constantly writing, either on the page or in my head.
As for teaching, if you start, you probably never stop. It is a space where everyone is learning—an exchange that can change one’s life.
7. Where do you call home?
I wish I could answer this question with one word. There is home and there is homeland.
My family comes from Bethlehem. It is my homeland even if it is not what it once was. I will never stop believing in Jerusalem and Bethlehem reuniting – no wall between them. Sister-cities. I will never stop believing in that version of the Holy Land where different gods and people exist together.
Home is in cities. I love cities. My two homes, Paris and New York. But I always return to the Mediterranean—I need that landscape. And of course, Latin America is another home. My parents live in the Dominican Republic. It’s impossible not to be constantly longing for a different place because the people I love are scattered globally and things that are essential to me don’t exist in just one place. I feel fortunate even if at times I feel a terrible void.
8. Do you have any advice for your aspiring writers?
Writing is dedication. Know you want this life and do whatever it takes.
It’s not a hobby.
Nathalie Handal has lived in Europe, the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Arab world. She is the author of numerous books including Love and Strange Horses, winner of the 2011 Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award, and an Honorable Mention at the San Francisco Book Festival and the New England Book Festival. The New York Times says it is “a book that trembles with belonging (and longing).” She is the editor 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 co-editor of the landmark anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond, called a “beautiful achievement for world literature” by Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. She has been involved either as a writer, director or producer in over twenty theatrical or film productions worldwide, most recently her work was produced at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Bush Theatre and Westminster Abbey in London. Handal is a Lannan Foundation Fellow, a Fundación Araguaney Fellow, recipient of the Alejo Zuloaga Order in Literature 2011, and an Honored Finalist for the Gift of Freedom Award. She was listed as one of the “100 Most Powerful Arab Women 2011” in a Special Report by ArabianBusiness.com. She has read her poetry worldwide, has been featured on PBS The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NPR Radio as well as The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Reuters, Mail & Guardian, The Jordan Times and Il Piccolo; and her work has been translated into more than fifteen languages. She teaches and lectures nationally and internationally, recently in Africa and as Picador Guest Professor, Leipzig University, Germany. She is currently a professor at Columbia University and part of the MFA Faculty at Sierra Nevada College. She writes the blog-column, The City and The Writer for Words without Borders magazine. Alice Walker praised Poet in Andalucía as “poems of depth and weight and the sorrowing song of longing and resolve.” www.nathaliehandal.com
Rattappallax Magazine & Film (Short film on Poet in Andalucía)
POSTCARDS FROM KABUL: NATHALIE HANDAL
A Film by Ram Devineni on Bomb Magazine:
Brokenmusic (Poetry Film) & PBS NewsHour Feature: