By TNS Fiction and Online Editor, Randa Jarrar
Hayan Charara talks about growing up in Detroit and living in a community of Arab American artists in New York City; how he uses the lens of the mundane; and the story behind “1979”, his poem about flipping the bird and vehicular assault. His new book, Something Sinister, comes out in 2016.
Randa Jarrar: I love how subtle these two poems (“1979” and “GAZA”) are. Both deal with large subjects through the lens and intimacy of family. Why did you make that choice?
Hayan Charara: I often make that choice in my writing. A war, for example, is never just a news story, never just an abstraction I can turn off. The wars we’re involved in now and have been for some time are taking place where my parents grew up, where my father still lives, and where friends come from or had to flee. Growing up in Detroit, every time the economy collapsed, so did the lives of friends, neighbors, family who lost jobs, lost livelihoods. The house I grew up in is worth less today than it was in 1974, when my parents bought it. I don’t know how not to talk about the big issues when these are the lenses I see them through.
Obviously, though, knowing the larger subjects intellectually still matters. But if you happen to know the subjects, to experience them, in an intimate way, then they don’t feel so out of reach. They become familiar, and that familiarity—what I think of when you say “intimacy”—gives me a way in, which is also my reader’s way in. It allows for the larger-than-life to enter into everyday life. Then you can see the larger picture in a way that makes it once again what it ultimately is—something that shapes the lives of people, something personal.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that a lot of people lose their minds if they can’t get an Internet connection but they don’t miss a beat over what’s happening in Gaza, for example, or to Arabs living in America. I can complain about this, and I do, but I also use this knowledge when making poems. Often, the person I have in mind—the person I’m trying to teach—is the one who doesn’t give a shit. “War” and “racism” bore this person to death. But a guy getting run over for giving the finger—he’ll pay attention to that.
I should also say that I wrote these poems while teaching Homer’s Iliad. Homer describes a battle between the Greeks and Trojans this way: “It was glorious to see—if your heart were iron/And you could keep from grieving at all the pain.” I write the way I do believing that a good number of people possess iron hearts. Ultimately, I want them to see the pain and to grieve at it. One path back to this most basic perspective—to open up your heart—is through family, through the lens of the everyday and the mundane.
RJ: You've been writing and publishing poems since you were a teenager. Can you tell us about the Arab-American community in New York that nurtured you?
HC: When I moved to New York City Lawrence Joseph, who I’d met a few years earlier, was welcoming and helpful. Like Larry, D.H. Melhem also generously offered her time and wisdom. She’d gotten in touch with me after hearing me read poems on Barbara Nimri Aziz’s show on WBAI. D.H. and I ended up becoming close. We’d often meet at her favorite diner on the Upper West Side to talk poetry, among other things, usually over coffee and pie. And Barbara, of course, had founded the Radius of Arab American Writers, a few years before I got to New York, and RAWI played a huge role in connecting me to other Arab American writers and artists, and it still does today.
The younger writers I came to think of as friends included Suheir Hammad, who lived on the same street as me for a few years. I regularly saw Nathalie Handal, Kazim Ali, Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhran, and many others—poets, but also novelists and story writers, journalists, visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, musicians. It’s really incredible, when I think back on it, all those people living in the same place, at the same time. Even more so when I consider that most of us had started our lives as poets and artists feeling that, at least as Arab Americans, we were doing it alone. We found the opposite to be true. We reached out to each other, we supported one another, and we became friends. In every sense of the word, we were a community. And since then, though many of us who met in New York went to live in other cities, we still come together when possible—at AWP, at the RAWI or DIWAN conferences—and when we do, it feels like a family reunion.
RJ: Your new book, Something Sinister, comes out in 2016. Though your poems have always dealt with identity, otherness, loss, and grief, this new collection seems to be more of an indictment of US policy in the Middle East. Can you talk more about that?
HC: You know, a while ago I ran the numbers on the poems in Something Sinister. I calculated the percentage of “political” poems in the book. And I was pretty liberal with what I considered to be a “political” poem. So, roughly 20% of the poems fall into that category. Of course, not all of the “political” poems deal with US foreign policy in the Middle East. Put another way, 80%, the overwhelming majority of the poems, are not political. They’re deeply personal. Just the same, even I consider the book the way you describe it, and so have others.
But when only 20% of a book, at most, touches on US foreign policy in the Middle East and the book counts as an indictment of that policy, it’s maybe indicative of a culture and a poetics in crisis, not to mention in deep denial, especially given the fact that US foreign policy in the Middle East is basically the political crisis of our times. Poets do write about this, and some devote large portions of their books to it, if not entire books. But the number, relative to the poets who do not write on these issues, and relative to the daily reality of the crisis...well, there’s a reason the book makes a point about “something sinister” going on.
The other thing, my being an Arab often makes for circumstances in which the political and the personal, the public and the private, come together. One of the hardest tasks for an Arab to accomplish is to live nonpolitically. Plenty enough times, when an Arab experiences grief or loss, politics plays a role. When questions arise about his place in the world, in his own country, among his own people—whether in the United States, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, France, the UK, or wherever—I would bet the farm that US foreign policy plays a big part. At that point, the separation between the personal and the political gets blurred or else it altogether disappears.
RJ: "Gaza" has a surprising turn-- it mentions the phenomenon from this past summer when Israelis would watch bombs drop in Gaza from mountaintops and cheer. How did you find the space and energy to create a poem out of that, especially so soon after the event itself?
HC: I’ve had years to think about it, actually. Nearly every incursion by Israel into Gaza, or elsewhere—like Lebanon—comes with stories like this one. As far back as the 80s and 90s, I remember seeing images of Israelis—men, women, and even children—writing messages on missiles, which they took to be cute or funny, like “From Israel, with love.” These are missiles that kill people, crushing them to death, exploding their bodies, scattering them into bits and pieces. So why didn’t I write about this until now? I have children now—two boys, a two-year-old and a three-year-old. With this latest invasion of Gaza, I had a very basic reaction. As a parent, I imagined my own children in the shoes of these other children. The thought kills me. But I was more devastated by the realization that this perspective, that of a mother or father, could be so comprised, so corrupted, that mothers and fathers were dancing and singing over the deaths of other people’s children—boys and girls like their own boys and girls.
Something in you is dead when you celebrate the death of children. My writing a poem was a pushing back against that kind of destruction—of human life, yes, but also the destruction of what makes a person humane and human.
RJ: "1979" works spectacularly even without a reader's knowledge of the energy crisis of that year. But it's such a powerful poem if a reader has that knowledge-- that the "camel jockeys" use the gas in an American Buick to literally run over a racist by pushing down on the pedal. Where did this poem come from?
HC: “1979” is a true story, unfortunately. I took some liberties with it—I was six, not seven, for example.
I don’t think I ever told anyone about that day, and I took thirty-five years to write about it. What I imagine the reader goes through is what I did at the time and, maybe more importantly, what the guy who called us camel jockeys experienced. No matter the circumstance, anyone who realizes he’s about to get hit by a car experiences shock. But this guy’s shock was two-fold because I have no doubt he believed he could say what he did without consequence. I remember vividly that he showed no fear, no hesitation when he told us to “Go home” and gestured his “Fuck you!” at us. Had he known my father’s rage, maybe he would’ve kept walking.
The thing is, things aren’t that different today. Maybe they’re a lot worse. Whether it’s some guy on the street, a politician in front of a news camera, or a supposedly intelligent and respected writer, actor, or whatever, people can and do speak with impunity against Arabs and Muslims, not to mention a whole host of others. In this way, unfortunately again, “1979” is a quintessentially American poem.