From Shadow to Presence: Representations of Ethnicity in Contemporary American Literature
Codes, Precepts, Biases and Taboos: Poems — New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Kadi, Joanna. Boston: South End Press, Kahf, Mohja. Emails from Scheherazad. Majaj, Lisa Suhair. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, Edited by Khaled Mattawa and Munir Akash. Distributed by Syracuse University Press, Ottmar Ette and Friederike Pannewick. Madrid and Frankfurt: Iberoamericana—Vervuert, Marshall, Jack. Gorgeous Chaos: New and Selected Poems, — Paul: Coffee House Press, Naff, Alixa. Nassar, Eugene Paul.
Wind of the Land. Nye, Naomi Shihab. New York: Greenwillow Books, Going, Going. NY: Greenwillow Books, Orfalea, Gregory and Sharif Elmusa. Salt Lake City: Univ. Rihani, Ameen.
The Book of Khalid. New York: Dodd, Mead, ; rpt. Beirut: Albert Rihani, Shakir, Evelyn. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, Samhan, Helen Hatab. The original largely Christian migrants came mostly as sojourners, not immigrants. Settling in colonies in cities such as New York and Boston, and fully intending to return home one day, they voiced a mainly diasporan consciousness: a fact evident in their newspapers, which were often sectarian, political and geared toward events in the Middle East.
The question of how to respond to such pressures while also maintaining Arab identity was a matter of great importance to the early immigrant community: newspapers and journals published debates about how to preserve Arab identity in the American-born generation, even as they discussed practical matters of integration. Complicating the process of Americanization were racial definitions of American identity which threatened to exclude Arabs. Arab immigrants, among others, became caught up in naturalization laws basing eligibility for citizenship on non-Asiatic identity.
In the cases involving Arabs, courts argued that Arabs should be denied naturalization as U.
By the s several literary societies and journals had come into existence, and in the literary organization Al Rabita al Qalamaiyya the Pen League was established by Kahlil Gibran, Ameen Rihani and others. Although they had their greatest impact on Arabic literature, these writers were conscious of serving as bridges between East and West, and actively sought to establish philosophical meeting points between Arab and American ideologies and contexts, even as they invoked poetic forbears of both east and west—from Al-Mutanabbi, Al-Farid, and al-Maari to Homer, Virgil, Milton, Emerson and Thoreau.
Indeed, Arab-American literature of this period often reflected a strong need to prove oneself worthy in the U. This anxiety was even more apparent in the autobiographies of the period. Writing within the already established genre of U. Such narrative strategies were unsurprising given the broader context of assimilation pressures, prerequisite cases and wartime fervor, all of which made the racial, legal, and social status of Arabs in the U.
But they formed a literary template which later Arab-American authors were to seek consciously to transform. The Johnson-Reed Quota Act had drastically limited numbers of new immigrants: in the absence of ongoing contact with the home culture, Arab-Americans went so far in the assimilation process that some historians have described them as being in danger of assimilating themselves out of existence cf. Although there was not a complete dearth of literary production, Arab-American writers wrote about their Arab background with hesitation and through self-distancing narrative strategies.
Overall, the literature of this period reflects a hesitancy to engage with Arab-American identity as something of contemporary relevance.
The Civil Rights and Black Power movements opened new spaces for immigrant and ethnic literary voices more generally. At the same time, there was also an influx of new immigrants from the Arab world. These immigrants, who were from a variety of countries, frequently Muslim, and often better educated and more politically engaged than earlier immigrants had been, stimulated settled Arab-Americans to engage more directly with Arab culture and politics.
However, the forces which situated Arab-Americans as anomalies in the U. As in the early decades of the century, Arab-Americans today confront a cultural, political, and social context that is fraught with tension.
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Instead of courts excluding Arabs on the basis of race, popular racism now targets Arabs on the basis of skin color, dress, name, accent and other characteristics. This has become institutionalized in the pervasive racial profiling in place at U. Earlier epithets of nigger, dago and spic have transmuted to labels of sand nigger, towelhead, camel jocky and worse. Post writers gave voice to a quest for self-identification that was particularly compelling because of its American idiom.
Writing in English and publishing in American literary journals, these writers drew on U. Authors such as Sam Hazo, Sam Hamod, Jack Marshall, Naomi Shihab Nye and others began to publish poetry that touched, sometimes glancingly, sometimes directly, on Arab identity and probed what had been lost during the generations of assimilation. The poem makes clear that what is lost in forced assimilation is more than a name: it is an identity, a history, a self. In contrast to his youthful embarrassment at the scene, in retrospect Hamod views the faith of the older men as something transcendent and redemptive.
Celebrating life in a Lebanese American community in upstate New York, Wind of the Land offered a poignant affirmation of identity and a celebration of familial and communal bonds, and stood as an example of the growing need of authors to lay claim to Arab-American identity with lyricism and celebration rather than defensiveness. However, what also emerged in such texts was the problem of nostalgia. In asserting Arab and Arab-American identity as something valuable and nurturing, and in memorializing the traditional values of the past, authors such as Nassar and Hamod made a significant intervention in the invisibility of Arab identity, but they also inscribed a nostalgia for patriarchal structures.
But such naturalized representations are not, as other authors have made clear, unproblematic. For instance, Nassar affirms the Lebanese culture of the immigrant generation as a familial culture in which patriarchy is revered. While this vision posits Lebanese culture and the traditional family as a bulwark against the presumed instability of American life, it also inscribes a limiting view of gender relations.
In this view, ethnicity offers the dream of a world defined by traditional, patriarchal relationships, a dream that was sure to be questioned by those disempowered in these relationships. These writers engaged in literary portrayals which sought to affirm without mythologizing, and which leveled self-critique at the same time as self-affirmation. This collection asserted the existence and presence of Arab-American writers, introduced Arab-American poets to a new audience, created a sense of an Arab-American literary community, and made it possible for authors to write not as anomalies but as Arab-Americans, thereby laying down the page upon which the century-long story of Arab-American literature could begin to be told.
And, significantly, the collection sought to leaven nostalgia with self-critique, juxtaposing reclamation with incisive cultural criticism. The stories of Lebanese- American Joseph Geha provide a notable example. Deftly avoiding nostalgia, the stories provide a poignant but ultimately forward-looking rendition of Arab-American immigrant and ethnic experiences.
But they are also Americans, whose move into the American context is made possible through a widening of the boundaries of community, and a transformation of this communal identity into a sense of individual agency. What these stories teach is that openness to change is necessary for survival, cultural as well as personal.
Nye, daughter of a Palestinian Muslim father and an American Christian mother, is one of the most well-known of Arab-American authors: a prolific writer who has earned an avid readership among both Arab-American and mainstream American audiences, children and adults, Nye has managed to bring Arab culture and politics into the U.
From her earliest publications Nye has suggested that Arab-American identity is not something to be preserved or denied or escaped or romanticized: it is just another way of being human. In language that is readily accessible to a mainstream U. Instead of voicing a static Arab-American identity dependent on the past and defined through preservation of cultural heritage, Nye suggests that what it means to be Arab-American—or any identity for that matter — is discovered in process, by making sense of disparate experiences and cultural contexts and by nurturing the sparks generated by their juxtaposition.
In her poetry Nye dismantles the idea of a self that is static and stable, and insists instead on selfhood as a process of becoming and discovery. The painful resonance of this final question lies precisely in her inability to answer it.
Etel Adnan is among the most powerful of these: a writer who came to the U. Yet hers is a universalism based not on misty philosophies—a charge sometimes leveled against the Mahjar writers—but rather on the struggle for survival, physical and cultural, within contexts of injustice and violence.
Her work deals less with the celebration of Arab identity in the U. The ability to voice such cultural critique and self-criticism has emerged as one of the most important elements in contemporary Arab-American writing today. This anthology, which brought many new voices into print, established the category of feminist Arab-American writing in English.
Yet it should be clarified that feminism was not a new concept in Arab-American experience. Women—who constituted one out of three of early immigrants—had been challenging traditional gender roles and engaging in feminist debate from the early period of immigration. Many women emigrated alone, or took their children and left their husbands behind, and after the WWI Armistice there were actually more female than male emigrants Shakir, Bint Arab, The Arab-American press in the s and s recounted the diverse accomplishments of Arab-American women as lawyers, doctors, college graduates, aviators and musicians, as well as giving space to debates on gender.
However, formal attempts at feminist organization did not emerge till after the war, when Arab-American life more generally was reinvigorated in the context of the U. Handal, Kadi saw the book as creating space for Arab-American feminist voices and as empowering Arab-American women to create alternative maps to those of mainstream American discourse.
The selections, which address issues of identity, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, political activism, race, and class, chart the quest for belonging and the search for a home capable of encompassing the voices of Arab-American women from a variety of backgrounds. Either they are shadowy nonentities, swathed in black from head to foot, or they are belly dancers—seductive, provocative, and privy to exotic secrets of lovemaking. The impact of such stereotypes is political as well as cultural.
This creates a double bind for Arab-American feminists. On the other hand, they often find they have to suppress their feminism in order to claim a sense of home in their Arab communities and avoid the charge of community betrayal, especially at times when these communities are under siege.
American literature: a vanishing subject? | American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Kadi offers an evocative description of this attempt in her introduction to Food for Our Grandmothers. Moving from an invocation of the book as a map to the memory of her grandmother braiding her long hair, she denotes the conjunction of personal, communal and historical concerns shaping Arab-American experiences. For long periods of time no one can remember that Arabs even exist…. Contemporary Arab-American writers, in contrast, increasingly interrogate and challenge U.
Lebanese American Lawrence Joseph was one of the first of these writers to bring racial categories in relation to Arab-American experience to the foreground.