Writing Their Own Stories, Becoming Visible

Theri Alyce Pickens

Arab Voices in Diaspora: Critical Perspectives on Anglophone Arab Literature
Edited by Layla al-Maleh
Rodopi Books, 2009
Consider that one of the main thrusts of what would obliquely be termed “Arab Diaspora Studies” is to wrest Arabs out of the simplistic dichotomy of being invisible as racially white, or visible as a problematic cultural other. Layla al-Maleh’s edited collection, “Arab Voices in the Diaspora: Critical Perspectives on Anglophone Arab Literature,” makes a significant contribution to this complex discussion about what it means to write while Arab. I commend the collection for laying out a schema useful for understanding Arab-American, Arab-British and Arab-Australian writers and successfully delineating the main literary concerns of the field. Despite my concern that some essays contain uncomplicated discussions, I think this deserves to be a part of every scholar’s collection.
In the introduction, Layla al-Maleh gives a chronological overview of Arab-American, Arab-British and Arab-Australian literature. She makes the point that much of the issues of the field are bound up in immigration/migration issues, and publication. She downplays the importance of historical events like 1948 and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War in creating the Arab diaspora, preferring instead to group the literary history based on other segments of time. The essays proceed in something of a chronological order from Khalil Gibran to Ameen Rihani to more contemporary artists. The collection becomes more eclectic toward the end with a personal essay and a series of shorter sketches.
Several essays are of particular interest to scholars for their complicated analyses.  Yasmeen Hanoosh’s “Tomorrow They Write their Story: Chaldeans in America and the Transforming Narrative of Identities” was particularly spectacular in its amplification of Chaldean-American literature. Hanoosh explains, through a series of footnotes and textual analyses, that the current discourses about Chaldeans have some critical gaps. Her filling of these gaps and explanations of their origin(s) provides a necessary complication in a series of what Hanoosh herself terms “reductive and predictable” narratives. Carol Fadda-Conrey and Cristina Garrigós have significant contributions to the work on Rabih Alameddine’s corpus. Both of their essays discuss Alameddine’s “I, the Divine: A Novel in First Chapters,” ably expanding on discussions like that of Syrine Hout (not in the collection). Geoffrey Nash’s meditation on Leila Ahmed’s “A Border Passage” was also quite illuminating as it pointed out the complexity of creating cross-cultural meaning.
Some of the essayists have pieces that tend to regurgitate others’ arguments or pieces that present un-nuanced arguments. For instance, Maria Cariello’s second piece, “Search for Room to Move: Producing and Negotiating Space in Leila Abouela’s ‘Minaret,’” does not have the depth of critical analysis as her first essay in the collection. She argues that movement produces space in Abouela’s migration narrative, an idea which has been discussed in terms of the Lebanese diaspora and the Lebanese Civil War. Certainly, it remains a worthwhile conversation – especially because Cariello adds Abouela to the discussion – but given the breadth of her first piece, I expected a more complex meditation on how Abouela’s voice nuances these arguments. Layla al-Maleh’s essay within the text contemplates hybridity and shifting identity in Arab-American literature.  Inasmuch as reading this information would be excellent for beginners in the field, it does little more than restate the ideas present in other introductions to the field like those printed in books by Amaney Jamal and Nadine Naber, Ernest McCarus, Steven Salaita, Gregory Orfalea, or various authors in the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS) Winter 2009 issue. Both discussions and others like them are worthwhile, but they add little in the way of presenting complexity for a field that remains under siege from outsiders who insist on simplifying it. Given that Arab Diaspora Studies is a new field, I understand the impetus and necessity of introducing the field to others; nonetheless, I question the critical utility of more introductions of this sort, particularly when the genre reduces depth for the sake of presenting breadth.
Ultimately, I commend “Arab Voices in Diaspora” for its breadth of subject matter and the useful schema it presents for looking at Arab diaspora studies. I would strongly recommend that it be a part of any critical introduction to the field. If teaching, it would be a useful companion to scholarly work written by Lisa Suhair Majaj, Evelyn Shakir and Steven Salaita. Because the vast majority of essays were complex and nuanced reflections on important literature, I look forward to the time when the contributors write books of their own.
This book review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, No. 62, 2010.
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