By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
It was well worth hitting up LUMINATO this week. Although I was sick and wanted to stay in bed I couldn’t pass up the chance to see acclaimed authors Hanan al-Shaykh and Joyce Carol Oates.
Being half Lebanese, it was pride and curiosity that pushed me out from under the covers, onto the subway, and in to the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre on Monday night. Also, Hanan al-Shaykh’s book The Story of Zahra being banned in several countries in the 1980s had me intrigued.
Upon arriving at the theatre I was told a bit of bad news:
“We’ve overbooked media and might not have room for you,” said the media contact.
I’m not the Toronto Star. I’m Black Coffee Poet. Event organizers have no idea that you, my readers, are from four different continents. This type of stuff happens.
“No problem, I’ll hit the washroom and you can let me know when I get back,” I said.
A ticket was in my hand five minutes later. Not flipping out was the key.
As I walked in to the theatre I saw Dionne Brand. Yes, Dionne Brand! Toronto’s Poet Laureate and recent Griffin Poetry Prize winner. I thought, “I have to talk to Dionne,” and I did. For someone who just won $65 000 and the biggest prize in Canada for poetry, Brand is humble, kind, and willing to work with a young poet like myself. (Brand has agreed to be on blackcoffeepoet.com in future!). After a short talk I left Brand to enjoy her evening.
The theatre was small and not as filled up as I expected. With seating for maybe 100 people there were about 85 folk in attendance, mainly Arab.
Susan G.Cole, Arts Editor at NOW Magazine, was interviewing Hanan al-Shaykh. Cole always does great interviews. I enjoy what she does at the International Festival of the Authors at Harbourfront every year; her interview with Brando Skyhorse last October was awesome. Cole asks good questions, is funny, and you can tell she reads the book being discussed.
After a short intro from Cole, “Hanan al-Shaykh wrote her first book at 19…very distressing for us who haven’t written a book of fiction yet,” followed by clapping and laughter from the crowd, Hanan al-Shaykh talked about her new book The Locust and the Bird: My Mother’s Story. “I’m going to read to you how my mother tried not to marry my father,” said al-Shaykh before reading for 15 minutes. The crowd laughed, again.
Interviewer and interviewee sat across from each other with mics propped in their faces. Cole wore black shoes, jeans, and a black button up shirt. Hanan al-Shaykh contrasted Cole with her all cream outfit.
Hanan al-Shaykh read descriptions of food, place, and a marriage not wanted: “Please help me, I don’t love him.”
Cole watched Hanan al-Shaykh read and entertain the crowd. The interviewers legs were crossed, right hand hanging over the leather arm rest showing a silver bracelet, and her pen and pad filled with notes resting in front of her on a table. Cole’s smile and focus showed she was enamored with Hanan al-Shaykh as much as the people watching.
Hanan al-Shaykh’s long brown hair was tied back as her glasses rested on her face as she read. “I usually choose sections where my mother is very funny,” said the Arab writer. This night was different: an unwanted marriage, domestic violence, and cheating were the images shared. After recently seeing a photo of her mother the writer decided to change from the norm: “It’s not fair to always portray my mother as a funny person.”
Hanan al-Shaykh shared her family history, her wisdom, her complex relationship with her mother, and why she now lives in London, England: the civil war in 1980s Lebanon.
Sitting on leather couches a meter apart, and probably meeting each other for the first time twenty minutes before the event, the two writers talked like old friends and as if there weren’t almost 100 people in the room.
Talking of her books and recent work on the play One Thousand and One Nights Hanan al-Shaykh said, “They would mean nothing if we didn’t have a plot, a goal, where we were heading with the stories. Humililty, forgiveness, love, this is what we are aiming for.”
After leaving Lebanon in the 1980s Hanan al-Shaykh asked herself two important questions that lead to the writing of her legendary book The Story of Zahra:
“Where do I come from? Why am I here?”
Two simple questions lead to a historic novel.
Two simple questions that many people ask themselves.
Two simple questions that not enough people ask themselves.
Published in 27 languages and being the biggest writer out of the Arab world it’s unreal that most North American readers don’t know Hanan al-Shaykh.
“I’m happiest when I’m sitting on my own. I only write when I’m in London behind my desk,” said Hanan al-Shaykh during the question and answer period.
“Is there a particular reason for that?” asked a member of the crowd.
“Yes, stability,” said Hanan al-Shaykh.
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Sunday June 19, 2011 for “Literary Nights at LUMINATO Part 2: Joyce Carol Oates