Searching for the Funambulists: Lisa Marchi on Women Poets of the Arab Diaspora

It goes back to the medieval time. Now, I must say there is a younger generation of translators and they are kind of more daring in their choices. LM: I had almost completed my manuscript by the end of the 2019. Some authorities in the past banned these street artists. I am not denying this important legacy. Also, the groups that gathered around a literary magazine (the Shiʿr group in Beirut or the Apollo group in Egypt, to name just two examples) stimulated literary innovations and social reforms. Generally speaking, I would say that the main focus of the translation is on novels and prose. It is love that is connected to society and to moral standards, a critique of patriarchy and, broadly speaking, of relations based on inequality. In my case, I was mainly working with translations that happened in the US, although I would not rely on them exclusively. In the end, my book found a congenial home at Syracuse UP in the series Gender, Culture, and Politics in the Middle East. I am grateful to the editors for believing in this project. I try to show that we have that but these women writers are also doing something else: encouraging diversity and honoring what usually passes unnoticed. I don’t say that groups are not important or were not important in the past. Poesia arabo-americana scritta da donne? You have some similarities and differences. How much did the pandemic impact your work on the book? This approach, which so to speak de-familiarizes the familiar, is something that brings those two poets together. You wrote that you don’t see these poets in specific groups; why is that? The methodology is hybrid in both cases, although the topics and the authors are different. One of the biggest difficulties was that it was a ten-year-long project. LMi: The scene has changed in the last ten years with a new generation of scholars and translators. Searching for the Funambulists: Lisa Marchi on Women Poets of the Arab Diaspora

This November, Lisa Marchi — who teaches in the Department of Humanities at the University of Trento in Italy — is set to publish a book with Syracuse University Press that explores The Funambulists: Women Poets of the Arab Diaspora:

By Tugrul Mende

The book brings together the diverse poetry collections of six contemporary Arab diasporic women poets in a search for common ground. We need to be aware of this and highlight the richness of each single text and author. I see these women as unique individuals; they belong to a loose grouping and are kept together by a shared aesthetic and socio-political project based on radical revision and experimentation. They are: Naomi Shihab Nye, Iman Mersal, Nadine Ltaif, Maram al-Massri, Suheir Hammad, and Mina Boulhanna. 

Here, Lisa Marchi talks about her book, the way she approached her research project, and the Arabic literary scene in Italy. 

How did you choose the poets for your research? They try to bring close two points that, seen from below, may seem very far from each other. The poets in the book are funambulists. In general, I must say, the poets gave me a lot of freedom and trust and for me this is very important and I hope I approached their texts with the same respect that they gave me. In the case of Iman Mersal, there is the topic of migration and mobility through space that takes central stage but also of securitization and political obstruction. Clearly for me the poets writing in Arabic were more difficult than other poets. I wanted to show them that there is some kind of fine art behind their work too. There was for example translation of prison poetry by a Syrian writer (Faraj Bayrakdar) and a recent collaborative translation of contemporary Arab poetry of and beyond the revolution (In guerra non mi cercate: Poesia araba delle rivoluzioni e oltre, 2018). The texts and authors, at least as I see them, refuse to “stand still“; they move sometimes erratically not only spatially but also temporally. Sometimes their creativity would also be unauthorized. LM: I think we are generally tired of speaking of groups or labels, because from my perspective they don’t mirror the richness of the individual or the individual’s work and life. LM: The book in Italian came out before, but it was written after this one. What books are you currently reading? These are poets who live in cities around the world and write their work in Arabic, French, English, and Italian. Why “Funambulists“ and what does it mean to you in the context of the poets you are looking at? I had to do it in my spare time, and this is a situation which is very common. People, I should add, who are perhaps a bit disheartened but still alert, and whose gaze is not fixed on the ground but looks up towards the sky. I focus on Arab-American poetry written by women. I took all the time that was necessary and I was not rushed. Finding a publisher was also another challenge, because I was unfamiliar with the US publishing market and I wanted a publisher that would encourage emerging scholars and innovative inquiries on the Middle East. I think there is something new going on in the literary scene. People who would lift the spirits of the ordinary man and woman in the public square with their art for example. This is what also happened to funambulists in medieval times. I thought this is another point of contact. What were for you the most unexpected thing while reading the poetry you used in your research? Otherwise, in the case of Mina Boulhanna, I translated the poems myself. The revolution happened while I wrote the final pages of the book, and the access to libraries and public venues was restricted. I have worked throughout with the original at my side. I developed a kind of relationship with her. Some of these women poets create or elaborate some creative projects that clearly go against the authority or establishment and against a set of ingrained beliefs or moral and social standards. This is an art that is not meant for the elites, it is meant for the people in the streets. I also wanted to feel free in my interpretation. LM: I thought this poetry did not intend to impress in a spectacular way their reader but they try to honestly show their craft and creativity. Research funds were very limited, and I had to juggle multiple jobs; this clearly took a lot of time just to concentrate on the book. Its focus is much more limited geographically and temporally speaking. I looked it up in the dictionary and I saw that this word is still used in the English language, although it is an endangered word. I think the biggest challenge was to bring all the different authors and their respective poetics and themes together. I invited her to the university and I met her later on. I wanted to bring into the Italian context, and among scholars of American Studies in particular, that kind of debate, but I also wanted to highlight the aesthetic quality of Arab-American poetry, which sometimes in the Italian context, people think is mainly about politics altogether or about identity claims. How does this depart from your previous work, In filigrana. Because of all the multiple literary sources that are kind of hidden in the texts, because of the poetics that are different from each other, while at the same time also revealing some communal traits. What can you tell us about the Arabic literary scene in Italy, and about how it’s changed in recent years? For example, Al-Rabita Al-Qalamiya or The Pen League was an important literary and political circle in the 1920s, based in New York, that contributed to promote literary and socio-political renovation in the Arab world. It also contributed to give world fame and recognition to an emerging literature. The discomfort felt by the speaker perturbs the reader as well. The time frame is the first and second generation. Each poet has her own challenges. I recommend both books because they aim to spark a debate. I didn’t have the idea of the book as a whole. They had to train a lot to find the right balance to move forward. It was the start of a long line of lockdowns and solitude. In this case, the dimension of the book is much larger: the contemporary is entangled with premodern times and the four cardinal points get kind of “shaken up.“ In both cases, you have a transnational perspective. LM: It comes from the art of the street. In general, there is a long history of philology work in Italy, a practice that has some positive sides. For example, someone like Maram al-Massri unapologetically addresses the topic of female lust and sexual love. The texts and the authors appear kind of frozen in time and existing only within the borders of a specific group or nation. The text itself has a lot of layers. Still, we never talked about the content of this book. Both of them express their critique by focusing on the female body and by mobilizing unattractive affects such as boredom, weariness, and delusion, which disturb an otherwise ordinary situation or scene. I choose the word because of the multi-layered history it hides but also because I wanted a word that sounded foreign, which was unfamiliar but at the same time had some familiar notes in it. LM: I am an unruly reader. Lisa Marchi: Initially, I had no idea. There may be some recurring themes (nonviolence, sexism, racism, the act of trespassing and unwalling), but the Italian book is much more focused on the US context and on interethnic exchanges and solidarities in the line of Michelle Hartman’s book Breaking Broken English. With some of them, like Iman Mersal, the relationship became closer. It was also a positive fact because it pushed me to go abroad and to reach out to other people, otherwise I would have been writing a soliloquy. I am currently reading Impostures by Michael Cooperson and Companions in Conflict by Penny Johnson. I did not have a department of Middle Eastern Studies or Arabic Studies. You go beyond the idea of the nation. In fact, I was in Lebanon while completing the book. The problem is in my opinion that you lose the idea of the context, the exchanges, and the interconnections because you only focus on this specific author or on this text, and they become exemplary of a nation or a standard of writing. We also have translations of poetry, although in the past they tended to look at the pre-islamic poetry or at the classics, for example Abu Nuwas or more recent classics like Mahmoud Darwish. Funds are less than in other areas of Europe, but because of the geographical proximity it is a little bit easier to have exchanges and carry on this kind of research. The ground is moving right now. This is exactly I think what they teach us to do. Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit. Where available, I would use existing translations and where it wasn’t I would do my own translations, but I am not a translator myself. In my case, I preferred not to develop a relationship with the author, because I wanted to know the author through the text. In general, the problem is not with groups but with literary history and the way we teach literature. This is why I chose the title In filigree, an artisanal craft characterized by intricate metalwork and striking openings. I had some reviewers who told me to take it away and to use a more accessible and standardized word that Anglophone readers would easily recognize. I stuck with this word because I wanted the reader to be initially surprised, a little bit disoriented and to reflect, and think of this word, of its uniqueness and threatened presence. I was reading different poets and some people invited me to build a relationship with the poets in a way I think that translators normally do. Another difficulty was that I was feeling partially isolated.