Ghinwa Jawhari is a Lebanese-American writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her debut chapbook ‘BINT’ was selected by Aria Aber for the Own Voices Chapbook Prize from Radix Media. Her poetry, prose, and essays appear in Catapult, Narrative, Mizna, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She is a 2021 Margins Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Ghinwajawhari.com
Anthony Thomas Lombardi: I want to start by broaching the idea of microcosms in your work. While you grapple with some heavy subject matter—femininity in modern life, violence, inherited trauma—you don’t often take wider-lensed views of these themes within the individual poems. Instead, it felt like your poems were microcosms that represent larger themes in a sort of slanted way. The poems are very character—or at least body—driven and contain sharp narratives. I’m thinking particularly of the poem, “A Girlhood Summer Passes.” There’s this paradox where that kind of attention to detail illuminates more of the larger world than a widescreen view would—the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. In another poem, “I Try to Find Redemption,” one line states this almost explicitly: “consider the ends: a hero / dies or marries.” Can you tell me a little about this approach to BINT?
Ghinwa Jawhari: This question is so juicy. There’s so much to say. I’ll tell you the first thing that comes to mind: personally I don’t like long poems, so when I started this I knew it had to be concise. The chapbook form was also fitting in that sense. I think, too—I don’t know how to say this in a way that’s not dismissive, because I’m sure that there are other things maybe I’m not thinking of––in writing about femininity and girlhood and womanhood, there’s a lot of explaining, there’s a lot of, “then this happened, then I felt this way, and here’s why.” We aren’t explaining it for ourselves. We’re trying to explain what our girlhood experiences are to an audience who isn’t familiar with them. We’re writing toward ‘other.’ So BINT is very much for those small worlds that already know what I’m talking about.When I was editing the poems, I continued to cut and make them as bare and spare as possible, and that message comes across clearest when it’s direct. So the attention on the microcosm becomes coded, a nod to what ‘we’ already know. I had a friend tell me that the book felt like he was looking inside of a bedroom, a door someone had left cracked open, as if reading it was a breach of privacy. It made total sense. He was happy to read it while understanding that the intimacy wasn’t for him.
What you said about that line specifically is so good—I remember writing that poem to honor Sara Hegazy. I was thinking about Egypt’s cultural nuances and the relationship between Egypt and Lebanon, how special and unique it is, and how that’s changed over the years––particularly in terms of its queerness, and also in terms of Egyptian cinema being very much a microcosm in itself. There’s a hero, he gets married, and there’s always these very dramatic, intense plots—like rape, or a child grows up not knowing its mother, or poverty, so the mother is a dancer or something. You know, larger world stuff that implies patriarchy, heterosexuality, misogyny maybe, but all of it made personal. Egyptian cinema in the Arab world is its own Hollywood. It has its own life. But you grow up knowing Egyptian cinema, even if you haven’t seen it, no matter where you are—Syria, Lebanon, Palestine—everybody knows Egyptian films. So that poem specifically was tackling that and asking what can we conjure in this certain microcosm that’s impinged on us. The undertone there is definitely queerness.
ATL: What I’m particularly interested in, in that queerness, is the proximity between intimacy and violence. I’m thinking about where that tension fits into the structure of the narratives. Did the tension help you write toward those structures?
GJ: Yeah, I think you’re always close to violence when you know you’re queer—or when you have an idea that you’re different. Let’s not even call it queerness, let’s say that you grow up feeling you don’t belong. When you’re writing intimately, when you’re writing about yourself or your friends or how you feel, there’s always a threat or an ideation that it’s wrong. It has the potential to erupt negatively. So you have to be so tough and so used to it. The one poem, “Counterfeit,” in the surgery, where she’s a bint again—so her father pays for her hymenoplasty, to sew her back up—I had such trouble placing it, because it was the marriage of all these things. It was taking in stride something that was so violent—really, it’s willful mutilation—so what do we do with that? How specifically can we approach that in a way that’s, like you said, character-driven, body-driven, very much personal, but that happens to a lot of girls, especially before they get married. We talk about intimacy and violence as separate, but they’re the same, particularly if you grow up in those regions, or if you grow up as a hyphenated American—and I don’t just want to say Arabs, but any minority.
ATL: Right from the jump, in the first poem—“Condition”—in a mere five lines you unpack so much about inheritance and the body as a space for containment, for utility. This threads itself subtly but powerfully throughout the book. “Tropism” leans toward this dichotomy of grief and gratitude in really interesting ways, portraying a sense of loss in what should, ostensibly, or traditionally, be a moment of marital bliss. “Zenith” felt like an ode informed by mourning. Then there’s what I saw as a sort of trilogy—“A Phase,” “Dowry,” and “Autonomic”—that examine violence and femininity in what felt more tightly knit than some of the other poems. Even their forms seem to be in conversation. The repetition of “blood” I found particularly striking. All these forms of inheritance engage with each other in surprising but deeply felt ways. I was also fascinated with the juxtaposition of sacrifice and appetite throughout the book. Sometimes this is done fairly directly but often it’s done allusively. Were these juxtapositions and dichotomies made visible during the writing of the poems or did they emerge subconsciously?
GJ: That’s an amazing question. What you said about “Autonomic” and “A Phase” and “Dowry” being a trilogy—the pieces that worked well together, I didn’t notice until I was starting to lay them out. Then I was like, “oh, this actually works well with this, this doesn’t.” So some of what you’re talking about came later, but a lot of it actually came in the beginning. Sacrifice and appetite, for example, or food in general being, not a thread for appetite or desire, but being close to it…I’m looking at the poem, “Shahwa,” which means appetite, both for food or sexually—the speaker is kind of pickling desire to deal with it at another time, so she has this appetite toward the subject, who is ungendered, and she’s deciding, kind of unilaterally, “I can’t deal with this, so I’m going to put it away.” Hunger just begets more hunger.
I remember in “Autonomic,” and also, “A Phase,” the body being a thing that can be disassembled––which is a theme from the beginning, the animal getting disassembled in “Winter of the Acned Year”—as punishment, the body being something you can pick and choose and tear apart. It plays to the misogynist view of the girl as property. In “Shahwa,” ending with the hand—“inviting again your curled hand”—whether you’re itching the eye or the curled hand as a fist, just that image. A lot of my obsessive cutting was figuring out what image was still going to work after moving everything around. The guilt and shame stuff, by way of writing about the body, found its way after. That was an interesting thing because I didn’t set out to do that. Eventually, I was like, “there’s actually a lot of shame language happening here…”
ATL: That was a big part of Leila Chatti’s Deluge—she didn’t know that was going to be the final part of the book. Once you start following that thread of the body, in modern life, it’s really difficult not to arrive at shame. We’re all ingrained with shame. Obviously, certain groups of people more than others, but it’s used as a tool to divide and conquer people.
GJ: Yes, 100%. I’d really like to read the book that doesn’t have shame. Any book.
ATL: I would want to read it just to say I did but I don’t think I’d like it. It’d have to be false. “Shameless” should be stricken from the dictionary. It’s a fantasy word.
GJ: Shame is a part of our human condition.
ATL: A lot of it comes from evasion. Which is littered throughout the notes I took on BINT. This ties into the really gripping examinations of identity in the poems that I felt found new, or at least reinvigorated, access points into talking about ourselves. James Baldwin often wrote about this—and I’ve been thinking about him and these ideas a lot lately—this idea that, in America, we do not truly know ourselves, and until we reckon with our pasts, this will elude us and we will continue to live in pain. In “Tazahar,” you wrestle—almost quite literally—with this idea of re-identity as retreat, only to end up in reflection and eventually reclamation, which brings the reader, in a very real way, viscerally into the present. Was that reclamation a pointed goal in the poems?
GJ: If reclamation came across, that’s amazing, because it wasn’t intentional. It’s nice to hear that there was some reclamation. When I was writing the poems, especially that poem “Tazahar,” because I’m so close to what it’s describing—this idea that you could have this life that your parents want for you, that your father wants for you, this ideation—it’s always going to be a reflection of what someone else sees for you. It’s never going to be what you want. I found it more resignation than reclamation: should I step into this role? Should I step into this life? “We decorated our home in tourist flags. / a blue eye hung over the door, / reflecting the eyes of the street.” The speaker has reclaimed her traditions, marrying a ‘prophet’ for her father, and that final image: the Hamsa eye is left on the door, mirroring white people’s blue eyes. So, let’s say, the only way that we can connect with this blue-eyed neighborhood, or touch point with them, is through our own cultural ‘blue eye.’ Our realities and belief systems don’t match, they’re misaligned. It reminds me of the resignation in the first poem, “Condition,” where the mother is a “stone in your heart, / resigned to the kiln she gave you.” I didn’t sense reclamation there at first. I didn’t want it to be a girl power anthem. I don’t connect with or believe in poetry that makes it sound easy. It’s not. So a lot of this was resignation. I like that it can be read that way, that it can be read as a version of life that we can build for ourselves. Talking about both or ideating about both is good too, it’s very interesting. It’s cool to hear what other people have gotten out of it, because I’m stuck inside of it…
ATL: I think that’s always the interesting part about putting work out into the world—it’s not always, “this is the shit and I want other people to read it.” It’s more, “I need to get this the fuck away from me.” When sitting alone with something, you can’t see it—you can’t see something that’s right up to your face. This kind of bends toward what I was saying earlier—about not seeing what we’re subconsciously writing until later—because your rejection of those traditions can be read as reclamation, or, ultimately, rejecting surrender as a form of reclamation, existing as a form of resistance.
GJ: Intention-wise, it wasn’t there, but reading it now, definitely, that reading, that rendition, is there.
ATL: There’s also this trickhouse mirror view of identity again in “Jamais”—the abadan and abandon line being a particularly edifying moment—and again in “I Try to Find Redemption,” there’s this sense of subverting tradition while also revering it. “I made / resolutions / & like prayers, forgot them” is a line I kept returning to, thinking about all of this, as well as, “winter will arrive with its usual cravings.” Can you expand a little on the relationship between these sort of cyclical ideas of reflection and identity, and the illusions of identity?
GJ: So many illusions of identity. I love that phrase. I try to stay away from saying this is autobiographical, because it wasn’t really, though a lot of poetry comes from what we experience, our own hearts. There’s this visceral tension to the book, this idea that we’re still not sure, at the core, who the bint is. Which makes even the title deceptive. She doesn’t really know herself. It’s not until the end—the last poem—where she recognizes that there has been some conditioning going on. “[Y]ou / still aren’t prepared to answer bint meen”—she’s not prepared to talk about her parents or where she comes from. That poem, for me, that’s the identity poem—I mean, all of them are identity poems, but that one specifically is so viscerally close to, “what am I supposed to do with myself?” This idea that you’re kind of stuck, no matter what you pick, it’s still going to be you. You’re stuck with yourself at the end. Those questions or those actions don’t necessarily save you or change it. So, I really like “illusion of identity.”
ATL: In poetry, there’s always a divide or a blurring of the lines between speaker and author. How much of it is true and how much of it is really you? In my own work, I often lose track of what’s actually happened and what hasn’t. Do you ever get lost in that blurred narrative?
GJ: A lot of these were more autobiographical, but as they developed, and as I was pulling in pieces from the women in my life—my mother, my siblings, my partner, my friends, my cousins, all of these different stories that I knew or had heard—it became less and less so. Getting lost is the forgiving way of saying that we write to discover, if it is about ourselves, and whether it happened or not. “Boy Crush (ii),” for example. That one hits really close to the bone. I didn’t change that one too much. The shopping for dresses with my mom, that very much happened and she loves sequins, and I detest being sparkly or flashy. So that line, I couldn’t really get rid of or do anything with it. It was like, “okay, it’s here, and I like it a lot, and it speaks to what I’m saying”—which is that the older generation has a different idea of what you should be doing, wants to decorate you, wants you to be feminine and glittery, wants you to be this image that they have for you. Meanwhile you come home, strip down, and try to sit like a man. A lot of the poetry I write is very much time-to-figure-out-what-the-fuck-happened. Slow pieces. Slow, small pieces.
ATL: To take your shopping metaphor and run with it: sometimes you gotta get lost in the aisles before you find what you’re looking for. I’m not interested in poems that seek answers—I don’t care about answers—I want more questions. Getting lost is a big part of that. If you don’t get lost in your work, you’re not discovering anything. If the poetry doesn’t bend toward some fundamental, or elemental, truth, what are you writing for?
GJ: Exactly, or you’re just giving a third-person narrative that doesn’t speak to what you’ve been through. What does it say? That’s the question.
ATL: Given how each poem sort of builds its own world, I found it remarkable how much movement lived inside the individual pieces—but also how that movement extends across the book. In “Baladi,” there’s an almost liquid sense of movement but also dispossession, which puts the question into my head: what belongs to those who stay, to those left behind, to those who move on? Where do grief and identity live in these ephemeral spaces? In “Tammuz,” I gleaned this in a more sideways view, as well. There’s this eerie calm inside these poems but they also seem to refuse to sit still. They seem to be trying to find a way to make space in transience. Where do you and your poems stand in terms of this rebirth inside of ruin?
GJ: This question is literally a poem. I want to sit with this for a second… Most of these poems became active in the writing process, if that makes sense. When I set out to write them, or write anything, I always start with two lines—that’s a poem—and then I build from that. Then I know the beginning and the end. It’s interesting that you’re asking what belongs to who stays, who goes—ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you go, you’re still left with this identity, or this illusion of identity, to use your words. Despite the bint’s movement out of this, or the growth out of girlhood, or the recognition that now we can drink, we can not really worry about last night, not worry about arm hair, we don’t care anymore—there’s still this sense that something isn’t right, something is misplaced. Placement was very important to me writing this, because as a hyphenated-American, you don’t have a place. You are always sitting, vibrating, humming, waiting, not sure. Is this my home? It’s not. Okay. That isn’t either. What’s happening? That anxiety is what gives these poems the movement you’re describing, or maybe the sense that there should be movement, that something should be happening. They’re very anxious poems, and it’s very intentional in that way. You described it perfectly—it’s movement, but there’s an unquiet. There’s an urgent sense something else should be happening, or that something is wrong. We start to believe it’s us––we’re the ‘wrong’ thing. That’s what we’re raised with as bints. You’re wrong if you’re doing this, you’re wrong if you’re doing that.
ATL: That anxiety is what really drew me in and resonates especially with folx who come from traumatic backgrounds—I can’t hear a cabinet door slam shut without losing it. I think that’s why I was drawn to this idea of rebirth in the book. Is that movement a form of rebirth? Are we capable of finding new life despite?
GJ: The fact we can point it out and call it what it is, that’s what was important to me in BINT. We don’t talk about this—you don’t talk about the fact that girls get sewed up, you don’t talk about the fact that you’re attracted to another woman, you don’t talk about the war. In “A Girlhood Summer Passes,” the war is literally unfolding but no one is acknowledging it. Same thing in “Birth During a Ceasefire.” We are focused, almost stubbornly, on continuing to live life. There’s refusal to point out what’s there. We can call it rebirth, but the acknowledgement in and of itself is enough—that this is happening—for the bint, who’s not given a voice, just to say, “this happened to me, it was wrong,” or, “this happened to me, it felt like desire,” or, “this happened to me, and I’m not going to stay quiet about it anymore.” What you say is so interesting—the cabinet door, that’s the perfect motif in a sense—because now there are these things that are stuck with you forever, but you still survived them, you’re still there, you grew up, whether you wanted to or not. That movement out of it, despite the fact, is what was so significant. Despite everything, you’re alive, here you are, able to call trauma what it is—call everything what it is.
In “Jamais,” for example, the grandmother talking about code switching, the Frenchman—“exclaiming jamais! as if he couldn’t have understood the bedrock / of abadan”—that kind of makes trauma a prerequisite. It’s not just this one singular character that’s going through this. It’s the grandma, it’s the mom, the girl, possibly the daughter, if that ever happens. “Birth During a Ceasefire” is the true rebirth poem. Everything else is happening, everything is getting destroyed. There’s a ceasefire, very briefly, where suddenly the soldiers are cute with each other, they’re calling each other brother, and life imperfectly continues—“my grandmother marries an anxious / lieutenant, sleeps with his pharmacist, addicted to solutions.” Inevitably, this child is born through all of that. In a very pointed way, this was the true rebirth poem: what comes from the war, what comes from peace? Children, eventually. Refugees. Trauma.
ATL: I perceived the pain and shame of navigating the world in a body that patriarchal society deems less worthy and resigns to specific duties. In “Instead a Palace,” this is reimagined and reclaimed through a dream, though even in this reverie, there’s a palpable sense of patriarchy—the sand castles are built for the men to run through. In “Boy Crush (i),” which you mentioned, the man is poured into a chair by God—he is ordained to be here, in this position, lionized. In the final poem of the book, you say, “you / still aren’t prepared to answer bint meen,” which I felt tied back to that struggle between subversion and reverence. How much of these cultural values are being subverted in your work?
GJ: I love what you said about the patriarchy still being present. Very intentional. I couldn’t write a girl boss / girl power [thing]—when I was writing these, it wasn’t meant to be celebratory. It’s meant to be, “I’m here. What are you going to do about it?” The men in the poems, despite their distance from what’s going on, are existing separately merely because they can. They don’t participate in the same traumas the same way. We see them as the girl sees them. They’re separate from her, separate from her life, but still dictate, like you said, a lot of what she experiences and goes through. For example, in “Dowry,” she calls a marriage “worship-dependent,” but then the actual husband is not recognized. Regardless, it’s still going to happen. The focus was more on their effects, through the patriarchy, their impinged macrocosm on her.
As for subversion, I don’t know if it’s ever really spoken, but the implication that we’re not going to go along with this, distances the bint, as she recognizes or acknowledges this. The simple answer is she’s looking at this and speaking about it, that’s the first step toward subversion—“okay, I’m told not to do this, I’m going to do it.” Silently making up her mind. In general, there’s a few different types of themes going on, but when I noticed desire emerging as a theme, a lot of that subverts what a bint is, because a bint is not supposed to have desire. As a virgin, she exists completely separate from that world. Should she have an opinion or show it, it’s taboo, she’s not pure, she’s not good for marriage. The desire, more than anything, is the subversiveness. The conciseness of the pieces, the act of deciding, “I’m not going to talk anymore, this is all you get,” is also part of it. I’m not going to explain myself. I won’t apologize. Initially, I wanted to write some prose in this, and after it was accepted for the Own Voices Chapbook Prize, I was kicking myself. Later, I was like, “no! I don’t want to do that. It’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do here!” But it’s this shy belief that you have as a woman: are they going to get it? In the back of your head. Do they understand me? I hated that my thoughts went there. Now with that question, part of the strength is not giving into this, not explaining. Refusing.
ATL: That Möbius strip of being forced to explain yourself and then being castigated for it is a very real and very intentionally insidious part of patriarchal society. Books like BINT that refuse those terms are a big part of dismantling those structures. Which brings me to my final question: are we capable—in our work, in our lives—of dismantling harmful traditions while holding space for not only reverence, but bewilderment?
GJ: Ask me again. [Laughs.] Yes. 100%. I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t believe that. There is definitely glory and beauty, as much as we shouldn’t romanticize trauma or war or the problematic avenues where we come from. I’m remembering in undergrad when you write your silly college poems and you’re so proud of them, you know—not to say that that’s bad—but you have this idea that it’s you, it’s your thing, and your poem is so close to you. Then you look at it, several years later, and you can either approach it like, “this is garbage,” or, “this is beautiful, I was really into this then.” It’s this constant shuffling of new selves, that’s the beauty, even if it exists in a problematic system. That’s what’s so meaningful and compelling about writing poetry, more than any art form in my opinion. Poetry is growth-oriented. Whether you like it or intend it or not, there’s growth in it. I wrote BINT during the pandemic; this was not a years-long process. I was literally with these poems in my studio apartment in Brooklyn for a few months. Everything outside was going to shit, and it really forced me—forced a lot of people—to consider where I come from, what my upbringing was like. I was sitting there with all of this trauma and it was suddenly like, well, what are these strange things? BINT came from that. That being said, at the risk of oversimplifying, there is some beauty to that notion that you do survive it. The bint transforms toward the end: there’s less a sense of urgency or panic in the end as opposed to the beginning—there is some reconciliation, acknowledgement, however small.
But to answer you: of course. I certainly believe that. You can look at those very problematic systems with some forgiveness and understanding—not for those systems at large, but for yourself, to keep yourself whole and sane. You have to apply humanistic qualities in order to reconcile what happened to you—why did it happen, how, what came from it?