"Am I doing enough? I mean, with the new generations of students, everybody's plugged in and knowledge is out there. So in the classroom, what are they actually coming to learn from me? What am I giving them?”

  Episode 1 | Lamees Al Ethari

Lamees Al Ethari:

Am I doing enough? I mean with the new generations of students and everybody's plugged in and knowledge is out there. So in the classroom, what are they actually coming to learn from me? What am I, what am I giving them?

 

Claire Tacon:

You’re listening to Parallel Careers where writers, who also teach, share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.

 

Lamees Al Ethari:

My name is Lamees Al Ethari. I teach at the University of Waterloo. I'm also a writer. I think I bring something different for the students. A lot of the students who come into the class have kind of focused on Western perspective of what poetry is or what it looks like or it's not a very diverse experience of literature. And so in my class we try to find poets with different backgrounds, writers with different backgrounds. We even have translated texts. So the students get an understanding of what it means to be Canadian in the 21st century, to be a Canadian writer in the 21st century really.

 

There's an interesting poem by Fred Wah titled “Race to Go” that always brings up a very interesting discussion in class. I had one student come up and he said, “It's the first time I feel represented in a poem here.” I thought that was brilliant. Like he said, “My ideas, what I feel is right there.”

 

A while back I was teaching a course on the Arab Spring and students began fighting over some of the political issues taking place. I found that you need to let them speak and say what they need to say. They have to like, they have to learn how to communicate their ideas and so I stopped them when I feel that it's becoming aggressive or the tone has changed. But it's interesting that when topics come up like this in creative writing classes, for instance, they're more accepted. Students are more open in these classrooms to learn about the writer's experience and what the writer feels.

 

Excerpt from From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris

 

Baghdad (edited for length)

Pronounced with a غ

stumbling from

the back of the tongue

 and the top of the throat

like a gentle gurgle

of water flowing from

 the Tigris

 in silt heavy swirls

that find themselves

lost on the edges of banks.

From the tips of our tongues

we pile the memories

and stack them like the bricks

of homes we left behind,

now filled the solitude.

With our cardamom scented teacups

neatly tucked in dust laden

cupboards

we sit here,

always looking back

 

Lamees Al Ethari:

My most recent collection of poems is titled From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris, which addresses my experiences of the second Gulf War and the aftermath. After we left Baghdad in 2006 we arrived in this little town called Manhattan, Kansas. I think I was just suddenly very much out of place in that culture and I had lived before in the States when I was younger. I lived in Canada when I was younger. But I was an adult, I was a mother and it was a very different situation.

 

And what I felt was that all of a sudden all the trauma, that we had kind of kept hidden in these tiny boxes in our brains, kind of exploded. And one day I was, I was sleeping—and we had very rowdy, we had very rowdy undergrads next to us—and I remember one night I woke up. And I was shaking my husband awake and I said, “The Americans are coming, the Americans are coming.” Thinking that I was still in Baghdad at home and that that American troops were trying to enter the house. And he turned to me very like carelessly, I guess, and said “They're all Americans. We're in America. It's okay.”

 

It was nights like this that I would wake up, so one of these nights that was, I woke up from, I don't know if it was a dream or a memory or, and I started writing at 4:00 am in the morning. I started writing “Smoke,” which discusses that feeling of going back into Baghdad after it had been torn apart. We entered the city and everything was burning. It was just, there was smoke everywhere. You got it in your lungs and you're like you, you breathed it in. Baghdad is very beautiful. It's a very beautiful city and all of a sudden all the images of that city were erased and covered in this smoke and, and this madness that was happening around us.

 

Lamees Al Ethari:

I think one of the main challenges is that the topics that I talk about are a bit difficult for audiences and readers because they deal with this traumatic exploration of war and experience of war. It's not always easy to accept that when you haven't been through it, and I've noticed that a lot of people don't want to hear it. They want poetry that talks about love, about life, about nature. I was even asked once in the States by a woman I didn't know who knew that I was Iraqi and she said, “Was it really like that? I mean, did all those people really die?”

 

And I just, I didn't know what to say.

 

Excerpt from From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris

 

Amber Skies (edited for length)

 ….

From a distance we hear them

 searing through the silence,

gliding over the rooftops above us.

 On the damp concrete steps

we forget to breathe.

We exhale prayers

towards amber skies as they explode,

bursting and crackling with echoes.

The tiny bundle in my arms

stirs and sighs, nursing in his lilac visions.

The scent of irises fills the air

and I long to be in my mother's arms

as she crushes monsters with soft whispers.

I crouch over my own creation,

wondering

how I can slay his monsters

when mine are still bearing down on me.

 

With “Amber Skies,” it was, it's an actual description of what was happening on that night. So we were in—my husband's family owns an orchard, it's 45 minutes away from Baghdad—and all of a sudden everything like around us just exploded. So the family was all in the house, his parents, his brothers. And we thought it was best if we left the house because we didn't know if it was going to fall on us. And we were sitting there and you're sitting there and you're shivering and we’re covered in blankets. And I had, you know, my baby was still not even a month old and we were all sitting there. And you're, you're thinking about this and this, these explosions are happening and the sky turns orange and yellow and all these colours. And, and you're sitting there thinking, how, how can this be?

 

So I think the idea is when you're bringing in these stories, what are you leaving the audiences with? What are they leaving you with? Are they thinking about what took place? It shouldn't be so distant after they've read the work or after they've heard it.

 

Lamees Al Ethari:

Teaching and writing connect in kind of a practical way through teaching them about the publishing process, about what goes into that and how to prepare themselves for, you know, sending out 50 copies to different publishers. But also the fact that when you are writing yourself, you are learning techniques as you go. I think it's really important that you're doing it at the same time with with the teaching.

 

Sometimes I give them a theme. So for instance, for their poetry, it's always been “passion” and I don't encourage them to talk about passion as love.  And I ask them to, as a group, to come up with that opening to the story or the poem. So they have to decide on what kind of passion. They have to decide on the description and the image they're trying to present. And I'm limiting them, not just with time.

 

I'm also them with that, with how much they can write. They'll go back and say, what if we added this word? What if it wasn't a poem? What if we did prose that would be maybe easier for us to talk about it. And they kind of negotiate different ways of doing things.

 

It's also a practice and feedback and learning how to get feedback. When you're kind of centered on only what you do and you don't get that feedback and those ideas from others, you're not going to develop and grow.

 

Lamees Al Ethari:

In the community, we are part of this workshop called the X Page Workshop. So it's run by Carrie Snyder, who's a local author. Tasneem Jamal, who is also a local author and we've invited women from the community to participate in writing their stories and these are women from the immigrant and refugee community.

 

In this workshop, they will be presenting to the public, so we've worked on strategies to help them know what's important about their presentation or what to present. We did an exercise last week where I had them put aside the script that they were supposed to read and they just told the stories. And they found out as they were going through, they started finding out, Oh, this is not as important. That's why I'm skipping it. Some of them are non-native speakers, they have accents, they have difficulty with some of the English words that they are using. And they switched the words to something that's more comfortable that they didn't notice when they were writing because when you're writing, you want it to be, you know, it's kind of a, a flowery, poetic kind of language, but when you're telling your story, it's not that way.

 

And it was just amazing to watch them switch and realize, Oh, I don't need this word. I actually, I just need people to understand what I'm saying.

 

Lamees Al Ethari:

When I first started writing, it was to kind of make people understand what our experience was during the war and in the aftermath. That was kind of my main goal. The main goal was that the Western audiences understand that what the Americans did and what happened afterwards was not trivial or easy to go through or it wasn't in any way, shape or form liberation. And I think that was very important for, for me in the beginning. And then some of it was, as I started writing the memoir and I started going through, was for the Iraqi audience. Uh, kind of to say there is somebody out here who knows and who's trying to say something.

 

Excerpt from From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris

 

Dreams From Exile

 

I

fall

like

rain

drops

on

blades

of grass

that cut

through

the red earth

of the

Tigris

banks.

I

fall

on

palm leaves swaying

in the

hanging gardens

of Babylon

cleansing

the

hidden

lilies.

I

fall

into fields

of ambar

and beds

of rasqui

and on shanasheel

al-Basrah

and the canoes

of

Shatt al-Arab.

I

fall

breaking

on

unpaved

roads.

I

splash

on

rooftops

smiling.

 

Claire Tacon:

You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com

 

Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Lamees' work. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening. 

Lamees Al Ethari questions how to know when you’re doing enough as a teacher and a writer. In this episode, she discusses:

00:30 | Developing diverse course reading lists and the impact of representation on students 
02:39 | The development of her memoir Waiting for the Rain: An Iraqi Memoir and her poetry collection, From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris
05:13 | Writing about the trauma of war and the challenges of an audience that has no experience with it 
08:26 | Using constraints in group work and preparing students to give feedback
09:20 | Her experience working on The X Page: A Storytelling Workshop and helping writers find their voice in a second language
10:43 | How who she writes for has shifted over time

  Bonus Writing Exercises

Using Photos to Get Inspired

On the first day, they (the students) just came into class, everybody was sitting, I, you know, called out names and then I told them to take their phones and take a picture of something. And then they had to come back in and write about it. And it's interesting that you could have an image of a tree—and they take these beautiful photographs, like beautiful images—and they come back and then you have a tree, but they will be talking about that leaf on the tree or an insect on the tree or so very detailed. And I ask them to add more details. And some of them, this actually started their whole story.

 

I had one of the students take a picture of an exit sign. And I think it had like a green figure moving towards something, or I can't remember what it was. And the whole story was a detective story about this. So some actually ran with it and it became their topic. And some just added it like, “Oh, this is a green bench that the character passed by.” But it's always interesting to see that depth of creativity that they have.

Writing through Trauma

In the past year, I've noticed that a lot of the students are talking about the trauma related to immigration or to racial issues. I do ask them to kind of step away from things that are too traumatic to write about because there are issues that are too traumatic to write about. I noticed in my own writing, there are things that I can't explore anymore, or it took me a very long time to be able to do that. So in the book, I do talk about one time that our car was stopped by, like a gang, with machine guns. For me, recalling that was very traumatic. Just the idea of thinking about it again.

 

And I found that breaking it up, breaking the prose up into kind of like a poetic prose, I didn't have to give all the details. I just focused on what I actually felt. This is actually something that I did with the students this past week. I asked them to take a paragraph and break it up into lines and then start removing words or changing vocabulary and seeing if it made sense. And if it didn't make sense, what are they missing in these lines?

Recommended Reading

  • The Beekeeper of Sinjar by Dunya Mikhail
  • Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea by Dunya Mikhail
  • In Her Feminine Sign by Dunya Mikhail
  • Suheir Hammad
  More About Lamees

LAMEES AL ETHARI holds a PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Waterloo, where she has been teaching creative and academic writing since 2015. She has published a collection of poems titled From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris (2018) and, more recently, a memoir titled Waiting for the Rain (2019). Her poems have appeared in About Place JournalThe New QuarterlyThe Malpais Review, and the anthology Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. She is a nonfiction editor with The New Quarterly and a co-coordinator for The X Page: A Storytelling Workshop for Immigrant Women.