Forfatter-interview #18 Hassan El-Tayyab

Photo: Hassan El-Tayyab

READ THE REVIEW OF Composing Temple Sunrise – Overcoming Writer’s Block at Burning Man


  • Mention three fun facts that your fans maybe don’t know about you.
  1. I was an elected Bernie Delegate in CA and recently went to the Democratic National Convention.
  2. I work as an arts integration specialist where I use music and songwriting to teach kids how to read and write, sequence beginning-middle-end, and find the main idea and supporting details of the stories they read. I also teach teachers this skill at professional development workshops all around the East Bay. This has been a new development, and one I’m really excited about because it allows me to combine a lot of the things that I love to do all at once.
  3. I’ve driven cross-country in America six times and have been to almost every major national park, including Denali National Park in Alaska.
  • When did you know that you wanted to become an author?

I’ve always loved writing but never intended to become an author. This book evolved out of a blog I started keeping when I left for a cross-country road trip in 2009. I used it as a way to communicate with friends, family, and fans of my music. On my last day at Burning Man in 2009, I quickly jotted down notes of all my experiences in hopes it would help the blog. Back in the Bay, I wrote a post about working on Fishbug and the post circulated around the metal art scene that built much of the installations for Burning Man. People really connected with my retelling of how I first learned to use a plasma cutter. It gave me a confidence boost and made me think people actually might want to hear what I had to say. In general, I was getting a lot of good feedback about my writing and I decided to stop the blog and turn it into a book. That took me about seven years.

  • How long have you been writing? And what started it?

I’ve been writing and keeping journals since I was in high school. I started writing songs when I got to college. I think what started it was a need to make sense of my thoughts and to help me get a grip on my emotions. Early on, it was not for the purpose of sharing. It was just about catharsis and the joy of creation. Overtime, though, I became more interested in the craft of communication and making a message stick with the listener. I love this Robert Frost quote on the subject: “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment.”

  • Who discovered you? (Did you contact publishing houses? How was the process?)

After finishing the book, I did what I imagine most first time authors do. Google search how to get it published. I quickly learned you need an agent and they are hard to come by. For two weeks, I emailed and called different people I thought might be interested. No one even called me back. Luckily though, serendipity stepped in to help. I met my publisher John from Poetic Matrix Press randomly while getting a sandwich at my favorite breakfast place in the East Bay exactly two weeks after starting my search for an agent. I was eating a chicken sandwich when I overheard two guys talking about why crowd-funding didn’t work for publishing. I chimed in having successfully fundraised money on Kickstarter for my last album and told them my experience. I encouraged them to give it a chance! We exchanged cards and I sent him the manuscript later that day. John and Devon at Poetic Matrix loved the book, and I signed a contract with them a few months later. Our working relationship so far has been great. Poetic Matrix puts out some really great books and I’m proud to be part of their catalogue. The day after the book launch July 15, 2016, about 2 years after our first meeting, I went back to Sam’s and ordered another chicken sandwich! It was delicious.

  • How many books have you published (so far)? Which genres?

This is my first book. I’ve been mulling over the possibility of writing another one. Maybe someday, but it will be a while. For now, I’m focused on recording a new solo album, which I hope to release in the fall.

  • Why this story? What made you choose this specific theme?

This is a memoir about my life and how I’ve used travel, music, and community to spiritually and emotionally move on from some very traumatic childhood experiences. I’ve rebuilt my life with art at my core. I had a mantra while writing this book: Start from the truth. It allowed me to write things that were very personal and hard to admit. I told myself that if I put it down on the page I could always cut it out later. By the time I finished the book, I decided to keep that stuff in there in hopes it might help someone else. Writing this story was the most worthwhile cathartic thing I’ve ever done. I want to use my story to counter the master narrative about Arab and Muslim Americans.

There is a lot of fear of the “other” in the USA and whenever we tell our personal stories, we poke a hole in that fear and push back against the “us vs. them” narrative. I’m hoping that putting this book out there can help make this country a little less hostile to people from the Middle East. I’m also hoping that it will encourage others to write and share their stories too, be it through books, music, or any kind of artistic expression.

  • What inspires you to write? Which authors have inspired you? (Music, art, things in life?)

I write in part because I get unhappy if I’m not creating new music or writing. It’s part of my personal equation to maintain balance and inner peace. I’m also inspired to write because I want to put messages of hope out there. I think it’s important that artists realize what they do is vital to a healthy society. Art shapes the culture and can be a catalyst for change. You have to change attitudes before you can change laws. Lastly, I write because I’m a huge fan of stories … especially when they are sung!

  • What is the message of your book? How should the reader interpret it? 

I think the message I’m trying to relay is that community, art, and storytelling can heal us, bring us closer to each other, and push us past the limits of what we thought was possible. I hope people read this book and see a little bit of themselves in the protagonist so that they might be inspired to overcome whatever it is they are battling against. We all suffer from the self-critic, and I want all people, and especially creatives and composers, to feel less alone in that. It’s a shared struggle that we all face in hopes of creating something unique and beautiful out of life.

  • What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Cognitive Politics: A Linguistic Guide for Progressives. It’s a very good book so far.  It’s about finding ways to frame your narrative as a progressive so you can communicate with conservatives effectively. It also gives some interesting strategies taken right out of the MLK and Gandhi playbooks for countering fear-based hate. Being Arab American, I have a vested interest in working against the tide of right-wing fascism and islamophobia that’s growing in America. I see story-telling as a big part of that fight.

  • Mention 3 book titles that you wish to recommend. 

Meeting Faith: An Inward Odyssey by my mentor/editor Faith Adiele, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Color Blindness, and Cognitive Politics: A Linguistic Guide for Progressives

  • Are you working on a new book? Any new music?

Working on a new album called In the Folds. I think it should be done sometime in the fall.





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