Palestinian novelist and poet, Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, has published her latest book You Can Be the Last Leaf (Milkweed, 2022), a collection of poems translated by Fady Joudah. Abu Al-Hayyat is the editor of The Book of Ramallah: A City in Short Fiction (Comma Press, 2021) and the director of Palestine Writing Workshop, an institution that seeks to encourage reading in Palestinian communities through creative writing projects and storytelling with children and teachers.
Poets.org: What has the translation process taught you about your poetry? What is it like seeing your images take slightly different shapes in the English language?
Maya Abu Al-Hayyat: Translation is to live in the mind of another person and to intersect with his experience and thoughts about poetry and language; language is an integrated culture and understanding through context because poetry itself is a translation of a language that is not originally understood. In fact, the experience taught me that I’m somewhat stubborn, bearing an understanding of myself through others’ understanding of my poetry and the intersection of personal and public experiences.
Maybe Fady [Joudah] was fully aware of the context from which my poetry comes, but the war is on the private interpretation of the underlying in understanding the general contexts.
Poets.org: Could you talk a bit about your frequent use of humor in your poetry, particularly when used while writing about mortality and other dire themes?
MAH: The Arabic language is very heavy, and the seriousness in the Palestinian case is heavier. In light of all this weight comes your role as an artist and maker of a parallel scene to deceive, excel, and elude the scene imposed on you. Sarcasm is a defense that I used to make fun of myself all the time, trying to make sense.
Poets.org: In addition to your prolific career as a novelist, poet, and children’s book writer, you are the director of the Palestine Writing Workshop, a program for youth in Palestine that fosters a love of reading through different creative writing projects in the community. How has working with youth directly influenced your storytelling?
MAH: Working with young people has made me more humble about language. To write in the simplest words, to pass on the most difficult ideas, but also to be innovative and write to the current audience in a modern language not to critics or the elite, you know.
Poets.org: Your latest novel, No One Knows His Blood Type, was published by Dar Al-Adab in 2013. Of your work, Fady Joudah writes, “Although a novelist, she is hesitant to pick up the thread of story in her poems. It is less a question of dipping in the same well twice than of shielding herself from unraveling in the breath of verse [...]” Has writing poetry changed your relationship with the other form?
MAH: I started my life writing poetry, but I initially published a novel. The novel was very poetic, the effect of poetry on the novel. When I write poetry, there are prohibitions and residuals related to linguistic workmanship that are still stuck in my mind and they need to be more liberated, unlike my writing of the novel now, which I feel is more liberating than my poetry. I am waiting for the moment when my poetry will become more open to the literary genres I write, as is the case with my writing in fiction and for children, which I feel is more open to poetry.
Poets.org: What are you working on or reading currently?
MAH: I am currently working on a novel, and I am helping to publish a collection of stories for children through my work as a teacher and editor at the Palestine Writing Workshop. I also present a long workshop in literature entitled “Literature Without Borders” for a group of writers.
Poets.org: Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you most right now?
MAH: I really liked the part dedicated to teaching poetry in schools on the site, and it inspired me to do a similar project with schools in Palestine because the need for that is great. There is nothing more difficult, and perhaps more beautiful, than teaching poetry to children and young people, as it increases their understanding of the world and themselves during a very important period. I really enjoyed listening to Richard Blanco’s poem “América.”