Mini-Interview: natalie hanna

natalie hanna is an Ottawa lawyer working with low income populations, and an alumna of carleton and ottawa u. her writing focusses on feminist, political, and personal relational themes. From April of 2016 to September of 2018, she served as the Administrative Director of the Sawdust Reading Series and on the board of Arc Poetry Magazine. Her poem “light conversation” received Honourable Mention in ARC Magazine’s 2019 – Diana Brebner Prize. After years of publishing but this is her first trade collection.

About the poet: natalie hanna I had the pleasure to publish in a Cocoa Cabin chapbook over 5 years ago. She published my chapbook, rob plunder gift (BattleAxe, 2018) which is an erasure of 25 years of poems of rob mclennan. She recently did a collaborative chapbook with Liam Burke. You can hear her interviewed at small machine talks in 2017. She is a poet who applies her deep intellect, her protective wings, and her bottomless tender heart into her poetry.

lisan al’asfour by Natalie Hanna (ARP Books, Winnipeg, Nov 2022).

lisan al’asfour by Natalie Hanna (ARP Books, Winnipeg, Nov 2022).

Book description:

“Beginning and ending with moving invocations for softness and strength, Natalie Hanna’s lisan al’asfour (the bird’s tongue) introduces a personal concept of creation around loss, confirming identity, and matrilineal questions.

Hanna delves into her heritage as the child of a married woman (who later became a single mother in Canada), compelled to immigrate from Egypt in the 1970s. She narrativistically traces challenges including medicalization, childlessness in relation to ancestral lines, racism, loss of culture, and working in the field of law.

The book then brings the reader through poems of mourning, touching on Tahrir Square, Syrian bombings, the conflict in the Gaza Strip, the Beirut explosion, and gun/police violence to Black and Indigenous communities.

Finally, a series of poems that describe the schism between defining and maintaining identity, and the orientalised perceptions of what others have expected, invite intimate and vulnerable engagement. These are poems that speak to our efforts to make sense of the worlds we construct. Engagements with sometimes graphic incidents are offered in a respectful manner that confronts atrocity, refusing the impulse to avert. They, therefore, also have a unique multivalence, embracing an impassioned approach to literary practice as anti-oppression practice, through the perspective of the critical self-subject.”

Some lines from ‘do not stand up as a witness against me’

again, let laughter testify in favour of our continued
existence as much as the dichotomy of mended seams
and fine silk, the stitched together syntax
of needlepoints so vast we could step inside
and run away forever from all sorrows, for
we speak in the meter of doubt. we speak fear
by question: what is the life of each of us worth?

stanzas from ‘the mountains we become while inhabiting the earth’

let us sing an elegy for embroidered galabeyas
handed down by our mothers
we imagined wearing in the gardens

so tender did we think our limbs would remain
every precious moment of light
illuminating our changeable faces

never knowing it is possible to accrete
stillness over lifetimes such that we bend
to the law of mountains

PP: What was your aim with the book?
NH: I wanted to put together a first full length collection that would have spoken to someone in my position when I was coming up as a writer in my twenties. I wanted to give a perspective on the development of identity, both forwards and backwards in time.

There were some sea-changes in my life in my thirties. They allowed me to gain new lenses through which to examine my experiences, while also challenging me. One day, it felt like there were finally enough pieces that worked together to create a narrative backbone.

One of the themes in the book is that of trying to retain diaphanous cultural connections as part of an Arab diaspora. The children of immigrants both lose and inherit much. It would have meant a lot to me early on to read poetry by other contemporary, Arab women who were also children of immigrants. Into this, I’ve also woven discussions of who we think is privileged to speak, be recognized, and succeed.

The title, ‘lisan al’asfour’ is a transliteration of the Arabic nickname for orzo pasta, which comes out to “the bird’s tongue.” It is the earliest source of Arabic/English childhood misunderstanding my mother can remember having with me, when she named the dish she was serving me and I became inconsolable with grief at the prospect of eating the tongues of birds. It’s become both a part of our family story and a significant symbol for the uses of speech. It is around this idea that the book has coalesced.

PP: What was or will your favourite moment(s) in making this book?
NH: There have been many good moments in this process. I guess it must be thrilling for everyone to sign their first book contract! I really enjoy organizing manuscripts, as well. I’ve been grateful to have solid advice and support from some amazing and generous authors, editors, and publishers without whom this would never have come to pass. I was delighted to find a progressive home for the manuscript with ARP Books. I’m also very much looking forward to putting a copy of the book into my mother’s hands.