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This is the story that was supposed to be about owls and ended up being, in part, about Israel's bombing of Lebanon in 2006.

This was an accident.

What happened was this: flush with love for the Scottish Owl Centre to which Tessa Kum had introduced me, I began outlining the structural idea for the story while C. S. E. Cooney was visiting me over Christmas in 2013. I told her that I wanted to tell the story of a girl who really connected with Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers, because of how she felt like an arbitrary assemblage of bits and pieces that someone had commanded to be girl. Originally it was going to be more about gender, more invested in the structure of revealing that "a gathering of flowers" is a florilegium is an anthology, that Blodeuwedd is an anthology herself, and wouldn't it be clever to have fragments of story coming together as a whole within an anthology about diversity ahh the cleverness can't you just taste it!

The trouble was, I wanted Anisa to be 15 in 2014, and to have had her childhood in Lebanon. And when I did the math I realized that meant she would be in Lebanon in 2006. And I panicked.

I didn't want to tell a story about war, but I felt there was something irresponsible in shying away from it, in changing Anisa's age or background in awkward ways to avoid talking about it. I tried anyway; I thought to myself, "well, in my head she's not from Beirut, where most of the damage was done—I'll have her be from Riyaq, my mother's town, because I remember it too and I have a lot of memories connected to it and it's in the Beqaa valley and mostly farmland so hey maybe they didn't get hit in the same way but I should check—"

Guess where one of Lebanon's three military air bases is. Go on, guess. I laughed a hollow laugh.

It felt at this point that the universe was sternly telling me to take the real world into account in my fantasy story about owls. So I did. It was hard, and the story isn't reflecting any direct experience I've had of war—though I was the younger Anisa's age when I lived in Lebanon, it was Beirut in the early 90s with trips into the mountains and valleys, surrounded everywhere by the evidence of recent violence without living it myself. But the story does, necessarily, draw on my memories, my fears: I was never afraid for myself or my family while we were in Lebanon, but living in Canada and seeing my father frequently travel there and back, I was often afraid he wouldn't return. I wrote consolatory poems about it, privately, as a kind of advance-practice for grief.

Consequently I struggled with whether or not it was my place to try and speak about an experience of war that is at once so close to and so far from me. I suppose my whole life I've been as between instances of war as I have been between languages—that I am a heritage-speaker of war the way Anisa's mother is a heritage-speaker of Arabic. It's difficult; like the truth about owls, it's complicated.

That's what the Arabic says, by the way. For the love of all that's wonderful don't trust Google Translate. The truth about owls is complicated. Because it is.

You can read "The Truth About Owls" or listen to it in this week's podcast; and you can read a short interview with Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, the editors of Kaleidoscope.




Amal El-Mohtar is the Nebula-nominated author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and very short fiction written to the taste of twenty-eight different kinds of honey. She has thrice won the Rhysling Award for Best Short Poem and once received the 2012 Richard Jeffries Society Poetry Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in multiple venues online and in print, including Apex, Strange Horizons, Lackington's, and the special "Women Destroy Science Fiction" issue of Lightspeed magazine. She also edits Goblin Fruit, a web quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, with Caitlyn A. Paxson. She reviews books for Lightspeed and short fiction for Tor.com. Find her online at amalelmohtar.com or on Twitter @tithenai.
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2 Jun 2020

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