Recollection: Serena Lukas Bhandar in Conversation with Nataly Shaheen

Nataly Shaheen

Nataly Shaheen, whose nonfiction piece “Ali-Mohammad” appears in The Malahat Review's winter issue #217, talks with Malahat Review Creative Nonfiction Editorial Board member Serena Lukas Bhandar about her upcoming memoir, realizations she had after writing about her mother, and immersing herself in the time and place from her memories—the Lebanese Civil War.

Read an excerpt of “Ali-Mohammad” here.


Nataly Shaheen is a Lebanese-Canadian and an ESL and Communications professor at Sheridan College. Her love for writing started at an early age and magnified as she studied and earned two Masters degrees in English Literature. She is an emerging writer, long-listed for the CBC Non-Fiction Prize in 2020 for “Ali-Mohammad,” a chapter from her in-progress memoir Lost in Them. Her memoir focuses on the haunting effects of a dysfunctional family set in the backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War. She is refining her craft by working on a Creative Writing Certificate at the School of Continuing Studies—University of Toronto. Nataly is also co-editing an anthology, Stories of Home, which has been awarded a Scholarship, Research and Creative Activities 2022 grant at Sheridan College. The anthology showcases the diversity and creativity of ESL students and will include stories about their cultures and their journeys to Canada.

“Ali-Mohammad” offers immediacy and vulnerability as we see events unfold through your eyes as a child. How did it feel to inhabit your childhood self in the work of crafting these scenes?

Sometimes, I recollect certain incidents that continue to feel immediate and real, not distant in time and place. However, there are times when I shy away from being that little child again. Some of the memories of war are triggering. I have written some pieces that only seemed to scratch the surface, where it felt like I was running through the events and avoiding the emotions and the human impact. In those instances, my craft suffers because I rush to include multiple points of view or timelines that do not make sense, anything to keep me from connecting with that little girl who bore witness to tragedies. The rewriting process here is essential. The challenge is to allow that little girl to speak, to exist again, to feel the pain. When she emerges, I walk in her steps and look through her eyes. What does she see? What does she feel? Her eyes become the camera that is looking outward and inward at the same time. And I ask myself, why do I now, after decades of these events, still remember this? These questions then guide the writing and hopefully make it more authentic. Writing from this perspective can be emotionally exhausting but also therapeutic.

In 2020, you were one of 35 writers on the longlist of the CBC Nonfiction Prize, picked from over 1,700 applicants. What was that experience like? Anything you didn't expect?

As an emerging writer, I felt validated that I have a story to share. I did not expect to be long-listed as it was my first submission to a literary competition. When I read the email with the announcement, a part of me could not believe that Canadian readers resonated with a story about a young girl in a war in a distant country because it is foreign to their experience.

To have acclaimed writers such as those reading for the CBC Nonfiction Prize consider my work worthy gave me an assurance that I should pursue this journey. Of course, it was always deeply gratifying to have my classmates at the University of Toronto express their appreciation of my writing, but my harsh inner critic made sure to remind me that it might be because they know me personally, not because I could really write. So being on the longlist has helped to quiet that critic and provide the motivation to complete my memoir.

Another happy surprise was that a close friend and colleague, Diana Catargiu, was also longlisted. To share this milestone with her continues to be a source of joy because she was the one who encouraged me to take courses and to write.

Writing about family can be difficult, but writing about familial relationships under the omnipresent shadow of war is undoubtedly even more so. Did you realize anything new from writing about your mother and other family members in this way? Were there any boundaries (emotional or otherwise) that you had to set for yourself?

My relationships with my parents were fraught with conflict and cold distance. Losing my mother after a prolonged illness more than two decades ago compounded feelings of grief with shame and anger. Losing my father a few years ago opened a chest of emotions—bitterness, disillusionment, and abandonment. These are very difficult emotions to process. Writing this chapter, and my memoir, is allowing me to step outside myself and see the world from their perspective.

As I write my mother into the stories, I connect with her in ways that were not possible for me as a child. I think of her motivations, her back story, her own struggles, and suddenly she is not just the mother I often argued with. I go past my angry teenage self, and see her as a woman who suffered so much in a loveless marriage and in a costly war.

In “Ali-Mohammad,” a sentence goes in passing over the fact that we lived for years in an office. We were lucky to have a place to go to when our home was no longer safe, but it was difficult for me as a child to accept living among drawing desks in my father’s engineering office. But can you imagine what it was like for my mother? She lost her home, one that she carefully designed and decorated. She had to change her workplace. She had no visitors for shame of living the way we did. And to top it all off, we were not really safe with militiamen and battlegrounds surrounding us.

Now, after writing about Mama, after seeing the world through her eyes, I understand her constant anxiety and her sacrifices in order to keep us alive. I have come to love her strength and sympathize with her weaknesses.

“Ali-Mohammad” is a chapter from your forthcoming memoir, Lost in Them. Can you tell us more about what to expect from the memoir, or any other projects you've got coming up?

My memoir is an exploration of a deep sense of alienation rooted in a dysfunctional parent-child relationship set to the backdrop of the Lebanese Civil War.

I felt erased because of my relationships with my parents. I felt chained to their low expectations of me, their view that I was a failure as a child and as an adult. I felt lost in their emotional neglect. My memoir speaks of the journey I am taking to un-erase myself. It is about finding my voice that asserts my right to exist.

Lastly, I'm so curious since I'm also working on a memoir—are there any books or other recommendations that have guided you along the way in the process of writing yours?

One good piece of advice I read is to immerse myself in the time and place I am writing about. For that, I look at my own family photos for little details of how people look and the setting of my events. I also watch documentaries on the Lebanese Civil War, read the newspapers from that time, and find snippets of TV and radio news reports. These are the materials that I have at hand to help me recollect what I had witnessed growing up. Other writers are a great source of inspiration as well, so I read novels and short stories written about Lebanon and its conflicts. But the most precious of all sources is the witnesses I talk to, family and friends who shared my life back then, who knew me and my family. To hear their voices and see their faces as they recount their own memories, it is truly touching and lends such richness to my stories.


Serena Lukas Bhandar

Serena Lukas Bhandar

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