Local poet recounts her father's life from war-torn Lebanon to the United States in 'Set to Music a Wildfire'

When Ruth Awad was a child, her father, Jason, would tell stories about growing up amid the Lebanese Civil War, which forced him to flee his homeland for the United States when he was in his mid-20s. At the time, the tales, which Awad's father sterilized to protect his children, felt almost commonplace to the youngster, and it wasn't until years later that she started to consider how the experience might have shaped him.

“It was in passing and so casual, and I think that's why it took me so long to step back and say, ‘Oh, I should ask my dad about this,'” said the Virginia-born, Columbus-based Awad, who will be appearing as part of the Ohioana Book Festival on Saturday, April 14. “I heard references to it all my life, but it was so familiar, the idea my dad left the country because there was a war. Examining that further, I realized there was a whole side of my father I didn't understand and therefore an entire side of my own lineage I didn't understand.”

Beginning in graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Awad started to more thoroughly explore this past, first launching an academic deep dive into the Lebanese Civil War, and then sitting down with her slightly bemused father for a more formal series of interviews that included a list of handwritten questions. “My dad was like, ‘We can just have a conversation,'” Awad said, and laughed. “But I said, ‘No. Let's be professional.'”

This research forms the backbone of Awad's 2017 poetry collection, Set to Music a Wildfire, which traces her father's experiences growing up in a war-torn country, his hope-filled journey to America and the harsher realities that accompanied the start of a new life in a foreign land.

Though rich in personal detail, Awad's poems, at times, take on a more universal feel, recounting the high costs innocents pay in wartime. “To the man who places bullets in your hand, you're only blood. Blood that spills,” she writes on “Legend of Mount Sannine,” highlighting the idea that even fighters are often little more than disposable pawns to those in power.

Amid the violence, Awad also uncovers snapshots of innocence. Such is the case on “Inheritance,” which recounts her then-15-year-old father playing war games in the field, slinging a water jug to his shoulder like a missile launcher as sounds of actual warfare echo in the distance.

“That was the most surprising thing to come out of not only interviews with my father, but also his friends, this idea that you got used to it,” Awad said. “My dad described the sound of bullets like traffic, where it just fades into the background. … That kind of took me aback. I could never fathom that you could live a normal life … and just ignore the bullets outside your door. But how else do you survive?”

Near the book's midpoint, brief respite arrives in the form of “My Father Dreams of a New Country,” which recounts the sense of optimism Awad's dad felt journeying to America, a country, films had led him to believe, where everyone prospered and struggle was a foreign concept. Of course, just two poems later, Awad's father is nearing starvation, recounting the ways “hunger plucks the body.”

“The thing my dad kept bringing up in these interviews was, ‘I was hungry.' That was one of his most formative memories of both his time during the war in Lebanon and also those early years [in America] when he was trying to assimilate and get settled,” said Awad, who then detailed her embarrassment at briefly dealing with a teenage eating disorder. “My dad was beside himself, like, ‘Why would you choose this?' Thinking about that in hindsight, I'm mortified at myself and how ungrateful I must have seemed to my dad.”

While some of the wartime details were gruesome to confront, Awad said any difficulties she experienced in taking on the project paled in comparison to the experiences of those who actually lived through them.

“Thinking about someone you love in that situation is difficult, but ultimately you have to check your own sense of that. I don't ever want to be like, ‘Oh, it was so difficult for me writing about a war my father actually experienced,'” Awad said. “I hate that my family had to live through something like that … but ultimately I'm grateful they survived it.”