by Lin Kaatz Chary
Elmaz Abinader was born in a small mining town in Pennsylvania, the youngest of four children, to parents who immigrated from Lebanon to the United States. She was admitted to the University of Pittsburg under the Affirmative Action program, an experience about which she wrote in her blog as a letter to the late Justice Anton Scalia. She received her MFA from Columbia University and her PhD from University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and is a prolific author of three books, five plays, and a novel-in-progress. In addition to serving on the board of VONA/Voices, which she co-founded, she teaches Pilates, and is a full professor at Mills College in Oakland, CA.
LKC: Dr. Abinader, I want to thank you for this interview, and for the great reading in Virginia Beach at 2016’s Lit Fest.
EA: Thanks, but I never go by Dr. Abinader. So Elmaz is fine
LKC: Although you were born in the United States, your work touches deeply on themes of exile, relationship to place, and dislocation in its different manifestations. Can you talk about why and how these themes became so important in your writing?
EA: This is true, I was born in the US geographically but in a house where we were guided by the principles of the “old country.” Like other first generation Americans, I witnessed and was participant in was the cultural negotiation of our family, especially in rural Pennsylvania where we had no cultural community. When you have no reference point to who you are or have no one who shares your language and your belief system, you’re unmoored. In addition, the expectation to abandon the fiber of your culture and put on the cloak of one that feels unnatural and sometimes contradictory, the feeling of dislocation is heightened. Much like an exile, a cultural loneliness creates a personal anxiety in being “right” in the place you live. Differently from an exile, my family chose this journey, which makes hope a key factor in our lives, so when you find yourself struggling with acceptance or confused about where you belong, the hope is dissipated and survival is primary. When I survey societies to find my companions on this journey, I recognize much of the struggle of the dislocated and exiled to be similar to mine.
LKC: Following up on that, speaking about your 2014 book of poetry, In This House, My Bones, you said, “every rock and road, riverbed and meadow hold the marks of migrations, escapes, exiles, alienations, aging and evolutions. . . The memories of war are on the skin as well as on the mesa, the exile is written in dust and cells.” Can you talk more about how this conceptual framework evolved and how it informs your choice of genre and subject matter?
EA: I love the Grand Canyon. I had a residency there where I was intending to write for a month, but instead, spent much of that time staring at the changing light, the stratifications in the rocks, the color of the minerals, the juts and the holes, the smooth paths and the jagged trails. There, it occurred to me that we are all ecosystems and research shows us more and more how our DNA holds ancestral memory and that we inherit tendencies and understanding. In this book of poetry, the mash up of our DNA and the molecular makeup of the earth suggests that everything that happens to us, also happens to our environment and vice-versa. That includes people made phenomena as well as natural evolutions. So when we build a wall, or force people from their land, when we privatize water, or wage a bloody battle, the environment is impacted. Our personal eco-systems are affected as well. Erosion can be a wearing a way of the cliff or a decline of the spirit. As you say, it is hard to describe, but I believe, we are changing constantly in response to what is going on around us…just the anxiety around police terrorism, for example, has moved our psychology. We are in distress as a people and individuals are feeling it relevant to themselves. That is then inherited by the next generation. So we are the earth—the earth wears us.
LKC: Looking at your body of work, it is clear that you have always been able to demonstrate the relationship of literature to political and social life with great success. Can you talk about some of the challenges you have faced in doing that, and how you have overcome them?
EA: Like many writers of color, the struggle is always to write beyond the expectations and need of the white gaze. As an Arab American, I was asked, after 9/11 to appear on panels and do readings ten times more than I was before, although I had been writing and publishing for twenty years. The hope was that I would tell them something they needed to know about how Arabs were “feeling” about the implications of the destruction. One writer can’t represent a people or a feeling or a story. We know the “danger of a single story,” that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of. But that impulse is relentless.
I can’t overcome this as much as I can bring others along to complicated the idea of what our stories are. That’s why I helped found VONA/Voices of our Nations Arts Foundation and nurture writers of color.
LKC: Can you tell me more about VONA – how it started, and what it does?
EA: Junot Diáz, Victor Diáz, Diem Jones, and I co-founded VONA in 1999 because we saw a need to give writers of the color a place to develop their work under the guidance of renowned writers-of-color. I had had a black student in a writing workshop where everyone else was white. He wrote a story about a family in conflict, and after he it read it to the class, the response from several people was, “but that’s not a black story, it’s not about black people.” And I thought to myself “where is this young, talented writer going to go to be able to develop his voice?” VONA is now housed at the University of Miami, where we do multi-genre workshops and writers of color are able to explore their craft and develop their own voices in an atmosphere of support, and are empowered to write about their experiences as people of color. If someone is interested in more information they can go to our website at http://www.voicesatvona.org/
LKC: So much of your work, such as your memoir, Children of the Roojme, and your collection of poems, My House, My Bones – speak so eloquently on what the role of the writer/artist can and should be in public life. What do you think that means for the writer who is just starting out today?
EA: No one has an imperative except to write their truth—not their rhetoric, agendas don’t serve writing—write the humanity you know. Each story stands on its own ground and will represent you. I always say the war is in the kitchen. In other words, “how does a family live?” is the real question of history. If you see your writing as activism, look at how the most successful writers achieved their power: James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros. They wrote about their own and we could see, from their narratives how political forces impact our lives. The best education, persuasion and impact come from the well-written stories and poems.
Lin Kaatz Chary was a Perry Morgan Fellow in the Creative Writing Program at ODU in Creative Non-Fiction and she also writes poetry. She is the winner of the 2016 ODU College Ruhi Dayanim Poetry Prize. Her work has been published online at Briller Magazine and she writes regularly for the The Body Is Not an Apology. Lin is a non-fiction editor for FourTies Literary Journal.