Searching for the Funambulists: Lisa Marchi on Women Poets of the Arab Diaspora

This November, Lisa Marchi — who teaches in the Department of Humanities at the University of Trento in Italy — is set to publish a book with Syracuse University Press that explores The Funambulists: Women Poets of the Arab Diaspora:

By Tugrul Mende

The book brings together the diverse poetry collections of six contemporary Arab diasporic women poets in a search for common ground. These are poets who live in cities around the world and write their work in Arabic, French, English, and Italian. They are: Naomi Shihab Nye, Iman Mersal, Nadine Ltaif, Maram al-Massri, Suheir Hammad, and Mina Boulhanna. 

Here, Lisa Marchi talks about her book, the way she approached her research project, and the Arabic literary scene in Italy. 

How did you choose the poets for your research?

Lisa Marchi: Initially, I had no idea. I didn’t have the idea of the book as a whole. I was reading different poets and some people invited me to build a relationship with the poets in a way I think that translators normally do. In my case, I preferred not to develop a relationship with the author, because I wanted to know the author through the text. I also wanted to feel free in my interpretation. With some of them, like Iman Mersal, the relationship became closer. I invited her to the university and I met her later on. I developed a kind of relationship with her. Still, we never talked about the content of this book. In general, I must say, the poets gave me a lot of freedom and trust and for me this is very important and I hope I approached their texts with the same respect that they gave me.

Why “Funambulists“ and what does it mean to you in the context of the poets you are looking at?

LM: It comes from the art of the street. It goes back to the medieval time. People who would lift the spirits of the ordinary man and woman in the public square with their art for example. I choose the word because of the multi-layered history it hides but also because I wanted a word that sounded foreign, which was unfamiliar but at the same time had some familiar notes in it. I looked it up in the dictionary and I saw that this word is still used in the English language, although it is an endangered word. I had some reviewers who told me to take it away and to use a more accessible and standardized word that Anglophone readers would easily recognize. I stuck with this word because I wanted the reader to be initially surprised, a little bit disoriented and to reflect, and think of this word, of its uniqueness and threatened presence.

The poets in the book are funambulists. They try to bring close two points that, seen from below, may seem very far from each other. They had to train a lot to find the right balance to move forward. This is exactly I think what they teach us to do.

What were for you the most unexpected thing while reading the poetry you used in your research?

LM: I thought this poetry did not intend to impress in a spectacular way their reader but they try to honestly show their craft and creativity. Sometimes their creativity would also be unauthorized. This is what also happened to funambulists in medieval times. Some authorities in the past banned these street artists. Some of these women poets create or elaborate some creative projects that clearly go against the authority or establishment and against a set of ingrained beliefs or moral and social standards. I thought this is another point of contact. This is an art that is not meant for the elites, it is meant for the people in the streets. People, I should add, who are perhaps a bit disheartened but still alert, and whose gaze is not fixed on the ground but looks up towards the sky.

I think the biggest challenge was to bring all the different authors and their respective poetics and themes together. Each poet has her own challenges. Clearly for me the poets writing in Arabic were more difficult than other poets. Because of all the multiple literary sources that are kind of hidden in the texts, because of the poetics that are different from each other, while at the same time also revealing some communal traits. You have some similarities and differences. For example, someone like Maram al-Massri unapologetically addresses the topic of female lust and sexual love. It is love that is connected to society and to moral standards, a critique of patriarchy and, broadly speaking, of relations based on inequality. In the case of Iman Mersal, there is the topic of migration and mobility through space that takes central stage but also of securitization and political obstruction. Both of them express their critique by focusing on the female body and by mobilizing unattractive affects such as boredom, weariness, and delusion, which disturb an otherwise ordinary situation or scene. The discomfort felt by the speaker perturbs the reader as well. This approach, which so to speak de-familiarizes the familiar, is something that brings those two poets together.

How does this depart from your previous work, In filigrana. Poesia arabo-americana scritta da donne?

LM: The book in Italian came out before, but it was written after this one. Its focus is much more limited geographically and temporally speaking. I focus on Arab-American poetry written by women. The time frame is the first and second generation. In this case, the dimension of the book is much larger: the contemporary is entangled with premodern times and the four cardinal points get kind of “shaken up.“ In both cases, you have a transnational perspective. You go beyond the idea of the nation. The methodology is hybrid in both cases, although the topics and the authors are different. There may be some recurring themes (nonviolence, sexism, racism, the act of trespassing and unwalling), but the Italian book is much more focused on the US context and on interethnic exchanges and solidarities in the line of Michelle Hartman’s book Breaking Broken English.

I wanted to bring into the Italian context, and among scholars of American Studies in particular, that kind of debate, but I also wanted to highlight the aesthetic quality of Arab-American poetry, which sometimes in the Italian context, people think is mainly about politics altogether or about identity claims. I wanted to show them that there is some kind of fine art behind their work too. This is why I chose the title In filigree, an artisanal craft characterized by intricate metalwork and striking openings. In general, there is a long history of philology work in Italy, a practice that has some positive sides. The problem is in my opinion that you lose the idea of the context, the exchanges, and the interconnections because you only focus on this specific author or on this text, and they become exemplary of a nation or a standard of writing. I try to show that we have that but these women writers are also doing something else: encouraging diversity and honoring what usually passes unnoticed.

How much did the pandemic impact your work on the book?

LM: I had almost completed my manuscript by the end of the 2019. In fact, I was in Lebanon while completing the book. The revolution happened while I wrote the final pages of the book, and the access to libraries and public venues was restricted. It was the start of a long line of lockdowns and solitude. One of the biggest difficulties was that it was a ten-year-long project. I took all the time that was necessary and I was not rushed. Research funds were very limited, and I had to juggle multiple jobs; this clearly took a lot of time just to concentrate on the book. I had to do it in my spare time, and this is a situation which is very common. Another difficulty was that I was feeling partially isolated. I did not have a department of Middle Eastern Studies or Arabic Studies. It was also a positive fact because it pushed me to go abroad and to reach out to other people, otherwise I would have been writing a soliloquy. Finding a publisher was also another challenge, because I was unfamiliar with the US publishing market and I wanted a publisher that would encourage emerging scholars and innovative inquiries on the Middle East. In the end, my book found a congenial home at Syracuse UP in the series Gender, Culture, and Politics in the Middle East. I am grateful to the editors for believing in this project.

You wrote that you don’t see these poets in specific groups; why is that?

LM: I think we are generally tired of speaking of groups or labels, because from my perspective they don’t mirror the richness of the individual or the individual’s work and life. I don’t say that groups are not important or were not important in the past. For example, Al-Rabita Al-Qalamiya or The Pen League was an important literary and political circle in the 1920s, based in New York, that contributed to promote literary and socio-political renovation in the Arab world. It also contributed to give world fame and recognition to an emerging literature. Also, the groups that gathered around a literary magazine (the Shiʿr group in Beirut or the Apollo group in Egypt, to name just two examples) stimulated literary innovations and social reforms. I am not denying this important legacy. I see these women as unique individuals; they belong to a loose grouping and are kept together by a shared aesthetic and socio-political project based on radical revision and experimentation.

In general, the problem is not with groups but with literary history and the way we teach literature. The texts and the authors appear kind of frozen in time and existing only within the borders of a specific group or nation. The texts and authors, at least as I see them, refuse to “stand still“; they move sometimes erratically not only spatially but also temporally. The text itself has a lot of layers. We need to be aware of this and highlight the richness of each single text and author.

What can you tell us about the Arabic literary scene in Italy, and about how it’s changed in recent years?

LMi: The scene has changed in the last ten years with a new generation of scholars and translators. Generally speaking, I would say that the main focus of the translation is on novels and prose. We also have translations of poetry, although in the past they tended to look at the pre-islamic poetry or at the classics, for example Abu Nuwas or more recent classics like Mahmoud Darwish. Now, I must say there is a younger generation of translators and they are kind of more daring in their choices. There was for example translation of prison poetry by a Syrian writer (Faraj Bayrakdar) and a recent collaborative translation of contemporary Arab poetry of and beyond the revolution (In guerra non mi cercate: Poesia araba delle rivoluzioni e oltre, 2018). I think there is something new going on in the literary scene. The ground is moving right now. Funds are less than in other areas of Europe, but because of the geographical proximity it is a little bit easier to have exchanges and carry on this kind of research. In my case, I was mainly working with translations that happened in the US, although I would not rely on them exclusively. I have worked throughout with the original at my side. Otherwise, in the case of Mina Boulhanna, I translated the poems myself. Where available, I would use existing translations and where it wasn’t I would do my own translations, but I am not a translator myself.

What books are you currently reading?

LM: I am an unruly reader. I am currently reading Impostures by Michael Cooperson and Companions in Conflict by Penny Johnson. I recommend both books because they aim to spark a debate.

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.