Kan Zaman: Judith Mansour’s memoir reflects on her grief, celebrates her Lebanese heritage

“Kan Zaman” is an Arabic for “once upon a time,” or “in another era.” Judith Mansour's love of words, family, and food dominate the pages of her new book “Kan Zaman,” published recently by Crisis Chronicles Press.

Birthed after “a year of hell” following the loss of her niece, father, and brother, the memoir—told in poems and prose—was a labor of love and mourning, and as she describes it, “walks [in] the minefield of grief and nostalgia.”

Judith Mansour with National Beat Poet Laureate John Burroughs, the founding editor and publisher of Crisis Chronicles Press During a recent book launch hosted at Beaumont School in Cleveland Heights, where she works as the chief advancement officer, Mansour read passages from “Kan Saman”  before a packed audience in the school’s theater—taking them to a different time through stories about her Lebanese family and their journey to the United States, as well as their traditions.

Mansour has vast experience working in the corporate and non-profit sectors—raising funds for organizations that share her values. However, she also has credentials in the arts and literature worlds.

The former “FreshWater Cleveland” publisher earned her bachelor’s in psychology and English from Ohio Wesleyan University and her master’s in English from Cleveland State University. She was at first reluctant to step out with a collection of her own work because she says she worried how her family would react to personal recollections about growing up in Youngstown amid a large Lebanese family.

“FreshWater” writer Charlotte Morgan sat down with Mansour to learn more about her heritage, her family, her writing path, and, of course, her new book.

So, when did you get started as a writer?
I started writing really when I was just a little girl. I had my first haiku published in the Youngstown [“Vindicator”] Minipage when I was maybe six or seven years old. I studied psychology. Psychology really lent itself to helping me to do these kinds of psychoanalytic studies on the literature that I was reading. So, I did a double major in English and in psych—those two seemed to go hand in hand.

What did you do after college?
Although the first years of my career primarily were spent in mental health and social services, after burning out with that, I transitioned to writing and the arts and historically I've kind of flip-flopped back and forth.

I worked as the editor for the former “Northern Ohio Live Magazine” (an arts and entertainment magazine from 1980 to 2009). I was a writer and editor for the former arts publication “Angle Magazine.” I was hired as the executive director of the Poets and Writers League which we then rebranded into The Lit: Cleveland's Literary Center, which unfortunately closed in 2011 after the housing crisis and recession.

Who were some of your early writing influences?
Some I met in graduate school where I studied for my masters in the [CSU] English program. [Retired creative writing program director] Neal Chandler for sure, [the late creative writing teacher] Sheila Schwartz, and [English department chair] Jeff Karem. Somebody else who really had a deep influence on me as a writer was Ohio Wesleyan undergraduate professor Robert Flanagan.

You talked about a Lebanese writer, Joe Geha who coincidentally contributed the art for the cover of your book. Where did you learn about his work?
It was Flanagan who gave me a book called “Toledo Stories” by Joe Geha and I read those stories about this Lebanese family in Toledo. You know a big extended family where there was a lot of love and a lot of typical family drama. And it resonated so much with me. I was like wow, people actually read this and wanted to read it. It kind of gave me a permission of sorts to think that I could write about my experiences, culture and family. That was the impetus that got me writing some of these essays in workshops when I was in graduate school.

Did you read any other Lebanese or Middle Eastern writers?
My next exposure to anything about Lebanese or Syrian or any kind of Middle Eastern people came many years after graduation. I think it was again through Bob Flanagan who sent me a book called “Food for our Grandmothers.” The editor was Joanna Kadi. It was by Arab American women. There were stories, poetry, plays and essays. In reading those I saw myself for the first time. They were writing about the beauty and insecurity; hatred and bigotry and you know, sisterhood. Everything I had experienced growing up, but I had never really seen or read by other writers of Middle Eastern descent.

Let’s talk about your book. I know you refer to 2021 as a difficult year that it led you to write “Kan Zaman.”
The year of awful started with losing my dearly beloved niece and then several months later losing my dad to a freak accident. Then just a few weeks later, losing my brother to a stroke. Losing my dad was like the door slam shut on my childhood. I will always be a daughter, but I was no longer a daughter. Daddy dying was like all those other people that I talk about in the book had died all over again. I couldn't write long form about it, I could only write about images–short products, you know short feelings. And I could only manage to think in what I call postcards and those postcards are what led to the poems.

I have read your remarkable collection. I see how important your family’s history is to you. What can you say about this?
You know that slice of American history is really important, and this is my slice. Every one of these people is really important to me. Their struggles and their accomplishments and everything about them—what they did and who they were is remarkable. I don't want them to be forgotten. I cannot imagine coming to this country like my grandmother and grandfather did as teenagers, you know being in an arranged marriage. My grandmother never laid eyes on her family ever again. She didn't know if she'd ever eat again and didn't know anything about what would happen after she got here. Neither of them spoke the language.

What can you tell readers what they will get out of “Kan Zaman?”
I would hope that any reader who buys the book gets something out of it, and what that something is I don't know. If it makes them feel something, that's good enough. I think for me you know it’s that slice of my American history. You know somebody immigrated to America and they settled somewhere and then other people from their village or their town came and settled in that same place, and you all became a colony. And you upheld those traditions and you all stayed and lived together. So, take my hand and I'll take you back in time.

Mansour lives in Concord with her husband, Tom Suhadolnik, and her stepdaughter, Paige Suhadolnik. 
 

Read more articles by Charlotte Morgan.

Charlotte Morgan is a long-time journalist and non-fiction writer who resides on the east side of Cleveland. In addition, she trains community journalists and is completing revisions on her debut memoir, "Glenville: My Side of Paradise."