Ali Znaidi is a widely anthologised writer. A Tunisian who writes poetry and fiction primarily in English, his works have appeared in a diverse selection of physical and online books and journals. He is the author of multiple chapbooks, including Bye, Donna Summer!, Experimental Ruminations, Moon’s Cloth Embroidered with Poems, Taste of the Edge, and more recently, Mathemaku x5. He has a degree in Anglo-American Studies. Znaidi teaches English at the secondary school level and his interests include making visual poems, literary translations and learning languages. He blogs on Tunisian literature at tunisianlit.wordpress.com and personally at aliznaidi.blogspot.com. He is known as @AliZnaidi on Twitter where he has a growing presence.
This edited interview was conducted by Sola Osofisan.
Sola Osofisan: Your haiku book, Bye, Donna Summer!, published in 2014, is reportedly the “first Tunisian English Language haiku collection written originally in English.” Another book of yours, Green Cemetery, is considered the first Tunisian flash fiction book originally “written and published” in English. Were these planned or just pleasant coincidences?
Ali Znaidi: They were just pleasant coincidences. But I published them with the intention to be firsts. If you did a search on the Internet you wouldn’t find any Tunisian haiku collection originally written in English except mine. Humbly and without bragging, I can say that haiku in English made its way to the Tunisian literary scene with my haiku book collection, Bye, Donna Summer!, and with the haiku poems I published in notable international haiku journals. There are a couple of aspiring Tunisian poets who are trying their hands at writing haiku in English, but they are not featured in international journals. They only publish their haiku poems on their Facebook pages.
As for Green Cemetery, it wasn’t planned as a book should be at all. All I did was post up content on my profile page on the extinct The Six Sentences Social Network. Then I revised and compiled those pieces and added others to finally find that this book is the first Tunisian flash fiction book originally written and published in English.
Sola Osofisan: You’re widely published. You’d been featured in over 100 journals as at January 2014. What’s that number now?
Ali Znaidi: I’m featured in more than 250 online and print journals. Some of my poems are included in several reputable anthologies.
Sola Osofisan: You acknowledge the outlets that have previously published your submissions whenever that material reaches the (chap)book stage, which means that you keep track of what’s where somehow. What’s your record keeping process like?
Ali Znaidi: I’m obsessed with documenting everything I publish. You can say I have a documentation mania. Besides, I keep track of what’s where somehow to make the job of anyone who wants to write something about my work easy because nothing frustrates a reviewer or a critic more than the lack of documented resources.
Sola Osofisan: Your experimentation with form, structure and language is as diverse as the avenues to which you submit your work. Haiku, regular and visual (vispo) poetry, flash fiction in its nano and very short story forms… What are you trying to achieve with the constant experimentation?
Ali Znaidi: As far as writing is concerned, I am extremely adventurous and I love to take risks. I am always looking for the next challenge. Experimentation ignites my creativity and enables my interest in poetry to grow. I believe, in time, I’ll become someone I was meant to be; someone who will find that voice. Experimentation has always been my way out of crushing writer’s block. I experiment to stave off this block and the silence of my mind. I experiment to heal myself as if trying several kinds of pills. I’m nothing but a cacophony of conflicting voices that need to be discovered, located, and above all, archived.
Sola Osofisan: Your book, Green Cemetery, is a collection of stories each comprising six sentences. Does it require the disciplined pen of a poet to write a book like that?
Ali Znaidi: It’s not necessary to be a poet to write something disciplined. Anyway, the experience of writing those stories and compiling them into a book was really enriching and fascinating.
Sola Osofisan: In “Imagine” published in The Erotic Book edited by Le Cagibi, you speak of uncharted possibilities in 12 breathless lines: “…Imagine your terrestrial desires / become celestial! / Imagine you forget about expressions & speech! / Imagine your actions are being broadcast live / from the Seventh Sky!” Reading it was a giddy, exhilarating ride. Do you recall how the poem came into existence?
Ali Znaidi: I wanted to write something that makes the reader breathless to suit the erotic atmosphere. I wanted to write something implicit and devoid of graphic and pornographic details. Something purely erotic. Thus, those lines came in succession and in that specific form.
Sola Osofisan: How about “Miscellaneous Hashtags”? I like the way it taps into new media. Are those found hashtags deployed in the poem or they were fabricated by you?
Ali Znaidi: Those hashtags were fabricated by me. I wove them into the tapestry of the text thread by thread to get a non-linear experimental poem. I thought investing in this kind of experimentation would give the poem a post-modern stance, at least at the level of the form. This post-modern stance can offer the reader a standpoint for critical reflection upon the present-day understanding of the world. By the way, the Cardiff-based experimental poetry journal, ZARF Poetry has recently accepted a sonnet of mine titled “[Sonnet] Global Warming Hashtags” made out of fabricated hashtags for its fourth issue.
Sola Osofisan: Your poem “Worm in the Bookshop” is a playful take on Angela Topping’s children’s poem “Witch in the Supermarket”. It reminds me of “A” in Experimental Ruminations where you say “i wish that / sandwich / was knot / eaten by / that witch / but which sandwich / & which witch / what a sandwich / what a witch.” They show you have a playful side too. Are these merely adult inventiveness or you’re into children’s poetry?
Ali Znaidi: These are merely adult inventiveness because every adult has a child inside him/herself. Besides, sometimes introspecting a playful discourse pertaining to children can help with the process of experimentation.
Sola Osofisan: What makes a nano story complete and deserving of its own existence in your view? For instance, your story titled “A Short Failed Marriage” is about a dozen words: “She concealed her grief under a party hat & a glittering smile in the dance floor of a nightclub.” Or another called “Paranoia”: “Paranoid about getting older, he grows a new mint plant every morning in the garden of his decayed house.” Either could easily pass for the first sentence in a longer story. Compactness makes sense in poetry, but why is less more in a nano story?
Ali Znaidi: This is a difficult question. What makes a nano story complete and deserving of its own existence is the intrinsic feeling that it is independent, although it seems as if it could be a sentence in a longer story.
Sola Osofisan: Li-Young Lee sees poetry as “the most amount of information packed into the least amount of space.” You have also confessed “a penchant for distilled and concise poems.” Is that why the bulk of your poems are really short?
Ali Znaidi: I love distilled and concise poems. I think longer poems are a bit boring. There is now more awareness that poetry is an art form that can be made in fewer lines.
Sola Osofisan: Do all your poems ultimately become what you intended them to be? Or is the path to a beautiful poem strewn with failed and abandoned efforts hidden away from human eyes?
Ali Znaidi: Well, it is very simple: I let the ideas brew and boil in my mind. Then I try to assemble those bits of thoughts on the paper (and to be honest, oftentimes on the blank page of the word processor) till they become the first draft of a poem. I revise it several times till I think the poem is complete. The path leading to the final draft is really strewn with failed and abandoned efforts. It’s really a draining process; a painstaking journey hidden away from human eyes as I usually write in seclusion.
Sola Osofisan: Have you ever started out writing a poem and ended up with something else altogether…a very short story, perhaps? Or vice versa?
Ali Znaidi: Of course, yes. Sometimes, I started writing a haiku and I ended having an itch to elaborate on it and make it a longer poem. Sometimes, a poem ended up to be a very short story. Several very short stories included in my book Green Cemetery are rejected poems that I polished and changed into very short stories.
Sola Osofisan: Writers sneak bits and pieces of their lives into fiction all the time. Does that happen with poetry too? Can we find moments of your life and past embedded in your verse like puzzle pieces?
Ali Znaidi: Not only writers of fiction. Many poets tell their own stories through poetry. They chronicle their lives, while trying to create meaning out of the seemingly mundane. As for me, I don’t include much of my own life in my verse. Besides, Scorpios are in a way enigmatic. So I only show glimpses of my life, trying to leave most of the ground untrodden. However, I focus on smaller, oft-ignored details like the broken handle of a cup, a broken streetlamp beside my house, pitfalls in the road, clouds tarnished with phosphate dusts, etc. In this regard, Wana Udobang says in her poem “The Banquet,” “Nothing about you is useless”. My poems provoke the reader to slow down and observe all the various ways through which life unravels itself in abstraction. For me, a cloud is not only a cloud, but is pregnant with political and social meaning. Also, behind my voice are my pains, failures, and frustrations… I don’t normally confess them in a direct way… I write them through other personae or things that I relate to them as long as my emotions are represented. In brief, poetry lets you rediscover yourself and be honest to yourself. A poem is a kind of selfie captured in words.
Sola Osofisan: You credit the Internet for making it possible for the world to see and enjoy your gifts. And digital media seems to thrive on the kind of poems and stories you write, being that it seems to be “anti-lengthiness and wordiness” like you. Do you think of the Internet as your canvas?
Ali Znaidi: Given the fact that there was and still is a very large gap in the space for poets to be recognized in Tunisia, especially those who write in foreign languages, the Internet would serve as an outlet and a haven. For me, the Internet is my heaven, haven, and canvas.
Sola Osofisan: Okay, let me needle you a bit. There is a digital era attitude that encourages keeping things short online. It’s been said that people are busy, and so cannot read fat books, but it can be argued that they were just as busy when there was no internet as we know it today, and still managed to read fat books. Books have chapters and paragraphs, so you can read piecemeal and at your own pace. I think feeding this kind of thinking is pandering to the lazy digital mentality of a new generation incapable of sustained attention. What do you think?
Ali Znaidi: I strongly agree with you. But, you know everything has its own space, yeah? People who like leafing through print books and journals will enjoy it regardless of whether they own the latest version of a digital device or not. It’s a matter of interest. If you like bulky books, you can enjoy reading them even as PDFs. So the role of teachers, writers, journalists is to entice people to read and love the written word whether drenched in ink or embedded in hyperlinks.
Sola Osofisan: How has your idea of what poetry is changed since you started scribbling as a child?
Ali Znaidi: As a child, I thought that poetry was only about love or nature. But, with age and with failures and successes my vision has changed. That’s to say, poetry can be about anything. Besides, I think poetry has acquired the status of a saviour. I can also say that each poem is a tablet or a pill that can mend my heart’s wounds and scars. It’s my therapy against negative vibes. Poetry has the power to mould minds by sharing views on lifestyles, values, history, and our struggle and our grappling with the question of how to extricate ourselves from the many prisons that abound in this life.
Sola Osofisan: Just a little more needling: I’m yet to come across any “conventional” length fiction written by you, but you write a lot of ‘short’ short stories. Could it be that you write stories that are short even by flash fiction standards because at a subconscious level, your creative juices are insisting you’re a writer of brief verses at heart, and not a short story writer?
Ali Znaidi: Perhaps, psychologically speaking, you are right. Writing longer pieces of fiction is not necessary – for now at least. Maybe my creative juices are insisting on me to focus on poetry and on establishing myself in verse writing. However, I’m open to writing longer pieces of fiction in the future. I also think writing flash fiction would be a good exercise and good training for writing lengthy works afterwards.
Sola Osofisan: There is a ceaseless call across the Continent for writers to do more with their native languages to forestall these languages dying. Obviously Arabic is not going anywhere soon, but do you feel bothered in any way that you seem to be doing more and making a name using English to the detriment of your first language, Arabic?
Ali Znaidi: First, I would like to say that I love my Arabic language to the marrow. I have been writing since an early age in Arabic. I wrote many poems, then I got rid of most of them. After that, I switched into English as a medium for creative writing. But, to be honest, I have been writing good things since my graduation with a BA in Anglo-American Studies. Studying English at university broadened my creativity and enabled me to have a good command of the English rhetoric… I really agree with the call for writers to do more with their native languages and I also agree with those who seem to be doing more and making a name using English to the detriment of their first language. This is not double standard because at the end writing in whatever language is a matter of choice.
Sola Osofisan: Doesn’t writing in English instead of the locally popular publishing languages in Tunisia – Arabic and French – make you a prophet recognized elsewhere but not in his own land, to paraphrase the scriptures?
Ali Znaidi: I strongly agree with you. I’m known in other lands but not in my own land. This is really a kind of dilemma. But from the outset I wanted to write for a larger audience. And I think writing in English would give me more readership.
Sola Osofisan: In a 2015 feature article, you said “In Tunisia, there is no degree being offered in creative writing.” Do you think that ought to change? What kind of impact do you think teaching creative writing in the universities could have?
Ali Znaidi: This includes creative writing in Arabic and French, too. To my humble knowledge, the MENA region lacks such a degree. I think Arabs are still fascinated by the fact that writing is achieved only through inspiration. As for me, I think creative writing courses are not 100% necessary, but they are in a way or another beneficial and helpful and this goes hand in hand with the saying that genius and creativity need perspiration apart from inspiration. Thus the creation of MFAs in Tunisia and in the Arab world would have a great impact on the quality of the literary productions. It also would save young and promising seeds from being crushed.
Sola Osofisan: Arabic poetry has a great legacy and Tunisia’s culture dates back to antiquity. What is it like to write poetry and stories with history looking over your shoulders?
Ali Znaidi: This is really the challenge. But as I said earlier on, I love to take risks. And the biggest risk is writing in English in a context witnessing regression in reading even in the mother tongues. Furthermore, writing poetry and stories with history looking over my shoulders is not a burden because if I consider it as such I would do nothing. The looming restrictions on how artists draw on this heritage without a critical perspective is really bothering the mind and stifling creativity because creativity at the end is transgression par excellence.
Sola Osofisan: Every society has its form of censorship. How fast has Tunisia evolved in this area and how are local writers navigating its shifting borders?
Ali Znaidi: Every society has its form of censorship and so does every era. For instance, homosexuality was a taboo in the West. Now opposing and criticizing it is considered a new taboo. To put it simply, the three taboos in any society will continue to exist. Religion, politics and sex are provocative topics on their own and even more provocative when merged. In Tunisia, even after the revolution and even considering Tunisia as a hot political podium or cauldron, I think there are still forms of censorship and taboos, especially those pertaining to religion and sex. What’s good now is the existence of a strong civil society that supports writers and artists in case they are persecuted.