This is an interview with Hanna Abi Akl.
Born on September 16,1993, and hailing from the small village of Bejjeh (North of Lebanon), Hanna Abi Akl is an aspiring young English author who devotes his time to writing poetry, fictional short stories and novels. His writing is inspired by real places and stems from a real environment; war-torn Lebanon and the mannerisms of Lebanese society often take center stage in his works. Hanna’s works have already appeared in many literary magazines like the RainPartyDisaster Society, TalkingSoup and CentumPress Publishing. He recently published his first novel, A Road Away From Home.
How did you get into writing?
I got into writing by reading books. Words have always appealed to me, they always seemed to have a magical effect and were able to inflict all kinds of sensations and emotions I’d come across in my life: joy, sadness, grief, heartbreak. There was truth in them and that was what got me hooked to them.
When, and why, did you get serious about writing?
Growing up, I was nurtured in an environment that encouraged writing as a means of self-expression. My mother was an Arabic teacher who believed words could change lives. At school, we were taught that words had an undying power that was still very real today by studying the greats that wrote timeless and immortal works before us. But it was really in college that I started thinking seriously about writing.
My college experience was an eye-opener in many ways: most importantly, it opened my eyes to the mechanical way we approached life and the manner by which we were blinded by things like competing for the best grades or honors and getting hired at the best firms to get paid the highest salaries. I felt there was more to life than this – there was a greater purpose for us to see and reach out for. The great writers helped me understand this through their books and their words and I was convinced I could seek that higher purpose through writing.
Tell me about your heritage and how does it come into your writing?
I grew up in Achrafyeh, a Christian neighborhood at the heart of Beirut heavily imprinted by French culture and western society. I grew up learning French and Arabic at the same time which made learning English a lot less of a challenge. I had the chance to observe Lebanese as well as Western traditions as I lived at a confluence of both, and that is the key element I like to reflect in my writing: the comparison between both traditions and the way they developed from back then till now.
I feel the West has evolved at a much faster rate and that is the imbalance I like to highlight in my works since I, an Arab who grew up exposed to Western literature, too am a confluence of both cultures.
Tell me about Bejjeh? For someone who’s never been, can you describe it?
Bejjeh is a small town located North of Lebanon. It is a 45-minute drive from the capital and biggest city, Beirut. It is not heavily populated and is surrounded by a beautiful natural landscape of rocky mountains and a few patches of green.
Its houses are faithful to the traditional Lebanese architecture (two stories with a red pyramid roof) and it still preserves much of Lebanon’s heritage (some houses still have a model of the old dial telephone and old heaters).
What Lebanese and Arabic traditions in particular have imprinted into your work?
The most poignant themes related to Lebanese and Arabic traditions that have influenced my work are: the diversity of culture and religion in the Lebanese society, the conservatism of Lebanese families and thought, the political and economic instability and uncertainty of a country still trying to find its feet after an arduous and devastating civil war and of course famous Lebanese foods and drinks.
Why is it important to you to write about characters challenging the societal norms you grew up with? What specific topics do you typically try to discuss/expose?
One of the key elements in Lebanese society is its openness and acceptance of Western cultures and values. It is really at the crossroads between the East and the West – trying to evolve in thought like the West while still holding on to its most deeply-rooted Eastern values. To that end, you can feel the ever-present struggle in every Lebanese’s mind, especially the younger generations being exposed more and more to foreign culture like music and movies and literature while growing up.
The characters I use in my works embody this struggle and touch upon the most sensitive issues that are slowly being filtered and applied in Lebanese society while still considered forbidden on the surface.
This is why I speak of the Lebanese Underground in my works where topics like sex, drugs, prostitution and other addictions are permitted and practiced by people who belong to their own circle.
What’s your typical writing schedule?
Currently I work in a firm and so have to abide by a fixed schedule (the 8 to 5 job). As such, I don’t have the flexibility and luxury of picking my writing hours. But I write every day. Or at least I make it my objective to write every day. I try to sneak in a few lines early in the morning before going to work (when the mind’s still fresh) and I write late at night before bed (typically after a long shower to get rid of the stress and exhaustion of the day-job).
How do you keep yourself writing?
I keep myself working by always coming up with new ideas and topics to write about. I found that having a little journal or a notepad (or even a notes app on the phone) can be very useful to just capture an idea and be able to expand on it later. One of the writer’s main assets is observation and you never know what kind of topics you might be able to write about if you take the time to observe what’s happening around you.
How have you gone about publishing in literary magazines? How do you find ones that fit with your themes? How often do you send in work?
Here in Lebanon, literary magazines are still scarce (especially in English). So I try to send my work to foreign English magazines.
Usually the way I go about this is by searching for literary magazines online and going through the ones I like. I read some of their work and their About page to get a feel for the material they are inclined to publish.
Then I compile a list of the ones I think might be interested in my work and start submitting my stuff. Typically, I send work to magazines every couple of months and I usually like to wait for responses by at least one or two of them before sending some more to others.
You’ve recently published your first novel, how did that experience go? What did it feel like to hit that milestone?
It was a goal I’d set and been able to hit. When you write so much and you’re filled with ideas, you just know you’re going to get there one day and be able to take on such a big project and succeed.
My only surprise was the time it took; it took far less time for me to get there than most of the great writers I had read about. It was a very pleasant experience that required a lot of soul-searching and self-enlightenment along the way.
Ultimately it was very refreshing and rewarding to be able to hold the finished manuscript in my hands. It’s a very gratifying and personally satisfying feeling that exudes a lot of pride: to be able to say you’ve molded your ideas and imprinted a part of yourself in lasting words.
Tell me about A Road Away from Home specifically. What’s it about?
A Road Away From Home is the journey of a young writer struggling with his craft. John Kaliba is a Lebanese man who grew up influenced by the great works of western writers. He has found love and satisfaction in words and would like writing to become his life.
The story follows his personal development as a man facing the challenges any writer faces: poverty, social ostracism, rejection, madness, writer’s block….until he finds a new creative source for writing through a special relationship with a woman.
The interesting take on this story is that the reader is able to get into the mind of John and witness firsthand the conflicted personality of a western man trying desperately to stand out in a country still clinging to (and sometimes enforcing) its Eastern values.
Where did the idea come from?
The idea came from simple observation of the Lebanese society, of the upcoming artists and writers and poets and musicians who are raised here without a chance because they didn’t follow the straight educational path their entourage and environment demands of them.
This is for them, for anyone believing that art can still stem from and be brought back to a country like Lebanon (which has had its fair share of artists, most notably Lebanese-American writer Khalil Gibran).
How did the writing process go? How long were you working on it?
There was no real schedule or planning to the writing process. The idea just hit me at first and then it started to develop with observation.
Then when it became too much I started writing down the ideas and separating them until I realized they would make consistent chapters in an intricate and coherent stories. I worked on the novel for three months and by the end of that time had a completed first draft.
How did the editing/revision process go? What were your tactics/habits for revision?
The editing/revision process wasn’t as smooth as the writing. It involved a lot of re-reading (to the point where I started reciting some of the paragraphs).
Typically I would go about it by chapter: I’d give each chapter enough time and polish it and only move to the next when I was sufficiently sure it was good enough.
How did you go about publishing?
The publishing process is a story of its own. I first released copies of the book myself to a small group of beta-readers (mostly friends and family) and one of them thought the book was good and was kind enough to refer me to a local publisher, Tadros publishing.
While they are local, they are also affiliated in the United States and have strong ties and connections there. I emailed my manuscript to Charbel Tadros (the head of the publishing services house) and he really liked it and immediately believed in it.
From there on it was a long string of revisions, editing, working on the cover and setting up a marketing plan (in addition to registering the book upon its release and making it available on Amazon which the publisher took into his own hands).
All images have been used with permission and supplied by Hanna Abi Akl.