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Young, Female - and Arab American
By Pauline Homsi Vinson
Photograph by Enotrio, from "Peintres Contemporains Italiens du Liban," 1971.
Swimming Toward the Light
By Angela Tahaan Leone
Syracuse University Press, 2007.
“Swimming Toward the Light,” a novel by Angela Tahaan Leone, is a heart-wrenching story of a sensitive and talented young girl named Irene, whose musical gifts and sense of self are suffocated by the intransigence and misunderstanding of her Lebanese immigrant parents and American peers.
Leone’s book is the latest in a series of recent publications that address the experiences of first-generation Arab Americans as they grow up in immigrant households. In fact, this genre seems rather overrepresented among Arab-American women writers, especially in first book-length publications by women. One thinks, for example, of Frances Khiralla Noble’s “The Situe Stories,” Evelyn Shaker’s “Remember Me to Lebanon,” Susan Muaddi Darraj’s “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly,” Mhoja Kahf’s “The Girl with the Tangerine Scarf,” and Diana Abu-Jaber’s first novel, “Arabian Jazz,” as well as her more recent memoirs, “The Language of Baklava.”
While these works give varying perspectives on the experiences of daughters of Arab families growing up in America, they all address the ways in which questions of gender, culture, assimilation and independence intersect in the lives of their characters. Together, they form a multifaceted portrayal of the issues and concerns faced by daughters of Arab immigrants to America, even if they do so through the somewhat overused genre of “coming of age” narratives.
Like most stories in this vein, Leone’s work, though labeled “a novel,” has the feel of a memoir or first-hand account. Also, like many recent Arab-American publications, “Swimming Toward the Light” vividly recreates the foods, customs and tribulations of an immigrant Arab family in America. More so than some of the other publications, however, Leone bravely confronts such taboo subjects as mental illness and self-harming behaviors, depicting them as the terrible consequences of the inability, or perhaps unwillingness, of the immigrant generation to accommodate the individual needs and cultural adaptations of their American born and raised children. In some sense, Leone’s novel may be seen as an anti-coming of age novel, as the young Irene becomes incapable of blossoming and increasingly stifled by her environment.
The story is told from the point of view of the protagonist’s loving older sister, Lottie. On occasion, however, the narrative voice shifts to an omniscient narrator who reports dialogue and situations to which Lottie could not have been privy. Though the abrupt shifting between the narrative modes seems awkward at times, it nonetheless conveys the intersection of intergenerational and cross-cultural misunderstandings that the novel tries to emphasize.
An outcast at school, Irene must contend with her overbearing mother’s resistance to any form of assimilation into American culture. Finding little support from her parents for her musical talents, and devastated at discovering that her love for an older American neighborhood boy is not only unreciprocated, but unnoticed, Irene increasingly internalizes the tensions surrounding her to the point where they completely overwhelm her.
Angela Tehaan Leone is to be commended for addressing the sometimes devastating psychological impact that cultural clashes have on immigrant parents and their American-born children. Similarly, Syracuse University Press, the book’s publisher, is to be commended for being one of only a handful of houses that consistently support and promote Arab and Arab-American writing.
Leone’s narrative, so sensitive in its lyrical treatment of the young Irene’s predicament, risks rendering this particular depiction of the Arab immigrant experience representative of the whole. The book’s flirtation with this danger is unfortunate because negative stereotypes of Arabs are so pervasive in American culture. The commentary on the inside flap of the book’s hardback cover in fact encourages readers to see the work as widely representative, stating that the novel “gives readers entrée into a male-dominated, independence-stifling culture where female roles were rigidly prescribed.”
The challenge faced by Arab-American writers and their publishers remains one of negotiating a space for the open and sometimes necessarily harsh critique of particular aspects of Arab culture without falling into the trap of undue generalizations that reinforce existing, damaging misconceptions of Arab culture as a whole. Perhaps this is the ultimate challenge for the readers of Arab-American literature — to free each book from the onus of having to represent Arab culture as a whole, while also holding it responsible for the stereotypes it may unwittingly play into.
Leone’s novel, offering perspective on the tragic links between mental illness and the immigrant experience, makes an important contribution to the growing body of Arab-American literature. Its psychological and sociological commentary put us one step closer to understanding the specific experience of growing up in a first-generation Arab-American household. Yet, at the same time, it is an intimate portrayal of one young woman’s search for identity as she dodges the bullets of adolescence. Thus, the discerning reader will balance the general with the specific, realizing that the novel makes certain observations that can be applied to the group as a whole, while also concentrating on the particular story of one individual.