An Interview with Amal El-Mohtar

Rhysling winner Amal El-Mohtar is the author of the acclaimed "The Honey Month."

Rhysling winner Amal El-Mohtar is the author of the acclaimed “The Honey Month.”

Our poetry editor, Dominik Parisien, chatted with author Amal El-Mohtar for our first issue, way back in 2011, about faery, uncanny beauty, the fantastic, and the Middle East. We are very pleased to make this one available online at long last.

Amal El-Mohtar is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of 28 different honeys, and co-editor of Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly devoted to fantastical poetry. Amal has won two Rhysling awards, and her short story, “The Green Book,” was nominated for a Nebula. Her work has appeared in Apex, Strange Horizons, Stone Telling, Mythic Delirium, and a host of anthologies.

DP: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Amal. First off, you had a piece of short fiction, “Le Tarot de Gaga,” published in the Weird Tales “Uncanny Beauty” issue [Note: This interview, and the “Uncanny Beauty” issue, were produced when Weird Tales was helmed by Stephen Segal and Ann VanderMeer. Amal is not associated with the magazine’s current staff or mission.] For those who haven’t read the story, why choose Lady Gaga as your subject? And how would you define “uncanny beauty”?

AE: My pleasure to be interviewed! I first became aware of Lady Gaga in the wake of her flashing the audience at the Glastonbury Music Festival, but had never listened to her music—nor do I watch a lot of music videos, being put off by the rampant misogyny and general commodification of women’s bodies I tend to find there—but I stumbled upon “Bad Romance” online and was riveted. Here, I thought, was a very deliberate, very intelligent and self-aware comment on that commodification: everything wrought to be just slant of human, women with no eyes or with eyes too big for their heads, men with metal jaws, missing pieces of themselves. I’d originally pitched a traditional essay to Stephen Segal, but he asked if I might do something a little different—and I realized how much I thought of that video as a sequence of tableaux, and how interesting it might be to figure each tableau as divinatory. I think of “uncanny beauty” as having Poe and Bacon’s “strangeness in the proportion”—of being pretty straightforwardly that which provokes aesthetic pleasure inseparably from the frisson of the not-quite-right. The pleasure is not attained in spite of the frisson, and only partly because of it; in an instance of uncanny beauty, we are drawn to what we recognize and find comforting, shocked by what we do not recognize, but then pulled further into a new appreciation of a beauty that has become inseparable from what we might otherwise have considered monstrous. I think the cover of that particular issue of Weird Tales is a perfect example of this: seeing a woman’s lovely face, only to realize that it is constructed of feathered petals, and that they are falling away.

DP: As well as being an accomplished short story writer and poet, you co-edit Goblin Fruit, a magazine of fantastical poetry. Your PhD thesis also centres around the fantastic. Why is the fantastic such a dominant theme in both your writing and academic work? Where did your interest in the genre originate?

AE: I think that telling a story and being told a story are inherently magical acts. When we tell a story, we are changing the world, forcing it to conform to a narrative that is not there until we make it; when we hear a story, we are ourselves being changed as that narrative enters us, and changed again as it leaves us. To use such a profoundly powerful act only mimetically seems to me painfully limiting and mundane. It is amazing that we tell stories; why not tell amazing stories? My interest in the genre definitely began with Tolkien. I read The Hobbit when I was seven, and fell completely in love with Tolkien’s world, with the ache the songs in that world shook out of me. I wanted my world to be magical the way his was. The fact that alongside The Hobbit I was reading books about dinosaurs and psychic phenomena probably also helped matters along; we had GIANT LIZARDS in our past, but somehow couldn’t wrap our brains around the possibility of telepathy? What?

DP: Fairy tales often feature dark, sometimes violent imagery or themes. They can be quite shocking, quite memorable, especially for children. Are there particular fairy tales which impacted you as a child?

AE: Oh, yes. I think Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” struck me the most, as a child, because even then I was becoming aware of patterns in fairy tales, and “The Snow Queen” was not conforming to them. I remember that story in a very visceral sort of way; Gerda’s suffering is bound up with the illustrations in my mind such that I remember the image of her throwing her red shoes into the water in the same moment I remember how cold her feet were, and how kind the river was, and how I wished she and the river could have a conversation. I remember being shocked that heroes were not heroes, villains not entirely villains. I despised Kai completely and wanted Gerda to stay with the old woman in the garden that had no roses. I wondered why the Snow Queen had taken Kai in the first place. The Snow Queen, I realize too, was very much bound up with the villain in the BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and whenever I think of “The Snow Queen” I have to remind myself that she didn’t lure Kai away with Turkish Delight.

DP: What makes Goblin Fruit different from other magazines of speculative or fantastical poetry like Mythic Delirium, Star*Line, or Stone Telling?

bigger gobfruitAE: I think every editor’s highly individual taste must necessarily make one publication different from another, regardless of how that publication bills itself. While Mike Allen, Marge Simon, and Rose Lemberg certainly have areas of overlap in their preferences, they are more different than they are alike. With Goblin Fruit, [the other editors] and I explicitly seek out lyrical poems crafted to provoke strong effects. I think we were also the first kids on the block to say we wanted “fantastical” work that defined itself against what we knew of science fiction poetry, which did not sing to our bones; we wanted retellings of folklore and mythology in ache-inducing language more than anything else, and also to focus on how poetry could sound and taste, so offered audio files of our poets reading their work. Of the magazines you mention, I think Stone Telling is the closest in flavour to Goblin Fruit, which doesn’t surprise me, as Rose is a frequent contributor to Goblin Fruit and our taste overlaps a great deal; but she’s definitely carved out an amazing space for her ‘zine with its explicit focus on diversity, and by getting Ursula K. LeGuin to contribute a rather tone-setting poem for her first issue. I’ve said elsewhere that I feel I need to step up my game when I submit poems to Stone Telling, that the ‘zine demands different, more difficult work from me than other venues.

DP: Your book, The Honey Month, was published by Erzebet Yellowboy’s Papavaria Press in May 2010 and has received a number of favourable reviews, including one from Omnivoracious. Can you tell us a bit about the book, its genesis, and why you chose to incorporate both poetry and prose?

honeyAE: The Honey Month began as a conversation in a New Jersey diner (called “The Diner”—I never get tired of saying that) about how honey is as varied and versatile in colour and flavour as wine, and that it ought to be shared and sampled as such. Danielle Sucher, with whom I was having this conversation, agreed, and we planned to send each other tiny vials of the different honeys we owned to broaden our experience of it. I imagined we’d send each other a couple of vials in the post every now and then and report back, compare notes; Danielle, however, being a gourmet who ran her own occasional restaurant in New York City, got us off to an inimitable start by sending me a box of thirty-five different kinds of honey. Rather intimidated (I thought I was doing well with the eight or so different kinds in my own pantry), I told her that I’d send her what I had, but to make up the balance I’d write her something for each honey of hers I tasted. Since that balance was close enough to twenty-eight, and since Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest was launching around that time, we figured February would do for a month-long experiment in literary synaesthesia, and so it did. For every day in February of 2009, I described the colour, scent, and taste of a honey, and then wrote something creative in response to it, posting the whole to my blog. I didn’t so much choose to incorporate both poetry and prose as choose not to limit my response. I think it would have been far more difficult had I promised myself only to write prose or only to write poetry; as it was, I could let the responses to taste and scent be spontaneous, and let the writing carry me where it would.

DP: Who are your favourite writers and poets? Have you, at one point or another, consciously sought to write as a response to reading any of their works?

AE: This is officially the most difficult question ever in interviews. To name favourites always invites the possibility of missing someone out! For poets, I’d just like to refer you to the archives of Goblin Fruit (where you’ll find the work of Neile Graham, Catherynne Valente, Jennifer Crow, JoSelle Vanderhooft, Samantha Henderson, Shweta Narayan, Caitlyn Paxson, Felicity Maxwell, and Rose Lemberg, among others), and add Lisel Mueller, Robin Robertson, Mary Oliver, and David O’Meara as a representative sampling; for writers of novels and short stories, I am in awe of Catherynne Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, C.S.E. Cooney, K. J. Bishop, Terri Windling, Midori Snyder, Ellen Kushner, Holly Black, Neil Gaiman, and many, many others. I have, however, consciously sought to write as a response to reading some people’s work. “Schehirrazade,” a poem that was published in Sybil’s Garage no. 7, I originally wrote for Cat Valente’s birthday, in response to her Apocrypha collection of poetry, in particular a piece called “Virgil and the Bees,” which I deeply love. There’ve also been some people, like Jessica Wick, Nicole Kornher-Stace, and C.S.E. Cooney, whose work makes me want to work with them, and so we have, in various combinations, co-written poems together, and are building up the bones of a shared world in which we’re presently filling out our own tentative corners.

DP: It seems that over the last few years we’ve seen greater recognition and promulgation of cultural diversity in the speculative fiction community. Do you feel that the community in general is expanding in this sense, or is it only certain publishers/magazines?

apexAE: It’s difficult to see the whole field of speculative fiction as comprising a single community, I think. Certainly all the people who make up the community of which I feel a part are interested in diversity and that kind of expansion. I would not want to be part of a community that didn’t. But there are, too frequently, people who read and write speculative fiction who, in addition to having no interest in diversity, actively seek to quash “PC quotas” and suchlike. Apex Magazine’s special Arab/Muslim issue was a direct response to a bewilderingly Islamophobic screed by Elizabeth Moon, and Strange Horizons wouldn’t need to make inclusion an explicit part of its mandate if the genre’s default were not skewed towards, if not exclusion, sameness. That said, through the effort and energy of editors, writers, and publishers working to actively change things for the better, my sense is that the general trend is overall positive.

DP: How does Arabic/Islamic culture feature in your own writing? Do you feel that the history, locations, and myths lend themselves well to speculative fiction and poetry?

AE: This is where I feel the need to state, for the record, that I am not Muslim, not by personal conviction or culture. I’m a first-generation Lebanese-Canadian who speaks Arabic and has an “El” in her name, though, and for many people that’s basically the same thing, so I feel deeply invested in countering Islamophobia whenever I encounter it grunting in the wild. I don’t think any one culture, location, or history lends itself to speculative fiction or poetry better than another. For me, though, the last few years have brought me an increasing awareness of how Arabs are perceived and represented in all manner of media, and the uncomfortable realization that if I don’t make an active effort to counter it, precious few will. Also, in 2007 I moved to the UAE to teach for a few months, and while there, was able to visit Lebanon for the first time in fourteen years, and Syria for the first time in my life. While I remember the most vivid parts of my childhood as having been in Lebanon (for all that I only lived there two years), encountering those landscapes again as an adult affected me in ways for which I was not at all prepared, and I feel I have a great deal of work to do, with language and research, before I can begin to do justice to that part of my heritage with my writing.

DP: Lastly, you have fiction forthcoming in a number of high-profile projects, including Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s highly anticipated The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities and Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories. Can you tell us about the anthologies, your stories, and any other forthcoming works? [Note: both anthologies have since been released.]

steampunkAE: Definitely. The Cabinet of Curiosities is a loose sequel to The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, in which a number of writers who quite awe me wrote essays on imaginary diseases that frequently worked their way into the very fabric of the piece. In Cabinet, Lambshead has died, and in cataloguing his effects, the executors of his estate find a secret basement space containing all manner of bizarre curios. The anthology is an attempt at cataloguing its contents. I was absolutely gobsmacked by Jeff’s review of The Honey Month for Omnivoracious, but nowhere near as shocked as I was when he and Ann told me they liked it so much they wanted to invite me to contribute to one of their anthologies. They sent me a decidedly unlikely piece of art—pen and ink drawing of a man contemplating a singing fish­—and asked me to produce a story for it. The result is “The Singing Fish,” a story about artists, the critics who disturb their health, and the artworks that permit them their revenge. Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories is edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft, and basically does what it says on the tin: it’s an anthology of lesbian erotica pushing the boundaries of what can be termed Steampunk, containing a decidedly multicultural approach to a genre that tends only to be associated with Victorian England. My story is set in an alternate Damascus of the 1860s, where women display their trades in intricate braid-patterns in their hair, and in which the art of dream-crafting via the faceting of quartz and setting of copper is taking off. One dream-crafter is frustrated by a commission that tests the limits of her ability, until she sees a woman in a cafe with her hair unbound. The story goes on from there, and is called “To Follow the Waves.” It’s also available for free online as a podcast by PodCastle, read by Marguerite Croft.

Dominik Parisien co-edited the inaugural volume of Postscripts to Darkness with Sean Moreland, and now serves as our poetry editor. 

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