More Arab-American writers are getting their work published than ever before, but even those lucky few who land lucrative book contracts with big publishers still face a host of problems ranging from censorship to being pigeonholed as only Arab-American writers.
Clearly, U.S. publishing has a growing appetite for information about the Arab and Muslim worlds, but many mainstream media remain deeply affected by an Orientalist agenda that focuses on the oppression of women and other stereotypes about Arab society. What Steven Salaita calls “stories of escape” sell in numbers, while more nuanced, complex, and self-reflexive pieces don’t. For example, a series of books by Jean Sasson about “oppressed” women in Saudi Arabia and Iraq fly off the bookshelves by the millions, while more authentic novels like Mohja Kahf’s “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf,” which depicts growing up Muslim in America, sell in far smaller numbers.
Arab-American writers still have difficulty getting big book contracts with large mainstream publishers, and if they do, they find their works often heavily edited, if not outright censored. Moreover, they have little control over the way their books are marketed and sold. Diana Abu-Jaber’s second novel, “Memories of Birth,” was under contract and rewritten several times, but in the end, W.W. Norton opted not to print it, presumably because it dealt with the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Palestine in 1948. Gregory Orfalea’s historical novel about the Palestinian Resistance in the period preceding the creation of Israel in 1936 also has not been published.
Partly these trends demonstrate that the mega-mergers in the publishing industry and the attendant focus on profits have made it harder for any writer to get published. Pressure from shareholders to increase profit margins has made it harder and harder for publishers to take risks on unpublished authors and subjects that may not sell.
Despite those pressures, the number of books published about the Middle East and Palestine in recent years has increased. For example, one of the big five publishers, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, published “Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood,” by Ibtisam Barakat in 2007. Barakat’s touching novel describes the Six-Day War from a child’s perspective, but her success remains an exception, and most of the books that make it into print are non-fiction. Recent contracts between Arab-American writers and big publishing houses indicate an encouraging trend, but it is probably premature to talk of a broad new receptivity to literary works from Arab-American writers.
Often there is more to the story than meets the eye. Mohja Kahf relates the story of one Muslim author who was offered a million dollars if she would slant her debut novel against Islam. She refused and eventually got the book published by another large publisher, albeit with a much smaller advance.
Arab-American writers can also find themselves relegated to a fairly narrow niche in the publishing world. Alane Mason, Abu-Jaber’s editor at W.W. Norton, explains that publishers are often reluctant to let writers venture beyond the narrow niche in which they have succeeded in the past. Mason ultimately signed a contract with Abu-Jaber for a book that has nothing to do with Arabs or the Middle East, but she described it as a “huge gamble” and likened it to Starbucks suddenly deciding to sell pizza. The agent for Khaled Hosseini, the author of the much-acclaimed novel, “The Kite Runner,” told her that she would never have let Hosseini venture so far afield. “Once you establish that niche, people don’t want to see you go outside it,” Mason said in a February 2007 interview. In fact, Norton signed a two-book agreement with Abu-Jaber that covered the 2007 novel “Origin,” a forensic mystery with no central Arab-American theme, but also stipulated that the next book would return to the Arab-American angle.
Mason says she understood that Abu-Jaber also wanted to write something different, test her limits and move into new territories. “She didn’t want to be the poster girl of Arab-American literature,” she says. For her part, Abu-Jaber yearns for her work to be judged on its own merits, not as representative of something. “I want it to be about the literature,” she said.
Mohja Kahf also wonders if her first novel, “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf,” has sold so well because she wrote about Arab-American and Muslim-American communities. Ideally, she would prefer to see the book categorized with other coming-of-age stories, not just Arab or Muslim-American literature. Kahf published a collection of poems in 2001 that dealt with her ethnic/immigrant identity, but so far, she has been unable to interest a publisher in her love poems or a cycle of poems about interfaith spirituality.
Kahf also went through significant trials to get her novel published. Her first editor called her a “pain in the ass.” The second insisted Kahf remove many examples of white racism and harassment of Muslims in Indiana, where much of the story takes place. Those experiences, the editor argued, were just too overwhelming for the reader. Including them all would be unaesthetic.
By contrast, harassment of women by their Arab and Muslim husbands, fathers, and society as a whole is not only considered aesthetic when it’s repetitive, but it also sells books. Take for instance, the “Princess” trilogy of books written by Jean Sasson, which were marketed as “a powerful indictment of women’s lives behind the veil with the royal family of Saudi Arabia.” Altogether, the three books have reportedly sold 7 million copies.
These books fit into a formula that Kahf described in Islamica magazine last year: “No matter how much a Muslim woman may have something different to say, by the time it goes through the ‘machine’ of the publishing industry, it is likely to come out the other end packaged as either a ‘Victim Story’ or ‘Escapee Story.’ Then the Muslims yell at her for contributing to stereotypes.”
Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami, whose book, “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits,” has been translated into six languages, has criticized the publishing industry for trying to shape discourse to fit its stereotypes about the Arab world. Speaking on a panel on Arab-American literature at the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee annual convention in 2006, Lalami said, “As an Arab woman, I’m expected to talk about how oppressed I am by evil Arab men.”
Rabih Alameddine, the Lebanese-born author of “I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters,” agrees that editors try to shape his work in ways that make him uncomfortable. But he says many Indian and African-American writers face the same pressures. Alameddine for his part prefers not to be identified as Arab American. “I am an Arab. I am an American. I don’t do hyphens very well.” “I, the Divine,” also edited by Alane Mason at Norton, was published on Sept. 12, 2001 – one day after the hijacking attacks on New York and Washington. However, the book was eclipsed by nonfiction books as Americans rushed to get more information about the Arab and Muslim world. Mason believes Alameddine might have done better if he had agreed to be interviewed as an “Arab American” immediately after the attacks, but he did not want to speak out publicly as a representative. From his perspective, Alameddine says he would feel uncomfortable being “the voice of anything,” much less the Arab-American community, since he identifies more closely as an Arab.
Going to a smaller, independent press can help authors preserve more of their editorial freedom, but they still have many issues to contend with. For one, they risk being virtually shut out of the big chain bookstores, which tend to buy mainly from the mainstream presses. (Independent bookstores account for just 17 percent of sales each year.) And only the biggest publishing houses can afford to send writers on national book tours. These tours help to generate reviews, newspaper articles, television and radio interviews – all of which ultimately help sell books.
And even at smaller independent presses, Arab-American authors are not immune from editorial pressure. Kahf relates how she nearly withdrew her novel after her publisher, Carroll & Graf, an imprint of Avalon Publishing, posted on its website a cover that she had never seen nor approved. It showed her Muslim-American character in a midriff and cut off her eyes – exactly the sort of exoticized Orientalist cover that Kahf had sought to avoid by writing a clause about cover control into her contract. The publishing house hemmed and hawed, but eventually commissioned another cover, albeit one that still focuses on a single woman with a hijab - one that omits the sense of community Kahf had wanted.
Susan Muaddi Darraj also had trouble with her cover when Praeger Publishers, an imprint of Greenwood, published her anthology of Arab and Arab-American women. Titled “Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab-American Women on Writing,” the book’s cover features the image of a pair of blue eyes framed by a black veil, although most of the writers included in the anthology are Christian. As in Kahf’s case, her publisher did not consult Darraj and then showed “no interest” in her displeasure with the chosen cover.
The news is not all bad, to be sure, and being Arab is not always a drawback given heightened interest in the post-9/11 context. Alameddine, for instance, reportedly got a substantially larger advance – 200 times what Norton paid him for “I, The Divine” – for his new novel. Knopf published “The Hakawati,” which has been described as a fantastic re-imagining of the “Arabian Nights,” in April 2008. Abu-Jaber was able to get a two-book contract from Norton, and FSG published Bakarat’s account of living through the Six-Day War.
But one is left wondering how many more books are not making it into print because of lingering barriers.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009).
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