A few weeks after my father passed away, I received an email from Olivia Elias’s publisher regarding the upcoming release of her English language debut, Chaos, Crossing. My mind was on loss, and on my father’s life of upheaval since the Nakba, a life lived almost entirely in diaspora. Reading Olivia’s poetry of exile and mourning felt like an anchor in my grief. It was my great pleasure then to be able to chat with her a bit more about her writing and evolution as a poet in this interview.
Hannah Assadi: It is amazing to me that you only began to write poetry in your sixties, and publish in your seventies. Before you found your way to poetry, was there another artistic medium you turned to earlier in life for solace?
Olivia Elias: For me, writing and reading are intimately linked. From eleven to fourteen years old, I attended a religious private boarding school in Lebanon. It was then that I developed a passion for reading. Books represented a refuge, a way to escape, and a way to discover the world. I started with the usual children’s books, The Thousand and One Nights, the fairy tales of Perrault and Andersen, La Fontaine’s fables, Tintin and so on. At twelve or thirteen years old, I won first prize in a literary competition open to all students in Lebanon. We were asked to give our impressions about a movie whose main subject was a white horse from the Camargue. I was awarded a beautiful book, finely illustrated with a reproduction of medieval illuminations representing the seasons, accompanied by texts written by authors such as François Mauriac, André Gide, and Colette.
From the day I left Lebanon, this book followed me wherever I moved, in addition to a small blue notebook in which, at fifteen, I started to copy down texts that moved me. Can you believe this? In the course of answering your questions, I looked back at the blue notebook and realized that the same authors I just mentioned are present in it, along with other names that now don’t mean anything to me—which is quite normal because I was then reading every book which happened to be around, good or not. I read a lot of Delly’s romantic novels, but also Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James . . .
Once in Montreal, I started to be interested in poetry: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Louis Aragon (which I discovered through a Leo Ferré record).
So when came the moment to attend university, it would have been normal to pursue literary studies. But around that time, Le Devoir, a Montreal newspaper, happened to publish a very comprehensive article about an ambitious economic development plan for India. So I chose economics with the intention to work in India one day. How seriously our young choices are sometimes made! This is how I ended up teaching economics in Montreal, and later, working in banking and finance in France.
During that time, I kept reading. I can’t quote all the names and sources of inspiration. The authors which have influenced me most, besides Rimbaud and Aragon, are Marguerite Duras, Eluard, Lorca, Neruda, Césaire, Mahmoud Darwish. And also the old Chinese poets, the Japanese haiku poets, the feminist literature of the 70s, and the Taoist, Zen, and Buddhist literature.
Writing was always present but in an irregular manner, and I’d never even thought about publishing! I have here a series of poems written between 1975–1997. I might do something with them one day, but it would have to be in association with more recent poems (because ‘the I’ who wrote them does not exist anymore.)
You were born in February 1944, just a few months after my own father was born in December 1943 in Safed. He passed away a little over a month ago, and one of my deep regrets is not having asked him more about his memory of his time in Palestine and of the Nakba. Do you have a memory of 1948 which persists and if so, how has that memory figured into your work?
My father, like yours and like a lot of people which have endured severe trauma, didn’t speak about what happened and, just like you, I didn’t question him. Plus, I was too young when we left Haïfa to have precise memories.
But there is one thing of which I am sure. I have been deeply marked—in the Duras sense—by the beauty of my birthplace. A beauty which came from the union of sea and sun, the quality of light and air, the lushness of the gardens and the orchards, and the sensitive adaptation of my ancestors to their surroundings, across the course of thousands and thousands of years.
This beauty still informs me. I feel very deeply that I am a child of Haïfa, this mountain place facing the sea, on the shores of the Mediterranean, while being at the same time a citizen of the world. And I believe my poetry bears the trace of those early, very deeply entrenched impressions.
Have you ever returned to Palestine? How was your experience of it?
Yes, I did. The return left me with contrasting feelings. I felt joy to get to know some members of my family who remained there, and to realize how determined they are to keep living in their homeland. And I felt sadness to see the progression of this obscene reality, the constant intensification of this supremacist and colonialist project (one of the last still in place after last century’s movement of decolonization) and the innumerable discriminations and constraints that affect every aspect of the daily life and prevent Palestinians from realizing their potential. The Israeli colonization and occupation continues to cause immeasurable suffering for the Palestinians.
My father never really taught me Arabic, and I register my inability to speak his language fluently as a great loss, especially now. How has the loss of Arabic affected you?
For a long time, I didn’t mind. In Lebanon, I studied in French in religious institutions. And in Montreal, I also studied and taught in French. At the end of the nineties, I started to register the loss of Arabic. At that time, I was dreaming to go to China and learn the language because of my interest in the ancient Chinese poets and philosophies. At the same time, I was also more and more aware of the deterioration of the Palestinians’ situation. So I changed my mind and I went instead to Syria to learn Arabic. (Lebanon was not an option because so many there speak French or English, and often both.)
In Syria, I took some courses at the Arabic Center for Foreigners of Damascus University, attended by students from all over the world. After that, I took private lessons with a brilliant young Yemenite (Oxford students sought him out to prepare for their exams). I also spent a lot of time in the old city where a sculptor was renovating a space to host exhibitions and events. My goal was to be able to read political news in the newspapers, and I enlisted everybody who happened to be around to help me. I loved Damascus and Syria generally, and the ordinary citizens, their generosity, their deep sense of identity. Had there not been this horrific war, I would have returned there very regularly and I would be fluent in Arabic, which is still not at all the case. It is too bad because it is such a beautiful language, so rich with possibilities. A dream language for poets!
How do you think writing in French has formed you as a poet?
I am not a theoretician of language. French is my first language and, as such, it is difficult to say how writing in French has formed me. I can more easily speak about the influence of my readings, my interests and my professional background which, as you have noted, are all very diverse. I was an economist trained to understand the reports of institutions like the National Bank of Canada and to analyze how economic theories shaped public policies, some helping to maintain inequalities. I taught for many years and I wrote technical documents which targeted very different sectors (non experts, experts…). At the same time, I wrote poetry in private. All of that helped me to be agile with language.
Now, if you ask me to speak specifically of the French language, I will say it gives me a lot of liberty within a very classical framework. For me, the classical framework does not constitute a problem. I like the rigor, clarity and elegance of the French language, and it does not prevent me from experimentation. But I don’t experiment just for the pleasure of experimenting. Poetry is my home, and language represents the medium that helps me to reach people and inspire a desire to enter and share.
So I have this ongoing interest to use words in a manner that makes reading a less automatic activity. Especially, if the theme evokes people’s situation in war zones or very chaotic areas. In these cases, there is this natural tendency to repeat, and repeat, and enumerate, which is a real danger because you are then replicating the reality—so repetitive in its cruelty and dehumanizing aspects. We must keep searching for new ways, new forms. Remaining curious helps. Creative people who use sounds, colors, materials like earth, stones, etc. struggle with the same problem. On my side, I find that I can learn from conceptual artists. Plus I am interested in scientific discoveries concerning how brains function and how our cells keep very early memories.
Many of your poems contend with contemporary politics, injustice, and exile. At the same time, many feature a speaker contending with a sense of mortality. In this sense, your poetry operates both as a form of activism and a form of prayer. To which do you feel art owes more of its responsibility?
A person is constituted of many layers. Some layers are related to their place or role in their local or regional community, the responsibilities which are assigned them, and the ones they are willing to assume. Some layers are more personal, but still common to everyone. The question of mortality, like many others, overlaps both: how collectively and individually we envision the question of mortality, how we respond to it.
Impermanence marks everything, including our bodies, which will at a certain point disintegrate. My poetry reflects those diverse layers, all the more intensely because—in the Palestinians’ case—the concept of impermanence extends to things taken for granted by others, for instance: the ground’s solidity.
I don’t know if I have totally answered your question. Each poet chooses, between these two aspects of poetry you state, the one on which they will put emphasis, at a given moment. In my work, I am trying to give space to both at the same time. But I am also slowly working on a collection absent of these political dramas and traumas, inspired by the path of my beloved friends, the old Chinese poets.
Hannah Lillith Assadi, a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 honoree, is the author of Sonora, which received the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was a finalist for the PEN/ Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Her second novel The Stars Are Not Yet Bells was a New Yorker and NPR best book of 2022. She teaches fiction at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
This post may contain affiliate links.