Arab-American Writers Offer Universal Themes, Unique Perspective

A new generation is finding its audience, entering the mainstream By Lauren Monsen Washington File Staff Writer
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Washington — The latest wave of Arab-American writers is beginning to make its mark on the publishing world, but many of these authors reject the notion of Arab-American literature as a separate, easily identifiable genre.
Four highly regarded American writers of Arab descent, who appeared June 16 in Washington at a literary panel at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s annual convention, described how their individual experiences have shaped their perspectives as artists and activists.
But according to Steven Salita, a writer who teaches at Virginia Tech University, the very concept of “Arab-American writing” is problematic, “as it tends to imply a similarity or cluster of themes.” In Salita‘s view, Arab-American writers should avoid such ethnic type-casting “we never want Arab-American literature to become … predictable.”
Nathalie Handal, a Palestinian-American poet, playwright and editor, who teaches at Columbia University in New York City, talked about her recent travels in the Holy Land and about the plight of her hometown of Bethlehem. “Jerusalem is our sister city, and we can’t get there” from Bethlehem, because of the wall that now separates Israelis and Palestinians, she said. “The isolation is unreal.”
Handal read one of her poems — a passionate protest against the wall, and against the division of the West Bank. She also commented on the cultural cross-pollination that occurs as the Arab diaspora settles in other parts of the world. With members of her family scattered throughout much of Latin America, Handal said, she has become increasingly familiar with what can be called “Latino-Arab experience.” She offered a second poem, “about embracing all the cultures I’ve come to know, but not forgetting where I come from.” That poem closes with a haunting admonition spoken in the imagined voice of Handal’s ancestral land: “Compatriota, I will always find you, no matter what language you are speaking.”
Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami, the creator and editor of the literary blog, shared her thoughts on popular stereotypes that Arab-American writers — particularly female writers — inevitably confront. “As an Arab woman, [?]I’m certainly expected to talk about how oppressed I am by evil Arab men,” she said with a laugh.
“There’s a market for that sort of thing — what I call ‘the burden of pity.'” In her view, “people can‘t cope when you don‘t conform to the stereotype” of Arab-woman-as-victim. “If you‘re trying to show the diversity within the [Arab] label, people are surprised.” Lalami and Handal agreed that ignorance of the Arab world is often pervasive in the West. “It‘s staggering when people challenge the emotional truth of what I‘ve written, even though they‘ve never been to Morocco,” said Lalami. Her latest novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, explores the lives of four Moroccan immigrants to the West, all of whom have left their country for very different reasons and meet disparate fates. She read an excerpt about an educated Moroccan man reduced to selling trinkets to tourists.
Another panelist, Gregory Orfalea, a poet, historian and novelist who teaches at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, read an excerpt from his forthcoming novel The Fiends, which examines the coming-of-age of a young Arab-American man during the early 1960s.
All of the panelists conceded that writers in America — Arab and non-Arab alike — have to overcome steep barriers to get their work recognized. “This is a literate society with a lot of competition [among writers], so there’s a limited number of publishing slots available,” said Orfalea. Also, “there’s a shrinking market for books, as the culture has gone visual with a vengeance,” he said, citing consumers’ preference for movies and videogames.
Also, the tastes of American readers can be volatile and unpredictable.
Orfalea recalled that Dan Brown, the best-selling author of The Da Vinci Code, told him that today coming-of-age stories about young men are particularly hard to sell. But similar stories about young women are much more readily accepted, he said.
But bias can cut both ways, added Lalami. She said that while writing classes often are dominated by women, the books that are featured in The New York Times Book Review and other publications mostly are by male authors. “It‘s as if men‘s viewpoints are weighed more heavily than women‘s,” she said. “Women’s books are categorized differently,” and sometimes dismissed as mere “chick lit.”
Ultimately, though, the main barrier to entry into the publishing world “is yourself,” said Orfalea. With enough talent and perseverance, Arab-American writers can make themselves heard, he argued. Lalami agreed. “I refuse to regard the publishing world as monolithic,” she said. “It’s made up of people, and they can listen and be convinced to publish your work.”
Handal emphasized that Arab-American writers have a mission that transcends their ethnic identity and cultural heritage. “I like to believe that art is universal; it crosses boundaries,” she said. “These are human stories — the audience is the whole world.” (The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)

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