Thursday, August 11, 2011

Elmaz Abinader Interview

Published by the IMEU .

I had glimpsed Elmaz Abinader a couple of times during my visit to the building in Birzeit that the Palestine Writing Workshop and Palfest jointly share. Her dark curly hair moved enthusiastically as she spoke to her students around the makeshift table in the next room, fitting the lively astute character that one gets an impression from her blog posts on the Red Room online community website. Although Elmaz was born into a Lebanese family, she lived in the US her whole life. Most of her work (Children of the Roojme, a Family’s Journey from Lebanon, In the Country of my Dreams) centers on Arabs or Arab-Americans coping and dealing with antagonistic measures present in their daily lives. It was interesting to see where this particular theme fit within her experience of teaching for the first time in the occupied West Bank, and her perspective on the role of creative writing in Palestine.

You’re involved with VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation). Explain a bit about how the event pans out.
It happens every year, on the campus of Berkeley, and always the last week of June/first week of July. I was actually one of the founders. People have to apply for it. The workshops run for about two weeks, and each week is different. We have very famous writers of color teaching, and about five hundred people apply every year. We accept around one hundred and twenty applicants. Some of them stay in residency where we have it, and they work on their writing for the entire week with a master teacher. We do a big reading at the end. Yeah it’s very special.

What are the tips or advice that you found most helpful?
What happens in the standard American society is that people of color become exoticized. Some people look at their themes, their topics and their stories and think “oh how unusual, how different.” So the actual work on their writing never gets done. This kind of perspective gets in the way. So at VONA we say “ok, we’re all writers of color and we all have these special types of stories, now let’s get to working.” So it gives them a better opportunity to get the development in their writing.

Have you ever travelled to a different country to teach a workshop?
I taught at Egypt for one year [as a Fulbright scholar]. I had a wonderful time there. I’ve mostly taken my performances out of the country. People get in touch with me that way and learn about me through their questions. I spend a lot of time talking to journalists, teachers, radio and television people.

Has there been a particular environment that you found difficult to teach in?
There are different ways that environments can be good and different ways that they can be difficult. For instance in Egypt, it was difficult because students were oriented to tests. So the idea of a classroom discussion, the idea of free thinking, was very hard for them to grasp. I would tell them a story about my life and they’d ask if that was going to be on the test. On the other hand, they were so enthusiastic and open. They were also very easy to teach. Everything has a particular kind of challenge and a particular kind of advantage.

Have you ever worked with disadvantaged youth or minorities?
I don’t really work with youth that much. I mostly work with university students, adults about creative writing and the theories of teaching creative writing. I teach people so that they can in turn teach or work. My university is located in a town called Oakland which is a very integrated place, and I have a project there. Many of the people of color there are not serviced well (the public school system is not that great), so my graduate students go out to the different populations in the city and offer them writing workshops.

Where did you hear about the Palestine Writing Wprkshop? Explain how your workshop- the Writer Cultivator training worked.
[Palestinian-American poet] Suheir Hammad connected me with [the founder], and it went from there. [For the training] we had three different parts to it. One part was I approached the students as writers. I did exercises and activities that showed different approaches to pulling their writing out of them, (even though they are all well-known published writers here in Palestine) yet there’s always another way to go about your writing. And then I approached them as teachers, and I asked them how they planned on going to a population of a particular age they’ve never met before and teach them how to do creative writing, and what they can find inside themselves that makes them good teachers. The final part the students went to teach at four different refugee camps – Jalazon, Qalandiya, Qaddoura, and the Am’ari. Then they would come back to report to me and we would analyze the way their classes went, how they can prepare for their next class, what the sequence of classes needs to be, etc. Their students (the refugee girls) are going to have a celebration at Sakakini Cultural Center, a big reading on July 30th. I’m not going to be here!

There’s a lot of talk about creative economy. How sustainable do you think that will be, particularly in its creative writing form here in Palestine?
I think the possibility is huge, but the steps are going to be small. First of all, you have a very strong literary community. There are key literary figures like Walid Abu-Bakr and venues like the Sakakini Center. The key figures are the strong pillars of the literary community here, and they recognize this need, along with the Palestine Writing Workshop’s philosophy and mission, to create this need. I think you’re going to get a lot of writers and you’re going to get a lot of classes, but the transition to getting publishers and editors is going to be the difficult part. You can send foreigners in here to teach, but you have to create your own publishing industry, it has to be interior money. The job will be to make it so spectacular that people can’t ignore it, like the music scene here, and then when people can’t ignore it they’d want a piece of it.

Are you aware of any writing communities here in Ramallah/West Bank?
Other than PWW and Palfest? No, I just met individual writers and they all seemed to know each other. On Wednesdays we have our classes at La Vie. Last week it was over at 4pm, and my students hung around, they didn’t leave. I left, but they went into the garden and started doing writing exercises with each other. It was so nice. They took advantage of the moment of being together –there were six of them here—and when I came back someone told me that the last student just left. People are hungry for that establishment of community. I have that back at home, where I have five people come over, and we sit and write, then break for lunch, then go back to working on our stuff.

Do you think that writing especially in oppressed societies is used as an outlet to escape one’s reality or as a platform to convey to others what they endure on a daily basis?
One of the things that literature can do is all of those things, but it is better, for me at least, if they do it through narrative and poetic forms. For instance, I know more about World War One from good stories I’ve read and films I’ve seen. When you see peoples’ lives inside a political situation and they tell a story, whether it be a love story or a story about their garden, everything has got to do with how often they’re going to see their lover or how much water their garden needs respectively. In this way literature actually corrects history by bringing it to the people level off of the government level. One problem with getting Palestinian literature outside of Palestine is that you need a range of voices, not just one person or a character that people come to rely on as representing the story of Palestine. We need a variety of voices, for them to be complex and complicated and not always about the political situation, but about everything such as whatever people are dreaming about. I learned the most about Palestinian literature by talking to Walid [Abubakr]. He gave me a really good perspective on who the uppercomers are, and the dearth of writers of the last generation.

What has been the most striking aspect of your current crop of students?
They’re very smart. One of the things I always say in my teaching world is as soon as I stop learning from teaching I will stop teaching. These writers are so creative and so smart and even though they needed some guidance on how to teach, as soon as the door was opened they just took off. They’re also so sweet, offering to take me places on my first day here. I feel like I’ve made friends even though I’m a hundred years older than everybody.

How important is the potential in creative writing in society under occupation?
I think it’s where the most potential is. In the mainstream societies they’ve written themselves into a corner. I feel like I’m reading the same crap over and over. One of the things I’ve fantasized about was creative writing teaching articles, and teachers and creative writers throughout the world would show for example how a story from Palestine and a story from Sri Lanka can have a dialogue in a classroom. Because we have online capabilities, we can go global. There’s a kind of democracy to it that the publishing industry never had, which also means that the crazies can get through [laughs].

Your upcoming memoir The Water Cycle deals with the shaky concept of identity and cultural relationships. Did you feel as a child/teenager that you had to compromise a part of you in order to fit in? Or was it mainly confusion?
My whole childhood. My family lived in a town where there were no other people of color. The pressure to be part of the society, to look like part of the society, act like part of the society, to hide things about our home life was enormous. It was that time in American history where people were ‘assimilationists’, and so my name was changed when I went to school to Alma-Ann, I was dyed blond for a wedding, there were all kinds of pressure. But of course the more you push something the more it pushes back. My Arab ties would be stronger if I spoke Arabic, but I believe that I feel as much part of the Arab diasporic literary community as I do in the American literary community.

What has been the best thing you’ve learned from your students so far?
The best thing I’ve learned from my students is that you can write under any conditions. One of my students was teaching at the Sakakini Center. Her family arrives, she picks up her baby, and she continues teaching. There’s a hunger to be heard.
Writers in the US including myself are always saying I don’t have time I don’t have the space I need to be spoiled but people here have to go through checkpoints, and wait for all kinds of crap before they get to sit down and do their writing.



    joan hoffman
    clearwater, nebraska

  2. i had met and interviewed almas abinader when she had visited riyadh, saudi arabia, as a guest of the u.s. embassy. my interview of ehr was published in the Arab News newspaper, Riyadh. I would like to get in touch with her. She had given me a book of her inspiring poems. I have misplaced it and would love to get another copy. My contact is: RAINA Abu Zafar, Senior Lecturer, English Literature, Imam Mohammad bin Saud university, Riyadh. KSA and Freelance Journalist. email:
    Looking forward to a quick response.