June 8, 2011KR BlogKR

Interview with Nathalie Handal: Literature and uprising

The fourth in a series of short interviews with writers and translators discussing literature and the Arab Spring.


Nathalie Handal is an award-winning poet and playwright. Her most recent collection, Love and Strange Horses, won the 2011 Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award, and an honorable mention at the San Francisco and New England Book Festivals. The New York Times says it is “a book that trembles with belonging (and longing).” She is a Lannan Foundation Fellow, recipient of the Alejo Zuloaga Order in Literature, and an Honored Finalist for the Gift of Freedom Award. Handal was listed as one of the “100 Most Powerful Arab Women 2011” in a Special Report by ArabianBusiness.com. Her poetry collection Poet in Andaluc??a is forthcoming in spring 2012 (University of Pittsburgh Press).

1. How do you think literature may or should respond to this spring’s events? What role (or roles) would you say literature has played, and how might those roles change?

Literature will continue to do what its always done–respond. Create spaces for dialogue. It mirrors the personal and the collective, where we are and who we are at that moment. What I find most extraordinary about this spring’s events is the flame they have awakened in the youth. To see all these young people so vibrant and full of creative spirit–writing poems, songs, plays. That image, those beats, are symbolic of what freedom looks like, of what freedom can be worldwide. Also, today, literature exists on the internet, enabling the works, the “message” to go out immediately and reach millions. That changes the conversation, it is more inclusive.

2. How have these events come to bear on your own writing, reading, and translating?

I am writing from a different perspective. I might not be fully be conscious of it but I am aware that something is stirring. As for my reading, editing and translating, I have been promoting Arabic and Middle Eastern literature for over a decade (including the anthology The Poetry of Arab Women, an Academy of American Poets bestseller and winner of the Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the landmark anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond). When I started, the publishing world was not as receptive as they are now. It is exciting that finally there is more attention on the literatures of the Middle East, that the works of more Arab writers are being highlighted and translated.

3. As a writer deeply engaged both with US literature and literature of the Middle East, what are your hopes now for these literatures and for their relationship?

That writers from that part of the world continue to challenge readers and expand the literary space we exist in.