Monday, March 13, 2017

Finding Form: Making Sense out of my Yemeni Journey


It seemed straightfoward enough. Live life. Write life. But the reality has turned out to be very different.

First of all, there are the many ways to tell a story. I picture early storytellers sitting around campfires after all the day’s work was done, telling of the bear they saw while gathering berries, the old man they met up by the cave on the hill, the lightning that frightened their babies in the middle of the night. Stories with gestures, actions, and, at some point, words. Next, I would guess, would be poetry. Condensing experiences into words that ebbed and flowed and had meanings beyond the obvious. This would naturally lead to song, ballads of deeds great and small, carried from town to town in the hearts and minds of travelling bards. Writing, of course, came along at some point, and made the lives of storytellers both easier and harder; they could remember and tell stories the same way every time, and share them more widely, yet the written word is so final, so sure, so true.

Secondly, we live lives that, while they have much in common with other people’s, are unique in a billion different ways. How do we describe people, places, emotions, and experiences using our own truth in such a way that others can experience it? How do we find common ground, while celebrating diversity?

I have been struggling with these issues from the first time I put pen to paper to tell the story of my almost ten years living in various parts of Yemen. I faced some difficulty from the start, just because my journals are still in Yemen, and the Arab Spring that forced us to leave the country has also held my notebooks and books hostage since I returned to the States. I find myself having to tell the story completely from my memory, without being able to look at what I wrote at the time for a timeline and verification. Beyond that, much of what I saw and went through there, especially that which was related to the Arab Spring and the war that took place in the village in which I lived, is beyond the experience of Western readers. Finding a way to bring it all to life in a way that makes it understandable is more of a challenge than I ever thought it could be.

I started out with the idea of a straight memoir. I took the time to figure out and write down why I want to share the story in the first place. I want to open a window into a world that most people will never know, and I want to find a way to build bridges between cultures that seem, at times, so alien to each other. I made a timeline as best I could, mapping out the major events. I diagrammed and outlined and, finally, was ready to write.

At first it flowed easily. It was easy to use storytelling magic to tell of the beauty of Yemen and the beautiful character of its inhabitants.

Then, as I came to the most intense parts of the story, the time spent living in a mountain village in the north of the country, the time of sickness, desertion, and war, my words backed up, filling my heart without being able to come out of my pen. Eventually I found the only way to write about this time in my life was through poetry. The story is still not completely told, as I work my way through the twists and turns of the maze, trying to show how light comes in darkness, and strength is born in fire.

Now I sit with a jigsaw puzzle of story in front of me. How do I know if all the pieces are all there? How do I arrange them in all of their myriad shapes and sizes and fit them together? How can I tell the story I burn to tell in a way that will set fire to the imaginations of the ones who read it?


I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I am determined to find them, and share my story with you.


Khadijah Lacina lives on a small homestead in rural Missouri with her children, goats, chickens, cats, dogs, and an elusive bobcat. She is passionate about speaking up and working for change, and is writing a book about the ten years she spent in Yemen. She is a writer, teacher, translator, herbalist, and fiber artist.

18 comments :

  1. The truest words can also be the hardest to say. Thank you for being willing to share, in any form. (((HUGS)))

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    1. You're a member of my warrior woman support team, one of the people that keeps me writing and speaking up- so thank YOU, and hugs right on back. Also, you are at the top of my list to edit the book when I get to that point, if you are willing!

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  2. What a wonderful piece! I love the insight into both your life in Yemen and the work of bringing the story to the page. This is beautifully told! The book is sure to be a humdinger! Bravo!

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    1. I really hope it will be. I believe I can make a difference with it, but I have to believe in myself and the journey first. That seems to be the difficult part now.

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  4. I can't wait to read it, insha Allah.

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    1. That helps me get it written, alhamdulillah!

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  5. This would be an amazing story to tell and a voice for so many people who lived there and are still in the country. JazakAllahu khiran for writing the book I can't wait for my copy!

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    1. The aspect of being a voice for people who are otherwise voiceless is one of the driving forces behind a lot of my writing, this included.

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  6. There are stories that entertain and perhaps inform, but nothing is greater than a personal narrative that can change people's perceptions of a place and time. It has never been more important to share them.

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    1. This is what I feel, too. Now is not the time for me to be hesitant. I have to step up and tell my story.

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  7. What a fabulous post! As an editor, I accommodate the wishes and style of my clients. As a writer (and as a reader), I lean heavily toward substance — which is what you have shared with us above. Story is the stage on which characters act out their lives. Penning those stories can be a detailed and painful process because we must feel what our characters feel if they are to be believable to our readers. Whether you choose to present your work as fiction or nonfiction is obviously your call. Or you can do both a personal narrative as Diana mentioned and a stand-alone story or series of stories. Fiction sometimes offers greater latitude in expressing raw, emotionally charged realities, at least for me. Whatever your choice, your post shows the beautiful heart from which your words spring. I look forward to reading the finished product.

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    1. I had not even thought of telling the story in a fictionalized way. I'm thankful that I shared my dilemma here, everyone's support and insight is opening up new avenues for me.

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  8. This is beautiful. Letting the story flow from you as it will gives freedom. You can always edit and shape later. Would love to be a beta reader for you if you need one in the future!

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    1. I think you are right about getting it out and down on paper now, and worrying about editing later. I stalled myself for a bit, thinking I needed to get what I had already written into tip-top shape. Better, I think, to do what you suggest here. And yes! I will accept your generous offer of a beta reader!

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  9. You are writing from her heart and memory, whether in poetry form or narrative. A friend born in Algeria wrote her memoir in a fictionalized fashion, which I read, and she wrote beautifully in English. She writes better in her second language than I write in English. It's a beautiful story written about a time of political change. I know from the little I've read of your writing, that you will succeed not only to your satisfaction, but to that of your readers.

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  10. Khadijah, I love what you wrote here, and if I can offer a bit of advice, write the book in whatever form it takes. Whether that be a mix of narrative prose and poetry, or just narrative. I think a book that has so much heart will work however you decide to make it happen. And I join the list of folks who are eager to read the book.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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