Nonfiction reader Sidra Ansari recently interviewed nonfiction writer Joumana Al Tallal about her piece “The Long Middle” which appears in Issue #51. Here is what Joumana has to say about love of one’s home country, loss, matters of the heart and being an Iraqi woman in America.
We thought this was an intimate, thoughtful and timely piece of writing. And it gets better every time it’s read. How long did it take to finish? How many drafts did you go through to get to the final piece?
Thank you, that really means a lot! This piece was actually my first journey into the world of creative nonfiction. I’ve been writing poetry for as long as I can remember, but I went through a period during my MFA where I began feeling like I couldn’t be as honest with my work as I needed to be. For some reason, writing in essay form allowed me a certain kind of permission that I was struggling to find in my own poetry. This piece began in a workshop with the brilliant Aisha Sabatini-Sloan (and was based on several prompts and readings centering on coincidence) and then continued to develop with me for a few months after. In total, I went through three drafts before I got to the final, or at least the “final” that allowed me step back from the hurt and focus on structure and form.
You talk about the long middle of loving something… You’ve lost your country and maybe even the man you love. How did you come upon writing about this topic of love and loss?
For me, love and loss have always been interlinked. The loss of a country was the first kind of loss I experienced, and it seemed to be interminable. My parents fled Kuwait, then Iraq, then Lebanon, before finally arriving to the United States in 2003. I grew up overhearing phone calls about relatives being killed or passing away and then watching as my parents attempted to grieve a loss that left them hyperaware of their inability to leave. Perhaps because of this, loving (a place, a person, a nonhuman thing) has instilled in me a search for stillness, as well as a reckoning with my own ability to leave, and the privileges that come with choosing when and how to stay.
Are there any tips you’d like to give to other authors considering writing about their own personal loss?
I don’t believe I had a choice when it came to writing about these particular losses; it seems I have been writing about them the whole time. I imagine anyone who has experienced loss can attest to this. Whether you recognize it or not, loss has a way of seeping into everything you do. In moving through drafts of “The Long Middle,” I realized that there was no way to approach writing about loss linearly. I was constantly losing new things even as I was in the act of writing; I could never bypass what I was writing about. So, I began to follow each loss as soon as it culminated. Once it came into view, I challenged myself to include it, to see where it could take me. In the end, my own heartbreak became a kind of web, a tangle of shared losses that both belonged and didn’t belong to me.
In the end, the biggest tip I can give is to allow your piece to live with you for as long as needed before it enters into the world.
Where and when did writing come into your life?
I was 7 years old when my family was resettled in Charlottesville, Virginia. As a second grader, I was placed in separate ESL classes for a year. Writing stories in English quickly became my way of connecting with a new language. For some reason, I don’t remember if I ever enjoyed writing before moving to the U.S. But I suppose writing was connected to need for me from the beginning. In our first few years in the U.S., I remember my mother would take my older brother and I to the public library every weekend and we would spend hours checking out a pile of books each. I have memories of devouring books as a child, being completely unable to put a story down until I reached the end.
Were there any other specific works or writers that inspired you as you worked through this piece? Did you read a lot as a child?
I did. I primarily read fiction when I was young, then lots of YA, and eventually discovered poetry in middle school. I was introduced to Iraqi writing in college, almost by accident, when an instructor assigned Sinan Antoon’s Corpse Washer. Prior to this moment, I had never read anything by an Arab writer and was entirely transformed by Antoon’s novel. Most inspiration for me is about permission-giving so here I’m thinking about which authors gave me permission to write my own piece. Heather Christle’s The Crying Book, Aisha Sabatini-Sloan’s Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, and Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain are just a few collections that helped me see what was possible in nonfiction.
You are a ‘Zell’ Fellow in Poetry and you lead a weekly poetry program for high school students. How does your poetry affect your creative non fiction writing? Do you find that it overlaps?
I absolutely find that my poetry and nonfiction overlap. In some ways, poetry gave me the courage to approach nonfiction, and likewise, nonfiction gives me a sense of clarity when connecting larger projects of poetry together. I’m incredibly scattered when approaching new work- I come to writing from an inability to continue holding seemingly unconnected things together in my mind. Poetry helps me make sense of memory, and nonfiction allows me to languish even longer in the material. Of course, there are also a whole host of ways that nonfiction and poetry overlap formally. I enjoy teaching my students prose poetry and short essays because I find that it opens a door of possibility for them. For example, I’m thinking about Noor Hindi’s essay “Against Erasure” which models wonderfully the ways visual experimentation with language can be used as a powerful tool of resistance.
Do you tend to write a lot about Iraq and your experience in America post-migration?
I can’t seem to stop writing about Iraq. Iraqi art, literature, architecture, politics, storytelling, informs every aspect of my work. It’s an obsession I’m not able to shake. We often think about the effects of American involvement on the landscape of Iraq but what I’ve become more interested in are the American spaces in which Iraq appears-as reproduction, transferal, metaphor. This is why I was so captivated by Arizona State University’s Gammage Memorial Auditorium, or the architectural history of Pontiac, Michigan.
As a hijabi myself, I find that the process of covering due to a religious belief is very personal. You’ve conveyed your feelings and actions as a 17-year-old faced with her first love in a poignantly honest way. Sometimes, your culture and the expectation of people can inhibit honesty in your creative work. Do you sometimes hold back because you’re worried about what people may think? If your answer is yes, how do you overcome this?
Yes, yes, yes! I still find myself holding back in my own writing, and I (maybe) always will. As a visibly Muslim woman writer, it’s difficult not to feel pressure from all directions. On one hand, I feel incredibly protective of my identity, and of Islam particularly. On the other hand, I envy the kind of freedom some writers have in exploring non-normative understandings of identity without questioning their own role in propagating a particular narrative. I worry that my writing stands in for who I say I am as a person; I worry that I’ll be packaged and marketed in particular kinds of ways by well-meaning editors/presses; I worry that I’ll only ever be read through the lens of my background. The question of gaze and audience is something I continue to contend with as I write pieces about desire. I want more love stories by Muslim women. I want to make space for halal love, interracial, interfaith, queer love. I want to write honest pieces about desire that don’t exclusively center negotiation, or when they do, approach negotiation in complex and thorough terms.
As a Muslim woman who has lived in predominantly white spaces my entire life, I’ve shuttled back and forth between feelings of invisibility and hypervisibility. Perhaps this is what makes the idea of love and desire so compelling for me to interrogate.
Are there any pieces you’re working on currently that you feel particularly excited about?
I’m currently working on a poetry manuscript about (among other things) the death of my uncle Hafiz in 2005 Baghdad. This has been an incredibly emotionally demanding project, so I work slowly and take lots of breaks. Other than that, I’m beginning to work on a new essay about my relationship to the American military (as real and unreal presence).
Could you describe your writing process? Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work? What is revision like for you? How do you know when a piece is finished?
I wish I had a specific routine! I struggle a lot with consistency and find that working in short bursts is most helpful for me. I also tend to rely heavily on memories and specific instances of dialogue when it comes to crafting works of poetry and nonfiction. This often means I spend more time (furiously) recording and cataloguing things as they happen than I do creating the piece itself. I typically jot down ideas as they come to me and then weeks, months, or even years later I become drawn back to them. I’ve found that time is profoundly important for my work; slowness in the writing process is something I’m always grateful for.
In terms of revision,
As soon as I finished reading your piece, I searched the internet for your work, wanting to read more and excited to get to know you. These days, many writers turn to social media to connect with their readers. Do you value social media to make these sorts of connections? Where can we find your work? Is it available to read online?
Although I’ve struggled (and continue to struggle) with the consumptive and performative aspects of social media, I’m grateful to have had a positive experience connecting with other writers and readers through Twitter. Remaining in contact with folks I’ve met at conferences or workshops has been incredibly helpful for my own personal growth as a writer— and makes me feel like the community I need is always close. I’m in the process of creating a personal website, but for now I post about new work on my twitter @joualt.
What are you reading now? Is it inspiring or affecting your writing?
I’m re-reading a lot of poetry by Nazik al-Malaika and Lamia Abbas Amara. Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso, Charif Shanahan’s Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing, Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon, Sundus Abdulhadi’s children’s book Shams, and Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside.
Who are some of your favourite writers to read for pleasure? How about for craft?
For both craft and pleasure: Roger Reeves (I’m still in awe of how his poem “Brazil” moves), Solmaz Sharif, Patricia Smith, Craig Santos Perez, Philip Metres, Farid Matuk, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Aracelis Girmay.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
From Rita Dove: “Don’t stress yourself into silence.”
From Diane Seuss: “Indulge.”
Sidra Ansari is a freelance writer for hire. She is a professional writer who will soon be a published author of her book “Finding Peace Through Prayer and Love” which will be out in October 2020. She now writes for clients and specialises in writing about personal development, digital marketing and lifestyle including motherhood, travel and food. Get in touch today to find out how she can help you with your content writing needs. You can check out her blog and learn more about her writing at The7ofUs.blog and via Twitter at http://www.