‘Lisan al’asfour’ is the Arabic name for an Egyptian pasta dish, which translates to the bird’s tongue. The meal takes this name from the tiny almond-shaped orzo pasta that is used, which looks like a little tongue. It is also the title of Natalie Hanna’s first poetry collection, which was a finalist for the 2023 Ottawa Book Awards.

When Hanna was young, her mother’s special recipe was her favourite meal, but she had never heard her mother call it by its name. 

“The day that I heard her use its name, lisan al’asfour, my brain immediately interpreted that as the bird’s tongue. And I was heartbroken, because I couldn’t bear the thought of eating the voices of birds,” says Hanna. 

This experience was the first time Hanna recalls having a schism with her mother, between English and Arabic.

“I can see her with her huge heart, bursting into tears at her mother’s table,” says Diana Reid, a long-time friend of Hanna’s. 

The Ottawa-based poet has had her work published in 13 chapbooks one of which was nominated for the 2022 bpNichol Chapbook Award. Her poem “light conversation” received Honourable Mention in Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2019 Diana Brebner Prize. She also runs battleaxe press, a feminist-focused small poetry press.

Natalie Hanna is the author of the poetry collection lisan al’asfour. [Photo courtesy VERSEFest]

She said, however, that until this most recent work, she hadn’t felt the time was right to put together a whole poetry collection. Much of her other published poetry focused on one theme, but she said to publish a book, she wanted a wholistic yet cohesive approach. 

Hanna says the title poem is a reflection of the collection which discusses topics such as the loss of language, loss of culture, being a child of diaspora and being a child of an immigrant who may feel they don’t belong in the home country of their parents nor the country where they were born and raised. It speaks to witnessing, language and belonging.

And it sometimes deals with very difficult, painful or graphic topics but Hanna says she is trying to treat each with compassion. 

“I feel that the more gentle poems offer some hope and offer a bit of soothing in regard to everything else, because I don’t want the book to be read as if it is a book of hopelessness. It’s very much not. It’s very much a book of resilience, calling for a kind of strength and softness in the way that people interact with one another,” she says.

Hanna is an Ottawa-based poet and lawyer who works with low-income populations. She says her work as a poet and as a lawyer comes from a feminist perspective and though each profession seems different, she sees intersections. 

“I don’t think I can separate the poetry from the lawyer, from the feminist. It is one identity. You are the cumulative of some of your experiences. And I think that there’s some aspect of each of those identities always functioning in me.” 

Hanna says she always had a great love for literature and that her dream was to be a writer and a lawyer. She pursued a degree in English literature at Carleton University with a specialization in poetry and religion and later went to law school. Hanna says she is grateful and lucky to have both of her dreams come true, and that she is immensely thankful for the support of family, close friends and the literary community in Ottawa.

Diana Reid, a high school teacher whom Hanna describes as part of her second family, says that knowing Hanna so well and interacting with her writing is a delight. She says she lived through some of the stories in Hanna’s poems. As a lover of literature, she enjoys seeing the stories in a new way through Hanna’s eyes. 

“I don’t think that anyone could ever find someone who loves language, and who loves art and who loves the beauty that humans create more deeply than she does,” says Reid.

“And I think that she has seen some of the most horrible things that people can do to each other. And her reaction has always been to make sweetness, to make joy, to make beauty. Out of the worst of humanity, she pulls the best.” 

Reid, who calls her friend “family of the heart,” teaches some of Hanna’s work to her high school students and says she loves how the poems can bring students to poetry who may not otherwise find it, and that it can bring out their potential to explore different types of literature. 

“She writes in a range of styles and a range of voices. She writes poetry from the highly technical — the sort that can be appreciated by other poets but is a bit of a struggle for sort of the common person to understand — to poetry that makes my 16- and 17-year-old students come to tears.

“Some of her work is extremely accessible because she is writing in two and sometimes three languages. There is this tapestry of beautiful linguistic interplay, that is fascinating, but also very resonant with a number of people. And I don’t know anyone who’s listened to her poetry, who walked away unmoved,” says Reid. 

Reid also appreciates the way Hanna’s kindness is portrayed through her writing.

“Her writing is stellar, her personality is better,” she says. 

Chuqiao [Theresa] Yang is an Ottawa poet and a friend of Hanna’s. She shares Reid’s take that Hanna’s writing is an accurate reflection of her personality. 

“The thing I appreciate so much about Natalie is she really is like her writing. I mean, when you meet her, she is as warm, and understanding, she is compassionate, and as aware as she is in her writing, she is in real life,” Yang says. 

“She’s able to, you know, get along with anybody and talk about difficult issues in a really approachable and accessible way. And I think that also translates in her writing.”

Yang says that Hanna is great supporter of Ottawa’s literary community and its members.

“I think it’s just a real gift that we have someone like that in Ottawa, who’s so mature, and so willing to share and to grow with you as a writer, but also somebody who just celebrates writing for what it is, and I think that’s just who she is. And I’m really grateful that I’ve met her,” Yang says.