Orientalism’s Children: “Voices from the Threshold”

By 
By Angele Ellis

Talking Through the Door: An Anthology of Contemporary Middle Eastern American Writing
Edited by Susan Atefat-Peckham
With a Foreword by Lisa SuheirMajaj
Syracuse University Press, 2014, pp.  244

It has been nearly eleven years since an automobile accident cut Susan Atefat-Peckham’s work and life short while she pursued a Fulbright Scholarship in Jordan. Now, Atefat-Peckham’s anthology of Middle Eastern American writing takes its rightful place among others, including Gregory Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa’s “Grape Leaves,” Joanna (now Joe) Kadi’s “Food for Our Grandmothers,” MunirAkash and Khaled Mattawa’s “Post Gibran,” and Hayan Charara’s “Inclined to Speak.”

As an Iranian American poet, memoirist, and scholar, Atefat-Peckham broadens the scope of contemporary Middle Eastern American literature, finding both engaging similarities and subtle differences between the work of Arab American writers and her own, as well as thoseof fellow Iranian American writers Nahid Rachlin and Roger Sedarat (and of the Iraqi-Syrian Jewish American writer Jack Marshall). The title of her anthology, taken from a poem by Rumi, links this expanded consciousness to the rich (and border-crossing) literary traditions of the past: “We talked through the door. I claimed / a great love and that I had given up / what the world gives to be in that love.”

Love, complicated love—for self, family, heritage, homeland, the new land—resides at the heart of selections from sixteen writers chosen by Atefat-Peckham for this anthology.Many of them, as Lisa Suhair Majaj points out in her sensitive and illuminating foreword, have since become well-known beyond the niche of ethnicity (including Elmaz Abinader, Diana Abu-Jaber, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Khaled Mattawa). Like its authors, this anthology visits a wide variety of places, times, and perspectives, including the Lebanon of World War I, pre-revolutionary Iran, Ibn Hazm’s tenth-century Cordoba, and Ohio—again and again—in the transformative decades after World War II.

Because of Atefat-Peckham’s gift for choosing deeply personal work, however, the reader is with the narrators of these poems, stories, and pieces of creative nonfiction—sometimes painfully—throughout their trials and revelations. (Other writers represented in this collection are the late Joseph Awad and D.H. Melhem, Barbara Bedway, Joseph Geha, Samuel Hazo, Joe Kadi, Pauline Kaldas, and Eugene P. Nassar.)

Atefat-Peckham, who began work on this anthology in the late 90's and pursued it through the shattering events of 9/11 and beyond, wrestled with the issue of naming and identities. She strove for empathy, connection, and bridge building even though, as she writes in her introduction to this anthology: “We live in times of crisis and change. We struggle for a foothold in a country that is at once repulsed and intrigued by the many voices of its immigrants. And we struggle for a place in time that calls for the opening of many doors to intelligent discussion.” As this struggle to move beyond the thresholds, to open the doors, continues today, Atefat-Peckham’s work renews its power—what Lisa Suhair Majaj calls its “sustenance.”

This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 68.

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