Decolonizing Our Tongues: Interview with Lebanese Canadian Writer Hanan HazimeWritten by Chelby Daigle
Muslim Link interviewed the poet, writer and arts educator about her work and the challenges of writing authentically as a Muslim woman in Canada today.
Tell us about yourself
I’m a Lebanese-Canadian Shia Muslimah. I was born in London, Ontario, grew up in Windsor, and now live in Toronto with my Irish-Newfoundlander husband, Shae Yusuf Stamp.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? What role did writing play in your early life?
As a child, long before being acquainted with writing, I loved to tell stories; fantastical tales constantly streamed from my vivid imagination and I loved sharing these stories with my family and friends. My parents thought that I was too attached to my fantasy world and they’d frequently remind me to get my head out of the clouds and focus on real life, but “real” life was so dull and colourless compared to my imaginary adventures so I continued to share my stories with whoever or whatever would listen. There’s no better audience than the trees; they always listened to my stories without judgement.
Having grown up in an Arabic-speaking household, I was fairly behind on my English language skills. It wasn’t until about the fourth grade that I finally had a good enough grasp on the language to start reading and writing comprehensibly. I was an avid reader; I devoured books. Throughout elementary school, I read about 10 books (usually novels) per week. So, emulating the styles and techniques that my favourite authors used, I began to pen my own stories. Eventually, I was writing at such an advanced level that some of my teachers began to accuse me of plagiarism. Once they were certain that the writing was indeed my own, those same teachers then became my biggest champions. I was told that I had a “gift” and “talent” for writing and was encouraged by my teachers to pursue writing as a career. Prior to that, I had only thought of writing as a fun pastime, but I took their words to heart and began to envision myself as a prolific author.
You actually studied Creative Writing at the Masters Level. Tell us about that experience. Would you recommend it for aspiring writers?
Yes! My time in graduate school was an enriching and fun experience which pushed me to think more critically about creative writing. Also, I had amazingly brilliant professors and talented peers who made the experience even more worthwhile. I absolutely loved it and would recommend it to aspiring writers who are academically inclined. I wouldn’t recommend it to aspiring writers who have no interest in studying literature and writing from a scholarly perspective. It’s important to note that my degree was a Masters of Arts (MA) not a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA). A Master of Arts program is more academic and is heavily geared towards theory and research whereas a MFA focuses on the development of fine writing skills. Unless you are a staunch lover of academia and/or plan on attaining a PhD, I would recommend pursuing a MFA or taking community workshops to hone your writing skills.
Tell us your novella "Rosewater". How did you come up with the idea for it? What were some of the challenges you experienced writing these stories?
For my creative writing graduate thesis, I wrote "Rosewater", a novella featuring two strong Muslimah protagonists (Zahra and Aaliyah), and a critical essay analyzing the novella. I am working on expanding the stories in Rosewater into a full-length novel and publishing it in order to give other Muslim women an opportunity to see themselves represented in literature, and to give the general populace the opportunity to understand just how diverse and heterogeneous the experiences of Muslim women are.
The novella largely stemmed from stories, ideas, themes, and characters that had been brewing in my head for years — stories that up until that point, I had been too scared to voice for fear of being misunderstood, attacked or ridiculed. While "Rosewater" is a work of fiction, many of the subplots and events that occur throughout the novella are based in fact. There are instances throughout the novella which mirror events that have actually occurred either in my life or in the lives of women in my community. For example, the incident where Aaliyah and her grandmother almost get run over by a car was inspired by a true story that happened to me when I was that age. My mother, my brother, and I were targeted by a man at a stoplight because he viewed my mother’s hijab to be a symbol of terrorism. The childhood bullying Aaliyah experiences is largely inspired by bullying that I and other minority students had to deal with growing up. Anecdotes and folktales passed on to me by my mother, grandmother, and aunts were another source of inspiration for the novella. I drew from their tales to craft Zahra’s story. Initially, I was only going to write Aaliyah’s story, but I felt that I needed to show the origins of the Lebanese cultural practices she struggles with, to show how sexist and misogynistic traditions, oppressive ideas, and traumatic experiences are passed down from generation to generation and across continents.
Why do you feel there is a need for more Canadians who are both Arab, Muslim and Female to write? What are some of the unique realities of being an Arab Muslim woman in Canada that you feel need to be explored in fiction ?
Stories can affect how we live our lives, how we view others, and how we think about ourselves. “There’s this body of research and a term known as ‘symbolic annihilation,’ which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant” (Nicole Martins). Literature about Arab-Muslimahs would send a clear message to those Muslimahs: you matter, and you deserve to be part of the Canadian narrative. In all my years of education, not once did I encounter a single story, poem, essay or piece of writing by an Arab-Muslimah or a Muslimah period. It is imperative that we as Muslimahs write these stories and make sure that they become part of the literary canon so that one day, inshaAllah, literature written by Muslimahs will be found on syllabi across the nation. The experiences of Muslimahs is not monolithic, and so it is important to have works by a diverse range of Muslimahs. As I am an Arab-Muslimah, more specifically a Lebanese-Shia-Muslimah, I can only speak of my own lived experiences. There are of course, parallels and similarities between my experiences as a Lebanese-Canadian Muslimah versus other Canadian Muslimahs’ experiences, however, there are also many experiences and struggles that are unique to my identity both as a marginalized Shia Muslim, and as an Arabic-speaking person of Lebanese descent.
What has been the reaction of other Arab Muslim women to your writing?
Generally, it has been very positive. I’ve had some Muslimahs tell me that they have never related so well to a story or set of characters or that they were very moved by my writing. Unfortunately, there have also been some Muslimahs who reacted adversely because they believe I shouldn’t “air our dirty laundry” or explore controversial issues like female sexuality.
Tell us about your work as an arts educator.
For the past year or so, I have been facilitating and instructing a variety of creative writing workshops. As a member of the Toronto Writers Collective, I have facilitated many fiction and poetry writing workshops across Toronto. I’ve also worked with Toronto’s East End Arts as a poetry performer and a poetry workshop facilitator. In the summer of 2017, I received a $5000 grant from ArtReach to develop, organize, and facilitate "Poetry ReRooted: Decolonizing Our Tongues", a multilingual creative writing workshop for Muslimahs. At the end of the workshop, I compiled, edited, and published a poetry chapbook for the workshop participants and assisted them in organizing a chapbook launch and poetry night. I recently facilitated a series of poetry workshops at the Toronto Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Currently, I am the Literary Artist in Residence and Literary Arts Instructor at Workman Arts in Toronto. In addition to working on my own writing, I provide mentorship to aspiring/emerging writers. I also teach a weekly Experimental Literature course in which we explore various writing techniques using both poetry and prose.
You have run poetry workshops for women who speak other languages than English. What was this important to you?
While completing my graduate creative writing thesis, I discovered that Standard English wasn’t adequate enough to fully capture the cultural nuances I wished to convey through my writing. I began exploring linguistic techniques that would better allow me to express my experiences in an authentic way. Such techniques include codeswitching (switching between dialects), glossing (providing a parenthetical translation of non-English terms), and syntactic fusion (merging English and non-English terms to create hybrid terms). These techniques enabled me to privilege my mother tongue over English. I created the "Poetry ReRooted" workshop series because I wanted to pass this knowledge on to other bilingual or polylingual Muslimah writers who might be undergoing a similar struggle.
You are currently working on a poetry collection aimed at challenging myths about mental illness. Tell us about this project and why you feel this is a topic that it's important to explore.
Yes, I have been working on a poetry collection with my husband called "Chiaroscuro" in which we hope to challenge stereotypes and myths about mental illness from both an Eastern and Western perspective. As you can imagine, it is not an easy topic to write about so working on the collection has been quite arduous. InshaAllah though, once the book is complete it will help facilitate conversation about mental illness. Unfortunately, mental illness is still heavily stigmatized in Canada as whole, and in the Muslim-Canadian community especially. As someone who struggles with mental health, I think It’s important to bring these issues to the forefront and to talk about them in an open and frank manner. That is the only way that change can happen.
I recently received a grant from OAC to write a bildungsroman (or coming-of-age) young adult novel about a Canadian Muslimah who struggles with mental illness. I believe that having a protagonist who leads a typical teenaged life while dealing with a mental health challenges will have a great impact on Muslim youth who might also be undergoing similar struggles, and who might not previously have had a character they could relate to. The novel will also enlighten all readers about the lives of Muslim-Canadians and about the challenges of living with a mental illness.
How do you decide if you want to explore a topic in prose or poetry?
Poetry for me is more like a momentary snapshot of a single image, or emotion, while prose is a much longer film reel of stories. The English poet Wordsworth claims that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. I would certainly say that is very true for me. While the process of writing poetry can at times be a conceptual or intellectual exercise, it is usually deeply embedded in the emotional realm. Prose, on the other hand usually occupies a theoretical or conceptual space. I write prose to explore broader themes and ideas. I write poetry to explore feelings and images.
What support would you like to see more Muslim Canadians give to creative writers within our communities?
Whether by showing up to our events, or by purchasing our books, or by directly funding our writing through grants and scholarships, or by providing us with safe spaces to gather and workshop our writing and hold literary events and retreats, I would love to see more Muslim-Canadians providing financial support and mentorship to creative writers.
To learn more about Hanan Hazime, visit her website
To read her novella "Rosewater" online, click here
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