Editor, Saloua Ben Amor in Conversation with Award Winning Writer, Hedy Habra
KNOT Magazine: What is special about Spanish literature?
French literature was my first love. I think that my passion for Spanish and Latin American literatures goes hand in hand with my love for the language, which is the gateway to the appreciation of cultures and modalities of expression. I am particularly drawn to the fiction writers and poets who crossed traditional boundaries, experimented with language and used innovative techniques. Some of the authors that I keep rereading and learning from, are Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa, to name only a few. I have written my dissertation on Vargas Llosa and also a book of literary criticism focusing on the visual components of his narrative.
KNOT Magazine: A pharmacist or a writer, which one was more difficult?
Studying Pharmacy at a French Jesuit University was harder than studying literature because of the rigidity of the system. Getting graduate degrees in English and Spanish required tremendous efforts but my passion for literature was greater than my passion for science. As for the creative part, it is not comparable. Writing is a constant struggle but also a necessity, a way of thinking and a means to discover the world and our inner self.
KNOT Magazine: How did you find time to write and complete your PhD’s?
I was always able to juggle between taking classes, teaching Spanish, raising a family and my creative writing. When I joined the PhD program, I wrote primarily essays and dedicated summers to my creative work. For several years, I focused mainly on my dissertation and on my book of literary criticism. I believe that reading and writing criticism are not incompatible with creative writing, on the contrary, they cross-pollinate.
KNOT Magazine: How did you come about being published? How did you become a published writer?
I started sending out my fiction and poetry to journals very early on and was lucky because several pieces got published and some won awards, which encouraged me a lot. I also got rejections, but kept submitting until everything I had written was published. I was then ready to organize my manuscripts but was too busy taking classes and teaching. My first poetry collection, Tea in Heliopolis, was short-listed in numerous contests till it was published by Press 53, in 2013. And my short story collection, Flying Carpets was published by Interlink that same year. I then published an ekphrastic collection, Under Brushstrokes (Press 53, 2015) and the most recent one, The Taste of the Earth (Press 53, 2019).
KNOT Magazine: Have you ever thought of writing a novel?
I had a project for a novel that meant a lot to me for a long time but was abandoned in a drawer. I also planned to develop one of my short stories into a novel, and wrote some notes to that effect. Since my stories range from the realistic to the magic realistic, and the fantastic, I was trying to decide which direction to take first, but poems kept coming to me, and I still have poetry manuscripts in progress that require my attention. It would be great if I were to find the time and energy to write a novel in a not too distant future.
KNOT Magazine: How did The Taste of the Earth come about for you? Was there a process?
The Taste of the Earth was twelve years in the making. And the cover painting took a long time to realize. The collection consists in a 'memoir in poems,' weaving together personal memories with the larger history of my countries of origin, Egypt and Lebanon. I wanted to go back to origins and roots and evoke my complex cultural heritage within a broader perspective on history, language, religion, mythology and culture. To that effect, I resorted to recollections revolving around the senses.
Some poems revisit Egypt's mythical past and Lebanon's turmoil, recalling the intersecting roots of culture and language that are linked to the present. Others represent a reflection from the perspective of exile on the Arab Spring, the aftermath of violence in the Middle East and my impressions upon returning to Lebanon after twenty-five years. Many of the poems are persona poems from the perspective of inanimate objects, trees, houses, fountains.
KNOT Magazine: What does Earth mean to you?
I think that in the context of this book, Earth is a metaphor for roots in all its connotations, including its cultural aspects. Earth also evokes the different homes I have lived in. For me, Earth's beauty comes through the senses and its importance is conveyed by all sorts of sensorial, tactile and visual memories. The architecture and archaeological remains are filled with stories of origin and belonging. The natural world plays a great role in our daily lives. Landscapes, as well as the fauna and flora become part of us like the scent of jasmine, the sight of a jacaranda or the flight of certain birds. The same thing is true for fruits and vegetables, their particular aroma connects us to every place we've lived in the same way I recall and try to recreate my mother's and grandmother's recipes.
KNOT Magazine: You were born in Heliopolis, Egypt, what's special about your birthplace?
Heliopolis is a residential suburb of Cairo, Egypt. Heliopolis means “City of the Sun” in Greek, and it once stood as one of the grand cities of the ancient world. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Belgian Baron Empain founded the modern city of Heliopolis. Its Arabic name, Misr Algadida, means New Cairo. It was designed as a 'city of luxury and leisure,' with broad avenues and hotel facilities, such as the Heliopolis Palace Hotel that became the presidential palace. When I was growing up, the Palace Hotel was open to the public, that’s why I chose to paint its terrace on the cover of my first poetry collection Tea in Heliopolis, because it symbolizes a bygone era.
KNOT Magazine: How long have you been writing?
I was writing poetry in French decades ago. In the eighties, while was working on my MA and MFA in English, I wrote primarily in English. When I enrolled in a graduate program in Spanish, I would write criticism in both Spanish and English, but my creative writing was mostly in English. I later on started to write poetry in Spanish and in French again. I also translated many of my poems into Spanish.
KNOT Magazine: You speak many languages like Arabic, French, English, Spanish, Italian and now you are learning Chinese! Are there any tips you would like to share with our readers?
I had the advantage of growing up with French, Arabic and English. I started studying Spanish when I was living in Brussels and continued in the U.S. at Western Michigan University where I taught Spanish for 33 years. I also enjoyed taking Italian and Greek and Latin classes, and have been studying Chinese for five years now at WMU's Confucius Institute.
Although it seems impossible at first, the key is to never get discouraged because it is only a matter of time before we realize we can reach fluency. We have to find ways of self-immersing ourselves by reading, studying and watching videos online on a regular basis. I constantly watch Chinese historical dramas on Netflix and use the Duolingo app for daily practice.
KNOT Magazine: Why did you choose to settle down in the USA?
We left Lebanon at the onset of the civil war, and my husband's company transferred him to Athens, then Brussels. We then came to the U.S. from Belgium, on account of my husband’s work.
KNOT Magazine: What are your future projects?
I have a passion for art and my next project is to put the last touches to a new collection of ekphrastic poetry. While my first ekphrastic collection, Under Brushstrokes was inspired by a diversity of artworks, this upcoming manuscript focuses mainly on women artists, many of them surrealists like Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington and Juanita Guccione.
I'd like also to find time to bring to life a bilingual manuscript of my own poetry that I have translated from Spanish or English.
KNOT Magazine: What inspires you?
Because I am a visual artist, I am greatly inspired by art and have painted the cover of my books. I love visiting museums and art galleries and have written a great number of ekphrastic poems. When I can't write, I usually paint, which is another poetic expression. I also find my inspiration from reading, either literature, philosophy, or science. I have always kept a journal, and rereading some passages oftentimes triggers associations with memories or arouses my imagination.
Saloua Ben Amor is a Tunisian educator and holds an MA is in Canadian Literature. She is a committed educator and instructor. Ben Amor is known for her translation work in English, French, and Arabic.
Hedy Habra has authored three poetry collections, most recently, The Taste of the Earth (Press 53, 2019), finalist for the USA Best Book Award. Tea in Heliopolis won the USA Best Book Award and Under Brushstrokes, was finalist for the USA Best Book Award and the International Book Award. Her story collection, Flying Carpets, won the Arab American Book Award’s Honorable Mention and was finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award. A fourteen-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, her work appears in numerous publications. Her website is hedyhabra.com