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.
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 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
“East Beirut, 1978,” by Patricia Sarrafian Ward
“The Bastard of Salinas,” by Laila Halaby
“Secret Boyfriend,” by Youmna Chlala
“Girls on Ice,” by Alia Yunis