[Editor’s note: This interview was conducted by Miriam Ruff, and it is the third installment in what will be a series of interviews about the different approaches people take to discover and learn new topics. It was lightly edited for clarity.]
MR: We’re talking today with Joumana Kalouch, a multilingual teacher and avid reader, whom I’ve gotten to know through her writing and poetry. Welcome to the AceReader blog, it’s good to have you here.
JK: Thank you. Good to be here. I should say I identify myself more as a teacher and an avid reader than as a writer/poet. Poetry is a means for me to express how I feel; I consider myself an amateur who only enjoys writing and find in words a healing power that helped me get through depression almost as a cathartic process. Poetry came to me naturally, as if it was an inner hidden force that only revealed itself after a hard life experience. This is why I never force myself to write. I only do it when I feel the “need” to. So I don’t know if I can say I am a poet.
MR: Fair enough, although, having read some of your work, I would say you do an excellent job at it. Let’s move for the moment back to the beginning of everything, to reading. Did your parents read to you when you were little? Did you have a regular “storytime?”
JK: When I was a little girl nobody used to read to me. In our culture [Ed.: Joumana lives in Lebanon] reading isn’t common sadly. But I still remember my grandma’s stories though, stories about magical beings, even monsters and ancient Arabic tales. Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, Saif el dein, etc.
MR: At what age did you start reading by yourself?
JK: From what I remember, I learned to read really early and by my own… hard to believe but I did. My first book was about a bunny and I borrowed it from the library we had in my hometown. Then a special relationship linked me with all kind of books. I didn’t have anyone around to help me or guide me so I just read every kind of books, some weren’t suitable to my age – Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Camus, Dickens, and Arabic writers as Jubran (all his books read before middle school), Maroun Abboud, Taha Hussein, etc. My family used to find my obsession with books weird and always encouraged me to go out and play with friends. I would get so engrossed in my book that I wouldn’t leave it till I finished it even if it meant reading it in secret hiding under my blanket with a lamp torch. For me since I was an introverted child, books were my gateway, my adventure, and I have images of stories I read at an early age, forever alive in my memories. I always and still prefer a book over its adaptation into a movie.
MR: What were your favorite things to read as a child? Has that changed much since you’ve grown up?
JK: Even when I was a little kid, I didn’t have a particular taste, I liked what made me imagine and think. I read Jubran, Naimeh (Lebanese writers), Dickens, and Hemingway at 8 years old and I enjoyed at the same time Jules Verne and children tales too. There are no bad books in my sense, for me it’s more like a mood of the moment. I now read so I can no longer think… life is already harsh as it is why add to it? Now I am more into dark novels, fantasy, romance, thriller, etc…
MR: An interesting progression. When you were young, did you go to the library regularly? If so, what was your experience like there and with books in general?
JK: Since I grow up in a war zone, we didn’t have a lot of choices, we had countries donating books to the school library that happened to be near my childhood home and I was yes a permanent visitor.
MR: What languages do you speak, and when did you learn each of them? Did you learn strictly from conversation, or did you also learn from books?
JK: Arabic is my native language, French my second one, both learned at school since kindergarten. English, I learned it on my own. As a kid I would watch anime with Arabic subtitles and I realized later that I no longer needed translation anymore. I sure improved over the years by listening to songs, watching movies (being fluent in French helped a lot). Three years ago I started reading in English only and that also helped a lot.
MR: Do you read equally fluently in each language? If not, how does your approach differ between them, and how do you set up your reading time to maximize your effectiveness?
JK: I read fluently in the three of them. Arabic is the poetic language, French the intellectual pleasure and English the language of my heart and passion. I feel more free when I write in English because I have no grammar knowledge since I never learned it in school. In Arabic and French I feel like I have to check my grammar, the vocabulary, and that my standards are higher.
MR: You’re a teacher. What made you go into that profession? Do you use books to help your instruction? How do you recommend your students use books as part of their learning experience?
JK: Teaching wasn’t a heartfelt choice at the beginning, more as a practical one. But I was lucky to find out that it was the perfect job for me and a true passion. Yes I use books and lately the internet to improve my teaching techniques, although I am blessed to be highly imaginative and that helps a lot in this kind of profession. Students these days are less and less interested by reading so I mainly encourage them to find the kind of books that may stir their interest.
MR: Your poetry is beautiful, and even though English is your third language, you write like a native speaker. To what do you credit that ability?
JK: Thank you for the compliment… I discovered this “talent” really recently, less than a year. I am still learning and improving and experimenting. Reading in English helped a lot. I write how I feel, what I see. I don’t embellish words or try to sound good. I feel good about my poem when it feels natural, simple and expressive.
MR: We now live in the Internet Age. How has that affected your personal reading habits? Do you find a difference in reading from a book and reading from a screen? Which do you prefer?
JK: I sure prefer to read a book than an ebook, nothing can replace the special bond that links you to a real book. But I have to admit that lately, in the past three years, reads are online, the main reason is because in my country not all books or all types of books are available to buy. And the Internet is an open door to heaven for those who love reading.
MR: Where would you suggest people go who are interested in finding out more about reading or writing skills?
JK: I don’t go to any library here in Lebanon; I used to go when I was in France. Libraries here are mainly are school book shops. This is why I read online. I go to thesaurus.com to get vocabulary. I go to Goodreads and find what is there to read and then surf my way on the web to find free epubs to download. There is too this free application and site online with amateurs and published writers posting their work. It’s called Wattpad. I love to read on it too… it has all kind of books themes and styles.
MR: Great information. Thank you for sharing with us; it’s been a pleasure.