We speak to the Lebanese-Canadian poet, whose words are as painful as a drop of lemon juice in a fresh cut, ahead of her appearance at Sharjah International Book Fair
Najwa Zebian: writing was genuinely my only way of dealing with the world
Earlier this year, Lebanese- Canadian poet Najwa Zebian posted an image on her Instagram account of a girl with a tattoo. In black ink on the girl’s side, it reads: “These mountains that you are carrying, you were only supposed to climb.” This is one of Zebian’s most popular lines – it is written on the opening page of her second poetry collection, The Nectar of Pain – and the photograph is a striking illustration of the profound impact her words have on those who read them.
But like many of her poems, this phrase has an enigmatic quality, which lends itself to multiple interpretations. What does it actually mean? “Think of any burden that weighs you down, perhaps feelings of rejection or anxiety,” says Zebian, who is speaking at the Sharjah International Book Fair on Sunday. “Those things can feel as heavy as mountains because they are always there and, as you know, the longer you carry a weight, the heavier it becomes.
“Maybe you don’t have the choice of whether or not these feelings are in your life, but instead of carrying them, you can learn to rise and climb them. And when you’re at the top of that mountain, at the end of your journey of healing, you can look down at your pain and see how far you’ve come. It’s so empowering to see it this way.”
Zebian, who is only 28, has a gift for writing poems that feel intensely personal to each individual reader, but are, in fact, universal. We all suffer and her words can be as painful as a drop of lemon juice in a fresh cut. “I spent more time getting over you / than I spent falling in love with you,” she writes in The Truth. Another poem, Self-forgiveness, from The Nectar of Pain, is even more frank: “I broke my soul trying to mend yours / My fingertips bled as I / Weaved your soul back together”.
Ultimately, though, Zebian’s commitment to honesty is both humbling and immensely reassuring – she articulates the things we have refused to admit to ourselves, thereby relieving us of the burden. As she unpicks the knots in our mind, the strain slackens.
Inevitably, her brisk poems strike a particular chord with readers who are experiencing some kind of turmoil. The sense that the poet is speaking directly to you can be overwhelming and, sure enough, she receives hundreds of messages every day seeking guidance. It must be draining. After all, Zebian is a writer, not a therapist.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘burden’, but it does cause me emotional fatigue,” she says. “I want to help every single person that sends me a message. When I was going through my own pain, I wish there had been somebody out there to do that for me. I know how horrible it feels to be alone.”
Zebian was born in Lebanon. Her parents were both teachers, who divided their time between Lebanon and Canada, so she would often stay with her grandmother in Lebanon. She was bullied at school – “I was too sensitive and kind” – and, at the age of 13, began writing poetry as a sort of literary medication. She describes this period as “the search for a home”. “My parents were in constant motion, so my home was my journal,” she says. “It was the only thing that was constant.”
At 16, she moved with her family to Canada, where she was bullied again. This time, though, her response was to stop writing altogether. “I didn’t want to feel anymore,” she says. It wasn’t until her early 20s, when Zebian began teaching, that she returned to poetry. “I had a group of young refugees in my class and I started writing as a way to empower them,” she says. It was her way of letting them know that she understood what they were experiencing as strangers in a foreign land. The success that followed has been a happy accident. “I never thought of myself as an author,” she says. “Writing was genuinely my only way of dealing with the world.”
In 2016, Zebian self-published her first collection of poetry, Mind Platter. But it was only after a number of celebrities, including LeAnn Rimes, Danielle Brooks and Hilary Swank, posted her words on their social media feeds that Zebian’s star began to rise. She now has more than 800,000 followers on Instagram and is at the forefront of what she describes as “a global awakening to the importance of actually feeling your feelings”.
Last year, Zebian also wrote movingly about her #MeToo experience, which was picked up by The New York Times. She alleges that she was harassed by a man twice her age, whom she had approached for support when trying to find a job in teaching. He denies the allegations.
Zebian’s journey, then, has certainly been tumultuous. This matters because it imbues her poetry with a necessary authenticity. Without it, her words might very easily seem trite or saccharine. Does she find it difficult to write about her experiences in such an exposing way, though? “If you see writing as your path to peace of mind then it is cathartic,” she says. “You are writing because there is something inside of you that needs to leave.
“But the process [of writing] also involves thinking about the things you need to change or identifying areas of self-improvement. None of us receives criticism eagerly. Change is hard for everyone.”
She is now settled in Canada and enjoying the kind of success most writers – particularly poets – can only dream of. Is her “search for a home” now over? “The home that I am referring to, is a place where your heart and soul feel at peace,” she says. “It doesn’t matter who loves or doesn’t love me, it is an internal feeling of worthiness.” I think that’s probably her unique way of saying “yes”.
Najwa Zebian will be speaking on Sunday at 9.45am at the Book Forum, Sharjah International Book Fair. For all sessions and timings, visit www.sibf.com