Amal El-Mohtar is an admired poet, fiction writer, and editor of the online poetry 'zine Goblin Fruit. She recently won the Rhysling Award for her poem "Song for an Ancient City." She describes herself as a Canadian-born child of the Mediterranean, and is currently pursuing a PhD in English Literature at the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter. Her story "And Their Lips Rang with the Sun" appeared in Strange Horizons on October 5th of this year, and the focus of this interview will examine this very fine piece. She blogs on LiveJournal under the username tithenai.
In "And Their Lips Rang with the Sun" you tell of the Sun-Women who with their dawn dance "sing the morning up." Where did the idea for this story come from?
A couple of different story ideas fused together for this one. Sometime last year I was talking to Catherynne Valente about the Arabic alphabet, and how I wanted to write a story about a curious aspect of it that I’d always thought magical and strange. Several months later, Alex MacFarlane wrote me a poem on a postcard during her travels in Thailand, in which she likened the bell-tipped rooftops of temples to women’s lips. “I want to write a story about women with bells in their lips,” I said. The two came together, and this story’s the result: women and men marked with letters of the Arabic alphabet, bells in their lips and flutes in their mouths, respectively.
Tell us about the Arabic alphabet's significance in this story.
The Arabic alphabet is made up of twenty-eight letters, which are marked as either Sun letters or Moon letters–ahruf Shamsi or ahruf Qamari. I was fascinated by this as a child. Arabic was the first language I learned to speak, but living as I was in Quebec, it was quickly overtaken by English and French, so Arabic was actually the third language I learned to write and read. This meant I couldn’t take these divisions for granted—surely it had to mean something, that some letters belonged to the Sun and others to the Moon.
Grammatically, what it means is that the Sun letters are assertive and dominant, while the Moon letters are shy and yielding. This characteristic manifests in the presence of the “L” sound, most frequently in Al or El, the word for “The.” Take, for example, the words for Sun and Moon: Shams and Qamar: the “Sh” is a Sun letter, while the Q—the deep-throated sound in Qr’an—is a Moon letter. So when you say Al Shams—“The Sun”—it actually sounds like Ash Shams, because the “Sh” sound has dominated the L and forced itself to be heard. When you say Al Qamar, however, you can still hear the L clearly.
As I grew more aware of traditional gender roles, another fact interested me far more: namely that, in Arabic, the dominant, assertive Sun is feminine, while the gentle, yielding Moon is masculine.
Another peculiarity: there are names for each letter in the alphabet, the way we might say “Ai, Bee, Cee, Dee, Eff” and so on. The L in Arabic is “Lam.” Lam is a Sun letter, but is also the indicator of difference. Some part of me remembered that when I was writing the story, since I chose the protagonist’s name on a whim, but later realized how much sense it made to have the ambiguous letter be the name of this particular heroine.
"And Their Lips Rang" has a very poetic rhythm and flow from sentence to sentence. What sort of images were you trying to evoke?
I wanted this story to smell and taste of the Middle-East—a Middle-East of the mind, in part, of literature and fantasy, one that I could extricate from my experience of its realities the way I could extricate the story from the facts of the alphabet. It was very important to me to write the landscape into the colours of the story, to have it determine the shape of certain things to the reader.
Was this an easier story to write than you imagined it would be or more difficult? What was the most challenging aspect of it? The easiest?
It was easier in that I thought I would be writing a very different story for the alphabet. I didn’t think this narrative would come about the way it did. I started out writing a story about sun-dancers on a temple rooftop with bells in their lips, and only realized as I was doing so that this would also become a story about the magic of a language I love. I honestly thought the language aspect would turn this story into something far more experimental—I was originally writing it as a submission to Interfictions—which wouldn’t come as easily to me, but then it became a first-person narrative frame-thing and it all fell into place. I was also astonished at the ease with which the linguistic elements came into play. I chose Qaf’s name, like Lam’s, on a whim—in each case I had thirteen other letters to choose from—but then realized that the combination of his name and Lam’s had further significance, about a third of the way into the story. I like to think the alphabet worked its own magic through me.
The most challenging part was the ending, which I reworked many, many times to try and avoid it turning out trite, predictable, anti-climactic. I remember so clearly having that Eureka! moment when I realized who was telling the story, and then desperately hoping I could produce that moment in a reader. Mike Allen was a great help with that by the time the story’d been through a few drafts, helping me unpack what I wanted to happen, draw it out. I find drawing things out to be difficult. Possibly, after years of online roleplaying, dialogue is just what comes most intuitively. It provides me with no end of amusement that my first pro sale has no dialogue in it at all. I might have to fix that by turning it into a novel.
It's easy to tell that you have a deep love of poetry. How has this influenced your fiction writing?
Initially, hardly at all! A few years ago my fiction was much more skewed towards dialogue and stories that read like transcriptions of oral tales. I’m rather passionate about oral tales, especially those spontaneously imagined and told; I feel that every time I tell a story off the top of my head I’m working a very ancient kind of magic, gathering the material I see and smell around me into Tolkien’s Cauldron of Story, simmering it and drawing a bit out to offer to a casual passerby. The pieces I sold to Shimmer magazine and Cabinet des Fées were very concerned with orality, with the crafting of a kind of story that could also be a parable or a folktale. I haven’t let go of that with “And Their Lips Rang with the Sun,” but ever since falling for Catherynne Valente’s poetry and fiction in a big way, I’ve felt the need to attempt to live up to every sentence’s potential.
You sold poetry before you began selling short fiction. Was this by plan or did it just work out that way? Did you concentrate on poetry more in the beginning?
A little bit of both. I planned to inasmuch as when I was seven years old, I read The Hobbit. Somewhere around then, I either read something Tolkien said about writing poetry before prose, or convinced myself that since he’d started writing poetry before prose, I should do the same. But it “just worked out” inasmuch as, in spite of submitting fiction everywhichwhere, the first piece of writing I sold was a poem, and the next, and the next. Possibly it’s something to do with response times for poetry generally being shorter than response times for fiction; possibly it’s just that the fiction was draftier than a roofless barn.
You co-edit the online poetry 'zine Goblin Fruit with Jessica Wick and artist Oliver Hunter. This is obviously an undertaking of passion. For those unfamiliar with Goblin Fruit, could you give an overview?
Goblin Fruit is an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, published on the ninth of April, July, October, and January. Jess and I launched it in April of 2006 because we couldn’t see anyone publishing the poetry we liked best in the amounts for which we hungered—lyric, rhythmic, image-rich poems that engaged with folklore, myth, and fairy tale. We wanted more of what we saw on Terri Windling and Midori Snyder’s Journal of Mythic Arts, and set out to find it—or, rather, to attract it to us for five dollars a piece. It’s been a pretty great year for Goblin Fruit, too; in addition to the record amount of Rhysling nominations, a generous number of Honorable Mentions from Ellen Datlow, and celebrating our third anniversary, we published our first ever printed matter, a chapbook collection of Nicole Kornher-Stace’s poems, with an appearance by C.S.E. Cooney, illustrated by Oliver Hunter.
It’s always amazing to me that we’ve managed this well, given that we’re in three different countries, each with our own very busy lives to manage, but we love it enough, and it’s brought so much beauty into each of our lives, that we give it all we can.
Goblin Fruit received 12 Rhysling nominations in a single year, a record. What's your secret?
Oh, sir. Who knows upon what soil we feed our hungry, thirsty roots? Do you want to know? Are you certain? Why not simply gorge upon the glory of our sweet globes and not trouble yourself as to how they were grown? Best that way. Honest.
What are you working on now? What’s ahead for you?
Primarily, my Thesis, ever-looming, on representations of fairies and other supernatural creatures in Romantic-era writing. But fiction-wise, I’m smoothing the edges of The Honey Month—a month-long experiment in producing daily writing for twenty-eight different flavours of honey given to me by the wonderful Danielle Sucher—for Erzebet YellowBoy’s Papaveria Press. I’m also ever so keen to write something worthy of Mike Allen’s Clockwork Phoenix 3. Poetry-wise, I’m working on a collection of Damascus poems, also for Erzebet’s press—there’s a possibility of her sewing spices into the spine of each hand-made copy, which makes me swoon a little whenever I think of it. Editing-wise, Jess and I are presently reading for Mythic Delirium 22, while Mike Allen reads for the Winter 2010 issue of Goblin Fruit. It’s exciting and daunting at once.