Etel Adnan was born in 1925 and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Her mother was a Greek from Smyrna; her father, a high ranking Ottoman officer born in Damascus. In Lebanon, she was educated in French schools. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris. In January 1955 she went to the United States to pursue post-graduate studies in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, and at Harvard University. From 1958 to 1972, she taught philosophy at Dominican College of San Rafael, California. Based on her feelings of connection to, and solidarity with, the Algerian war of independence, she began to resist the political implications of writing in French and shifted the focus of her creative expression to visual art. She became a painter. But it was with her participation in the poets’ movement against the war in Vietnam that she began to write poems and became, in her words, “an American poet.”
In 1972, she moved back to Beirut and worked as cultural editor for two daily newspapers—first for Al Safa, then for L’Orient le Jour. She stayed in Lebanon until 1976. In 1977, her novel Sitt Marie-Rose was published in Paris, and won the France-Pays Arabes award. This novel has been translated into more than 10 languages, and was to have an immense influence, becoming a classic of War Literature. In 1977, Adnan re-established herself in California, making Sausalito her home, with frequent stays in Paris. In 2003, Adnan was named “arguably the most celebrated and accomplished Arab-American author writing today” by the academic journal MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. In 2014, she was named Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, France’s highest cultural honor, by the French Government. Of her more than twenty-five books her most celebrated include The Arab Apocalypse, Sitt Marie Rose, Paris, When It’s Naked, and Journey to Mount Tamalpais. In 2020, the Griffin International Poetry Prize was awarded to her book TIME, translated by poet Sarah Riggs. Her paintings, described by The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith as “stubbornly radiant abstractions,” have been widely exhibited; at dOCUMENTA (13), the Guggenheim, MASSMoCa, Whitney Museum of Modern Art, SFMoMA, Zentrum Paul Klee, Institute du Monde Arabe, and many others. Adnan passed on November 14, 2021.