Interviews / Poets

Interview with Zein El-Amine: “I grew up among storytellers.”

Zein El-Amine is a Lebanese-born poet and writer. He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Maryland. His poems have appeared in Wild River Review, Folio, Beltway Quarterly, Foreign Policy In Focus, CityLit, Graylit, Split This Rock, Penumbra, DC Poets Against The War: An Anthology, Ghostfishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology.

Zein’s latest poetry manuscript “A Travel Guide for the Exiled” was recently shortlisted for the Bergman Prize, judged by Louise Glück. His short stories have appeared in the Uno Mas, Jadaliyya, Middle East Report, Wild River Review, About Place Journal, and in Bound Off.

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Hi Zein, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! How did growing up in Lebanon influence your writing and the stories you tell in Is This How You Eat a Watermelon?

The collection of short stories started with the idea of having stories about Beirut. I had spent my childhood in Lebanon and then returned in the summers after a civil war that lasted a decade and a half. I experienced two different cities, pre-civil war, and post-civil war. I wanted to write stories about this lively city and its characters. The intent was to show a side of Beirut that people do not see until they visit it. I also wanted to show Lebanon in respite and in madness (as an iconic song once described it). The collection started with that premise but the stories strayed into different geographies and I went with it.

Your short stories span war-torn Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United States to tell stories of transit and survival. Why did you choose to explore these specific settings and experiences?

Each of these stories represents a pivotal point in my life. If you were to arrange the collection chronologically you would have a whole life covered: childhood, teenage years, college years, and adulthood. I spent my childhood in Lebanon, my teenage years between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and my adulthood in the United States.

One of the stories in the collection features a young Lebanese student who is wrongly implicated as a terrorist and placed in a prison with other political prisoners. What inspired you to write about this experience, and what do you hope readers take away from it?

This story is based on my own imprisonment in Bahrain, one that politicized me. I had gone to high school in Bahrain and was imprisoned when I returned to the country to visit my high school friends. The story was originally published by Middle East Report in their issue on prisons in the Arab world. I had spent three years in Bahrain without any idea of the extent of the political repression that the government was practicing on its shiite population which formed the majority. I was also ignorant of how pervasive was poverty among its marginalized people. I had written this story to peel away the props that existed in that country and expose the odious machinery that existed behind it. 

Can you speak to the role of storytelling in exploring the complexities of the human experience, as you do in this collection?

I grew up among storytellers and I found that the most memorable stories are ones that address the complexities of the human experience stealthily. In other words, they are stories that seem simple but engaging and the reader is not fully rewarded until they finish reading them. My war stories place war in the background and focus on the characters that inhabit them.

Take the lead story in which an elderly woman runs out of cigarettes and ends up detaining a platoon of fighters in an effort to get them to do a nicotine run for her. That story is not about the war raging around her but simply about a woman going to great lengths to get her nicotine fix. The readers are engaged and amused by all this but they are also learning a lot about the nature of that war without a list of hard historical facts about what happened in that fateful month of July of 2006. Readers have written to me that by the time they finished that story, they knew exactly who this woman was as they knew someone in their family who is exactly like her. 

How do you approach the craft of writing short stories, and what is your writing process like?

I don’t have a single approach to the craft of writing short stories. But I can say that I get an idea or a scene or an event in my head and I write it down. If the idea sticks, meaning if it continues to haunt me then I know that there is some substance to it, something worth exploring. I then begin writing it in short spurts, always reading what I had written the previous day and then seeing where that takes me.

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Your latest poetry manuscript “A Travel Guide for the Exiled” was recently shortlisted for the Bergman Prize, judged by Louise Glück. How has your experience as a poet influenced your fiction writing, if at all?

I think good storytelling and good fiction writing are basically prose poems when they are at their best. When I am at my best I am writing fiction in pearls that are strung together. If I am writing regularly and living the story daily and deepening my knowledge of the characters and the setting then each pearl can be a stand-alone prose poem. Having been forced to choose between poetry and prose when I did my MFA late in life, I chose poetry but I wish that I did not have to make such a choice because I am a storyteller first and foremost, and prose and poetry are both accessible to me, some stories come out in a poem and some in a short story and some in a novel. 

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

A good day, as a working writer who teaches at several universities, would start with coffee and a good read. At some point as the coffee perks me up and the reading gets my creative juices flowing, I move from breakfast to my writing desk. It is important for me that the writing desk be separated from my working desk to develop a Pavlovian reaction to the creative space.

If I am working on a new poem then I would type out a first draft quickly and then move on to another poem that has already gone through multiple drafts. If I am writing prose then I usually read the last two pages that I wrote and write another one of two pages. I keep tabs on my creative energy and once it dissipates then I do some research no matter what genre I am working with. I do get ideas throughout the day and try to note them last when they come in my Field Notes pocket book. 

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

I would talk with Junot Diaz or Margaret Atwood or Patti Smith. 

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

A recent great read was Amara Lakhous’ Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. Another book that I am reading at the moment is M: Son of the Century by Antonio Scurati which tells the history of Mussolini’s rise to power, which has so many historical parallels with what is happening in the world today. 

What does your current writing workspace look like?

It is a minimalist space, essentially a small rectangular table with an ornamented top. There is a carving from Morocco that sits on one end and a sculpture of metal birds from Colombia that sits on the other end.

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