In Conversation: Palestinian Poet Olivia Elias

On September 28, 2023, around book-launch events in Brooklyn, Palestinian poet Olivia Elias — based in France — sat down with translators Sarah Riggs and Jérémy Victor Robert to talk about her collection Your Name, Palestine

Sarah Riggs: I’d like to know about the context of Your Name, Palestine. What prompted the writing? How far along were you in your life? What was going on?

Olivia Elias: In 2015, I published my first book, L’Espoir pour seule protection (Hope as Only Protection), which was too topical and descriptive. I started working on Your Name, Palestine in French immediately afterwards. As I explained in the postface to the English collection, I had reread Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land for the umpteenth time, and I was really struck by this impetus, this poetic denunciation of colonialism. The moment I closed the book, I thought, I’d like to do something along the same lines. An overview of what happened to us between the time we existed and the time when–all at once–in just a few weeks, everything disappeared, engulfed into an immense black hole.

I had some material, some unpublished poems, which I scattered around the table. I then realized that it might be possible, provided I filled in some of the gaps and found something that could be used as a transition. I took a closer look at the way Césaire had proceeded. There was the little phrase that opens the Notebook, When the early morning ends, and restarts the narrative at regular intervals. I had to find something equivalent, and I very quickly came up with the idea of introducing musicians, especially as I wanted to write a text that could be performed outside, in public squares, as in the Middle Ages.

Then I got down to writing the missing parts, particularly the one about the period before the expulsion and exile. I didn’t linger and proceeded with this unconceivable event: an entire people entering a third spatial and temporal dimension. Section II begins with Then came the time of exile, and continues with Musicians, listen. I must start there. Confirm this reality. I was born at that latitude and this longitude. I found it very important to say: I was born there; I spent my early childhood on this Mount facing the sea. I did the same for Jerusalem–latitude, longitude, so many meters above the sea–and for Gaza. If I could, I would do the same for the 450 villages and more that were completely wiped off the map during the Nakba. Then I quickly spoke about the project to conquer Palestine in the context of colonization on a global scale, in particular the Spanish conquest of Latin America.

The following sections deal with contemporary events linked to the terrible wars that have been waged against Gaza. One of them (2014), waged by land, sea, and air, and lasting seven weeks, left a deep impression on me. For instance, some photographs inspired Section V and its “ruins upon ruins.”

Jérémy V. Robert: When you write “Music” in Your Name, Palestine, did you have any specific music in mind, from Palestine or elsewhere?

OE: I had oriental music in mind, but the oud players weren’t always available, so I adapted, and it worked well with western music and instruments. It was always improvised.

JVR: Apart from Césaire, what other voices, which other poets have influenced you, or shaped the writing of these poems? 

OE: The great poets who denounced colonization, like Neruda and his Canto General, a magnificent epic about Latin America, but also Lorca, and Darwish to a smaller extent, who, for us Palestinians, has the same stature as Victor Hugo. In a more subtle, innate manner, Aragon, whom I’ve read and reread a lot & who has that ability to open doors that open onto other doors & that ever-unquenchable desire to pierce the mystery.

JVR: And apart from Neruda, Lorca, and Darwish, that iconic figure, have other less well-known poets guided you? Could you tell us about them?

OE: I had also read books about colonization in North America and the fate of indigenous peoples, particularly those living in the Mississippi region, who were driven westwards with extreme violence–a good number of them exterminated on the Trail of Tears. I see many similarities between their story and ours. While we have so far escaped direct extermination, it has also been marked by numerous massacres, and the imposition of a stifling ideological apparatus designed to obscure our narrative and justify and impose the Conquerors’.

In the United States, indigenous voices are beginning to be heard. In Australia, the Prime Minister officially apologized to the Aborigines and asked for their forgiveness. I refer to this in Your Name, Palestine: May their weapons be silent / May they fall / face against this earth / transformed into a cemetery / and cry for forgiveness (Section X). Canadians are following this path, but there is still no official apology, and much remains to be done. Westerners are still acknowledging their atrocities long after they have decimated and destroyed local societies. I want them to ask for our forgiveness while we are still alive. I don’t want a historical museum of Palestine where history would be told from the colonizer’s point of view.

SR: I’d like you to talk about the work you did on Chaos, Crossing, a bilingual collection translated by Kareem James Abu Zeid (World Poetry, 2022).

OE: About half of the poems in Chaos, Crossing had already been published in French in Chaos, Traversée, in 2017 (La Feuille de thé). Matvei Yankelevich, the editor-in-chief of World Poetry Books, really liked the title, which we’ve kept. The English collection includes almost all the poems from Chaos, Traversée, and as many previously unpublished poems. This is a different book from the French collection because we mixed the poems and arranged the first part in another way. At Kareem’s suggestion, we designed it as some sort of introduction. Once we’d done that, the rest of the structure fell into place very quickly. It’s much more interesting that way.

JVR: More quickly, in your opinion, than finding the structure of Your Name, Palestine? 

OE: In that case too, it was quick. However, the process has proved more complex for my new manuscript because I’m dealing with the same themes, and unfortunately, our situation is so repetitive in its cruelty that it’s become the main obstacle. Like a sound barrier we have to break every time. How can I reinvent myself?

JVR: When do you say to yourself that a book is finished? Or that its structure holds? 

OE: So far, I haven’t hesitated much, simply because I’m not trying to write the ideal book. I find it an unattainable goal. When you write, you always want to say more–in fact, to say everything. And that’s impossible. The mystery of existence, of love, of what people do to other people, and of creation, will forever remain a mystery.

For my part, I approach these questions by tackling them from different angles. By multiplying perspectives and ways of talking about them, I hope to better perceive and translate my understanding through the language available to me, that is, through words.

As for the timing of the publication of Chaos, Crossing, I’d say that I was happy enough about the collection to draw a line under it and move on.

JVR: Did you write when you were younger?

OE: I’ve always written, more or less. I was known in the family for always being immersed in books. In fact, I still have the little blue notebook in which, when I was fifteen, I would write down quotes from texts that had moved me. It has followed me wherever I go. There’s this one by Mauriac, Of abandoned camps one discovers the ashes, the meaning of which became clear to me much later. There are also quotes from Baudelaire, Gide, Colette, and Henry James. 

JVR: Did you read authors who dealt with the themes of servitude and decolonization, or poetry?

OE: I read everything I could get my hands on. I didn’t come from a very literary family. Even Delly’s mushy novels. Unhappy love stories where the poor pretty girl is saved by Prince Charming. I loved fairytales, especially One Thousand and One Nights, that shaped my imagination, as well as Tintin, Dumas, and Dickens. I also read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Poetry came a little later, after I moved to Montreal, with Rimbaud in particular, whom I still reread regularly.

SR: You began your public life as a writer at the age of seventy. You’re a very curious and committed person. I’d love to know how it feels to be in this period of your life.

OE: I’ve done a lot of different jobs, much more than most people, moving from teaching to finance and communication, and taking the risks that went with practicing a new profession. Nothing about this path was planned or premeditated in the long term. In fact, I should have chosen to study literature, but just as I was about to enroll at university, a Montreal daily published an article about a major economic development plan in India. I’d always dreamt of traveling, so I decided to study economics with the idea of going to work in India afterwards. Late in life, I made the decision to publish my work (although I’d never thought about it before, not even for a split second). And everything else followed. At the end of the day, life has given me a great gift by allowing me, at this stage, to concentrate on literature and writing, my childhood passion.

SR: Now you’re the one talking to me about new poets and awards. It’s astonishing.

OE: With the translation and publication of Chaos, Crossing, I came to realize the richness and diversity of poetic production in the United States. And I’ve noticed that my poetry is closer to a certain American trend, in the sense that my language isn’t abstruse and that I try, as much as possible, to eliminate the superfluous, and break the mould of an overly classical writing style. As for keeping up to date, there are some excellent blogs and magazines in the United States and elsewhere, and you can access a lot of international literature online.

JVR: How do these readings of contemporary poets that appear in online journals, which are also part of your active research, play a part in your writing?

OE: Whether I’m reading a magazine or a newspaper, I’m suddenly struck by a sentence or a story. I stop and ask myself: why this reaction? I write about it without having planned on it. I couldn’t write the books the authors I love wrote. These are books based on their lives. For example, The Wild Fox of Yemen, by Threa Almontaser, or On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. It’s their lives, and it’s magnificent. I have to reach the intensity and strength of these books through my own experience.

JVR: You write with your life too.

OE: Yes, but these are not directly autobiographical poems.

JVR: As if your poems were sometimes notes on events, for instance, Ben & Jerry’s refusal to sell ice creams in Israeli settlements.

OE: Yes, it brings to light something latent. In the case of “Ice Creams” (Five Points, winter/spring 2023), I drew on the symbolic force of Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling something as ephemeral as ice creams in illegal Israeli settlements. A word can be the trigger. The poem “Nothing to Do” (Chaos, Crossing), for example, came about after reading a short passage, in Derek Walcott’s poetic autobiography, about a small Caribbean island. No longer able to endure French colonization, forty people jumped off a cliff. Walcott mentions the crystal cry they let out before throwing themselves into the sea.

JVR: Do you start by writing and then cut? Or when you’re constructing a line, a poem, do you have this refined image of what you’re going to write?

OE: When you write about something that moves you a lot–in my case, imprisonments (considering the scale and conditions in which they occur, “hostage-taking” would be more appropriate), incursions night after night into houses at three in the morning, wells filled with concrete, Roman cisterns destroyed, and so on–the impulse to say it all is very strong. At first, I would write and then take out words. Now I do it much more quickly.

SR: It’s difficult to be a Palestinian writer without getting into politics at every turn. Do you find that literature is a subtle way of pushing things and events forwards?

OE: As a poet, I speak of what I deeply know: my life with the full range of emotions, sensations, dreams, obstacles, and struggles that go along with it. And this life is characterized by an immense catastrophe that threw me out of my country and separated me from my larger family and community. So, it’s quite normal that this reality permeates my writing.

When I decided to publish my poems, about ten years ago, I spoke about it in a very direct, intentional way. I realized it didn’t work. I had to find new forms and other images relying more on floating consciousness, pay attention to little mood swings, on those tiny impulses that can come from diverse sources: a painting, something you hear or see in the street, or a book, as I said earlier.  There are, as we all know, very different ways to approach and nurture the creative act of writing. Mine is to keep my antennae, both intellectual and sensitive, open. To be informed, as much I can, about what’s happening in my country, the area, and the world, while leaving enough space for what wants to emerge at unexpected moments.

JVR: There’s no political significance? No message?

OE: My message is to refuse the mind-numbing constraints of the There is no other alternative (TINA) slogan, and bear in mind the horizon of another possible world. Now, if I’ve chosen to express myself through poetry, and not through speeches or classic demonstrations, it’s because I have confidence in words, in their power to touch people & to travel very far. A power that is all the greater if I manage to avoid the easy way out and the pretense.

SR: Mahmoud Darwish said that he would have liked to write about love–and he did, in fact–and also flowers, which are, as bees, very important for the protection of nature and our survival. Does that topic interest you?

OE: In my poem “Signal” (128 Lit, April 2023), I say I wish I could write about good and pretty things / radiant spring   lilac & chestnuts in bloom, and here I am in the dead of night assembling / these images I’d like to burn / here I am pulling on my shirt to protect myself from / the tanks that are crushing my heart. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough presence of mind to do so, because something horrific happens all the time. Nevertheless, I have a collection of poems in gestation, without trauma or drama, written in the spirit of ancient Chinese poets. How can I follow their example when I don’t live in seclusion on the Emerald Mountain?

JVR: Still, in your new manuscript, you refer to the mimosa in the park near your home, the acacia looming in your bedroom window. These trees are like talismans protecting your heart.

OE: Yes, I befriended them. It’s one of the greatest things I’ve inherited from being born there, on the shores of the Mediterranean, in the days before the Catastrophe, from having made my first steps in such a beautiful setting.

SR: Thank you, Olivia.  

A poet of the Palestinian diaspora, Olivia Elias writes in French. Born in Haifa in 1944, she lived until the age of sixteen in Lebanon, where her family took refuge in 1948, then in Montreal, before moving to France. Her work, translated into English, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese, has appeared in anthologies and numerous journals. In 2022, she published her first book in English translation, Chaos, Crossing (World Poetry), translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.

Sarah Riggs is a poet, artivist, and co-founder of Tamaas. She is the translator, from French, with the help of Alisha Mascarenhas, Jérémy Robert, and Cole Swensen, of Etel Adnan’s TIME (Nightboat, 2019), which won the Griffin International Poetry Prize and Best Translated Book Award and was nominated for Lambda and PEN.

Jérémy Victor Robert is a translator between English and French who works and lives in his native Réunion Island.