Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is an award-winning Arab American poet, essayist, and translator. Her collection Water & Salt won the 2018 Washington State Book Award. Poetry editor Jessica Cuello recently spoke with Lena about her new collection, Kaan and Her Sisters (Trio House Press). According to Publisher’s Weekly, Kaan and Her Sisters “weaves intergenerational memory into a beautiful, haunting and intimate portrait of survival that serves as a critique of violence.”
Lena’s crown of sonnets, “Notes from the Civil Discourse Committee,” appears in our Summer 2023 issue.
Could you briefly share your personal story in relation to the history in Kaan and Her Sisters?
It’s important to say that the book is not autobiographical. My own personal history is relevant in so much as I am a Palestinian who grew up in the global diaspora, and who endures the loss of a homeland and its ongoing violent colonization. My father was born in Jerusalem, in 1938. The first great loss was the Nakba in 1948, as you mentioned. In 1967, after the six day war, many of his family members became refugees. And in the ongoing project of colonization, we continued to lose our land to illegal Israeli settlements. Despite eventually becoming an American citizen, my father could only “visit” his homeland when granted passage by Israel, but he could never live there again. He died here in the United States.
Often the narrator is a daughter and student, learning about her home and history from a teacher. The child perspective seems to be an important way of understanding what happens to the Palestinian people.
This is another way in which some of my own history informs the text. Like the student, so much of what I and many diaspora Palestinians can access of our homeland and by extension, our history and our culture, is transmitted to us by the women in our lives. Because most of us are denied the chance to be raised in our homeland and to experience the landscape and the culture for ourselves, the women of the Palestinian diaspora are often charged with enlivening our understanding and vision of home through language, stories and songs, the traditions they carry and transmit. There is an incredible amount of labor women do in our community that gives us roots and connects us to each other and locates us in place and time.
I’m also thinking about the way in which language, its acquisition, and its keeping, are imbued with urgency. How will we know one another and ourselves without our language? These losses shape our relationships with our parents and eventually with our children.
Time is a character in your book, a part of speech, a verb tense, and a sister. Can you talk about language as an embodiment of a time and as a way to hold loss?
Kaan is the Arabic past tense verb “was.” As children learning grammar, we are taught that these verbs are sisters, Kaan, Amsa, Baata, and so on. I love that designation that inextricably links time with sisterhood, with women. Language, as you say perfectly, is an embodiment of time. It is littered with artifacts—of conquests and losses and embraces. I was taken with the idea of having Kaan and her sister verbs experience the life of a refugee as Miss Sahar, the Arabic teacher in the book, does, and to have them transmit it. The phrase “Kaan ya makaan” is the traditional Arabic sentence that begins a story or a folktale. One way to translate it is “once upon a place in time.” That formulation captures so much of our ethos, a people who once lived in a place in time that we are struggling to hold onto. Like my community, the phrase is fragmented, and it appears in various iterations, incomplete and insistent, throughout the book. I don’t think it’s a way to hold on to loss, though, as much as it is an attempt at narrating the loss on our own terms, grieving on our own terms.
I love the figure of Miss Sahar, the love and reverence shown to her. She strikes me as having a central role in knowledge and understanding.
I’m so happy she resonated with you. She is beloved, for many reasons, not least because she’s a composite of many teachers of Arabic and history who have meant a great deal to me. Her lessons and her example stitch generations together despite distance and erasure. And it’s at an immense cost. The Miss Sahar Listens to Fairuz poems mark stations in Palestinian refugee life across Arab cities that are imbued with danger and loss and highlight the precarity of statelessness. And the letters her student writes back to her (I hope) illuminate the ways in which her language re/makes the homeland for those who continue to be distanced from it.
Multiple poets figure in these poems, but particularly W.B. Yeats. Lines from “The Second Coming” appear in various incarnations in the book. What is the legacy of this poem “The Second Coming” for you and how does it fit? Maybe also…what is your relationship with Yeats as a reader/poet.
I read Yeats as a young woman growing up in the Arab world and then again as an American college student. His poems are among the great world poetry voices that echo and form some of my earliest literary memories. In 2011, when the Arab Spring revolutions began across Arab cities, I was doing some reading about our histories and earlier revolutions. Like 2011 in Tunis, Cairo, Damascus and beyond, the year this Yeats poem was written—1919—was a year of resistance and hope and loss and transformation in the Arab world. I was struck by that intersection and kept returning to the poem and reading it in my own context, or “contrapuntally” as Edward Said recommends, and I found it to be an interesting lens to place over events, unraveling threadbare notions of east and west.
There are multiple forms present in the book. I noted in particular , multiple pantoums. Could you talk about your choice of forms for this book and how form developed.
I was introduced to pantoums by my MFA mentor, poet Oliver De La Paz. I needed a “song” form for the poems in which Miss Sahar is listening to songs, and it is such a beautiful and capacious form. The repetitions trundling down the poem, carrying the past into the present, but also changing it as it is placed in new contexts, really spoke to me.
Another concept in the book is letters: letters forbidden, letters as poetic form, and letters to those lost. What is the importance of letters in this history?
I think letters are spaces for intimate address. They also have incredible allure to the displaced because they can travel to places where our bodies may not be allowed to pass. And they can also be policed and searched and censored and denied entry. Palestinian Arabs are well-acquainted with our physical letters never arriving or arriving years later, after the news they carry has become history and in the era of messaging, our correspondence is no less monitored and our presence is frequently shadow-banned. The letter form creates an opportunity to be in conversation with all that tenuousness and for Miss Sahar’s student to disclose her fears and insecurities about the labor she inherits, of culture-making and language-keeping, for example.
The concept of waiting in the book is poignant. In “Amsa Gives the Journalists a Tour of Yarmouk” the line, “How many times, while we wait, must we die?” cuts deeply. Could you reflect on waiting as it appears throughout?
Perhaps this is the most natural and most fraught experience for Palestinians, because our human and legal rights are in direct opposition to what is normalized in the dominant culture. In the case of refugees, for example, the right to return home is an individual, legal right enshrined in international law. Interestingly, no government is entitled to negotiate it away. And yet…
The illegality of the continuing Israeli military occupation of Palestine is another example. But the status quo, otherwise known as the “best friendship” that all US adminstrations have with Israeli governments prevents us from simply living normal lives with basic human rights like everyone else in the world and it criminalizes any and all forms of resistance to this. So we wait—to go home, to be(come) free. And it’s an extreme contradiction because waiting feels like a static and deadening condition, but here it is an active position of resistance to erasure and trust in our belonging and in the arc of justice.
Food and hunger figure prominently in the book. Food that is lovingly prepared is a compelling motif. How do you see the food imagery working in Kaan and Her Sisters?
Living as a Palestinian in the west means that every single aspect of our being—our memories, traditions, material culture, and so on are always contested. Simply answering the question “where are you from” can be politicizing, and our food doesn’t escape this fate. While it may seem silly to have skirmishes over hummus and shakshuka, the greater madness of being told that plants our ancestors cultivated and dishes that literally carry their Arabic names somehow have no connection to the people who created them. It’s another facet of erasure.
But food is also hard won, under occupation and during times of siege and war, and starvation is a tool that has been used against Palestinians even in recent history. As recently as 2010, Israeli human rights organization Gisha won a legal battle with the state of Israel to release documents that show their deliberate policy to use hunger as a tool of collective punishment against Palestinians. They reveal actual equations used to calculate exactly the dietary needs of people in Gaza in order to keep them at near-starvation levels. An advisor to then-Prime Minister Olmert has this chilling way of describing the plan: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
Over the past few years, I’ve noticed an explosion of interest among young Palestinians in the diaspora and in Palestine to learn about our food heritage and its sustainability. From documenting ancient agricultural practices to preparing the recipes of our grandmothers’ pantries to foraging for our native plants and saving seeds. Sociologist Nicholas Bascunan-Wiley refers to this as “quotidian resistance.” Maybe this weather led me to weave some recipes and practices—stories in their own right—into the poems.
You just had a sonnet sequence appear in TLR that is not in Kaan and Her Sisters. What is coming next for you?
I am so thrilled that my (thorn) crown of sonnets found a home at TLR! They are from my forthcoming book, Something About Living, which was selected by Adrian Matejka for the 2022 Akron Prize for Poetry. We’re working on page edits now and the book is slated for publication in February, 2024.
I’m also working on several translation projects. Closest to my heart at the moment is a collection of selected poems by the late Palestinian poet Zakaria Mohammed, who passed away in August of this year. I am so eager to introduce more English language readers to his poetry.
What are you reading now? What books are you looking forward to?
So many books! I just received my copy of the gorgeous anthology We Call to the Eye and the Night; Love Poems by Writers of Arab Descent, co-edited by poets Hala Alyan and Zeina Hashem Beck. I’m thrilled to have a couple of poems in there and I’m looking forward to all the lushness and beauty that book holds. I started reading Enter Ghost, Isabella Hammad’s second novel, and I picked up Viet Than Nguyen’s memoir A Man of Two Faces.