‘Pain leads to an awakening within’: Lebanese-Canadian author, poet Najwa Zebian

The social media trailblazer makes a case for ‘building a home within oneself’ In her writings


Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 8 Sep 2022, 5:45 PM

How do you navigate life? Some of us learn from it and move on. And then there are lows we hold on to because getting over them would cause pain. And then there are those who look at life stoically, unmoved and unchanged by its rough edges. Today, it wouldn’t exactly be an exaggeration to say that life, as we once knew it, has changed. The last two years of the pandemic have brought the ‘self’ to the spotlight and determined the directions we would take. This idea of individualism is central to Najwa Zebian’s work. Once touted as the next Rupi Kaur, Najwa Zebian has carved her own niche, especially with her last book Welcome Home. Using home as a metaphor for self that needs to be protected and nurtured, Zebian makes a case for an emotional self-sufficiency that should ideally form the basis of our ‘self-worth, sense of belonging and happiness’. It may have been a year since Welcome Home released, but it continues to resonate because these are the very ideas that the pandemic brought to focus.

In the introduction to the book, Zebian writes, “The mistake most of us make is that we build our homes in other people in the hope that they will deem us worthy of being welcomed inside. We feel so abandoned and empty when people leave because we have invested so much of ourselves in them.” Could the last two years have been that moment of reflection for us? The 32-year-old Lebanese-Canadian author, poet and social media trailblazer tells us what has really changed.

The idea of home has been central to your writing. From a physical space it assumes a more spiritual and philosophical meaning. What led you to turn home into a metaphor?

I remember the first time I went on stage to give a speech in front of 500 people. It would be the biggest audience I would be addressing. I had spent months preparing that speech. But by the time I arrived in London, I had gone over the speech so many times that I was tired. I went out for a walk and 10 minutes later, I came across this beautiful, big building and realised it was Buckingham Palace. It immediately reminded me of the love I had for Princess Diana and the connection I felt I had with her. As a child, I always felt she just wanted to be loved — and that’s what I wanted too, to feel fully, wholly cared for. This played a big part in what I eventually ended up saying on stage. I said, “The biggest mistake we make is that we build our homes in other people, we take care of them with love and kindness and when people walk away from our lives, those homes walk away too.” When I said those words, I realised it was a combination of what I was feeling and wanting my whole life. It was a sign that I needed to write more about it. I spent the next three or four years and the idea was transformed from a metaphor to a more application-based, practical approach.

You left Lebanon and moved to Canada when you were all of 16. How difficult is it to speak your truth when you attempt to find a home in another country?

Displacement, in a physical sense, is hard enough in that it distracts you from the displacement you feel within. In case of the latter, you can tell yourself, ‘Maybe I am feeling this way because I am actually out of place and far away from my physical home.’ Living in Canada, as opposed to living in Lebanon, was so jarring for me that I was not even considering there is a displacement I could be feeling within. I only focused on that external, physical displacement. I also thought that maybe if I go back to Lebanon, I’d feel like I belong here. But when I finally visited Lebanon a few years later, I still felt out of place. There was a feeling of numbness. I did not want to go out and make new friends or make any changes to my life. That is what physical displacement did to me.

The idea of home and belongingness has changed ever since the pandemic. Do you find the idea of ‘building a home within’ is something that has resonated greatly post-pandemic?

It has been a year since Welcome Home released. My biggest audience is aged between 24 and 36. Now that’s a fairly young audience that’s coming to this kind of work. They may have realised that the way they lead their lives stems from this desire to belong somewhere, and which is why they extend themselves in every direction where they can receive love and kindness or even feel as though someone wants them. To be 24 and want that — that’s pretty young. People usually come to those realisations much later in life. Being stuck at home during the pandemic caused an awakening among people because it forced them into an isolation that they usually run away from. Many people did not take out that time to actually be present with themselves, but those who did, began looking inwards and asked themselves, ‘Can I take this as an opportunity to figure out why I struggle with being alone?’. They experienced an inner shift. And going back into the world probably woke them up to how we over-glamourise going out and connecting with people. We realised we ought to be selective about who we spend our time with and what we should be spending our time doing , and take whatever time we can get to grow internally. For me, it comes down to building a home for yourself.

The most powerful line in the book is “We build our homes in other people and give them the power to make us homeless.” In many cultural or familial contexts, women are expected to build their homes in other people — find their happiness in that of a spouse, parent or child. How difficult is it to break away from this conditioning?

The struggle to belong has always existed. Now it’s more socially acceptable to be vulnerable and talk about it. There are more stories being shared of people who talk about the pain of belonging to an environment where they can be themselves. Hearing such stories gives so much inner power to someone who could be in a similar situation. To give an example, divorce is considered ‘bad’.

So when you hear a woman who comes from the same context as you and has been able to break away from an abusive marriage, it empowers you knowing that there is a possibility to survive something like that. Today, it’s possible to have a life where you belong genuinely.

You once famously said, ‘We gaslight our own dreams more often than others’. How much do our formative years shape this self-awareness?

When I say we gaslight ourselves, I mean we tend to speak to ourselves in a way we were spoken to in the past. We may have internalised those voices because that is how our parents or people in school or a family member spoke to us. As you grow into the world, you find that there is something missing. We minimise what we are feeling or going through as a way to avoid going inwards because we know that if we allow ourselves to do that, we are giving ourselves permission to speak up in ways we are not used to. Parents play such a big role in shaping this inner voice. There will be times when you would want to make a change in your life and suddenly an inner voice will tell you doing that will make you a bad person. When you sit down with that voice, you think it’s your gut that’s trying to save you. But it’s the voice of a parent or a teacher or a bully you once had to deal with.

This is why it’s important to sit down with yourself and ask, ‘Who am I and what shaped me to be this way?’ It’s important to go back to those earlier stories, to your childhood and understand why you operate the way you do in the world. When I was telling you about being nervous before the talk, I was 26. Today, at 32, I often wonder why I was so nervous and realise that’s because I was taught that the outer world is extremely scary and I need to protect myself all the time, that if anything wrong happens to me, it’d be my fault. So it’s necessary to build yourself on the basis of who you authentically are. Push yourself to sit down and ask, ‘If I had a choice in this, would I want this for myself?’ If the answer is no, then draw a line. Is it hard to do that? Absolutely.

You also write at length about the uncomfortable relationship we have with pain — not the physical one but remorse or sadness. How can we make it better for ourselves?

You make it better by actually feeling it and understanding that feeling pain isn’t the end of the story. Pain is a stage in your healing. So many people spend their whole lives avoiding painful experiences; they get numb, jump from one relationship to the other, move countries, because they make pain so much more powerful than it really is. Pain is the way through; it’s not the end.

You mention the importance of forgiveness. What does it entail?

The most important thing about forgiveness is understanding that because you forgive someone doesn’t mean that what they did to you was okay or that you have gone back to being who you were. Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person; it’s about you feeling that whatever they did to you doesn’t have any power over you. Many times when I have spoken about forgiveness, I get responses like ‘I would never forgive that person for what they did to me. They need to live with the consequences of what they did.’ Well, they are living with the consequences of what they did, just because they are numbing it or pretending that it never happened does not make it true.

They will have to deal with at some point in life. Often, we wait for them to come back and say, ‘I am sorry that I hurt you.’ Most of us will never get to hear the person admitting to what they did because that’s just how life is. So if you just wait for this gift of validation from them, you might even end up spending an entire lifetime waiting for it. The pain that you feel is the awakening within you. Forgiveness is letting go of the hold the other person has on you. Changing that definition makes a big difference.

You were an important voice in the #MeToo movement. Five years later, how do you think it has changed ground realities?

When the #MeToo movement took the world by storm, it was a wake-up call for everyone. It shook the world in a way that it’s not been the same anymore. I know many workplaces changed their sexual harassment policies, but I think there is still a lot of work that needs to be done because the topic of sexual harassment has so many layers. It could be affected by a person’s cultural background or their gender. A lot needs to be studied there.


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