Diaspora Arab Women Writers: The Legacy of Shahrazad and Female Infanticide

Nada Ramadan Elnahla
Left: Author Hanadi Al-Samman

Anxiety of Erasure: Trauma, Authorship, and the Diaspora in Arab Women’s Writings
By Hanadi al-Samman
Syracuse University Press, 2015
“Anxiety of Erasure” offers a dual-layered journey of discovery: first, sharing the journey undertaken by Muslim and Christian diaspora Arab women writers with their traumatic and triumphant creative experiences; second, revealing Hanadi al-Samman’s journey of discovering the roots and literary genealogy of Arab women’s narratives. Choosing writers who experienced the diaspora and, at the same time, had access to the political traumas of their nations – namely Syria and Lebanon – al-Samman presents close readings and analysis of various pre-modern and contemporary works written by Ghada Samman, Hanan al-Shaykh, Hamida Na‘na’, Hoda Barakat, and Salwa al-Neimi.
In an attempt to explore the therapeutic effects associated with resurrecting and reviving forgotten histories and collective memories, al-Samman examines the process of annihilation and the writers’ anxiety caused by a double sense of erasure: the literary (Shahrazad) and the physical (w’ad al-banat [female infanticide/infant burial] tradition). In literature, Shahrazad has become a complex, often controversial figure whose relationship with her female successors remains mercurial, evoking feelings of gratitude (for her contributions) as well as resentment (for her co-optation). Her supporters consequently hail the idealized queen of narrative as an eternal muse, while detractors attack her for being an imposter whose negotiation skills thwart women’s movements of rebellion and resistance. Others celebrate her newfound and contemporary access to, as well as her mobility and her emboldened journey to own both narrative and body. In “Anxiety of Erasure,” al-Samman examines how diaspora women writers move beyond the realm of orality and employ Shahrazad, leading to the evolvement of Shahrazad’s role from liberating women who face real or imaginary veils, to transforming the legacy of erasure and “demolish[ing] the walls of local and global oppression that silence Arab females and males alike.” 
On the other hand, at the hands of diasporic women writers, “wa’d al-banat,” a nightmarish motif of physical annihilation and erasure, has been revived as a cultural myth and materialized to voice not only the feminine, but also the collective Arab population and their fight for political freedom, democracy, social justice, and dignity under authoritarian regimes. The maw’udah’s image, therefore, becomes a “powerful call for justice,” transforming it from the personal to the political and the communal.
By exploring the fiction which spans over half a century written by six prominent diaspora Arab women writers, “Anxiety of Erasure” highlights how writers can transcend the geographical confinement of their expatriate lives, with all the inherent traumatic and triumphant experiences, and still be actively involved with and immersed in the intellectual lives and political struggles of their homelands. Thus, moving beyond orality and fixed locality, al-Samman’s engaging introduction and subsequent chapters constitute a pivotal endeavour to revisit forgotten histories and explore the collective and cultural memories associated with the fusion of the wa’d motif and the iconic, politicized Shahrazad, presenting the reader with a celebration of “rootlessness and rootedness, autonomy and belonging.” “Anxiety of Erasure”, therefore, becomes a vital addition to the understudied field of Arab women’s writing, not only for al-Samman’s revisitation of classic motifs, but also for broadening the scope of gender and geographic definitions of “adab al-mahjar” (Arab diasporic studies), shifting the focus from predominantly male writers residing in North and South America to women writers publishing exclusively in Arabic and residing in Europe.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.

© Copyright 2016, 2017 AL JADID MAGAZINE

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