The PEN Ten with Hayan Charara
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Randa Jarrar speaks to Hayan Charara. Born to Lebanese immigrants in Detroit, Charara was educated at Wayne State University; New York University’s John W. Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought; and the University of Houston, where he earned a PhD. The recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, his most recent poetry book is Something Sinister, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press.
He edited Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry, and his children’s book The Three Lucys received the New Voices Award Honor from Lee & Low Books. A board member and past president of the Radius of Arab American Writers, he teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I may not have thought of myself as a writer until I was 19 or 20, but the fact is that so much of what we know about being human, and being in the world, we know from reading and writing. From experience, too, obviously, but even this is passed down through writing. We’re the only species that can write down, for ourselves and for future generations to come, anything and everything we can. This makes us the only species that can know what our kind has thought and felt and known for thousands of years. And I had a rudimentary version of this idea planted in me as a kid by my mother, who was a schoolteacher and an enthusiastic reader.
Not long after I learned how to write, I started pretending to be a writer. Usually, this took the form of me copying lines from a mammoth Complete Works of Shakespeare that my father owned. Again, I didn’t think of myself as a writer—or call myself one—until a while later, but with books around—at home, in school—I had this idea in my head that that is what people do: that we write; that we are writers and, as a matter of course, readers; that it’s only a matter of getting there, just as it is with learning to walk or talk.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
I’ve read several books over the years that have left me completely immobilized with awe. The first time that happened was with Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion—good fucking God, what a book of poems! I abandoned becoming a doctor—to become a poet—because of Levine’s poems. The next time, it happened with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; then, again, not long after, it was Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Then, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children—I could never write what he writes or how he writes, for a million reasons, which makes me even more grateful that Rushdie does. Finally, if I could get away with it, if only for a day, I’d love to be able to introduce myself by saying, “Hello, my name is José Saramago. You may have read my novel Blindness.”
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
The simple answer: never. Why? All the obvious reasons, but also because, as an Arab, I know that so much of what is going on in the Middle East (in Palestine, for example, or Syria or Iraq) is censored. When it comes to the censorship of Arab or Muslim lives, the “unacceptable parts” are usually not of books or movies but of entire realities.
I don’t want to get into global politics or the pitfalls of supposed liberal thinking. Others do that much better than me. So I’ll switch gears, and tell you that, in fact, I censor all sorts of things, all the time, and over the past five years I’ve practiced a great deal of censorship. I have two children, a four- and a five-year-old. I censor books, videos, films, songs, photographs—you name it. They’re too young to surf the Internet freely, for example, which, to my amazement, they know how to do. The thing is, with every day that goes by, it seems, they understand more and, in their own way, they become more aware of the decisions they can make for themselves, as well as more capable of handling the information and images and ideas they encounter. So my censorship, on their behalf, isn’t about keeping them sheltered. My wife and I speak openly to our children about almost everything—we just want to be able to do so with our own words, at our own pace, and to be able to stop when necessary, back up, answer questions. Obviously, we know that at some point, which will come quick, we won’t have these luxuries.
When it comes to me—that is, if we’re talking about adults—then I go back to my original response: I don’t want to practice censorship, and I don’t want anyone censoring anything for my sake. I’m mature enough to do that on my own, as I take most adults to be. Even if they have shit for brains, they should be able to watch, read, and listen to what they please—after all, having shit for brains doesn’t stop others from becoming lawmakers or leaders who decide to censor this or that.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
The first time I was arrested, I was young, 17, driving in Detroit, with two friends. One of the two police officers that pulled us over looked at us and said, “You’re an Arab, you’re a Mexican, and you’re black.”
This was on Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween. If you don’t know, on Devil’s Night in Detroit, some people would take to setting houses on fire. Hundreds of houses would burn that night. Because of this, the city had a curfew in place. My friends and I were out after the curfew. We weren’t burning houses; we weren’t carrying gasoline or matches. We’d been at a high school function, and the three of us were wearing high school uniforms. I realize that boys at Catholic high schools aren’t angels, but we clearly weren’t devils either. They could’ve sent us home, but we realized almost instantly that the police were going to enjoy themselves at our expense.
They cuffed us, took us to jail, fingerprinted us, put us in a cell, and then left. It was around 9 or 10 o’clock at night at that point. They didn’t let us make phone calls. They didn’t ask us if we needed anything. They just left. And no one came back until the morning.
As far as our parents were concerned, we had gone missing. They were up all night, freaked out, wondering what had happened to us—they waited to hear from us, and they never heard from us. For all they knew, we had just disappeared in the middle of the night, somewhere in Detroit, which may have been our hometown but at the time it was also the murder capital of the world. The crazy part is that at some point, when it was clear to them that we were more than simply running late, all our parents had called the police. The worst part: when I showed up at home, around 7 or 8 in the morning, and told my parents what had happened, they didn’t initially believe me. It didn’t make sense to them that the police would lock us up overnight, not let us call home, and make our families think the worst. They were right—it didn’t make sense, at all, but it happened nevertheless.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Summed up, in three sentences: Things could be better. Things could be worse. Holy shit, we’re all going to die.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
So I have a poem called “Narrative,” and it’s about things my father did—to my mother, my sister, and me, to himself, and to our neighbors. The poem opens with my father slamming a snow shovel into a neighbor’s face. Then slamming my sister’s face into a wall. It goes through moments like these, which also include being locked in a dark cellar to being forced to stand in the freezing cold in the snow to him dousing a family member head to toe with lighter fluid to threatening the person he’d set her on fire and then telling her to do it herself. There’s another thread through all these moments—the love we had for him, despite the traumas. Anyhow, when I finished the poem, some years ago, I told myself that I’d wait until my father died to publish it in a book. And it’s now actually published in a book, Something Sinister, but he’s alive still. I suppose I brought the poem out in the book because, though he’s not dead, my father and I don’t speak anymore, and I haven’t seen him in more than a decade—it’s a kind of death.
Look, generally speaking, it’s exhausting being human. And, these days, it’s really exhausting to be Arab. Why? Because—any Arab will tell you this, especially Arab artists, writers, and thinkers—over and over, for years and years we keep telling people the same things, explaining to them about being Arab, the politics of it, the exclusions, the repeated traumas, the wave after wave of grief, and in return, so often, even by well-meaning people, we keep getting told that we are wrong. Every Arab I know has lived a version of this story, repeatedly.
For me, for better or worse, when it comes to the political aspects of being Arab, I’m able to put them aside just long enough to relax, recover, and return to it again—whether that means writing another poem, giving a talk, answering a question, or teaching a course. It’s exhausting being Arab, but I’m able to go to bed at night, wake up in the morning, get dressed, and do it all over again. The personal stuff, though—being Arab and having a father who is in reality every awful Arab father stereotype you’ve come across—that’s something that wears me down almost completely. I think it would be easier not to write those poems, or if I do, to keep them in a desk drawer.
I don’t really think writing or publishing a poem like “Narrative” is daring so much as it is just an act of trauma. I don’t mean in the usual sense—that in writing the poem, I am reliving the trauma. What I mean is that in writing the poem and publishing it, I have to endure another kind of trauma: the responses that people have to the poem, some of which go something like, “There you go—another abusive Arab man,” or “Does your father have to be so abusive? We Arabs already have a bad enough image of ourselves—the last thing we need are stories like this.”
Obviously, not everyone thinks that way. But enough people do. And, either way, I wonder what people think. Right now, I’m wondering. It wipes me out. And there is nothing cathartic about the poem being out in the world for others to read. I mean, there’s a difference between writing a poem and publishing a poem. I wrote the poem for the same reason I write all my poems—I sensed I could discover, or uncover, something worthwhile; that maybe, through the language and process of poetry, I could come to an understanding I hadn’t been able to arrive at otherwise. Putting it out there—that’s another story entirely. It’s possible that I just don’t realize yet that the poem being out there accomplishes something for me. What it does for others, I can’t name it—I haven’t asked, and no one’s told me. I do know that it’s hard to write and “share” poems like this. I’ve known that from the beginning. Maybe that counts as daring.
Probably, I’m thinking now, I should’ve just given you a different example, like the time I wrote my wife an email at 3am while I was sleep-deprived and furious and one hundred percent convinced that it was her turn to feed our three-month-old son, but she was convinced it was my turn, and we fought about it—at 3am—and she won, and I ended up giving our son his bottle, and he fell asleep in my arms while I sat at my desk, bleary-eyed and out of my mind, typing out a long, very long, uncensored middle finger to the woman I love. Not my finest moment. And then, I hit send. And then I spent the next hour or so trying to figure out how to retrieve the email before she could ever see it. But I’m not a spy or a hacker—I don’t know how to break into people’s emails. So I woke her up and told her what I’d done and begged her not to read the email. Of course she went straight to her laptop to read the message, and I was sure we were going to get divorced right then and there. That email was daring. Or dumb. And, if you’re curious: we’re still married.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
If we’re talking about right and wrong, good and bad, then I look at it this way: whatever moral or ethical system you live by—religious, legal, political, philosophical, or otherwise—your responsibility to yourself, to others, and to the world we live in still belongs to you regardless of what you call yourself: writer, lawyer, police, Christian, Muslim, humanist, feminist, whatever. What this means, obviously, is that your writing life isn’t totally devoted to, say, loving everyone—not unless, I suppose, you’re an ascetic monk and you devote your life to loving God; then, I suppose the only thing you write are poems to God. But short of something like that, you live your life in many ways, and you express moral and ethical values in various ways, and not every aspect of your daily life is strictly or explicitly about moral or ethical responsibility. We watch football games, after all, and shop for new phones and read about the lives of celebrities—we do this and that because we enjoy it; we have habits; we want to fit in. The same goes for what we write. That said, the question has me thinking about a poem I wrote recently and how I can think about it in terms of responsibility. The poem is about running—as exercise. That’s at least what’s happening in the poem, which I wrote after a long run I took, along a bayou through a part of the city that also has a bunch of rail lines going through it, and it’s surrounded by abandoned warehouses and gas stations and car repair shops, the smell of fuel everywhere and parking lots slick with oil—and while running, out of nowhere, a massive cluster of dragonflies flew into me, hundreds of them, flying past and around me. They stopped me dead in my tracks.
When it comes to this experience, what’s my responsibility as a writer? The best way I can answer the question is to say something about craft or aesthetics or about having allegiance to the poem, to language, or something like that. But maybe a more accurate question is: what is my responsibility as a human being? From the standpoint of how I live my life, my job is to stop and take notice: literally, but also figuratively, to stop running, to look around, to take notice, both at the beautiful and the ugly, at what still surprises and astonishes and what has become so commonplace it has become too easy to overlook or ignore. The two then, my responsibility as a human being and a writer, come together.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Of course we do. We have multiple purposes, and one of them is simply to supplement the other kinds of discourses out there that don’t rely on narratives or poetic language. Facts alone won’t necessarily accomplish change—that is, when it comes to changing the way people understand or act toward one another. People knowingly and willingly ignore facts—they’re just as good at ignoring opinions, too. But it’s harder to ignore stories; it’s harder to ignore the words or images that try to pierce a level deeper than the surface. You can ignore words and images (whether in poems or novels, films or artworks), and I suppose you can ignore the feelings that these produce, but again, it’s a lot harder to do so. It’s obvious, too, that for this sort of work to be really meaningful, it needs to occur not in isolation, but in a community, and across communities.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
I have never done such a thing, and I can’t see myself doing it. I’d rather send books to the imprisoned writers.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
When you observe, you’re open to whatever the encounter reveals—it can be good, bad, beautiful, strange, boring or forgetful. You don’t know. You find out. With surveillance, before you begin, regardless of what you see or hear, you already know what’s there, and it is sinister—even if what you encounter is nothing at all.
Guest editor Randa Jarrar is the author of the critically acclaimed novel A Map of Home, which was named one of the best novels of 2008 by the Barnes & Noble Review. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Chapters, Guernica, The Oxford American, The New York Times Magazine, and The Progressive. For the PEN Ten, Jarrar interviews writers who focus on counter-hegemony, censorship, race, gender, and the artist’s role in all the above.