Imene Chaabane Bennani Interviews Poet, Marian Haddad
KNOT: What does Americanness mean to you?
Marian Haddad: My father and those of his generation saw this America as a new beginning, a white new sun unfolding, one of my poems or essays mentions . . . in 1950 or so, so many saw that same lantern, whether the glimmer or hope of it, whether the glimmer or hope in them, America, or the idea of this Utopia of sorts, created in such immigrant spirits the desire to go beyond, to go abroad, to succeed in ways that any respective current country in which they lived, could not offer, at least in their seeing. So they set out, not so much to a place, but an idea . The word "America" was, to them, synonymous with hope and possibility, ways to move forward, a hoped-for propulsion into what they deemed success, or an easier way of life . . . newness, opportunity.
KNOT: In what sense do you see yourself as American?
Marian Haddad: In so many ways, I see myself as American, first and foremost, a carrier of what my father and mother dreamed, an extension of that hope. Out of my mother's twelve conceptions, I, as number twelve, was the only one born in America. This made my father oddly proud, he'd mention it to anyone who'd listen, "She was born in America,". I then became some sort of trophy, and not in a sad or labeled way, but the sign that he had come to the country he deemed would open a "better" life for him, an essay could be written on "better" --- suffice it to say for now, that the dream he and Mother dreamt of, did occur, and it was not easy to translate and transfer their Arabicness to this America . . . and they, at once, became American in spirit, while maintaing, clinging "to" their language, their cultural traditions, their ancestry, their food . . . they carried these with them like their own trophies, their contribution to this land of immigrants. Oddly, I'm not sure they saw this country of a land of immigrants as first, it was them who were the immigrants, and I feel, at some point, they were the ones coming to a land they deemed as somehow uni-cultural.
However, as time went on, they did continue to bless this America for giving their children what they felt, for some reason, was ungettable for them, in their own land, perhaps due to circumstance/s. Perhaps my father and mother could have achieved all they did achieve in this America, in their own homeland, but was it the "idea" of America and new beginnings and renewed spirit that offered them that gumption, that kick start?
KNOT: Did America serve, as not a land, but a spirit?
Marian Haddad: Needless to say, my parents did not become part of the proverbial melting pot, had they done so, they'd have never or rarely referred to all that colored their days and selves . . . the aforementioned Arabicness in their very blood and bone, an inextricable identifier, Syrian, spirit and sound that made up their every inch of human fiber, their born selves, amidst their learned selves. Therefore, the melting pot, which I resist, myself, was not the goal, and if it were initially, for them, it was quickly stepped back from, they became contributors to "the tossed salad" theory, not a lyrical labeling of their efforts to assimilate, but a true labeling. Instead of blending, invisibly and unidentifiably, in a pot pourri or mixture of all . . . they did all they could to assimilate in this new land, while always, always, keeping, their connection to that place of birth, of knowledge, of initial self. They were the dancers who allowed one foot in each country, who taught me to carry a country in each pocket, and to allow more countries to become familiar to me.
KNOT: What is American in your poetry?
Marian Haddad: This is a difficult question, as I am permeated by Americaness, the only child born in this America, to an immigrant couple who'd already experienced the possibility or reality of eleven children before me. I was born in this place, this geography, this sensibility, I never wrote my name or any other word in any other language, but the English that was learned, here, so America is then endemic to my hand and heart, at least the America they deemed as their America, the one they almost killed themselves to come to, it seemed different then. However, and this transitional word should be underscored emphatically, no greater emphasis in this entire reply should be put elsewhere, "however," I learned both languages simultaneously, they danced between my head like siblings, counterparts, two parts of me. I cannot say which is my "first" language, they both shared that spotlight, they both were fed into me and were spoken out of me, though I never achieved, sadly, the ability to read and write in Arabic, I certainly pride myself in speaking the first language of my parents. It honors me. Later, some fluency in the Spanish language took place due to our proximity to Mexico, five minutes away, we often traveled over the bridge that announced a third cultural tradition, that permeated us as Arab Americans, the truly bicultural town of El Paso, Texas, where my father learned Spanish before he learned English, where the neighbors would join us at our parties and we'd dance each other's dances, they would dance Arabic and we'd dance the cumbia . . . all of us laughing, under one roof, the espousing of as many cultures as we could carry, the celebration of all language and cultural intent.
KNOT: Do you know when you write, when you are writing like an American?
Marian Haddad: For me, writing is derived from listening, hearing, observing, in multilingual fashion. I can't even observe the sky and its color or tenor without thanking God in three languages, and beyond language . . . so then to extricate and cull one language and set it apart from another, is an often impossible task. I would say that when I veer into the more lyrical verse, the more romantic language offerings, it might be easy to say, "Ah, these are informed by my Arabic language, or perhaps the learned Spanish language." But can I really say that, when I can't often go a thought, a sentence, during the writing process, without traveling between languages. To try to give a clear response, I would say that when I am juxtaposing my Arabicness to my Americanness, such as in my essay, "Lost in Translation", or perhaps my essay, "The Good Niece"... I make a conscious effort to delineate between the two, using the voice in the forefront, the "American" voice, to speak of or spotlight the "Arabic" story behind the American voice. However, even writing these words feels awkward, the compartmentalization of voices is what I might say I work against, spirit-wise and theory-wise. I want all voices inside me to have a bearing on the final voice, so, to say I am more one than another at a time, though it "might" have credence at alternating times, does really not sit well with my psyche or my interior person. I am all things that comprise me, I am comprised of all things, therefore, while one paragraph or maybe an entire piece, might be written as an American academic or even regional voice, as a whole, I write from a space that espouses all of me...and whatever languages are found there.
KNOT: What is the extent of Americanness in you?
Marian Haddad: "Lost in Translation" is the essay that speaks to this most potently, first published in Dark Horses, a one-issue literary journal out of San Diego State University, and perhaps elsewhere, and which will be featured in my collection of essays about growing up an Arab American in a Mexican-American border town, does speak precisely and specifically to this. To summarize, in that essay, I found myself, in my adolescent years and through my thirties, attempting to find the place in which I most belonged, feeling these two places did not merge or even meet well, at times, and it became very clear, during the times I'd considered marriage to some (it became wildly clear that a person unfamiliar with the Arabic cultural sensibility could not, as hard as he tried, enter it to the degree a native would; juxtapose that with one from the Arabic sensibility who carried with him an appreciation of my Arabness but, at times, tried to temper my Americanness, or could not fully enter my celebration of such cultural traditions, one asking, "Who is Elton John?").
The leaps were sometimes tough to make, not for me, but for those who wanted to marry me, or who I might've considered marrying, these were the times in which the two (or more) cultures within me seemed glaringly at odds, or sometimes, only slightly at odds. Other than that, I have felt as comfortable and welcome in each cultural tradition, Arabic, English, Mexican; and all of those languages, Arabic, English, and Spanish, create in me a deep connectedness to each of them, respectively, and a connectedness between them. No one, if few, are unicultural, in today's world, it is multiculturalism that defines us, and for me, as soon as the writer/artist asks how much of this part of me speaks in this piece, how much of that part of me speaks in that, creates a divisiveness instead of a harmonious dance between all that defines us. Now, and I know it comes from a good place when anyone who bears more than one cultural within them and their work, asks these questions, I know they serve a rather scientific/logistical purpose of identification of what spirit and set of knowledge is active and when, but art is like higher faith, it is not easily divided, though the world and citizens of the world have made great strides in compartmentalizing religious orders, this creed here, that creed there, we know that no matter what our creed is or isn't, or if we house a label that stems from organized religion, we know that the greatest prayer goes to a central higher place.
So then, we can continue to assess, and it has its good reasons, what makes us tick and how much of that ticking occurs in either or any language we know, or we can say, our cumulative knowledge inside our one person ticks as only it does, with the sets and subsets of knowledge that make each one of us up. Will we treat our entry into our art with the compartmentalization that has not worked but to create dissonance and discord, more often, in the religious world ? Or will we treat our entry into our art with the organic parts that make up our whole, and that when we come to our art, no matter in what language or sensibility, that we come the way we would to that higher spiritual place, which espouses, carries, and covers, the widest of voices and peoples ?
Marian Haddad, MFA is a Pushcart-nominated poet, writer, manuscript & publishing consultant, private writing mentor, lecturer and creative workshop instructor. Her collection of poems, Wildflower. Stone., (Pecan Grove Press 2011), is the first hardback in the nearly-25-years the press was in existence.
Haddad's chapbook, Saturn Falling Down, was published at the request of Texas Public Radio in correlation with their Hands-on Poetry workshops (2003). Her full-length collection, Somewhere between Mexico and a River Called Home (Pecan Grove Press, 2004) approached its fifth printing before the passing of editor/publisher H. Palmer Hall.
Her poems, essays, reviews, and articles have been published in a number of literary journals and anthologies within the US, Belgium, the U.K., and the Middle East; some recent publications appear in an anthology of Texas and Louisiana poets, Improbable Worlds (Mutabilis Press), Before there Is Nowhere to Stand, an anthology of Arab and Jewish poets on the Palestinian Israeli conflict (Lost Horse Press), and an essay about juxtaposing the music of poetry to the music and pacing of basketball, Fast Break to Line Break: Poets on the Art of Basketball, (Michigan State University Press) and HOT! A chapbook on climate change (Bihl Haus Arts).
Haddad has taught creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake and Northwest Vista College, and International and American Literature at St. Mary's University and conducts workshops and private consultations at her home and on-site at the invitation of various schools and institutions. Her works in progress include a nearly-completed collection of poems, In this City of Saints, and a collection of essays about growing up Arab American in a Mexican American border town, as well as ten additional working manuscripts. She has blogged under the invitation of then-travel-editor for the San Antonio Express on her 2008 travels to Syria on mysa.com, and hosted a blog for the same, entitled WORD UP, as one of the City Lights bloggers the paper invited.
Imene Bennani is a Tunisian scholar who graduated from the Faculty of Arts of Sousse (Tunisia) and at present works as an assistant at the University of Kairouan. She is currently preparing her Ph.D. in Contemporary Arab American Poetry. Her fields of interest include (Arab) American Literature, literary theory, cultural studies, and literary translation.