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From Alienation to Belonging

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June 1, 2011

What themes preoccupy these five Arab-American writers? Body image, war, sex, and pizza. Arab-American literature is American literature, says our guest editor Randa Jarrar.

jarrar_intro-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Ginny

When I was a teenager, I spent hours on my college’s antiquated library system looking up contemporary books by Arab Americans. I found none in the system, so I focused my studies on Egyptian women’s literature and African-American women’s fiction. Those stories represented a kind of mirror experience to my own; a stand-in for the stories I really wanted to read.

Then, in graduate school, in 2000, as I was walking through the University of Texas at Austin’s Perry-Castañeda Library, I saw a book called Arabian Jazz, by an author named Diana Abu-Jaber. I looked through it and realized it was about Arab Americans, and it was a novel. It occurred to me to run the Arab-American book search again.

This time, a new world opened up to me. True, most of the Arab-American literature I found was poetry, but I thrilled at the resonance.

Shortly after 9/11, I bought a book called I, the Divine by a writer named Rabih Alameddine. The book was about an Arab-American woman’s life in the U.S. and Lebanon. Anyone who’s tried to write a novel knows how tricky those first few pages can be. I was in the process of writing my own first novel, but couldn’t stop starting; that is, I couldn’t help but write a series of first chapters. Alameddine’s novel builds a structure on this idea: the whole novel is told in first chapters, so that it mirrors the act of drafting a book, as well as shows how a nomadic person or a new immigrant (like the protagonist) constantly gets chances to reinvent herself. I felt as if I had come across a true discovery: in a house of mirrors, I had found a glass slate that accurately reflected me.

I remember Hayan and me knocking back espressos, scanning literary journals for Arab-American names and finding none, and wondering, Why aren’t we in yet?

Afterwards, I met the poet Khaled Mattawa in Austin, and later, the poet Hayan Charara. With them, I had long and nourishing conversations about literature, and we reflected on our shared Arab-American experience over numerous coffees, finding refuge in Austin’s many coffee shops. These conversations occurred after 9/11 but before the current Arab Spring, and I remember Hayan and me knocking back espressos, scanning literary journals for Arab-American names and finding none, and wondering, Why aren’t we in yet?

Then, there was my first RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers) conference. There, I felt supported and connected and fed, as though my clueless, adrift teen self was finally coming home. And, looking around me, I noticed that several other people were having the same exact experience: a welcome sense of homecoming. The first night of the conference, there was a reading by poet, novelist, and essayist D.H. Melhem. Melhem is considered the first New York Arab-American woman writer, and was very much influenced by the Black Arts movement (she wrote a book about the amazing Gwendolyn Brooks, author of the novel Maud Martha). I also got to meet Naomi Shihab Nye and Suheir Hammad—both of whom I looked up to very much. And even though I was already Internet-friends with the wonderful Laila Lalami, that was the first time we met in real life.

I like to think that this is the story of contemporary Arab-American writing—it’s gone from being under the radar to coming, finally, up to the surface.

I tell this story here just to show the 180-degree turn that I experienced—from alienation to belonging—in just a few years. I like to think that this is the story of contemporary Arab-American writing, too—that it’s gone from being under the radar to coming, finally, up to the surface. I agree with our wonderful poet Phillip Metres, who writes in this Huffington Post piece that in the last ten years especially, Arab-American writing has “echoed [that of] the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts, and other key moments in ethnic American writing.”

                 *                      *                     *

When I first went on the academic job market a few years ago, search committees asked what my dream class to teach would be. Arab-American Fiction, I said. They smiled, then invariably asked, “And which writers would you teach in that class?” I would enthusiastically share a list of names—Diana Abu-Jaber, Rabih Alameddine, Alicia Erian, Mohja Kahf, Patricia Sarrafian Ward, Laila Lalami, Leila Halaby—and, usually, none of the names registered. “Do you teach your own book?” some of them asked. I do not. But I do teach short stories by Grace Paley, ZZ Packer, Alice Munro, Nami Mun, Jane Bowles, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Toni Morrison (well, “Recitatif,” Morrison’s short story, and a damn good one). “Why,” some committees asked me, “do you teach American literature alongside Arab-American fiction?”

“Because,” I would answer, “Arab-American fiction is American literature.”

Which is why I wanted to put this issue together: to showcase some of contemporary American literature’s strongest voices, and spotlight the voices of newer, more up-and-coming authors. Here, one can see that certain themes—both grave and airy-light—preoccupy these writers: Palestine. Body image. War. Sex. Pizza.

I can visualize these characters spending time outside this issue: Halaby’s Fila Perez doing literary cartwheels with Yunis’s first-Muslim-Palestinian-Southern-Californian-vegan-left-handed-champion-skater; Abu-Jaber’s Jason/Marcello flirting with Chlala’s Alexa; and Alexa’s older sister Leila finding friendship with Sarrafian Ward’s Mayya.

These pieces, I should add, are in no way indicative of all Arab-American fiction, but are simply a sampling. I hope these stories move you.

“The Oracle, by Diana Abu-Jaber”: http://www.guernicamag.com/fiction/2697/abu_jaber_6_1_11/

“East Beirut, 1978, by Patricia Sarrafian Ward”: http://www.guernicamag.com/fiction/2685/sarrafian_ward_6_1_11/

“The Bastard of Salinas, by Laila Halaby”: http://www.guernicamag.com/fiction/2689/halaby_6_1_11/

“Secret Boyfriend, by Youmna Chlala”: http://www.guernicamag.com/fiction/2695/chlala_6_1_11/

“Girls on Ice, by Alia Yunis”: http://www.guernicamag.com/fiction/2693/yunis_6_1_11/

G

jarrar_author-100.jpg**Randa Jarrar** is the author of the critically acclaimed novel A Map of Home, which was published in half a dozen languages, won a Hopwood Award and an Arab-American Book Award, and was named one of the best novels of 2008 by the Barnes & Noble Review. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Chapters, Guernica, The Oxford American, The New York Times Magazine, The Utne Reader, and The Progressive. She has received residencies from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, Hedgebrook, Caravansarai, and Eastern Frontier, and was chosen to take part in Beirut39, which celebrates the thirty-nine most gifted writers of Arab origin under the age of forty. She currently lives in Fresno, CA, where she is Assistant Professor of English and is completing a collection of stories and a new novel.

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2 comments for From Alienation to Belonging

  1. Comment by Dawn. on June 1, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Excellent intro, Ms. Jarrar. Looking forward to diving into this new collection.

  2. Comment by Steve on June 28, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Hi Randa, what an interesting project–I’m currently a professor at the American U of Beirut, it’s been a fascinating experience and I find the Lebanese students very very interesting. Thanks for pointing out some good writers to look for.

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