Ghinwa Jawhari is a Lebanese American writer whose essays, fiction, and poems appear or are forthcoming in Catapult, Narrative, Mizna, The Adroit Journal, The Bangalore Review, and others. Her work explores themes central to Arab American girlhood: inherited trauma, sexuality and the growing body, identity and violence in diaspora, and the contracts of tradition.
Out with Radix Media, Jawhari’s BINT is an anthem to Arab American girlhood, to diaspora and displacement, to the “place that holds you during other seasons.” An ode to “the girls,” this debut collection of poems was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Own Voices Chapbook Prize by poet Aria Aber. When this stunning book came across my desk, I was blown away by Jawhari’s exquisite reflection on the violence and beauty of Arab womanhood, coming of age, and gender.
If you haven’t read BINT yet, be sure to purchase a copy from Radix Media, and check out the below conversation I had with Jawhari. We discussed Jawhari’s writing process, the difficulties (and joys!) of finding one’s voice during the pandemic, and the process of creating BINT.
The Rumpus: What inspired BINT? What was it like working towards this book?
Ghinwa Jawhari: I started the project around March 2020. The pandemic was serious in New York then—lockdowns, restricted travel, panic, a lot of time to think. Before that, there were lines that had been in my brain for a long time but they weren’t part of any poems yet. The “sterile body of a child” line in the first poem, for example, as well as “mites of the wooden house” in the “baladi” poem. Most of my poetry starts with a line. There’s a poem in that line, somewhere.
During COVID, I wasn’t working. We had executive orders that we could only see emergency patients at the dental office, but there is always a high risk around open mouths. I was terrified of carrying it home, giving it to someone, getting someone else sick.
So, I took off. For the first two weeks, everyone was relieved. It felt like a break. Then, of course, it changed. I think I was sitting with this really painful nostalgia—this achy nostalgia. After a while, when it stopped being fun, it got to the point where you’re sitting with yourself in a room, remembering. And I couldn’t sleep. I was worried, like everyone was. I found that the process of writing was easy because it was coming from a place that had been simmering for years that I hadn’t accessed or had the time to access. My partner definitely encouraged me to keep going when that process got slow.
Rumpus: Can you talk about the role of silence in this book, as well as your practice as a poet? There’s certainly a lot of play with white space in poems like “boy crush (ii)” and “test.”
Jawhari: It’s a short book, short on purpose. I think much of poetry’s strength and wit is in its conciseness and its silence. It is as much about what we don’t say: things that aren’t spoken about or discussed, on purpose.
The silences in BINT are intentional. I really wanted to focus on the bint herself. I wanted it to be about her and I wanted the silences to come from her. She dictates where the attention is. What is she noticing? What is she choosing to write about, what is she refusing to say? The “boy crush (i)” poem, for example. All she notices about him is how he sits in chairs. The attention is flipped to his body, so intentional. Nothing else. I wanted [the “boy crush”] poems to be at the end, nearly comical, defiant.
I think the silence drives a lot of the work. It’s about the reflection you find in that clear space, and also what you’re choosing to omit.
Rumpus: I love the “boy crush” poems so much. I think there’s a different freedom and energy in the voice of those poems that feels different from the rest of the work. Can you talk a bit about those poems, and also the cover, which is inspired by one of the poems?
Jawhari: I like them, too! The cover is based on “boy crush (ii).” It’s the bint’s pose, mimicking the man she sees at a New Years party. The cover was illustrated by my sister, Nisreen Jawhari. She took a photo of me on the chair I sat on to write the book, in August, and drew this. She’s incredible.
In “boy crush (ii),” the mother gets the bint this dress—and this is very much based on my own mother, who loves sequins. Very Lebanese that way, loud ’80s vibes. So there’s a sense that you’re getting decorated to go to this party because they want you to capture the attention of any guy. You’re an ornament.
When she sees him, we’re assuming he’s the same boy in the first poem, but it’s not totally clear. He’s hanging out, and she catches him in the chair, pretending he’s a demigod. And it’s this idea of his easy pose. The ability to just “sit.” He’s poured there by God, just existing. He can open his legs. When she’s at home, she copies what she saw, but it doesn’t look right. She notices pubic hair hems “the triangle of my thong like / pencil lines.” It looks cartoonish.
There’s so much in how we sit in chairs, beyond even the queer interpretations of that inability. I think the poem is about not being able to escape your body.
Rumpus: Can you talk about the role of queerness in this book?
Jawhari: The queerness is handled as a subtext, as a curiosity or dreamscape. If you are looking for it, you will find it. I’m thinking of the poems “shahwa,” “autonomic,” “instead a palace,” and “tammuz,” among others. It’s a nod to the esoteric, kind of IYKYK vibes. If you are not looking for it, it’ll go over your head completely. Very much like lived realities of queer people.
I didn’t want it to be a queer anthem. I think there’s an unfortunate and tragic “othering” that happens when we focus exclusively on the queerness of work. It splits the narrative off into its own category, as if it isn’t a part of everyday life. The fact is that queer narratives are remarkably familiar and frequent. And, surprise, they can happen in absolutely any context.
In BINT, some of the lovers in the poems are ungendered. It’s a question mark. When you’re young, too, there’s a lot you don’t know. But I wanted the backdrop of “coming of age” to suggest that it’s normal to feel these things. It’s a feeling; it’s okay.
Rumpus: Talk to me about the title. It immediately caught my attention because of my own associations with the word “bint,” but also because of the character throughout the book. If you’re part of this community, you know exactly what bint means, and also how loaded this word is as it relates to lineage, virginity, and relationships. It’s one of the reasons the title and cover are so effective. There’s a specific image I think of when I consider the word “bint,” but in the cover image, she’s defiant, confident, and challenging. And so the tension between the cover image and the title is very much alive throughout the book, as she attempts to navigate her own girlhood and queerness outside of the term “bint.”
Jawhari: Yes! And my sister captured exactly that. My partner wanted this tension to come across. Overall, we wanted the image to be simple and unembellished.
As for the title, that came up in 2019. I’d traveled to Lebanon alone for the first time, and I was staying with my aunt in the mountains. She has three young sons who have friends living nearby. One morning, she was referring to one of these toddlers, and she called her a bint. That same day, she referred to me as a bint when we were speaking to someone else.
I was thinking about how we do this in English, too—call grown people “girl”—but how in Arabic, the word has a lineage. It’s loaded, by virtue of the language and gender, and related to familial structures. It’s a relationship word, but it’s also about virginity, whether or not you’re married. We don’t do this for boys. It dawned on me: wow, okay, me and this three-year-old are the same, and so are the older unmarried aunts upstairs. I was considering all of these different definitions, how the word is used to classify, label, and dismiss.
I did get some pushback when I first introduced the project to some friends. They argued readers wouldn’t know what a bint is. But I’m writing for those girls who, as you said, know exactly what it means. In my acknowledgements at the end, I thank the “bints,” an Englishized plural of bint that—for me—means Arab Americans (the correct Arabic plural is “banat”). This is for them. I didn’t envision this to be a translation for the white gaze or for the heterosexual gaze. It was a small, intentional, targeted project.
Rumpus: In an earlier conversation, you mentioned you’re a dentist by trade. What’s it been like to be plunged into the world of poetry the last year?
Jawhari: It has been exciting! The beginning of a lifelong dream. The poets I’ve met have been kind, welcoming, inspiring. My fellow Margins Fellows and everyone at AAWW, for example, have renewed this urge in me to create and tell stories. It’s refreshing and new, a whole other city.
I will also tell you that I was always the good bint. I grew up very much wanting my parents to be proud of me, to be loved and admired by them. Nothing else mattered more. My decision to become a doctor was not at all corralled or calculated by them, but I felt—or perhaps imagined—a pressure to either marry one or become one. I chose the latter.
I love what I do. Beyond helping patients, it affords me a good living and I can take time off to write and teach English. I think it’s freeing to have a “job” job, as exhausting as it can be. Do I wish, mentally and financially, that I could’ve afforded to go the MFA or PhD route back then? Absolutely. But I think you risk some of your creative spirit with that. You get disillusioned when you’re in the middle of it for so long. It happened to me in dental school, too. You start with big ideas about helping the world, and then institutions try to beat that fire out of you.
A few days a week, I teach high school students how to write essays. Sometimes they will write these incredible pieces that are astoundingly creative and tender. The way they hold language in their hands… it’s just so new, and no one has told them what they’re not allowed to do with it yet. That newness, I think, I wish and hope I still have some of that.
I’m also grateful that I have some distance from the world of poetry, in a sense. I don’t write at work—I write patient notes or a treatment plan, and that’s all the writing for that workday. But then I can come home fresh to it.
Rumpus: Tell me more about teeth. I’m so fascinated by them, and I wonder if you find any meaning and connection between your practice as a dentist and your practice as a poet. I know you’re doing a column now for Catapult about teeth, too?
Jawhari: One thing I’ve definitely learned from my father is that poets can project beauty on the world. He can craft a gorgeous poem about anything, forcing you to take another look at what at first seems ordinary. I sense that I do this with dentistry, too. I’m drawn to the smile, the lips, the esthetics of the human face, its small tremors and big joys, its growth. I pitched the column, Demibone, to write creatively about these observations.
Teeth like to touch each other. So, if there’s a tooth missing, they tend to move. This is a physics phenomenon, but it’s also very cute. Aside from the fact it’s driven by occlusal forces, I think it’s very much about how once something is uprooted, the neighbors rotate and look to fill that void.
Teeth also have a pulp—that’s the heart of the tooth. They’re layered like onions and the inner layer has blood, lymph, nerves, a whole circulation. That’s part of what makes teeth different, structurally. They’re considered “part” of the skeletal system but they’re not actually bones. That’s why I called the column Demibone. They’re almost-bones, beyond-bones.
Enamel is the hardest mineral in the body. Teeth have this hard outer shell but the inside of the tooth is very soft and smushy and communicative. If any infection or trauma gets to the heart of the tooth, it shoots pain to other teeth, to the side of the face. I’ll use this space to mention that this is why you should regularly see a dentist even if “nothing hurts”! Once it hurts, it’s deep.
Teeth are so alive, and we definitely take them for granted.
Rumpus: I was impressed by how well difficult ideas and conversations around queerness, violence, and womanhood are handled throughout the collection. It’s really fierce, and it’s a book that I think shows its teeth in a lot of ways (pun intended). How did you go about writing these difficult poems considering the undercurrent of violence within them? And more broadly, how do we write about violence within our own community without that being used as fodder for the white gaze?
Jawhari: First, I’ll say something about the white gaze, which is that we need to—and by we, I mean the Arab women who are writing now—we need to focus way less on white readers, or the potential of white readers. I’ll be honest with you: I don’t care anymore. The title was a message. If you don’t know what bint is and don’t care to learn, don’t pick the book up. If the Arabic throws you off or angers you, it’s not for you. We need to adjust our intentions a bit. Many of us have spent a lifetime (collectively, several lifetimes) begging please understand me to outgroups instead of acknowledging you understand me to our ingroups. There’s a sanctity and strength in that that makes the poetry genuinely reflective, not translated or watered down. I also realized by and large that no white writer cares—or gets asked—what Arab readers are going to think of their work. We’re taught to worship it, idealize problematic white characters as complex or misunderstood.
This reminds me of the launch of Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man in Brooklyn a couple of years ago. Someone asked her the same question—how are you not giving white people more ammunition and space to claim Arab violence or misogyny? I remember the question throwing her off a little bit, but she was so graceful. She blinked, and said, “This happened. What am I supposed to do?” Very frank and true. She was writing from her own experiences to those with similar ones.
For me, I believe our intention can’t always be writing towards a white community. We have to decide firmly that this is for our community. Whoever else is coming in can take off their shoes. I would hope every bint who comes to this can see parts of herself here. I want her to extrapolate, reflect, help her define herself and her lineage, her feelings and experiences. Validate her. That’s my dream, that the work is for our girls. Whether or not Kevin from Kansas “gets it” is not my concern anymore.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about your next book? And, what are you reading now?
Jawhari: I’m working on a project about Phoenician mythology and Lebanese identity. The blast in Beirut on August 4 completely crippled the Lebanese economy; this was especially problematic because it came on the tail end of an active revolution and within an insidious pandemic. I learned about BINT’s selection for the Own Voices Chapbook Prize on that day, and then Beirut shattered. There is a sense of permanent loss now. I have been sitting with that, wondering about our origins, our famous and weaponized resilience.
It is still in its experimental stages right now, a lot of re-gendering and re-rendering.
Photograph of Ghinwa Jawhari by Natasha Jahchan.