Emergence of a Genre: Reviewing Arab American Writers

By Judith Gabriel

The following was presented at the annual conference of the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS). Founded in 1973, MELUS "endeavors to expand the definition of American literature" through the study of works produced by members of minority and other ethnic groups. It publishes a quarterly journal that goes by the name MELUS and is the best known scholarly periodical focused on ethnic literature.

The article reprinted here was presented, via videotape, as part of a panel titled "Taking Stock of Arab American Writers." Judith Gabriel, a journalist who has covered the Middle East for two decades, is a Contributing Editor of Al Jadid, and regularly reviews books by Arab American and Arab writers.

Back in the late 80s, when I was producing an hour long radio program for Pacifica titled "Middle East in Focus," there was no Arab-American literature to speak of, as a specific genre you could find in a bookstore or database.

There were autobiographies, poetry, essays and some fiction, as well as the work of the immigrant writers early in the century. But no shelf of its own.

But in the last decade of the 20th century, a new generation of Arab- American writers came of age, immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, those who were born here and speak nary a word of Arabic, and connected in varying degrees to their heritage cultures.

Major publishers, as well as small houses, started coming out with a growing list of new titles. And although there is not yet a critical mass of Arab American fiction, a body has begun to take shape, with a growing mainstream audience. Arab-American authors have moved out of the shadows, winning awards, giving readings in public libraries, wielding their pens on the book store circuit. There are Arab-American literary festivals, literary circles and journals. There is a popular audience.

Chalala puts it this way: "The author cannot be controlled by the group. They may have to write about things that compromise the community. They may have to deal with issues such as poverty, gender roles, sexuality. The community doesn't want these things discussed. But we have to talk about them. And when a writer does this, it enriches the community, and may indirectly result in the awakening of the community. We don't need an apologetic literature, or a propagandistic literature."

And there is Al Jadid, a quarterly magazine for which I have been a contributing editor for nearly four years. In Arabic, Al Jadid means the new. I was drawn to the publication, not because of any background in literary criticism, but from an interest that grew out of two decades as a journalist, with a focus on the Middle East and its cultures, as well as the communities transplanted in the United States.

As a "beat," or area of interest, the Arab world is unique in the way it is viewed from the West. To be a non-Arab interested in Arab culture makes one suspect in the eyes of many, and often, such interest is met with suspicion, a suspicion tinged with varying degrees of racism, xenophobia and often deliberate demonization. Arabs, Arab Americans, as the Ultimate Other.

With few exceptions, efforts to show them as very human members of a diverse culture, with a myriad of background scenarios and individual narratives, were met with dismissal by most editors.

I was waiting for Arabs themselves to start opening up, not just with protests over the insulting, dehumanizing images in films and television, but with an outpouring of their own voices, telling their own stories, reaching to the inner core of another with their individual humanity. The way only literature could. And yet, how did anyone expect them to be open in such a hostile environment? Would I?

There was a vast lacuna of Arab voices in the American culture.

Al Jadid, a publication about Arab arts and culture, was created to fill what its editor, Elie Chalala saw as a vacuum in the coverage of the region. He found that the dominant theme in publications on the Middle East was politics; everything else, he said -- culture and the arts -- took a back seat. Chalala is an adjunct professor of political science at Santa Monica College, where he often teaches courses on the politics of the Middle East. But it was the arts that he wanted to focus on in his new publication. Although, all too often, whether one wants it or not, just being an Arab, or Arab American, is in itself political.

He launched Al Jadid magazine as a bilingual monthly in 1993, with a major emphasis on an Arabic language section. By 1997, it shifted to an all-English format, going to a quarterly publication schedule. Now a tabloid-sized publication with as many as 36 pages in each issue, Al Jadid features original articles as well as many translations of articles and interviews by Arab writers, journalists, scholars, and poets.

New book titles are regularly reviewed, some in feature article format, others as brief descriptions in a Book Digest section. Al Jadid covers the three categories of Arab writing available to the English reader: works written in English, including those written by Arab Americans; those written in Arabic and translated into English, and those about the region written by non-Arab Americans. There also are writers like Etel Adnan, who writes in English and is translated into Arabic

The Arab-American writer is significant, not only for writing in English, and representing a new branch of literature drawing from the immigrant experience, but because Arab-American writers are accessible. They make appearances, they teach and lecture, they are American locals, encouraging each other from the legitimacy of having literary acceptance and a sharpening identity.

As in many cultures, there are issues of pride, honor and family loyalty. There are lines, unspoken boundaries, about self-disclosure and representation. You don't air your dirty laundry in public. To cross that line is to risk alienation from the community. Hence, it is often difficult for Arab American writers to engage in serious self-criticism on such issues as gender inequities, racism, homophobia, classism, fearing it could become fuel for the taunters.

It is impossible to fully survey any topic that involves Arab-American identity without taking into consideration the complexities that derive from the homeland. For one thing, there are 22 Arab countries, now with more than 300 million Arabs living in them, and there are further distinctions along sectarian religious lines, and these boundaries and classifications are brought along with the immigrants.

Thus, Chalala found there were challenges on two fronts: In the United States, there is the demonizing and marginalizing of Arabs, and in the Arab world, there are censorship issues, civil strife, the vestiges of colonial mentality, and the endless peace process.

So it follows that there are issues and nuances about the very designation Arab American, as well as that of Arab- American literature, Arab-American poet, Arab-American novel. For the writers, it is a complex interlacing of the forces of identity and the forces of art.

Many are trying to maintain both their Arab and their American identities, without sacrificing one or the other. Every writer deals with it a little differently.

Lisa Suhair Majaj was born in Iowa to a Palestinian father and an American mother. She has expressed determination to speak fully as an American, and as an Arab as well, not, as she put it, "merely half of one thing and half of another, but both at once." Arab-American identity is something she lays claim to, not as a heritage passed from generation to generation, but as an on-going negotiation of difference.

Samuel Hazo, a novelist with many books of poetry, was born in America to immigrant Lebanese parents. He treats identity as just another subject matter. In an Al Jadid interview, he said that being an American of Arab origin "has nothing to do with his poetry, and shouldn't and can't have." That does not mean that he does not deal with subjects relating to his origins, and he also translates Arabic works into English. But you could read reams of his work without getting a hint of his heritage origins.

Naomi Shihab Nye was born in Missouri, with a Palestinian father and an American mother. She lives in Texas, and her writing often reflects the culture of the American southwest. She also writes from an Arab-American perspective, including works for young readers.

Lawrence Joseph is an urban poet, writing of the streets of Detroit and New York. He is also a poet of his Lebanese immigrant family roots. His poem "Sand Nigger" resonates within the Arab-American community.

Suheir Hammad, born in Jordan to Palestinian refugee parents, moved to Brooklyn when she was a child, and grew up among Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Domincans, Haitians, and African Americans. She first heard about the major Palestinian poets such as Mahmoud Darwish from black American writers. She said in an Al Jadid interview that while we all carry ancestry around with us, she wants to transcend cultural and religious barriers. She laments the necessity of having labels and names determined by man-made borders and hair-types. "But," she asks, " if I didn't name myself Palestinian, who would?"

And there are many others, with their own combinations of nativity and name and passport, such as Khaled Mattawa, D.H. Melhem, Mohja Kahf, Elmaz Abinader, Joanna Kadi, to mention just a few, each with their own equations, their own way of negotiating the hyphen, a straddle which in itself adds motion to their work, whether they speak as Arab or artist.

The tension of the hyphen is intensified by the very community that has sprung up in the adopted homeland. The writer faces another dilemma, a kind of ethnic-identity gag rule, with cultural restraints on self-disclosure and issues revolving around the "burden of representation."

Diane Abu-Jaber's "Arabian Jazz," marked a new phase in Arab American literature. Published by Harcourt Brace in 1993, it was probably the first contemporary Arab-American novel. It "dared" to satirize the human foibles of Arab and Arab-American families. This made some members of the Arab-American community uncomfortable. They expressed concern that the novel might reinforce the prevalent negative stereotypes, despite the fact that it also dealt with racism and the experience of marginality.

After her book came out, Abu-Jabber experienced some criticism from the Arab-American community, and she was asked about this at an Arab-American literature festival in Los Angeles, co-sponsored by Al Jadid and Pen Center USA west. She responded by saying that if she had thought, in advance, about the community's possible reaction to her book, she probably wouldn't have written it. But she hadn't been writing for an exclusively Arab-American audience. Her material was just that -- a writer's subject matter, the field of experience from which a writer harvests and recasts backdrops and players.

As in many cultures, there are issues of pride, honor and family loyalty. There are lines, unspoken boundaries, about self-disclosure and representation. You don't air your dirty laundry in public. To cross that line is to risk alienation from the community. Hence, it is often difficult for Arab American writers to engage in serious self-criticism on such issues as gender inequities, racism, homophobia, classism, fearing it could become fuel for the taunters.

A community that feels besieged and ostracized finds it difficult to examine its own shortcomings in public, and this concern intensifies self-censorship. What writing does emerge under such constraints tends to be flat, sentimental and lacking in the authentic tones where truth resounds.

Without disclosure, or without the sense that a writer is free to disclose, or write about the contemporary realities that an Arab American wrestles with --both within the culture and in the larger American street -- something vital is eclipsed, and the universal level where writing becomes art, capable of generating resonance, remains out of reach. This fear of disclosure is often most paralyzing when it involves women's issues, particularly those that involve inter-generational conflicts. Yet the new writers are tackling these hurdles, paving the way for others, generating debate in their own communities.

"There is a tension between Arab communal values and the individualism and freedom America is seen to offer," Naomi Shihab Nye has said. It is "a tension not resolved so much as honored."

Women's issues are particularly fraught with that tension. Criticism of women's role is seen as giving substantiation to the image of oppressed Arab women.

And while the struggle to assimilate often involves breaking away from the family traditions, almost all Arab-American writers are deeply connected to those ties.

One finds in almost all their work fond references to memories, particularly those revolving around food...universally, a significant cultural marking. If they themselves are not immigrants, their connection to the land from which parents or grandparents immigrated is experienced in the family context.

And as Evelyn Shakir pointed out in her 1997 book, "Bint Arab: Arab and Arab American Women in the United States," " the Arab woman not only faces . . . discrimination in the mainstream culture, but the very place she turns to seek refuge, the family, has issues of another flavor, with patriarchy and tradition holding sway. This double bind impacts the Arab woman writer, who might feel that any criticism she might direct at her own culture will only feed those who feed on such material to degrade the entire culture."

And yet, there has been a preponderance of new books by Arab- American women. Many of them do deal, protestingly, with gender and family issues. Could it be, as anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz has said, that "When it comes to ethnic literature, especially that of African Americans and Arabs, white society wants books that feature self-criticism, for Arab books that means genital mutilation and abusive patriarchal families. And why do we hear from Arab women, rarely from men? Because the women often portrays themselves as victims. Books on Arabs are published and reviewed, but white people in positions of power set the agenda."

Writing skillfully around taboo subjects within the family, a 1999 autobiographical book by Fay Afaf Kanafani, recounting her experiences growing up in Lebanon, makes clear that Arab women's issues cannot be viewed in isolation from the problems confronting their societies at large. Not only must the Arab woman writer grapple with stereotypes about Arab women, she also faces the attitude that the Western feminist model is needed to rescue third world women from the presumed inherent oppressiveness of their cultures.

Many Arab-American writers agree that the Arab woman is a construct of outsiders, and are attempting to reclaim the Arab woman's multi-faced image.

Even with the increase in the amount of literature making Arab women writers available to English-speaking readers, the stereotypes of Arab women remain markedly in place. Majaj, says that "The biggest problem with Arab-American women writers is the Arab woman stereotype. It silences us, shadows us." The stereotype looms over the entire community, particularly hovering over writers. Author Mona Fayad feels she is "haunted by a constant companion called The Arab Woman -- The Faceless Veiled Woman, silent, passive, helpless, in need of rescue by the West. As a construct invented by the West, this two-in-one Arab Woman is completely intractable. Her voice drowns mine."

One Arab woman writer comments that because of the stereotypes, as a writer, she is constantly conscious of what the audience will think, constantly afraid her words will be taken out of context and used against her.

Multiple representations of both negative and positive images of Arab woman are the only way to counter the stereotypes, said Majaj, adding that a dynamic culture is transformed by every piece of writing produced in it. Literature, writing about Arab women, she stressed, is a cumulative force that can effect changes in the existing stereotypes.

The Arab-American writer must deal with the themes that affect her life, and she has to tell the truth. Chalala puts it this way: "The author cannot be controlled by the group. They may have to write about things that compromise the community. They may have to deal with issues such as poverty, gender roles, sexuality. The community doesn't want these things discussed. But we have to talk about them. And when a writer does this, it enriches the community, and may indirectly result in the awakening of the community. We don't need an apologetic literature, or a propagandistic literature."

But good writing is far more than a litany of the foods a grandmother prepared, no matter how appealing that might be. Za'atar and kibbeh -- spice and meat -- do not make a literature in and of themselves. The work must stand on its own as contemporary literature, in a multi-cultural society that makes its marginalized minority groups pay stiffer dues than other writers.

And just last year, a collection titled "The Situe Stories," by Frances Khirallah Noble, was published, with 11 tales revolving around the situe, the Arabic grandmother, and crammed with many elements of healthy irreverence about intergenerational issues and rites of passage. Other books are emerging that speak frankly of such issues, without sensationalizing or apologizing. Another sign that the Arab-American writer, is coming of age. And that both Arab American and other readers are becoming more sophisticated about the subject matter.

And every time an Arab-American author is recognized, makes it into print, it is an encouragement to others. Majaj has noted that each time an Arab-American writer publishes, "It is a story we receive like 'letters from home'-- a story whose language we are finally coming to know."

Despite the success marked by just getting published, of making it into print, it does no good to praise a work merely for existing, or to be critically kind to any work by a marginalized writer. And the accounts of travails suffered in their homeland must also be dealt with critically, lest they be trivialized in a stream of self-pity or tirades of venom. "Good" writing is noticeably free of this self-consciousness, and where there might be passion, tragedy and drama, it communicate at its best when it is part of the unfolding of a well-written literary narrative or story line.

And there are enough samples now in print that is very exciting to watch the many different ways the writers juggle all these elements -- identity, memory, culture, tradition, the struggle to be understood and the platform from which to inspire, entertain, inform, tantalize and elevate the reader.

When I am reviewing a book for Al Jadid by an Arab-American writer, I look at it from several points of view: the essential literary value in and of itself, how it is written, if the language itself is transporting and the images are fresh and evocative, the characters textured. How the narrative unfolds, what voices are employed. Because of my background in the field, any tendency to romanticize or exoticize has long ago been neutralized. And yet still, each new work is a welcome invitation into a more personal involvement within a culture of which I remain a lifelong student, and these voices of Arab and Arab Americans is an invitation into a world otherwise closed to me as an outsider.

How is this world disclosed? How does it deal with the underlying issues surrounding the loaded issues of family, religion, politics and sex?

The old themes, including the suffering of the people in the homeland, or the travails of the new immigrant, wear very thin if they are not incorporated with craft and art. And when that is done successfully, both the Arab AND the American get out of the way, even if that has been the subject matter. I look for writing that, with all its particularities, reminds us that we are all part of something larger. As a reviewer who might be introducing a new book to others, I am looking for that ringing tone, that gilded track which will transport us to that center where we all long to be taken by literature.

And then it is up to the reader. As Lebanese-American author David Williams has said, "Part of literature's burden and gift is that it communicates an intimate understanding, but it is on the readers' part to alter their perception to give up their prejudices."

This feature appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 7, no.34 (Winter 2001)


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