Arab-Amer­i­can writers con­verge for lit­er­ary awards cer­e­mony

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE - Syma Mo­hammed

Adoc­tor who ex­ca­vates the dead on to the page and an English pro­fes­sor who muses whether po­ets can serve as jour­nal­ists are two of the writers who picked up prizes at this year’s Arab Amer­i­can Book Awards. The prizes, which were es­tab­lished in 2006 by the Arab Amer­i­can Na­tional Mu­seum in Michi­gan, high­light books writ­ten by and about Arab-Amer­i­cans.

This year, there are six win­ners, all of whom were hon­oured at an awards cer­e­mony at the mu­seum on Satur­day. First-time win­ner Fady Joudah – a poet, doc­tor and trans­la­tor – picked up the po­etry award for his fourth col­lec­tion, Foot­notes in the Or­der

of Dis­ap­pear­ance. Joudah, who was born in the United States and grew up across the Mid­dle East, said the prize “had a spe­cial mean­ing” as it helped him to “recog­nise my be­long­ing” to the Arab-Amer­i­can lit­er­ary di­as­pora.

“The prize for me is about cre­at­ing a lin­eage, or doc­u­ment, of Arab-Amer­i­can or Arab-an­glo­phone writers and thinkers. It’s not about the noise or splash it is able to make, but about be­long­ing to a com­mu­nity that ob­vi­ously doesn’t go away, and will not go away.”

Read­ing Joudah’s col­lec­tion is an emo­tional jour­ney. There are many heart-rend­ing, ten­der, sad and beau­ti­ful mo­ments. After Wine is one such poem. It was writ­ten in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Syr­ian-Kur­dish poet Golan Haji and speaks of a for­mer crush be­ing sud­denly killed by a bomb: “Faces of the dead on Face­book will wait for your walk home. A woman who awak­ened your first lust when you were a kid was killed in the morn­ing while talk­ing to her sis­ter on the phone. First a blast then still­ness.”

In the poem 38, 7, 31, 4,

Joudah re­calls watch­ing news footage about what ap­pears to be a mas­sacre and his par­ents re­coil­ing, in­ti­mat­ing they may have ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing sim­i­lar: “My par­ents stand­ing in a si­lence that drove them out of / the room as if they’d watched their bod­ies de­com­pose.”

Bod­ies, whether they are liv­ing, sick, dead or de­com­pos­ing, lit­ter the col­lec­tion. What drives him to write in such de­tail about such hor­rific ex­pe­ri­ences, and so in­tri­cately about the phys­i­cal body? Joudah is prag­matic.

“Once we recog­nise we are go­ing to die in our bod­ies, and be­cause of them, it be­comes re­ally an ob­ses­sion. So much of life falls into that: love, de­sire, grief, hav­ing chil­dren or not hav­ing chil­dren, pos­ses­sion, ma­te­ri­al­ism. It’s all in the body. It’s hard for us hu­mans to escape that – we can’t get out of the phys­i­cal body.”

But Joudah isn’t afraid to get spir­i­tual, too, and not only with Is­lam. His po­ems deal with re­li­gions from around the world. It is, in part, he says, a re­sult of see­ing the in­ter­con­nected world his chil­dren must now nav­i­gate.

“For me, it’s part of Arab cul­ture. It doesn’t mat­ter what re­la­tion­ship you have to re­li­gion. If you go through the book, these kind of things pop up un­ex­pect­edly. The Scream has a ref­er­ence to Abel and Cain.

Blood­line is a poem that speaks with Jews. Al­most Your Life has a ref­er­ence to Mus­lims. Corona

Ra­di­ata is a mys­tic poem in a

Sufi style,” he says. “It’s about us reach­ing the mo­ment we are able to read one another’s work and re­al­is­ing how much her­itage, tra­di­tions and his­tory we share.”

Philip Me­tres, who has won the po­etry prize twice be­fore, is joint win­ner of the non­fic­tion award for his col­lec­tion of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, The Sound of Lis­ten­ing: Po­etry as Refuge and Re­sis­tance. Me­tres is an English pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of the Peace, Jus­tice and Hu­man Rights pro­gramme at John Car­roll Univer­sity in Ohio.

He was “re­ally grate­ful” he had won an award for the book, which weaves to­gether a decade of his es­says. “This book is not al­ways the kind that gets a lot of at­ten­tion, yet I was hop­ing that it says some­thing that is per­ti­nent to our present mo­ment, draws upon our past and points to a fu­ture out of our cur­rent age of great panic and apoc­a­lyp­tic con­cern,” he says.

Me­tres, who is orig­i­nally from Le­banon, wrote the book due to a fas­ci­na­tion of po­etry’s “mean­ings and pos­si­bil­i­ties”.

“The book is a se­ries of en­gage­ments with ask­ing what is po­etry for, is it nec­es­sary, and if so how?”

One of the es­says that is close to Me­tres’s heart is about cel­e­brated poet Khalil Gi­bran, who came from the same town as his great-grand­mother and vis­ited his fam­ily home in the 1920s. Re­flect­ing on the piece, Me­tres said that when­ever his work re­ceived recog­ni­tion, he felt he had “hon­oured my an­ces­tors who made a real jour­ney here, made a life here, and didn’t for­get where they came from”.

A re­cur­rent theme in Me­tres’s book and his work in gen­eral is us­ing po­etry to el­e­vate “un­heard voices”.

“Po­etry, for me, has been a ve­hi­cle to lis­ten to voices that are not al­ways heard,” he said. “In works like Sand Opera I was work­ing with the tes­ti­monies of Iraqi pris­on­ers who were abused in Abu Ghraib. Po­etry of­fers a space for voices that are not al­ways am­pli­fied by the pow­er­ful.”

Sim­i­larly, his new po­etry col­lec­tion, Shrap­nel Maps, takes on Pales­tine and Is­rael. “I had many late nights think­ing about this one, and I de­cided if I’m go­ing to say some­thing, I’m go­ing to say it now, and I’ll try to say it in the best way I can,” he said. “There’s no wait­ing in life. You just have to take risks.”

One of the po­ems from Shrap­nel Maps is about the Is­raeli poet Ye­huda Amichai.Me­tres said he won­dered how Amichai, “in his great­ness, could not have seen Pales­tini­ans”. The poem was pub­lished at the end of the Oc­to­ber, and Me­tres said he was sur­prised that he had re­ceived more cri­tiques on the back­ground note at­tached to the poem than the poem it­self. He an­tic­i­pated hav­ing “re­ally in­ter­est­ing” con­ver­sa­tions about this book.

Look­ing more broadly at Arab-Amer­i­can po­etry, Me­tres said he was happy with its cur­rent tra­jec­tory. “In a Trump era, there’s a much broader en­gage­ment by peo­ple of colour in po­etry. Arab-Amer­i­can writers find them­selves along writers of colour, ar­tic­u­lat­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences,” he said.

“There’s this great mo­ment of recog­ni­tion and sol­i­dar­ity. Amer­i­can po­etry is now browner and more brave than it’s ever been.”

It’s about us be­ing able to read one another ’s work and re­al­is­ing how much her­itage, tra­di­tion and his­tory we share FADY JOUDAH Poet, doc­tor and trans­la­tor

Philip Me­tres is an English pro­fes­sor at John Car­roll Univer­sity of Ohio

Win­ner Fady Joudah says the prize has ‘a spe­cial mean­ing’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.