War, Trauma, and Memory in Anglophone Literature of the Lebanese Diaspora

By 
Pauline Homsi Vinson


Post-War Anglophone Lebanese Fiction: Home Matters in the Diaspora
By Syrine Hout
Edinburgh University Press, 2012

In recent years, a number of works have presented critical analyses of literature produced by Anglophone Arab writers. Among such works one finds Layla al-Maleh’s “Arab Voices in Diaspora: Critical Perspectives on Anglophone Arab Literature” (2009), Geoffrey Nash’s “The Anglo-Arab Encounter: Fiction and Autobiography by Arab Writers in English” (2005), and Wail S. Hassan’s “Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature” (2011). Syrine Hout’s “Post-War Anglophone Lebanese Fiction: Home Matters in the Diaspora” offers a welcome addition to this growing yet still slim body of critical studies.

Hout links the term “exile” with coherent definitions of the self and of the homeland while connecting the term “diaspora” to the idea of hybridity, globalization, and transnational migrations. Such a move enables her to argue that “Anglophone Lebanese novels embody a distinctive transculturality” that is revealed through the “processes of remembering war-related traumatic events.” This claim to “transculturality,” in turn, allows Hout to highlight the increasing relevance of the English language to a hitherto Francophone Arab context in Lebanon. As she maintains, “not only has English become one of Lebanon’s diasporic languages but it also has come to participate in how Lebanese culture develops the capacity to structure and redefine itself.”

For Hout, the increasing relevance of English to Lebanese audiences, along with the works of a particular generation of Anglophone Lebanese writers –those who were children or adolescents during the Lebanese civil war –are opening a space for exploring the relationship between memory and trauma in ways that have been suppressed within Lebanon.

In Lebanon, Hout points out, “public discourse has been characterized by public amnesia” and “state-sponsored forgetfulness.” To counter such amnesia, Hout maintains that writers and artists have taken the role of “not only chroniclers but also alchemists of historical experiences.” Hout’s discussion of “home matters in the diaspora” thus revolves around “a diasporic, anti-amnesiac and generation-specific testimony to the long-term effects of the Lebanese Civil War.” From this perspective, her work stands in parallel to Saadi Nikro’s “The Fragmenting Force of Memory: Self, Literary Style, and Civil War in Lebanon,” a critical analysis that, like Hout’s, was also published in 2012, but which deals with an older generation of writers than those that Hout considers.

Hout divides her text into four parts. Each part contains at least one set of paired texts for analysis. Although several works by the same author are discussed in the book, works by the same author are never paired together. This arrangement allows Hout to focus on the particular manifestation of trauma, memory, and the concept of home in the diaspora as expressed in works by different authors rather than on the evolution of any one author’s treatment of such themes.

In Part I, “Homesickness and Sickness of Home,” Hout discusses Rabih Alameddine’s “Koolaids” and Tony Hanania’s “Unreal City,” focusing on how both works present “perfect examples of textual schizophrenia… of cultural and national in-betweenness.” She also analyzes Alameddine’s “The Perv” and Nada Awar Jarrar’s “Somewhere, Home” to contrast opposing ways of using what she terms “nostalgic” and “critical” memory to “account for… difference[s] between home as place versus home as space.” In Part II, “Trauma Narratives: The Scars of War,” Hout focuses on Alameddine’s “I, the Divine” and Patricia Sarrafian Ward’s “The Bullet Collection.” Such texts, Hout argues, offer “examples of characters attempting to translate traumatic memory into writing, thereby… taking part in narrative therapy.” In Part III, “Playing with Fire at Home and Abroad,” Hout discusses Alameddine’s “The Hakawati,” Nathalie Abi-Ezzi’s “A Girl Made of Dust,” and Rawi Hage’s “De Niro’s Game” and explores the effects of militarization on the young. In the last section, “Part IV: Exile versus Repatriation,” Hout examines Hage’s “Cockroach” and Jarrar’s “A Good Land.” Concerned with the way in which traumatic events shape collective memories, Hout draws distinctions between the various attitudes of the exile, the immigrant, and the diasporan in relation to the ideas of home, longing, and belonging in order to present her final point: Anglophone diasporic literature not only matters for the homeland, it also redefines it.

Hout’s work offers an important contribution to narrative analyses of the relationship between war, memory, and trauma in Anglophone Lebanese literature. Unfortunately, in presenting her argument, Hout refers to the editor of this publication, Elie Chalala, in ways that do not fully do justice to his ideas. Referring to Chalala’s comments on the accessibility of postmodern literature written “in exile and in different languages” to an Arabic-speaking native audience, Hout equates Chalala’s words with a position that deems such writing as “particular to Western intellectualism and, therefore, fake and/or pretentious when adopted by writers of Arab origin.” It is the view of this colleague and admirer of both Chalala and Hout that Chalala’s view on the relationship between language, influence, and authenticity is more complex and nuanced than Hout’s remarks suggest. In any event, given that both Chalala and Hout are capable of responding to each other on the pages of “Al Jadid,” I will leave the particulars in their respective positions for them to elucidate on their own.

Syrine Hout’s “Post-War Anglophone Lebanese Fiction: Home Matters in the Diaspora” should appeal to anyone interested in diaspora, Lebanese literature, war literature, and the related fields of trauma and memory studies.

This review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 65, 2011.

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