Mythologizing the Everyday: An Interview with Amal El-Mohtar
Amal El-Mohtar is currently pursuing a PhD in English literature at the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in a range of publications both online and in print, including Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Cabinet des Fées, Sybil’s Garage, Mythic Delirium, and Ideomancer; her work has been broadcast on Podcastle, and The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of twenty-eight different honeys, is available from Papaveria Press. She won the 2009 Rhysling Award with her poem “Song for an Ancient City,” and co-edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, with Jessica P. Wick. Find her online at http://tithenai.livejournal.com.
Her poem “Schehirrazade” appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 7. I had the pleasure of speaking to Amal by email recently and got to ask her a few questions about her inspiration, her craft, and the supernatural.
Hi Amal! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I’ve read your various bios online. But tell me in your own words, who is Amal?
Hi Matt! It’s a pleasure to be spoken with. Amal is someone who, upon being asked such a profoundly existential question, will wander up and down the sloping streets of her adopted Cornish village pondering it for at least a day, wondering if a reply questioning the question will be enough to spare her the dire consequences of having replied in the first place. For to reply is to commit! To reply is to put one’s own fluid self into a box, to phase-shift from liquid to solid! O noes, as they say on the internet!
To switch from third person to first, though — I’m a girl who defines herself by what she loves, and loves too many things to have sharp edges. I was never any good at colouring inside the lines. I’m a writer, an editor, a poet, a harpist, a grad student, an English major, a storyteller, a member of so many overlapping fandoms they make a sort of cake, an extrovert, an activist, a wanderer, a bisexual pagan Lebanese-Canadian who loves cats and tea and hummingbirds and singing in public places, a Sagittarius, the eldest of four children, the daughter of dear parents, possessed of a loud laugh and the tendency to run off at the mouth.
I’ve lived in four cities — Ottawa, Aylmer, Beirut, Al Ain — and two villages — Luskville, Penryn — throughout four different countries. I’ve visited many more, but would particularly love to live in Damascus, having fallen in love with only the taste of her twice over.
You’re currently pursuing a PhD in English from University of Exeter. What is your dissertation about?
I’m looking at representations of fairies and other supernatural creatures in Romantic-era writing, arguing that those representations intersect with and inform constructions of national British identity at the turn of the nineteenth century.
Do you find it easier to write poems or prose, and what difference do you see between the two forms?
I’ve certainly written more poems than prose, but I’m not sure that means they’re easier to write — perhaps easier to complete, if that makes sense? I rarely start a poem without finishing it, while I may have the opening paragraph or central idea for a story for months before it’s finished. Ultimately I think it comes down to a time commitment: I might be able to write a poem in an hour (or ten minutes, depending), but it’ll take me at least a few hours to write a story, and if I don’t have those two hours stretching out ahead of me as free time, I find it difficult to sit and chip away at one.
That said, I think I’d find it equally hard to write long poems as I do to write short stories. Usually, in a poem, the logic and structure and rhythms suggest themselves to me as I’m writing, whereas there’s usually a bit more forethought needed for me to write a story. Not very much more, but enough to make a difference. Still, there’s been a long poem in my head that requires a great deal more research and forethought and hindthought before I can begin writing it in earnest, so it’s not quite so cut-and-dried, and I find that I need to plot out its structure as I plot out a story in order to do it justice.
I could try to fit a metaphor around this: poetry is like diving into a lake and surfacing, while prose is like trying to swim across. I find it difficult to even begin the dive without the prospect of surfacing, but when swimming, well, I can pause, turn onto my back, float there for a while without reaching the other shore.
In another interview you said you believe in the supernatural. Do you see the world as inherently magical? What do you say to those who adhere to the scientific materialist worldview that the supernatural doesn’t exist?
I do see the world as inherently magical. My definition of “magical” is rather diffuse, though. There are many things perfectly mundane to a scientific materialist worldview that are miraculous to me, that I don’t see as less magical for all that they’re explicable: bread is as much a miracle to me as the stars. As to what I say to those who adhere to a different worldview — nothing, really, unless I feel like being soundly mocked. I’m not out to convince anyone of anything, except possibly the benefits of keeping an open mind — which isn’t at all incompatible with being a thorough skeptic.
I once saw a three-foot-tall pillar form out of whitish, swirly, ripply air in the corner of an Ottawa hostel, where it held its shape for about three minutes before dissipating into nothing again. I was, and remain, convinced that I saw a ghost. But what is a ghost? A psychic imprint left on an area that produces mass hallucinations in a consistently verifiable way? An atmospheric anomaly measured in drops or spikes in barometric pressure? The disembodied soul of a departed individual? I don’t know. It doesn’t change the fact that I saw a weird swirly pillar appear and disappear, and that I can’t account for it without reaching into the realm of the ooky. If someone were to come up to me tomorrow and explain it to my satisfaction, I’d be happy to say “ah, yes, in fact what I thought was a ghost was a combination of heat waves behaving peculiarly given variables x and y.” But in the absence of that, my cosmology’s plenty big enough to account for ghosts, and that’s the way I like it.
How did “Schehirrazade” come into being? Tell me about the pun in the title.
When I was first getting to know Cat Valente, I was living in the United Arab Emirates while she was living in Ohio. We would chat online just about every day. I knew that I’d be back in Canada soon, and was making plans to drive down to Cleveland for her birthday. Knowing that I’d be doing a lot of travelling in the interim — going to Syria and England before heading back to Ottawa — I asked her to send me on a quest to obtain a gift for her from each place I would be. She asked for a glass bottle of ocean water from the UAE, a ring from Damascus, and a comb from the UK. I went in search of these; whenever I found one, I wrote her a small fantasized story to explain how I’d obtained it.
I filled a bottle for her in Fujeirah, one of the Emirates. While there, I started reading Cat’s Apocrypha, which dazzled me, especially her “Virgil and the Bees.” The first few lines of “Schehirrazade” came out then, but little more; I was too overcome, I think, didn’t know what I was trying to say yet.
I went to Syria, I went to England, I found her other gifts. Once back in Canada, I matched story to object, threw in a couple of extra things, made a pile of them, but I still wanted to offer something more, something to tie them all together. I pulled out the few lines I’d written in Fujeirah, and hesitated over the audacity of writing my favourite poet a poem. I did it anyway, and figured that what it lacked in skill it made up for in sincerity.
As for the title? I love to be told stories, and in Apocrypha and The Orphan’s Tales and Labyrinth and The Grass-Cutting Sword she’d told me so many new ones, so originally it was titled “To Scheherezade, on the Occasion of Her Birthday.” But the most precious to me were the things she told me when it was just us speaking together, when we gave each other little names and shared secrets. The non-standard spelling of “Schehirrazade” is one such secret, an Easter Egg just for her.
Do you write on a schedule, or when inspired?
I find it easier to write to assignment — though whether that’s the same thing as “on a schedule” I leave in the air. If someone requests a piece, gives me a prompt, offers me a framework within which to work, I find it easier to complete things quickly than otherwise — although it’s entirely possible that I’ll think “hmm, mythpunk anthology? This thing I started writing on the train might fit that…” and continue to work on it with a venue in mind.
I feel incredibly blessed that right now I have enough requests for material that I need to write on a schedule, to perspire whether or not I’m inspired. It’s what I’ve always wanted.
Is it true you play the harp? And sing? Where can we hear you online?
It is true that I play the harp, and sing! The one I am trained to do, the other I am not — although ironically I do a lot more singing than harping lately. I’m afraid you can’t hear me online unless you are a good friend who asks me for a half-baked home recording at a moment where I’m not quite shy enough to refuse. I hope to change that in this coming year, with the help of a production-savvy housemate, as well as perhaps talented magazine editors who possess hidden skills of their own…
Do you feel you have any recurring themes in your poems? Your fiction?
I think they come in waves, the recurring themes, along with the language that lends itself to their treatment. I keep expecting someone to smack me upside the head and forbid me the naming of spices.
Since that hasn’t yet happened, I can’t help but write longing in terms of the senses, to write language and the ability to communicate as things that aren’t taken for granted, to mythologise the every-day and infuse myth with experience. Lately it’s become very important to me to write my culture and heritage, to shore up the gap between media representation of the Middle-East and my experience of it.
What are your plans after the PhD?
The PhD is something of a singularity for me right now; I don’t feel I can plan for what’s beyond it, as if making a plan will be a crutch, will mean being less prepared rather than more. But I can speak of wants: I want to be able to travel more freely again, to more easily visit friends and family wherever they may be. I want to write a novel or three, though I may not be able to wait until the PhD’s handed in before making a real start of it. I want to do everything I can to strengthen my ties with and give back to the community that’s sustained me throughout this degree.
Seven adjectives to describe Sybil’s Garage to someone who’s never heard of it:
Heartbreaking, luminous, scalding, teasing, sentient, rich, strange.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes! I’ve got this collection of poetry and prose out right now, called The Honey Month, and Jeff Vandermeer’s just said some exceptionally nice things about it, so I hope you’ll check it out! Other than that, I’d love for more people to peruse a new poetry venue called Stone Telling, which has just put out its first issue. I’ve got a piece in it that I feel is, in some ways, a companion to “Schehirrazade,” in that it’s a loving praise-poem for another beautiful, powerful woman I’m privileged to have in my life. But forget about me — there’s a shiny new poem by Ursula K. Le Guin in there, as well as gorgeous work by Shweta Narayan and Sonya Taaffe and Sam Henderson and Emily Jiang and so many others, and deserves to be trumpeted from the rooftops.
Thank you, Amal! Always a pleasure!