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INTERVIEW with author of Stranger's Notebook

Yin Yin Lu interviews Nomi Stone




How did you discover the Djerba community? Why did you choose to live with them, and for how long were you there? What was it like? Which of their customs and principles did you find the most striking and influential for your poetry?


Djerba was on the peripheries of my consciousness after a 2002 truck bombing of a synagogue there.  I read that the synagogue was called “La Ghriba,” which means the Stranger. I was immediately intrigued by the story of this island community of 1,200 Jews amidst 100,000 Muslims. 

          My interest in North Africa began when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College.  As a French Literature and Creative Writing major, I went on a study abroad program to Fes, Morocco to study the Middle East and Islam. For my senior thesis, I wrote a poetry manuscript inspired by the spaces of ritual in both America and the Islamic world.   I knew I wanted to return to North Africa, and the Djerban Jewish community’s remarkable history and mythologies had captured by imagination.  I received a Fulbright to write poetry on the island for a year, in 2003-2004.

          The Djerban Jewish community traces part of its origin back to the fall of the Babylonian Temple in 586 B.C. (and the remainder to post-1492 Exodus from Spain). In the community's myth of origin, a stone from the fallen Temple's door was brought to the Hara Sgheira (the small Jewish quarter) and became the foundation of the new synagogue.  I was particularly fascinated by this mythology, the messianic lamentation rituals of the community, and the community's relationship with the surrounding Muslims.  

What was it like?   I will try to conjure it for a moment.  Djerba is a long, flat island, green with olive trees, located in the Gulf of Gabes, right off the coast of Tunisia.   On one side of the island is the “Zone Touristique,” dense with spas, casinos, and five-star hotels, many of which are named after lotuses.   It has been claimed that Djerba is the Island of the Lotus-Eaters, a pit-stop for Odysseus and his men: the crew landed on the island, ate the soporific blossoms, and it was almost impossible to woo them away.   On the other side of the island is the capital, Houmt Souq, teeming with olive presses, pottery kilns, and octopus fishers. The Berbers, the Phoenicians, and the Arabs, and even, allegedly, Bararossa pirates have lived on Djerba.  The two Jewish villages, the Hara Kebira (the large quarter) and the Hara Sgheira (the small quarter) would be almost invisible if you did not know where to look: a scattering of stark white houses and dusty streets, the Jewish villages seep into the surrounding villages.  The painted turquoise imprints of hands and fish on the exterior walls of the homes could be easily confused with those of Muslim homes: the Hamza of the Jewish tradition parallels the Hand of Fatima among Muslims; the fish is a prophylactic symbol for both communities.   

          I spent my days having coffee with the young married wives; brushing up on my Bat Mitzvah level Hebrew with the teenaged girls; learning that it was not permissible to brush my hair or shower on the Sabbath (“one must rest!”); and baking sugary pastries shaped like Haman’s ears for Purim.   I thought constantly about a fable that had been told to me by the community, and the way in which sometimes, the metaphor that will govern everything, is given. 

          In the fable, a young girl, a stranger, arrived one day on the island on raft made of birch.   According to legend, the community was afraid of her and did not greet her.  She built a hut on a hill and lived by herself.  One day, when her hut spontaneously burned, the community, still afraid, did not come near.  They found her later, body and features of her face, completely intact.  The story tells that they named her a saint, “The Ghriba,” and built The Ghriba synagogue around her body. Every year at Lag B’Omer—a holiday of festivity amidst a period of mourning, and a Djerban occasion for feting Shimon Bar Yohai, the alleged writer of the Zohar— the Jewish women of Djerba bring the Ghriba, an egg inscribed with their wishes, and leave it in a small cave enclosed in the Ghriba synagogue, near the ark.    As I mentioned, Ghriba means stranger.  The trilateral root in Arabic also implies the marvelous and the uncanny.  Many Djerban Jews claim to be strangers on an island they have lived on for centuries and perhaps millennia.  Meanwhile, I never forgot that I was a stranger in the Djerban Jewish community.   Through this particular story, but also broadening into other stories, the book asks about what it means to be at home or not at home; if one can carry a home within their own skin.


How did you find the people you interviewed for the last section of your book ("Portraits of Women Who Left")? Can you describe how you transcribed their experiences into poetry?


 After I finished my Fulbright year, I started a Master program in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University (2004-2006).  For my thesis, I wrote about Jewish-Muslim relations over time on the island.  I did interviews in Israel of Djerban Jews who had left their island after 1948.   Since the creation of the State of Israel, 80% of Djerban Jews have migrated there.  I was collecting stories of what pre-1948 Djerba had been like.  There was a time on the island when Rabbis blessing kosher meat for the Jewish community also added “Allahu Akbar,” to make the meat equally fit (symbolically) for Muslim consumption.  Muslim children would visit the yeshiva with their Jewish friends.  There were thriving commercial partnerships.  However, although the two communities live in respectful and peaceful coexistence, difficult political tensions have intervened since that time and there is significantly less exchange between Jews and Muslims in Djerba.


So, in an attempt to understand this history, I arrived in the Negev desert with only a backpack and blank tapes.  For two weeks, I went to North African neighborhoods, knocked on doors, and spoke in Djerban Jewish Arabic dialect.  When people spoke back in the same dialect, intimacy was immediate.  Every single night, different families took me in, fed me, told me stories, and asked me for news of the island they had left.  As I incorporated these interviews into my Masters thesis, and thought through the meaning of what I had seen and heard, these poems flooded me.  This lucky cross-pollination has been so crucial for me. My academic work gives my poems intellectual rigor, while my poems give my academic work conceptual clarity.  



Many of the poems in Stranger's Notebook contain quotes. Were these taken verbatim? How did you assemble them?


 The quotes are all extracted from my field-notes.  Some of them come from extended and non-recorded conversations over time and are thus close approximations, not perfectly verbatim.


What are your favorite poems from the collection? Which poems are the most self-reflective?


 One of my favorite poems is “Many Scientists Convert to Islam.”  It is a poem that emerged out of months of conversation with a very dear Muslim friend around questions of faith.   I told him that I was moved by all ritual and all expressions of faith, and he replied that I “treated religion like a supermarket.”  What ensued was some of the most demanding dialogues of my life, now stilled into this poem.    I am also partial to “Time Ends,” the tiniest poem in the collection, which wishes it could generate a miracle machine.   The poem, a couplet only, is deeply inflected by Lurianic messianic thought, and the imagery of the “shattering of the vessels” of the universe and the attempt at their reconstitution.  The poem begins: “Miracles are hungry.  Stars open and shut across/Stratospheres.”  The end of the poem, “Stars open and” is the ellipses, before the stars close, before the great book closes, where we hope for something we hardly dare to imagine — whatever that may be.


The variety of forms and points of view in your poetry is astounding. To what extent does your subject matter determine these forms and perspectives? (I.e., do you have the form/POV in mind before you start writing, or do they evolve from the ideas themselves?)


Yes, for me, form and content ask everything of each other.  The story I want to tell, and the voice it compels, together summon the form.  For example, the meta-notebook within the book (“From Her Notes) is written in successions of tiny poems, which are sometimes beaded together and sometimes left dangling.   They have the tempo of seeing in short bursts, just as I collected observations in my notebook.  Thank you to the haiku.  Sometimes multiple poems with the same title appear on a page, an attempt to create echoes — either music or uncomfortable cacophony — in between them.   As for the points of view in the poems, I tried to incorporate the many voices I encountered in the community.  For example, the teenage girls form a chorus in the book, a sort of song full of both curiosity and opprobrium at the stranger.  There are voices that only swim to the surface briefly: the gentle teacher with his measured judgments; the anxious and lonely wife; the woman who became my best friend on the island and asked me, sometimes compassionately and sometimes furiously, why I had come, requiring me to never cease asking myself. 



Who are your favorite poets and your biggest inspirations?


 My favorite poets are Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Jack Gilbert, Anne Carson, Joanna Rawson, Frank O’Hara, Li-Young Lee, Richard Siken,  Badr Shakr al-Sayyab.  My biggest inspirations are my family (my parents and my two siblings) and Cleopatra Mathis, my beloved teacher and friend.   Also my deep thanks to my two other poetry mentors, Jorie Graham and Cole Swensen. 


How long did it take you to write the book? In your opinion, how has your style evolved over the years (if at all)?


I wrote the book between 2003 and 2008.  I wrote all the first drafts of the poems in two weeks, and spent the subsequent five years honing and editing. I have been writing poems since I was six years old.  Below is one of my earliest poems, written just after my eighth birthday (retyped here with all of its misspellings).


Jade Mist, By Nomi Stone, 1989


As the Palm tree's swayed a

Cool invisable breeze swayed.  I swayed

with it and swallowed the

breeze freecuwently.  I saw smoke

in jade arise into the air

from deep below the moist

ground.  It heated the air

and made long swirls

above the fresh green grass.

The grass suddenly began

to burn right at the end of

my toes.  I began dancing

with the blazing fire.

I paused my dancing with

the fire and wed going

into the dark creepy

lancalot woods coverd with

dark creepy trees except one

light shone in the woods.

I suddenly saw where the

jade wind was coming

from.  I walked into the

trees and saw a jade

emreld and the wind coming

through it.  I coverd the

emreld and put it in my

jacket the wind stopped

and It was Just an allusion

all of it everything I had

saw was gone exept

for some magic pearls that

had made the allusion.

I gatherd them up and

took them home and now

I knew how to make



I think that in my teenage years and early twenties, I was so enraptured by the possibilities of language that I wrote poems of excess and abundance.  As I have gotten older, I have learned to pare away.  I have come to understand that every single word shines.  A single word can and must sear through the ear and the page.   Finding the poem is finding its bones. 


Any revelations you care to share with us about the artistic life?


When I was a freshman at Dartmouth, Robert Creeley came to read.  I approached him and told him that I had wanted only to be a poet since I was small.   I told him I had written hundreds of poems, and asked, what was I now meant to do?  He told me: go to the Vermont Studio Center.  So I went there.  As a sophomore, junior, and senior during my winter break from college, I disappeared for two weeks into a studio, and wall-papered it with new poems.  I have maintained this writing life ever since.  I spend much of the year collecting the flotsam and jetsam of the world, of books, of my own heart, and writing notes.  Then, I disappear to write poems.   Because there was no Vermont Studio Center in Tunisia, I wrote the first draft of Stranger’s Notebook, at a funny spa-town called Qorbus, in the mountains of the country.  Many women with rheumatism were there on retreats.  I found a little, pristine room in the cliffs, and left it only to eat — the specialty in that town was whole fish with lemons.  Every time I showed up in the creaky restaurant, the waiter would say: “What can you be doing in that room all day!”    I am now off to Jordan, for another research project.  For my PhD in anthropology (and thus, in my new poems), I am writing about Iraqis who worked with the US military and government during the 2003 Iraq War.  I’m interested in questions of cultural translation and mediation in wartime, and also in mourning and memory in the aftermath of violence.  I will do interviews during most of my time in Jordan, but I will make sure to schedule a week to vanish and write new poems. 





Yin Yin Lu is an English major at Columbia University. To find out more about her, visit the Masthead.

A perfectly healthy sentence, it is true, is extremely rare. For the most part we miss the hue and fragrance of the thought; as if we could be satisfied with the dews of the morning or evening without their colors, or the heavens without their azure. - Henry David Thoreau


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