Presently Reading the Past: A Look at Early Arab-American Literature

Theri Alyce Pickens
Amin Rihani by Mamoun Sakkal and Gebran Kahlil Gebran by Emile Menhem

In his article “Ethnic Identity and Imperative Patriotism,” eminent Arab-American literary critic and scholar Steven Salaita explores the question: “How has the pedagogy of Arab American Studies changed?” Salaita suggests that it has changed considerably, and that Arab-American Studies now receive the sort of attention for which its scholars once clamored. However, he is quick to point out that attention alone is not the goal of Arab-American Studies. Given this fact, Salaita poses a second question: given the changed circumstances, “How do we find a viable space to develop Arab American Studies?” Striking a cautious tone, Salaita discusses the context of the politicized nature of the subject, and the patriotic imperative often imposed on Arab-American scholars and intellectuals, emphasizing that the issue is an extraordinarily complex one, and its implications resonate throughout the academy.

It is beyond the scope of this article to address the entirety of the issue. Instead, I intend to focus on Salaita’s second question regarding the development of Arab-American Studies by taking a look at how we teach and discuss early Arab-American literature (with the exception of “The Pen League” which includes Kahlil Gibran and Ameen Rihani). For my purposes, early Arab-American literature includes literature written from the beginning of the 20th (circa “The Pen League”) until the publication of the “Grapeleaves Anthology” in 1988, which introduced the term “Arab American” into the Library of Congress. Other scholars might quibble with me on this rather lengthy time range. Tanyss Ludescher, Layla al-Maleh and the late Evelyn Shakir have considered distinct the work that belongs to what they term ‘the second wave of Arab American literature,’ which includes works written between World War II and 1988 like those of Vance Bourjaily, William Peter Blatty, and Eugene Paul Nassar. I do not believe that distinction is arbitrary, but writers like Bourjaily, Blatty and Nassar share a common scholarly fate with earlier writers like Abraham Ribhany, Salom Rizk, and George Hamid. That is, scholars tend to write very little about these authors because their work is marked by (or marred by, if one prefers) assimilationist rhetoric, uncritical depictions of the American dream, and scant political engagement with domestic or foreign policy. The notable exception to this is Evelyn Shakir, who wrote three seminal articles on second wave literature, all of which appeared in Multi-Ethnic Literature in the United States.

In my brief analysis, I have not included Arab-American poetry like that of Sam Hamod, Sam Hazo and others. Certainly, their absence should be thought of as an oversight. After all, Gregory Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa rescue Arab-American poets from this scholarly purgatory with the publication of “Grapeleaves.” For those of us who believe in and seek to celebrate a multifaceted, yet clear Arab-American voice, these authors deviate from both the “The Pen League” and contemporary authors who embrace Arab-American identity. Given that the authors I discuss are not easily subsumed under this rubric, I wish to explore what they offer for the field of Arab-American literary study. In what follows, I will provide two brief sketches, one of Salom Rizk and the other of Vance Bourjaily, as their work is representative of early Arab- American autobiography and fiction respectively. I will also explain how studying these authors, and authors like them , is valuable for our field.

Salom Rizk’s “Syrian Yankee” presents an autobiographical account of his unabashed assimilation into America. He explains his various jobs during the Depression Era and his career as a lecturer with the Reader’s Digest. Published in 1952 by Doubleday, Rizk’s tale showcases the quintessence of the successful immigrant narrative. True to form, he veers away from explicit political opinion about any of the circumstances that would have affected Arabs in America at that time: George Dow’s Supreme Court case, the 1923 Romey lynching in Florida, or the events precipitating and including 1948. Such a narrative – dedicated as it is to the ideas of Horatio Alger – presents the individual male immigrant narrative as uniquely American. However, Rizk’s narrative is not unique. Not only shares a literary heritage with Benjamin Franklin, but his Arab-American predecessors and contemporaries also believed in and promulgated the idea of the self-made immigrant man. Rizk’s contemporary, George Hamid, wrote “The Circus” (1950), a novel that features Lebanese circus performers and concentrates on their entertainment value. Abrahim Ribhany wrote “A Far Journey” (1914) before both men, but his autobiography is quite similar, focusing on the similarities between his own Christian background and the Prostestantism of the United States.

Vance Bourjaily has only one work that deals explicitly with Arab American identity. In “Confessions of a Spent Youth” (1960), only one chapter, “The Fractional Man,” showcases his character as a young soldier in Lebanon during World War I, wrestling with his emotional distance from his Lebanese cousins and his ignorance about his heritage. In some ways, the depiction is problematic as the narrator admits his difference to his Lebanese grandmother by admitting that his politics were “vaguely Zionist,” the implication being that his identity is constituted by a stark political delineation rather than a complex matrix of cultural and historical differences. Bourjaily’s remaining works have more in common with other American modernist writers like Ralph Ellison, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Bourjaily favored not only the longer, more complex sentence, but also the exploration which was only possible in a lengthy and dense novel. His characters, including Quincy of “Confessions” are rather intricately woven and the literary merit of his work is unquestionable.  Bourjaily’s contemporaries, Blatty and Nassar, belong to decidedly different genres – fantasy/horror and elegy, respectively – but they present similar conundrums as Bourjaily: Arab-American presence is rendered simplistically and, in some cases, problematically.

As scholars of contemporary Arab-American and African-American literatures, these authors challenge the paradigms we have employed to examine ethnic American literature inside and outside of the classroom. Rather than present cultural critiques or challenge norms, these authors seem to endorse them or be stymied by them. When scholars explain the necessary and poignant critiques of Ameen Rihani, or Randa Jarrar, these authors appear decidedly out of place. Nevertheless, this is not a part of our literary history about which we can afford to have politically expedient amnesia. Much like my allusion to Edward Said’s autobiography suggests, the merit and deserved place of these works in our literary history exists because they were ‘out of place.’ I do not say that to suggest that we ought to examine them as cultural critics in disguise. Instead, I proffer them as evidence of literary connections to other Arab-American writers (namely Kahlil Gibran), as well as other American writers. I believe that this proves that Arab-Americans do not owe their existence to the volatile political ether.

To treat these works seriously is to undertake a project similar to that of African-American literary scholars during the institutionalization of that field in the 1960s and 1970s. During that time period, they sutured together a literary history based on shared literary, cultural, and political concerns. Some authors seemed to be in sync with each other, like Pauline Hopkins and Francis EW Harper. Others had significant creative and personal differences, like Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. What we find with early Arab-American authors is an intergenerational version of the same. However, these earlier works do tell us useful and critical information about the strategies authors employed to survive in the United States. Despite the absence of political opinion, there was never a disavowal of Arab heritage. What we find is a desire to avoid racism, bigotry and the bodily violence that accompanies the most virulent forms of it. Moreover, early Arab-American authors attest to a rich tradition within the United States. Early Arab American autobiography pulls from American realist writers of the late 19th century. Arab-American fiction of the mid-20th century pulls from modernist contemporaries. (Just as an aside, Eugene Paul Nassar’s “Wind of the Land” was published in 1979, but its literary style is much like that of modernists.) Despite misgivings over their political positions or lack thereof, these writers do make clear that Arabs have a long literary history in the United States and thus their work should not be examined without keeping this in mind.

As scholars and teachers, we need to incorporate these authors. A viable space for Arab-American literature cannot be found; we have to make it – with our future, our present and our past.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63 (2010).

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