The Writer and the Taboo: with Liwaa Yazji

Born in Moscow 1977, Syrian writer and artist Liwaa Yazji (Filmmaker, poet, playwright, scenarist and translator) was20151212031537 educated in both English Literature and Theater Studies in Damascus, Syria. Since then she has worked as a freelance dramaturge, TV scriptwriter, translator, and critic. She has published in several newspapers and magazines. She published her first play “Here in the Park” in 2012, a poetry book “In Peace, we leave Home” in 2014, and a translation of Edward Bond`s play “Saved” into Arabic in 2014.
Liwaa was a resident at the Poets House- New York in 2015, where she did public poetry readings. Her play “Goats” premiered in a reading at The Royal Court Theatre March 2016. Her first documentary “Haunted” was premiered in FID Marseilles 2014 where it got the Mention Special in the First Film Competition and since then touring in international festivals and screenings.
Laghoo  has interviewed the talented writer and artist Liwaa Yazji and asked her about freedom of speech and censorship in the Arab World, and how she tackles the controversial in her multi-faceted creative work.

1. Do you think that writing or performing about taboos is really necessary?
I see it as a natural and necessary act. But we shouldn’t address taboos for the sole reason of addressing them, or this is at least my perspective. I prefer to have the freedom to address them if it is deemed necessary in the context of the artwork. Never before have I had an artwork whose principal idea is to address a taboo…as much as addressing taboos ‘if this can be said’ as a key element in framing the work; whether that taboo is religious, political, or other.
But of course, I find it a necessity. To place the taboo and the sacred within the framework of the debate and without disrespecting it is the best way to approach it. Is not the goal mainly deconstructive and analytical? For this reason I think approaching it with logic is more rewarding than doing it with violence.


2. Is there a specific controversial subject you prefer to address in your creative work?
There are not any controversial ideas that I prefer to work on; the argument in the formulation of the question here carries within it the seeds of its negation. A controversy is an interaction with the surroundings in some way, and to persist in outlining what is or is not controversial by definition undermines the idea of controversy.
I understand what is meant by the question, of course, and I have my own style in approaching dear topics that might have been thought by the recipient to have a controversial character. Big controversial topics such as sex, religion, politics, and others can be approached from various argumentative angles over time, even from within a single concept. For the conversation on homosexuality might be more controversial than the one on sex in general in our time, for example. Or the conversation about sectarianism might be more exciting than the one about atheism.

3. Is there a controversial topic that you think should not be tackled, and that you must not write about or express?
The direct answer to this question is no, but I rethink carefully now and I find that I tend to think about the historical moment and the general framework while I work on an artistic project (I write plays, poetry, TV scenarios, in addition to directing films). Which means that I might find the present moment probably unfavourable to address a certain subject (whether for being ‘fashionable’ or because it excites the reader and polarizes them in such a way that the reception of the artistic work becomes part of a historical political and religious event more than for it being an artwork). In these cases I probably carefully thought about the issue, its advantages and disadvantages before I started. Even though I tend to say that I have never hesitated to work on an idea due to its controversial nature.


4. Do you think about the reader or the audience when you write or perform?
I think about the reader in the very advanced stages of working on an artistic project. I think about reception: its difficulty or its easiness; the possibility that its ideas reach the public. It is such ideas that preoccupy me when I reach advanced stages of completion of the artwork, rather than those concerning taboos. I do not want the artwork to belittle or disrespect anyone, which is commensurate with the freedom that the work must enjoy in what it wants to express.


5. How do you balance between the real and the metaphorical in your writing?
The question is complicated and complex. It depends on the artistic genre I adopt, for it is sometimes playwriting, and sometimes poetry, TV drama, or cinema. Every game has its rules; every work has its specificity, its lightness or weight, its language and tools. Perhaps the generality of this question (in my case) might allow the generality of the answer; I will discuss a theatrical text I am currently completing titled “Goat.” It tells about a small town in Syria that loses its children in the war and is given goats as compensation. In this play reality and metaphor alternate and are in dialogue with each other to the degree of congruence. Metaphor has become truth, and what is considered to be fantasy has all the ingredients, in comparison, to turn into reality. In this text, the relationship between metaphor and truth is the fundamental substance of the text.
I love the grotesque and dark comedy, and I find myself leaning toward choices that allow a wide margin for both, if possible, of course.


6. Do you feel that you betray your idea sometimes because of indirect writing?
No, writing or the reliance on indirectness is an artistic choice. I choose it consciously (if I do), not by leaning on (trusting?) it. On the other hand, I do not consider choosing directness is or is not commendable. They are all for me artistic choices essentially. In one of my poems titled “Glance,” dealing with God does not come as a ‘forbidden;’ nor does the mention of Him involve taboos. I cannot say that this is a direct way of dealing with taboos. I try to refer only to poetry as what is written.

I do not believe in God
Nor does He believe in me
It is nothing more than
The bus driver
Who would look at me sometimes
From his mirror
While driving

7. In terms of priority in cultural influence, how do you classify the following controversial themes: religion, politics, and woman/gender?
Religion, politics, gender.
Although I think politics crept directly and indirectly in my artistic productions more than religion did, addressing religion is more important in the current situation in which we live. Here I re-impose the relationship with the context in ordering the ‘controversial’ priorities. Unfortunately (and perhaps this is a historic matter that we must acknowledge) the religious and the political dimensions interfere with our current context to the extent that it is difficult to separate priorities, not to determine responsibilities, of course.


8. Have you been subject to criticism or terrorism before because of addressing controversial topics in your works?
To criticism, of course, but not to terrorism.
Criticism is natural (depending on the nature of criticism, of course) and it is an important matter: in case it is based on objective and analytical foundations, then it helps the artist to develop their tools and rethink them. It is an important debate in the artistic process. If criticism is not based on objective or analytical foundations, it is also important as it reflects the atmosphere, the personifications, and the deposits. It is as well food for thought of another kind. It is always better that the artist be familiar with the milieus where they move positively and negatively, and that this does not prevent them from completing their project without personality inflation or isolation.


9. Can the controversial and the sacred coexist in the Arab world?
As long as I am coexisting with my neighbours, and everyone is pulling the cover to their side, yet still cohabitate and joke and greet each other morning and evening and share food and jokes. As long as this simplistic example holds (at least), I can say that it will be possible. This does not relieve us from the task of thinking about separating religion from politics and seeking to reflect on a State based on law.


Interviewed by: Ashraf Zaghal
Translated by: Ghada Mourad