Last year, I had the privilege of reading May by Kim Abi Zeid Daou. May is a collection of odes, poems short stories and prose interwoven with themes of collective memory, coming of age and feminism. Kim’s work was so inspiring that I sat down to chat with her about May, poetry, and girlhood.
Your introductory poem really struck me, and set the tone for May. Using imagery from nature, it really felt like you were a flower growing in a garden tended by your father. How did your father influence your girlhood?
Because of my father I bloom every day. The reason I chose imagery from nature is because we garden together. My bond with my father is fundamental to my essence. He gifted me the most beautiful childhood by nurturing me with unconditional love, always. Growing up, he constantly cultivated my imagination. Every idea I would share, he would entertain and subsequently explore with me. Every feeling I would disclose, he would validate. He narrated wonderful stories to me too! He taught me to be creative and always uphold my curiosity as I explored the world, and he instilled in me unwavering bravery. My father influenced my girlhood by making me feel so capable and formidable that I felt as though the entire universe was within the reach of my small palms!
In ‘Collective Memory’, you talk about how discussions with your aunt are oral histories of your people. How do you view your place in family and community, and how did that influence May?
Historically, many stories have been left behind. Stories deemed unimportant or irrelevant, stories forgotten or simply overlooked. The most beautiful and humbling tales have been exchanged by word of mouth. Unfortunately, dominant ways of knowledge-gathering dismiss those accounts. I like exploring memory and culture – how do they interact? Which details are remembered? Which details go unnoticed? I don’t want to read about the French colonizing Lebanon, I want to remember my grandmother telling me about the day they left, how she imagined their boots stomping away, and how there was always something in the air that warned her trouble was to come. I don’t want to read about the civil war, I want to listen to my mother’s friend tell me about the salience of her little brother’s unworn shoes. My place in family and community is to tell stories. As such, May is my way of telling stories in ways that touch me, in ways that I wish to touch others.
You tell this beautiful story about Farah, Amal, Yasmine, and Leila, that looks at issues like body image, aging, friendship, and loss. Are they based on real people or experiences?
Farah, Amal, Yasmine and Leila are not specific people, but they are real! I wanted to paint portraits through prose – portraits where I could find myself through poetic devices and word choice; but also, portraits that primarily reflected various women and girls. Each piece began with an experience, an idea, or an observation, and then quickly spiraled into its own universe.
May is a blend of narrative and poetry. How do you think the two relate to one another? What inspired you to pursue both?
I have always wanted to write a book that blends poetry and narrative, as I wrote in May, “Narratives reside in the verses of a poem. The verse, bayt, the house, bayt. We had found a verse in poetry; we had found a home in poetry. It had always been one and the same””
While writing May, I was attached to the idea of creating a collection of pieces that present multiple narratives simultaneously. In this book, interwoven themes tie everything together, rather than a linear plot. The blend of both these forms provided me with many freedoms. I alternated between lived and fictional experiences, personal and collective stories, as well as magical realism and real war accounts.
Such alternations also gave me the freedom to tell the story in a cyclical manner. I believe our narratives, as portrayed through the circular moment in Limbs and Elbows and the story’s ending – Amal’s girlhood – do not follow a linear timeline. We are a series of oscillations, moving left to right, forward and backward, both toward and away from our roots. And, this oscillation or dance is, in many ways, the essence of May. Essentially, the use of both poetry and narrative paralleled my philosophy on storytelling and was therefore my way of oscillating through form.
Do you feel that girls have an equal place in literature? Or are they, like in many fields, still struggling to find equal opportunities?
Girls still struggle in terms of representation, opportunities and recognition in the literary world. They are often expected to fill specific spaces as their work is othered. Furthermore, the literary canon tends to exclude them. Since childhood, students largely learn that phenomenal writers look like Shakespeare and John Milton. They learn to define high culture literature as such, and that’s why the way literature is studied and disseminated must be deconstructed and re-examined.
What advice would you give to young girls who want to write?
Growing up, the first thing my sister and I would do after school was hop into my mother’s car and tell her endless stories!
My advice to girls is to treasure your thoughts and realize that none of them are mundane. The things you notice are meaningful. The reason a detail, an interaction, or a feeling grabbed your attention is because there is a story you want to tell there.
Every moment that touched you or compelled you to remember can be a story. The colorful worlds you create in your imagination can be a story. Write what is interesting to you, because you are already a storyteller!