Poet John Mikhail Asfour reflects on blindness

First aired on The Sunday Edition (4/3/12)

john_asfour-175.jpgJohn Mikhail Asfour was 13 years old when a grenade blew up in his face. It was 1958, and he was a teenager living in a small village in Lebanon during the civil war. Three years later, after a series of surgeries, he went completely blind.

Asfour emigrated to Canada in 1968, and settled in Montreal where he became a translator, an editor and a poet. 
He has published seven poetry collections, including his latest, Blindfold.

Recently, the Association of American University Presses named Blindfold one of 2011's distinguished books, calling it "a moving collection of poems on the distance surrounding disability."

In an interview with The Sunday Edition, Asfour talked with host Michael Enright about his book, and the misperceptions that sighted people have about blindness.

He began the interview by reading a poem from Blindfold, called Silver Threads.

Asfour makes use of a special software that's a screen reader. "I put on headphones and move the arrow on the keyboard up and down, and as the program speaks the line that I come to, I repeat it," he explained.

Silver Threads is about a boy being warned by his mother not to play with unknown objects that explode -- which relates to his own experience .

"I come from a region that is blessed with so much natural beauty and so much wealth, cursed with so much problems and humanly made destruction," Asfour said. "Lebanon is known for the last 50, 60 years to be planted with bombs and grenades. Unfortunately, I am one of thousands and thousands of victims of those wars."

In his poetry collection, Asfour doesn't assign blame for his situation. It's a human condition, it's what we've done as human beings to each other," he said.

In another poem in the collection, Asfour writes of blindness as a kind of nationality. "You know, any visible disability becomes a nationality," Asfour pointed out. "I'm always identified as the Lebanese blind poet, Lebanese blind professor...it identifies you. I deal with this in the book quite a bit." Using language and metaphor, he said, "I try to see what is the different between a blind man and the rest of the population."

Asfour commented that sighted people often assume that if someone is blind, they are also disabled in other ways. "There is this sense of naïve perception that if you can't see, you can't hear, you can't understand," he said. "You're almost invisible, and they direct questions or comments to whoever you're standing with."

Asfour prefaces his book with a quote from James Joyce, who became blind towards the end of his life. "He did not stop writing, it did not faze him," he said. "He wrote Finnegans Wake when he was blind."

Asfour went on to say that for several years after his accident, he became a recluse and wouldn't leave the house. But he has come to see his disability very differently over time.

"Blindness is a silly, silly notion. It doesn't mean anything to me," he said. "When I decided to go out, I had two decisions: stay at home and have my family look after me, or go out and fight the world on my own terms and do what I wanted to do -- go out and help people, not get help myself. And I managed to do that. I got the highest education, I taught university for 25 years, I've published now about 17 books, and life is okay. And I've kissed a lot of girls, as well."

To Asfour, there are more serious impairments than being blind. "It [being blind] has made me very, very, very aware of our human problems in the world, and how so many people we meet, so many people we know, are walking around...and living with a lot of pain and anxiety, and very little help is extended to them."



by John Mikhail Asfour

Buy this book at:

Save on Music, Books and Dvds at Indigo

From the publisher:

"Blinded by a grenade in Lebanon as a teenager, poet John Asfour came to Canada armed with James Joyce's words, 'For the eyes, they bring us nothing. I have a hundred worlds to create and I am only losing one of them.' Blindfold investigates the ways in which disability influences our lives and is magnified in our minds. In a series of thematically linked poems, Asfour draws the metaphor of the blindfold across the eyes of sighted citizens who are impaired by estrangement, emotional complexity, and social pressures..."

McGill-Queen's University Press.