From her years growing up in Syria to her present life in Connecticut as a writer and teacher, Manar Toumeh, MFA ’21, has always been driven by a love of learning, language, and storytelling. Her passion for literature eventually led her in 2019 to begin Southern’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree program, and she will graduate later this year upon completing her thesis, feeling more impassioned than ever about writing, reading, and teaching.
A writer of primarily nonfiction and fiction, Toumeh has impressed her professors with her honesty and imagination. English Professor Tim Parrish, coordinator of creative writing, says, “Manar writes courageous, devastating memoir and fiction that range from gut-punching realism to the absurdly Kafkaesque. She and her family back in Syria have been through deprivations, fear, and uncertainty that most of us can’t even imagine, so we’re lucky to have her gifts of insight, translation, and dark humor to reveal what we need to know.”
During her graduate program, Toumeh was also a teaching intern in Southern’s undergraduate fiction-writing classes, working with Parrish for three semesters and English Professor Rachel Furey for one. Furey says of Toumeh that she “crafts necessary narratives propelled by visceral details. She transports readers to standing in the hours-long bread lines in Syria and struggling to move beneath the rubble of a demolished building. Her attention to specific details also shows in her work in the classroom, where she asks questions that push peers and students to dive deeper into their characters and story worlds.”
Toumeh’s journey from Syria, where she filled notebooks with stories as a child, to Southern, where she honed her craft as an MFA student, took her halfway across the world and back, more than once. She tells her own story:
“I came to the States in 2002 and got married after I finished my second year of studying Arabic literature in Damascus University in Syria. After that I had to space out my academic achievement to every two or three years when I visited Syria. I graduated in 2010 when my youngest daughter was less than one year old.
“I earned several other certifications, but they’re from online courses or related to the Islamic studies.
“Throughout my stay in the States I have taught Arabic and Quran to children and women. I created an Arabic language curriculum that I used with my own children.
“In 2016 I lived with my three children for a year in Jordan because we, my husband and I, wanted them to learn the language better and to practice the multicultural experience that they belong to. We couldn’t go to Syria back then but the Jordanian culture is the closest to the Syrian. Also, my brother lived in Jordan, and my parents visited in summer breaks, so we got the chance to spend time with the family. The children did great in their Arabic schools, and they had many friends. My oldest daughter was in eighth grade, my son was in fifth, and my little daughter was in first grade.
“The experience was very hard but we loved it and learned much from it.
“After I returned to the States as I was searching for something new to study or to discover, and I came across the graduate programs at SCSU. I thought that education was my direction, since all I knew and inherited from my mother was teaching. I was surprised that here in the States they teach creative writing as an academic master’s program.
“Ever since I was a little girl my mother, who is a great talented Arabic teacher, discovered that I was gifted in writing. She still has my writing notebooks as a child and a teenager and she used to read them to her students.
“Being a writer was my childhood dream that I never thought would come true because I didn’t know how, when, or where. You see, where I come from, writing creatively is something people do as a hobby, not a career. You can be a writer and successful, but you have to be something else on the side.
“As soon as I understood the details about the program I emailed Professor [Jeff] Mock and met with him. He explained everything to me and sent me to talk to Professor Furey, who was understanding and explained to me that being a second language English speaker would never be in the way. She suggested that I start with undergraduate writing classes, and so I did.
“I took one year of undergraduate creative writing classes, and after I met with Professor Parrish, I started my MFA program in spring 2019. It seems like yesterday.
“My parents still live in Syria. My father has Alzheimer’s and it’s developing every year, but luckily he still remembers us, unless he’s faking it! My mother retired from her public school a few years ago, but she’s still teaching in a private school and a few tutoring sessions. It’s her passion and she can’t imagine her life without teaching.
“I owe my passion for reading and education and my love of language to my parents. I owe my father my Arabic Literature degree because he was the one who insisted that I not give up on my education with all the difficulties, and he was the one who bought me all the material that I had to study for my classes and shipped them to me all the way from Syria to the U.S.A, which must have cost him a fortune. And I owe my mother because she believed in me and gave me my first dream that came true.”
We asked Toumeh a few questions about her experiences:
Q: You grew up in Syria and came to the United States in 2002. What brought you to this country?
A: I came to the States in 2002 to reunite with my fiancé and get married.
Q: You have said that the time your family spent in Jordan around 2016 was very hard. Can you explain what was hard about it and how you managed?
A: I lived with my children in Jordan for one year. To start off, it was the first time we got separated as a family. Even though my husband visited every few months and we knew what we were going to face, it was still hard.
But the biggest challenge was the academic achievement for my children. Going from the American schools that spoke and taught only in English to schools that taught and spoke only in Arabic was something really demanding, even after I worked hard at teaching them the Arabic language. There is no way to compare loads of schoolwork for five or six subjects all in Arabic with a couple of classes on the weekend and a bit of homework during the week. We worked all throughout the weekdays on homework, studying and memorizing all the new terms and vocabulary. We worked from right after they got back from school until bedtime. We didn’t turn on any T.V. or other device until the weekend, which we earned as a chance to relax, unless there were tests, which came almost every couple of weeks.
Q: How did attitudes towards writers in Syria shape your perception of yourself as a young writer growing up?
A: Literature in Arabic is really appreciated, especially the old literature which helped build a very strong and rich language. The writer is appreciated as a thinker and artist but the fact that writing can never make a living is what makes people wonder “so you are a writer and a what?” Because selling books can never put bread on the table.
As a child I liked writing as a hobby, and I didn’t have many of those, but, ironically, growing up for my career I wasn’t as sure about it and I changed my mind so many times.
Q: Why do you think you have been so drawn to writing since you were a child? Why do you write?
I was raised in a family that appreciated the language, storytelling, poetry, and reading. I had two working parents and a brother who was seven years older than me. I had no one to play with and my toys, at some point, couldn’t catch up with my imagination. My books, on the other hand, had much more interesting worlds to live in and lives to experience. They still do. The first story I wrote, I was so young, in elementary school – second or third grade – and my parents read it to every soul they met. My mother insisted ever since that I’m a gifted writer. She kept all my writing notebooks and she still read some of my writings to her students. We sometimes had different taste in art. She objected to some parts of my writings, especially those where I didn’t follow the rules and went too far with experimenting things and when I refused to change it. Dad was always the judge and he always sided with me. I want to say because he really liked my writing but I don’t know that for sure and I really don’t care. Whatever the reason, it worked.
Q: You have written some nonfiction in your courses about your harrowing time in Damascus trying to get medical treatment for your ill parents. What was that experience like?
A: I think the fact that life changed, and still is changing, while I was away and that my parents grew old and they needed me to take care of them rather than them taking care of me as their daughter was the most shocking fact that I had to accept after a long period of denial. My mother’s sickness reached its peak the day I arrived to Syria, when I visited a couple of years ago. Even though I was born and raised in Syria, like I said earlier, so many things had changed that I didn’t know my way around to take her to a good hospital and find good doctors and deal with the situation as I should have. Luckily, I was able to be there to take care of my mother in the first place, which is the most important thing, and I’m blessed to have a loving family and friends there in Syria who gave me great support and help. Thank God my mother is well and strong now and I hope my father’s Alzheimer’s will stay stable.
Q: Can you tell me about your MFA thesis?
A: My thesis is still in progress, even though I finished all the credits, and some, for my MFA program. I’m experimenting with writing my novel from different point of views and combining that with different voices. It’s a story of two Syrian sisters who were raised in the same environment by the same parents, but who have totally different characters and circumstances. In a way, they are living each other’s dreams while facing their own struggles. I’m exploring different and complicated feelings between the sisters. This part is especially challenging for me since I don’t have a sister and I don’t know how the inside of sisters’ relationship can be. It’s an adventure and I’m living it since I’ve always wanted a sister.
Q: What impact on your writing would you say the MFA program has had?
I consider myself so lucky that I didn’t publish anything before I studied in the MFA program. For me as a writer before the MFA, the most important thing was to tell the world the story. I think that was the only important thing that I knew of other than paying extra attention to the language. Now, even though I believe I will always have so much more to learn, I believe I have a much better understanding of the writing craft and its concepts, and I am capable of creating better art. Now I can think of publishing, something that I had never thought I would do before the MFA program, and not just because I wrote in Arabic back then.
Q: Where do you plan to go from here? How has your MFA degree prepared you for your future plans?
A: I have so many plans and dreams, to the point that my plans are not clear yet. The one thing that I’m very sure about, is that I want to be a writer in the first place as a career not a hobby. After all, being a writer is my lifelong dream.
In addition to the love of writing, my passion for teaching was resurrected after I was lucky to intern under the guidance of two amazing creative writing teachers: Professor Rachel Furey and Professor Tim Parrish. I have experience of co-teaching for two years for all different levels of creative writing and what I loved the most is the combination of creativity between teaching and writing. I feel strongly about teaching creative writing since it’s different from all the teaching experience that I have had.
I do know that I want to keep teaching creative writing to the women in my reading group, and I want to advance the teaching of creative writing in the Arab world so that it can be accessible to as many people as possible.
Content editing is something I’m experimenting with now, during my internship as an editor in a literary magazine. I love the environment, I love reading fresh new stories, and I love working with all the creative, artistic, and smart people and talk to them for hours about stories. I can never get tired of that talk.