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Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

by Hedgebrook Staff

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Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, writer, translator, and a Hedgebrook alumna. We asked her about her work and about being a Woman Authoring Change.

In what ways does your work as a translator inform your writing and vice versa?

Beyond engaging literary works, I feel that I am always translating. In my writing and in my conversations. It may be the reality of growing up multi-lingual, or moving between cultures. I think of poetry as the ultimate and most ambitious act of translation. The poem is grasping at a moment that belongs to another world – a sensory experience, a memory, an imagined life – and trying to capture it in language, to make it visible in this world.


What impact do you hope your writing will have on people and places near and far?

One of the first times I read my poetry out loud was at Folklife Festival in Seattle in 2006. I read a poem about our children surviving the wars of our time. A woman came up to me after the reading and said: “I’ve been feeling numb for so long. Your poem cut through that.” I am so grateful to her for those words and for the reminder of poetry’s possible role in our lives.


You’ve said your work is often inspired by the experience of “crossing borders . . . between the present and living past.” In what ways have these experiences shaped the way you write in terms of both subject and style?

My mother’s family is from Syria and Jordan. My father’s family is from Palestine, and many of them became refugees after the 1967 war. My parents immigrated to the United States and I was born in Seattle. When I was three years old we moved back to the Arab world and I spent most of my childhood there. I grew up moving, moving back, travelling around a world I was introduced to as ‘home’. In some ways, this is a quintessentially Arab experience. The tension between home and homeland, the transitory nature of belonging, these are themes that continue to interest me. In terms of style, I am always trying to make room for the full spectrum of sounds, textures, and language experiences that are my own.


How does your work encounter ‘home’ and what ‘home’ means to you?

The answer to this question evolves over time. In the poems in my first book, Water & Salt (forthcoming from Red Hen Press, April 2017), home is a place of deeply-rooted memories, of generational memory, of familiar cadences. Home is also a place I keep having to unearth from beneath the rubble of empire.


What are you working on now?

I am working on a second book of poems that I began writing during my residency at Hedgebrook last year (April 2015). I brought several notebooks with me, because I was unsure of what I wanted to work on. In the sunlit silence of my cabin, I got to spread out the notebook pages and really listen to the words I had written. I started to see a relationship emerging between drafts of poems in separate notebooks, and I had the space – literal, emotional, and creative space – to begin following the thread, to explore the relationship between the drafts and to write into what was emerging.


What role has Hedgebrook played in enabling your voice and developing your community?

My first introduction to Hedgebrook was through a collaboration with the Arab Center of Washington in 2005. I was the on-stage translator for Alia Mamdouh, an Iraqi novelist and visiting writer who was part of the Women Writers of the Arab World program that Hedgebrook hosted that spring. And it was at those events that I first met a Palestinian American poet Suheir Hammad, whose work has been so important in my own life. I had been writing on and off for a few years, but it was in the company of the women who filled Seattle with their resonant Arabic and Arab American poetry and stories that I was inspired to fully embrace my own writing. Ten years later, when I arrived on Whidbey Island for my own residency, something I had only dreamt of, I walked into the farmhouse and saw Suheir’s name on the mail box above my own. It felt like a homecoming.


About Lena Khalaf Tuffaha:

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is an American writer of Palestinian, Syrian, and Jordanian heritage. She writes poetry, essays and literary translations. Her poems have been translated into Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Norwegian, and Spanish and have been read at events in Gaza, London, Tokyo and Toronto and across the United States. She has been published in International and American journals including Kenyon Review Online, diode, Borderlands Texas Review, Compose, Lunch Ticket, Sukoon and The Pittsburgh Poetry Review. Two of her poems have been nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize. Lena is a Hedgebrook alum, and an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her first book of poems, Water & Salt, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press in April 2017. You can read more of her work at www.lenakhalaftuffaha.com



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Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.


Hedgebrook Staff
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1 Comment

  • Andrea Steffens
    5:24 PM - 16 August, 2016

    I love your work. I am also a poet publisher of other peoples work as it relates to women and children in war zones…including those in the states.

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Lena Khalaf Tuffaha
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha: Women Authoring Change