Lisa Marchi, The Funambulists: Women Poets of the Arab Diaspora (Syracuse University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Lisa Marchi (LM): The project was initially triggered by my desire to have a conversation, deeply personal but also broad, with a group of women, whom I admired and who had never been considered together. In a way, with this book, I also wanted to contribute to shifting the attention of the general public from prose to poetry and from male to female writing, particularly with reference to what we stereotypically consider “male” topics, such as the war, authoritarianism, religion, and politics more in general.
The book wishes to highlight the relevance of poetry when it comes to tackle social, political, and economic concerns and its resourcefulness when we need to find alternatives to the often sensational, numbing, and largely disheartening representations provided by the media.
Most important, I wanted readers, educators, students, professors, and ordinary people more generally to consider and experiment first-hand how liberating it is to think beyond identity categories, geographical divisions, and historical splits. This is why I have intentionally selected poets and texts that defy easy classifications and that metaphorically refuse to “stand still.”
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LM: The Funambulists: Women Poets of the Arab Diaspora explores and celebrates the stunning vistas offered by seven poets-funambulists who use their art of balance and flexibility together with a good portion of courage and transgression to walk a tightrope stretched out across continents, cultures, and faiths. These funambulists are: Naomi Shihab Nye, Iman Mersal, Mina Boulhanna, Nadine Ltaif, Maram Al-Massri, and Suheir Hammad.
Each chapter is dedicated to a collection written in a different language (English, Arabic, Italian, and French) with the aim of exposing a set of peculiarities, while also acknowledging potential points of contact. I have purposefully not included texts written in the languages of the two major nations within Europe, France and Germany, opting instead to analyze the poetry of Ltaif, who lives in Québec and writes in what is considered as a minority language within North America. Likewise, my reading of Boulhanna’s two poems written in Italian—a minor language within Europe—is meant to shift the readers’ attention from Europe’s center to its often despised southern periphery.
Throughout the book, canonical authors are juxtaposed to less-known literary figures, undisputed national icons are placed side by side with more controversial ones, and postcolonial concerns travel to the metropolitan center—shaking its foundations and leaving a lasting mark.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, the study performs a rather unusual shift from identity to space. This is in line with the book’s content, particularly with its detailed and reiterated discussion of the issue of im/mobility, with its attempts to fashion an alternative, subjective, and poetic revision of geography, and with its bottom-up and creative reconfigurations of atlases and collective imaginaries.
Opposition against gender oppression and authoritarianism, historical depredation and memory effacement, problems of religious practice and spirituality, matters of race, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as the horrors of war, colonialism, and ethnic cleansing resonate across the writings of these poets-funambulists.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
LM: In my previous book, In filigrana. Poesia arabo-americana scritta da donne (2020), I used the metaphor of the filigree to highlight the fine artisanal craft practiced by poets Naomi Shihab Nye, Suheir Hammad, Mohja Kahf, and Etel Adnan, who intricately twist and solder together threads, as if they were made of precious metal, while also drilling surprising holes. My focus in that case was more limited: the body of texts discussed was circumscribed to the US nation and the timeframe was the years immediately following 9/11. However, the transnational and interdisciplinary approach I used to analyze and interpret those poetic texts is similar to the one I employ in The Funambulists.
In this latter case too, I turn the reader’s attention toward a type of art that is not just ornamental or decorative but whose aesthetic beauty is deeply rooted in the quotidian. The art of funambulism is tightly enmeshed with materiality, since funambulists walk on ropes made of different materials and perform predominantly in natural or urban settings. Moreover, the book takes up some of the issues addressed in my previous book (i.e. pacifism and nonviolence, interethnic solidarities, border crossings, and unwalling actions). However, The Funambulists is much larger in scope and its time and geographical coverage is much broader.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LM: I think the book is engaging and accessible not only to academics, students, and experts in the field but also to the general public. Personally, I hope it will be read by a diversified and geographically widespread group of people. Curious people, in particular, should read the book but also people who are growing disillusioned with what they hear and see and may find in the book a reason for hope.
In line with the path traced out by these funambulists, I expect the book to have a practical impact on the ways in which we teach and learn a variety of subjects (i.e. literature, geography, history, religious studies, gender studies, and so on) but also on the ways in which we imagine and practice our relations with what we have been induced to regard as places, cultures, and people situated at the far end.
I think the dramatic situation in Ukraine and the exasperating tones with which the war is being narrated as a military confrontation between the West and the East prove how nefarious this type of dual thinking is.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LM: I have very recently started to work on a new project, which will explore the notion of land both concretely and metaphorically, together with the representation of human practices related to the land (i.e. farming, grazing, and accessing water sources).
The new project intends to show a continuity between environmental (in)justice and other types of (in)justice, while also praising the force and radicalism of some creative counternarratives when the issue at stake is fighting for land and environmental rights.
J: Why did you choose a drawing by Paul Klee for the cover of your book?
LM: Klee was a polyhedric artist, fascinated by music and influenced by a variety of media. Der Seiltänzer (the tightrope walker or, more literally, the dancer on the rope) combines the techniques of pencil drawing, oil, and watercolour painting.
I was and still am fascinated by the lightness of this artwork, mainly expressed through the pale tone of the pastel rose, contrasted with the sense of gravity and stability that the figure anchored in a clear geometric structure communicates.
The fact that Klee was involved as a teacher in the experimental yet short-lived experience of the bauhaus and that his works had been included in the list of “degenerate” art by the Nazi regime resonates with the avant-gardism and political radicalism performed by the writers discussed.
Learning that Klee had been to Tunisia and that this trip had had a huge impact on his artistic practice was another point of contact between the chosen poets, the artist of the cover, and myself. I believe that we would not be the same persons and we would not do the things we do, had we not travelled to the Arab world!
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 5-7)
The book revolves around seven poets-funambulists, who use their art of balance and flexibility together with a good portion of courage and transgression to walk a tightrope stretched out across continents, cultures, and faiths. These funambulists train patiently and make constant adjustments to find a precarious balance in a world dangerously and increasingly leaning toward extremism; they make incessant attempts to connect what from below may appear simply as unreachable ends.
Since they are aware of at least two cultures, settings, and homes as well as the gender differences that mark humanity, these poets embody a Saidian “plurality of vision” that enables them to fruitfully contrast essentialist and extremist claims. These funambulists are indeed acquainted with the danger of living one’s specificity as a nonnegotiable difference and of the subsequent rejection of the very idea of a common ground. Hence, the everyday—as a simultaneously shared yet highly heterogeneous site of dwelling—becomes for them a sort of new canvas on which to redraw with significant and at times surprising brushstrokes the bright, connecting details of daily life that bind together individuals, collectivities, and histories.
Despite their different sociopolitical and geographical locations, their distinctive stylistic choices, and multifarious imaginations, the poets addressed in this book are pushed toward writing by a set of common preoccupations, which are not only locally or regionally significant but also globally relevant. In singular and complex ways, these poets address issues of public concern by examining sentiments and affects. Opposition against gender oppression and authoritarianism, historical depredation and memory effacement, problems of religious practice and spirituality, matters of race, class, gender and sexuality as well as the horrors of war, colonialism, and ethnic cleansing resonate across their writings.
By developing a lucid and well-balanced poetics that is inclined, responsive, and polyphonic, these poets-funambulists cannot but stand out from a whole mass of stiff sovranists, religious fanatics, impassive autocrats, and dull technocrats. Far from cultivating the Andalusian myth of communal life as happy convivencia, these poets put readers on guard against the tensions and divisions that threaten our living together, showing, for instance, that the violent manifestations of the present may have roots that extend into a widely forgotten yet still burning past. Through an intricate and defamiliarizing poetics and the activation of unattractive affects, such as boredom, frustration, resentment, and nervousness, these funambulists detect and intensify social and political ills that have generally come to be accepted as normal. From the heights of their wire, readers clearly spot authoritarian drives and democracies in crisis, resurgent forms of obscurantism and fanaticism one thought buried forever, the danger posed by mythic origins and entrenched states as devilish “engines” producing harmful divisions, fatal exclusions, and devastating wars. Their funambolic art accords stunning vistas, yet each one of them performs a tightrope walk that is unique: either hesitant, audacious, or poised.