A conversation with the award-winning poet behind "Water & Salt."
Seattle poet, writer and translator Lena Khalaf Tuffaha has been busy. She won the 2016 Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize for her poetry collection “Arab in Newsland.” A new book of poems, “Water & Salt,” followed on Red Hen Press in 2017. Most recently, “Water & Salt” took home the 2018 Washington State Book Award for poetry. Here’s what she told The Seattle Times about the idea of home, displacement and how identities are politicized.
Q: How has your relationship to safety and survival shaped your poems?
A: For my entire life, simply saying that I am Palestinian has been received one way or another as political assertion, rather than a simple answer to a question. It is a necessary act of survival — so as not to be subsumed by alternative labels that are designed to erase our particular history and determine the future we’re allowed to have. And if simply saying who are you are is politicized, you can imagine that safety is threatened by varying degrees whenever we speak our names.
Throughout my high-school and college years in the United States, in “liberal” Seattle, I experienced pushback, questioning and outright dismissal of my identity as a Palestinian at so many levels of authority — college professors, editors, etc. In school, my kids often confront the same challenges. And this particular struggle is wrapped in the normalized anti-Arab and Islamophobic attitudes that still thrive in the United States, and peak during wars (Gulf War I and II, for example). But we’re here. We speak our names unapologetically. We fight on.
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Q: The poem “Again and Again” reminds me of how fragile innocence is and how these poems are not innocent but tend to reckon with it. Is it difficult to write innocence into a poem?
A: I often borrow W.S. Merwin’s phrase to describe the landscape that inspires my poems: “the country in which I was a child.” Most of my formative years were spent in the Arab world, living in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and traveling through the region. I lived with my Palestinian, Syrian and Jordanian family and also among Lebanese, Egyptian and Iraqi Arabs in communities forged by wars and loss. The dialects and wedding songs and rituals of grieving and the fragrances of our food and seasonal rituals are the fabric of my youth. Wars, always planned beyond our borders and executed on our soil, are the punctuation marks of this life, the impetus to leave or to stay. I guess that is a kind of ongoing loss of innocence?
As I entered high school in Jordan, Palestinian boys and girls my age were putting their bodies on the line in the first intifada. I am deeply marked by that chapter of our freedom struggle. In my poems, I find I am often trying to recover shards of those childhoods, children who carry such unspeakable burdens of violence.
Q: My favorite line in the book is “Nowhere / is a homeland too” in the poem “Cruising Altitude.” Can you speak more about what home means to you, especially in relation to country and Seattle?
A: I love that the line stayed with you! Full disclosure — it was a line that surprised me in my own poem. I belong to many places and Seattle is the place I was born, not the place I was raised. In that way “Home” is often Jordan and Palestine, places where I’ve lived or where I’m known fully and in my native language.
Seattle is where I fell in love and got married and raised my own children. I got to know Seattle on the eve of Gulf War I, which was the impetus for my parents’ decision to move here from Jordan. Seattle was and is many things: welcoming and detached and hopeful and vocally anti-war and complicated and beautiful and myopic and largely ignorant about the part of the world I come from. We traveled and moved a lot when I was young. Some readers will hear a sadness in that statement. Others, who may have traveled and moved a lot as children, too, might read it differently, and know the relief that the nowhere-homeland can provide from some of the burdens of love and belonging.
“Water & Salt” by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Red Hen Press, 96 pp., $17.95