Wafa' Tarnowska - A Lion & Dragonfly Interview
"...Wars happen, but that the human spirit is resilient and imaginative and that one way to keep one’s sanity is to believe that bad things will end. In the meantime, while waiting for war to end, we can read, listen to music or write or draw or paint or cook or garden, or teach others something useful and of course help others. In other words, to put oneself in what the Spaniards call “a state of duende” a heightened state of emotion, expression, and authenticity. For the spirit needs to be nourished and hope needs to be fanned." - Wafa Tarnowksa
When MB worked as a school librarian, she loved to share the extraordinary Nour's Secret Library with her older students - including showing them footage of the real secret library on CNN. We're thrilled to share our interview with the extraordinary Wafa' Tarnaowksa. Enjoy!
Can you tell us about how your past experiences inspired you to write Nour’s Secret Library?
This story is partly based on my experiences in the civil war in Lebanon in 1975-76. I found myself hiding in a basement for several months with my family to stay safe from bombardments. All 12 families in our building—that’s 40 children and adults— spent every night in the caretaker’s apartment: playing card games, reading, drinking coffee, listening to the news, knitting, coloring, and talking politics. We left the basement in the morning when the bombing stopped for a few hours and went upstairs to our apartments to wash and change and eat and sleep a little until the next round of bombings would start.
What else inspired the idea for Nour’s Secret Library?
The story is also based on a real event that happened in the town of Daraya in Syria between 2013 and 2016. Where despite the daily bombings, the young people of Daraya, a small town in the Southwest of Damascus collected 15,000 books from bombed-out houses and created a library in the basement of an abandoned building which served the community in many practical ways during these difficult times while helping to keep their morale high.
How did you come to collaborate with Vali Mintzi on this book? What was that collaborative process like?
My wonderful editor at Barefoot Books Kate di Palma chose Vali to illustrate the story. She was the go-between between us for Vali had many questions about Damascus and the Arab World never having been there. It was a very rewarding collaboration and the result is stunning according to many.
What is your favorite page of this book and why?
The one that says: “The world of books is wonderful, Nour thought, looking at the piles of books around her. Like a galaxy full of stars. Some are shinier than others, but together they make the sky sparkle.”
What are you most proud of from this book?
The children’s resilience and vision and their courage in braving danger to achieve their dream.
What inspired you to become an author?
My grandmother who was an amazing storyteller, my father who was great with words and wrote poetry every morning, my favorite authors as a child such as Enid Blyton and Antoine de Saint Exupéry, who wrote The Little Prince, and reading Alice in Wonderland. This is the book I would have loved to write.
What do you think are the ingredients for a great children’s book?
The elements of the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell.
They are: the Call to Adventure, Crossing Thresholds, going through Trials, making Friends and fighting Foes, having an amazing Idea or a Dream, picking up a brilliant Mentor along the way, showing Resilience despite obstacles, then finding a Treasure and sharing it with the world.
What is your favorite place to write?
I have several writing spaces depending on my mood and the season: an attic space in our Polish farmhouse, a study that overlooks the garden in our English house, and a salmon pink wooden hut in my garden. I like them all. I even have a small desk in my bedroom just in case I feel like cocooning and have to concentrate 100%.
What was your favorite picture book growing up?
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I love his imagination and wisdom such as: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” And “Imagination is the only weapon in the war with reality.”
What children’s book (other than your own) are you recommending to friends at the moment?
Peck, Peck, Peck by Lucy Cousins published in 2013 for little children. I just find it a lot of fun, and I love reading it to my grandson who is 15 months old. It’s about a little woodpecker who has just learnt how to peck. So, he pecks and pecks, and pecks his little heart out. He pecks the hat and the mat and the tennis racket and the jacket and he makes lots and lots of holes that children love to put their fingers on and it all rhymes beautifully.
What’s the last book you couldn’t put down?
The Island of the Missing Trees by Elif Shafak. It’s a double love story set during the war in Cyprus in the 1970’s. One of the characters in the book is a fig tree. I love figs and fig trees and olives and olive trees, and we lived two years in Cyprus, so I knew the place well.
If you weren’t an author, what would you most like to be? What is your (other) dream career?
To be an opera singer. I would have loved to be able to sing beautifully like Cecilia Bartoli or Jakub Jozef Orlinski. Vivaldi’s song “Vedro Con Mio Diletto” is one of my all-time favorites. I listened to it every single day during the lockdown.
What do you hope your audience takes away from reading Nour’s Secret Library?
That wars happen, but that the human spirit is resilient and imaginative and that one way to keep one’s sanity is to believe that bad things will end. In the meantime, while waiting for war to end, we can read, listen to music or write or draw or paint or cook or garden, or teach others something useful and of course help others. In other words, to put oneself in what the Spaniards call “a state of duende” a heightened state of emotion, expression, and authenticity. For the spirit needs to be nourished and hope needs to be fanned.
What would you want your ten-year-old self to know?
That dreams do come true, and those adults try their best with what they believe the word is about. I also would like my 10-year-old self not to listen to any critical voices but to believe in their intuition and their dreams.
What are you currently working on?
Two new books and I’ve just finished some big translation work.
What is your favorite place you’ve ever traveled to?
At the end of May I went on a pilgrimage to the south of France following in the footsteps of Marie Magdalene. I started at the coastal town of Les Trois Maries and ended up climbing up the mountains above Marseilles to reach a grotto where legend says Mary Magdalene lived the last 30 years of her life. The grotto was magical. It is above the forest of Saint Maximin La Sainte Baume, a very beautiful nature reserve.
What is your favorite book genre?
Magical realism: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a firm favorite. Followed by Myths such as Madeline Miller’s Circe or Stephen Fry’s Mythos.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
People who make the world a better place and inspire others to do the same: Gretta Thunberg, Malala Yousufzai, and all the women in my Amazing Women of the Middle East book coming out in paperback in September 2022.
Finally, please remember to share Nour’s trailer:
Nour’s Secret Library Trailer | Barefoot Books - YouTube– https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ejpELNErk4