Author Spotlight: Laila Halaby
Using a narrative style, best-selling novelist Laila Halaby passionately promotes poetry as a means for change. In my name on his tongue, Halaby, who was born in Lebanon to a Jordanian father and American mother, processes the world through her words and stories. She transforms her personal experiences into moving poems which reflect her insights on peace, war, family, and hope for change.
The title, my name on his tongue, is very intriguing and piques curiosity among those who pick up your book. Why did you choose this specific title, echoed by unconventional orthography? (e. e. Cummings)
“when we were trying to come up for a title for my second novel, once in a promised land, I remember my editor telling me that I needed to look within the book, that the title was already there. I did exactly that with my name on his tongue, as it originally had a title that didn’t work well (I can’t remember what it was) and in retrospect it seems as though it was always sitting there waiting for me.”
Displacement seems to be the strongest theme of the book. Are there multiple intended audiences other than people who are torn between two cultures?
“I have never written with my audience in mind. I write what I write and whoever finds it interesting reads it. I don’t like the idea that only people who have experienced two cultures would want to pick this up. rather, I’d like to think that anyone would find it accessible.”
What are the most important attributes in creating such a raw, personal , and witty composition of poems?
Does the front cover illustration on “my name on his tongue” represent you in any way?
“no. not at all.”
“I have traveled off and on over the years and some of that wanders into the poems. pretty much everything wanders into poems.”
Which poem was the easiest to write? The hardest?
“I’m not sure I can break it down quite so simply. there were some poems that took more effort to get the words just right (I am thinking ‘taking a moment to thank our sponsors’) and there were others that took more structural effort (‘the journey’ was originally a talk that I gave). these poems span about twenty years and how I approach poetry, writing in general, has probably changed some over that time.”
Your poems are divided into two chapters: “No matter how much za’atar you eat, you still gotta work to be an Arab/writer/woman” and “My grandma and your grandma were sitting by the fire…” Both reference female struggles- do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
“I’m not good with labels, so no, I don’t consider myself a feminist. but then I don’t really consider myself an arab-american. I suppose if I need to be labeled then some of those terms apply, but I don’t think of it that way. my view of the first section reference my own struggles. the last section reference struggles in general.”
In your letter to Barack Obama, you wrote “you can see both sides of a situation because you are both sides.” How has navigating between two cultures helped you to view the world differently?
“being from two worlds means you are given two sets of eyes with which to view the world. I think it has given me the tools to step out of myself and be able to see situations more clearly — and not just as they relate to culture.”
Your writing in “my name on his tongue” is very stimulating, sometimes wistful, and passionate. Do you consider yourself to be a painter of words or categorize yourself as something other than a writer?
“a label question. I write. I have high standards for myself and take it seriously, but I don’t categorize myself one way or the other.”
Laila Halaby’s my name on his tongue: poems was published last month (May 22) and is available for purchase on the Syracuse University Press website.