Jalal Barzanji on the gift of writing what he wants

A PEN Canada Writer-in-Exile, poet and author Jalal Barzanji fled government persecution and even imprisonment in his native Kurdistan. Now based in Edmonton, Barzanji's latest book is Trying Again to Stop Time, a collection of poems about how his homeland and his adopted land intertwine.

In our patented Q&A, Jalal Barzanji fields questions from his fellow Canadian writers - and reveals the joy of being allowed to speak freely when this wasn't always a given.

tryingagaintostoptime (1).jpgPhoto by: writerjalalbarzanji.wordpress.com


1. Zsuzsi Gartner asks, "What role do religion and spirituality play in your writing?"

For me, spirituality is different than religion. Meditating on nature, contemplating humandesire, and hunting the beauty behind everything have allowed me to make spiritualconnections with things around me. These connections, I believe, allow me to write from my heart and soul.

2. Cathy Marie Buchanan asks, "What is your writing routine?"

In the past, I would usually write late at night, which is a theme for a lot of authors. However, since I've turned 60, I feel as though I've changed into some sort of bird, waking early, making coffee and beginning to write as early as possible. I like to write in a windowless room, to limit distractions. However, if I'm particularly disconnected from the outside world I am able to write in coffee shops and airplanes, etc..

3. Tomson Highway asks, "If you were a musician, which instrument would you play? That is to say, which instrument would you choose to tell your story with?"

I would choose a piano. I believe it offers the widest range of possible emotions with a limited amount of keys. It can be sad, happy, excited, suspenseful. I feel my stories havevaried emotions, so the instrument needs express them well.

4. Donna Morrissey asks, "How do you deal with daily life while you're in the middle of creating a book?

At times, in the middle of creating a book, going back to regular life and rushing to work can make me feel frustrated. As Philip Roth says, "I can't be a son, husband and brother, I can only be a writer." His words can sometimes be true, because the immersion of books can be difficult to get out of.

5. Susan Juby asks, "What is the most painful literary rejection you ever received?"

Under Saddam Hussein in Iraq there was an extreme lack of freedom of expression, and the government had an active role in censorship on publication. Due to this, before you submitted your manuscript for printing, it had to pass the censorship department and get an ''OK" stamp. In 1979, I submitted my first collection of poetry under the title "Evening Dance in the Snow". It was rejected in censorship. It took three additional attempts, and the exclusion of many poems, to finally get the book published.

6. Lorna Crozier asks, "How did growing up with (or without) siblings affect your writing or your desire to be a writer?

I was born and raised in a large family, and due to this I was constantly surrounded by people. As a writer who feeds on calm it became difficult to find an area in which I was able to write. This made it more challenging, but it fortunately didn't dry up my appreciation of writing.

7. Vincent Lam asks, "For you, ­what does the 'Ultimate Literary Event' look like?"

To me, any time I can speak freely and make an interesting connection with the audience, it is an ultimate literary event. One example would be my 2011 book launch for The Man in Blue Pyjamas: A Prison Memoir. The event was part of Edmonton's LitFest, and we were able to put together a panel discussion about the book: how I wrote it during my residency as Edmonton's first Writer-­in-­Exile; how Sabah Salih worked to translate it from Kurdish to English; and how Peter Midgley and I worked together during the editing of the book.

8. David McGimpsey asks: "If a robot wrote beautiful poetry, should the robot be eligible to win the Governor General's Award?"

If humans programmed the robot, it would work hard for us, but so far, we cannot get technology to think or write beyond basic ideas. In the future, if technology came to control or program our lives, poetry would become empty of emotion and would no longer reflect human feeling. Maybe then the Governor General's Award jury would announce a robot the winner of this award.

Jalal Barzanji is a highly respected Kurdish poet and journalist. He has published seven books of poetry and numerous critical columns. His latest book of poems isTrying Again to Stop Time. After his two-year imprisonment by Saddam Hussein's regime in the late 1980s and further political repression into the 1990s, Barzanji and his family fled to Turkey. They remained there for eleven months, eventually immigrating to Edmonton, Canada.


Thumbnail image for whitespace-620.jpg

Get book recommendations, stay up-to-date on CanLit news, discover the best author interviews on CBC and more with the CBC Books newsletter.