Interview with Hedy Habra, Author of “Tea in Heliopolis”

Photo: Hedy Habra

Photo: Hedy Habra

Brief Biography:

Hedy Habra was born in Egypt and is of Lebanese origin. She is the author of Tea in Heliopolis, winner of the 2014 USA Best Book Award for Poetry and finalist for the International Poetry Book Award, and her collection of short fiction, Flying Carpets, won a 2013 Arab American National Book Award’s Honorable Mention. Her book of literary criticism, Mundos alternos y artísticos en Vargas Llosa, explores the visual and interartistic elements in the Peruvian novelist’s characters’ interiority. She has an M.A. and an M.F.A. in English and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Spanish literature, all from Western Michigan University, where she currently teaches and received the All-University Research and Creative Scholar Award and a Doctoral Dissertation Completion Fellowship Award. She is a recipient of the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award and was finalist for the Pablo Neruda Award. She writes poetry and fiction in French, Spanish, and English and has numerous poems and short stories in journals and anthologies, including The Bitter Oleander, Blue Fifth Review, Cider Press Review, Connotation PressCutthroatDiode, Drunken Boat, Levure Littéraire, New York QuarterlyNimrodPoet LoreSolsticePirene’s Fountain, Letras Femeninas, Alba de América and Verse Daily. She has poems forthcoming in Cimarron ReviewGargoyle and World Literature Today. Her website is

Geosi Gyasi: You’re a poet and essayist. Could you distinguish between the two?

Hedy Habra: Both activities are linked and stem from a love for reading. Writing literary criticism gives me the opportunity to appreciate and highlight certain facets of an author’s techniques. My creative work, whether I’m writing poetry or short stories, allows me to express myself without restraint and experiment with language. Both activities cross-pollinate, complement and enrich each other. I share Mario Vargas Llosa’s views regarding criticism, and my favorite essays are those that demonstrate originality and imaginative skills, this is why I have never built a wall between genres.

Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been writing?

Hedy Habra: It seems that it has been forever. Since I was a child, I loved writing essays and dissertations at school, and used to rewrite fairy tales, always changing the endings. I would also copy and memorize my favorite poems and songs. I started writing on regular basis and more formally several decades ago, first in French, then I began writing in Spanish and English when I came to the U.S. in 1980.

Geosi Gyasi: You were born and raised in Heliopolis, Egypt. Could you tell me anything about your birthplace?

Hedy Habra: Heliopolis is a residential suburb of Cairo, Egypt. Heliopolis means “City of the Sun” in Greek, and it once stood as one of the grand cities of the ancient world. At the turn of the twentieth century, Belgian Baron, Édouard Empain founded the modern city of Heliopolis. His company proceeded with the building of Heliopolis, which name in Arabic, Misr Algadida, means New Cairo. It was designed as a “city of luxury and leisure,” with broad avenues and hotel facilities, such as the Heliopolis Palace Hotel that became the presidential palace of ex-President Hosni Mubarak.When I was growing up, the Heliopolis Palace Hotel was open to the public, that’s why I chose to paint its terrace on the cover of the collection, because it symbolizes a bygone era.

Geosi Gyasi: what took you to the United States of America?

Hedy Habra: We came to the U.S from Belgium, on account of my husband’s work. We had left Lebanon at the onset of the civil war, and he was transferred to Greece, then Brussels. We are both pharmacists and he was at the time, a Director at the Upjohn Company, whose headquarters used to be located in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Geosi Gyasi: From where did you get the love for Spanish literature?

Hedy Habra: I have always wanted to learn Spanish. Every since I read Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, his female protagonist’s name, Esmeralda, kept resonating in my mind. I started Spanish courses in Lebanon, after graduating from Pharmacy, and then followed a couple of non-traditional courses in Brussels. I started a BA in Spanish in 1981 at Western Michigan University, and fell in love with Spanish and Latin American literatures.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to learn Spanish?

Hedy Habra: It is much easier if you already know a romance language, such as French or Italian because of the similarity of the syntax and the grammar. But Spanish pronunciation is the easiest, because vowels and syllables are always pronounced the same way. Grammar and irregular verbs require some attention but students start speaking after a semester and achieve a good degree of fluency after the second semester. They can perfect it if they enroll in a travel-abroad program or just spend a month in a Spanish-speaking country, but it is not indispensable.

Geosi Gyasi: Where did you get the idea to write, Under Brushstrokes?

Hedy Habra: I have a passion for art and have always taken art classes in different mediums. I spend as much time as I can visiting museums or reading about art, and my writing has always been inspired by visual art. My mother was an artist, and our home was filled with her work. In my first collection, Tea in Heliopolis, a great number of poems address the process of painting and sketching, and are inspired by artworks. Several poems in Under Brushstrokes were written or started a long time ago, and it seemed only natural to keep writing poetry inspired by art.

Geosi Gyasi: I’m wondering how you came to write, Tea in Heliopolis?

Hedy Habra: I started writing these poems several years after coming to Michigan, in an attempt to recapture people, places, affects pertaining to an almost mythical past that is at the same time lost, yet alive. I have lived in Egypt, Lebanon, Greece and Belgium and my inspiration for writing came from a sense of displacement, of belonging to so many places and cultures, all of which made it necessary to conjure up some points of reference in order to keep them alive, as one would in a photo album. But these recollections, stemming from selective memory, are filtered by the imagination. My writing is informed by my Michigan experience since it is where we’ve lived the longest, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, by my passion for art.

Geosi Gyasi: Why do you think you were the winner for the 2014 USA Best Book Awards for your book, Tea in Heliopolis?

Hedy Habra: All I can think of is what the reviewers of Tea in Heliopolis have commented upon. For example, Zinta Aistars highlights the diversity of forms, “Habra writes in various forms, and her poetry can take traditional form, to free verse, to haiku verses tucked into larger poems, to experimental and prose poems.” Djelloul Marbrook underlines the universality of the experience conveyed “Habra’s poetry is remarkable for infusing the elegiac with her exuberant accommodation to her new circumstances. She speaks with not only an American accent but an American enthusiasm. Tea In Heliopolis is not about a past in Lebanon and Egypt, it’s about recognitions and epiphanies experienced there but bearing new fruits in North America. It reminds us that vines famous for their fruits in Europe often exceed themselves in America.”

Geosi Gyasi: How do you find time to write?

Hedy Habra: It seems to me that I write constantly, if I am not composing a poem, or revising an essay, I find myself writing in my journal, taking notes, replying to emails, and so on. I take breaks from writing to do all the other activities I like to do, such as reading, painting, cooking, and gardening, among many others.

Geosi Gyasi: Is there any relation between teaching and writing?

Hedy Habra: When I am teaching a language course, I feel that I always gain a better knowledge of the way a language works, of the words’ etymology and the structure and syntax of sentences. I am fascinated by the way a given language evolves and intersects with other languages. Upon teaching a literature course, each time I teach a text, I discover something new that enriches my own conception of literature and my own writing.

Books by Hedy Habra

Books by Hedy Habra

Geosi Gyasi: How did you find a publisher for your book, Flying Carpets?

Hedy Habra: I had been writing the stories for a long time, and they were all originally published in journals before I found the time to put the collection together. When I was able to compile the manuscript, I sent it to three publishers who showed interest in it. I chose Parting Gifts, because I had been a longtime contributor of this journal. After the Press’ demise, and on account of the book’s track record, and its winning the Arab American National Honorable Mention Award, Interlink Publishing produced the second edition of Flying Carpets

Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that short stories are easy to write as compared to novels?

Hedy Habra: I have never written a novel, although I would love to write one someday. I believe it must be equally difficult to write a great novel, as it is to produce an excellent short story. Writers are divided upon which genre is more difficult, and sometimes their judgment depends upon personal preferences. Jorge Luis Borges has written about “the madness” of “setting out in 500 pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.” He also stated that he couldn’t write novels, whereas he could write short stories. Stuart Dybek, my professor and mentor during my M.F.A. program, used to say that a short story was harder to write, because of the limited space, since every word counts and must lead to the conclusion in an artistic fashion.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your main subject areas as a poet?

Hedy Habra: I consider writing as an exploration of the world and of the self. I have an insatiable curiosity and a desire to learn. Therefore all subjects and themes interest me and I try to address whatever I question, admire, or am curious about.

Geosi Gyasi: I am wondering whether you’ve thrown away your degree in Pharmacy for writing?

Hedy Habra: I wouldn’t throw it away, on the contrary, I have it framed! It was awarded by the French government and was the result of lots of efforts. Although my first love has always been for poetry, I greatly enjoyed my years of study, and despite the fact that circumstances weren’t favorable for pursuing a professional career, what I’ve learned helps me keep abreast with new findings.

Geosi Gyasi: You received the 2014 Excellence in Teaching Award and the 2013 Alumni Achievements Award from WMU. In your view, what makes a perfect teacher?

Hedy Habra: I think it is an enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter and an unlimited dedication to the students. Such enthusiasm is usually contagious and students are always appreciative of professors who try to instill in them a desire to progress and who are always available to help them reach their goals.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you explain how you managed to speak French, Arabic, Spanish, and Italian? Are you a language wizard?

Hedy Habra: I went to a French school in Cairo, where I studied French and Arabic and took English as a third language. We spoke French and Arabic at home but were exposed to English and Italian from the movies that were subtitled with at least a couple of languages. I later on earned graduate degrees in English and Spanish, and studied Italian at WMU. My grandmother spoke Italian and as I grew up, I was exposed to several languages.

Geosi Gyasi: I learned from your website that you’re studying Chinese and practicing Tai Chi. You definitely ought to comment on this?

Hedy Habra: I have been learning Tai Chi and Chinese Ink Brush painting at WMU’s Confucius Institute for the past five years. It was only natural that I would be interested in learning the language, which is fascinating, especially because of its calligraphy. My Art classes have been conducted in Chinese for the past year, and I’ve enjoyed listening to the language.

Geosi Gyasi: Shall we end the interview with a few words in Spanish?

Hedy Habra: Ha sido un placer compartir este espacio con usted, Geosi. Le agradezco el interés y estas preguntas estimulantes. Un cordial saludo, Hedy.


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