Banipal 38: Assessing Five Unpublished Novels by Arab Americans

Banipal 38: Arab American Authors features excerpts from five unpublished novels (and if I were a publisher, I’d pick up a copy and see what rings my bell).

They are:

Gregory Orfalea’s The Fiends (forthcoming)
Patricia Sarrafian Ward’s dead boys (in progress)
Kadhim al-Hallaq’s My One-Eyed Father and His Six Wives (?)
Susan Muaddi Darraj’s The Well (forthcoming)
Laila Halaby’s Woman, Be My Country (forthcoming)

Only one of the excerpts felt like “Arabic” fiction to me, but I suppose that isn’t surprising, as only one (My One-Eyed Father and His Six Wives) was written in Arabic.

The others were written in English, and while all but one feature Arab characters (the exception is Woman, Be My Country, which focuses on Mexican- and Anglo-Americans), they feel structurally American, even when their subject matter is not.

The two first pieces, a prologue from Orfalea’s The Fiends and an excerpt from Sarrafian Ward’s dead boys, feel fully American: paced as quickly as thrillers, with lots of dialogue and scene, always a reason to turn the next page. Orfalea follows a man who was in the Pentagon in 2001 when the airplane hit—the prologue begins as Matter discovers his office-mate is dead, and the pace doesn’t slacken; two days later, Matter’s mother is critically injured in a car accident and he must fly home.

Sarrafian Ward’s is perhaps even faster paced. Although there is less “action,” it is written in the present tense. The excerpt begins as we discover the narrator’s Lebanese husband has made a drunken admission at a dinner party—we don’t know exactly what he’s admitted, but it involves his role in Lebanon’s civil war—and his Anglo narrator-wife is trying to grapple with how this changes their marriage.

“Just explain. Just tell me the story.”
“There’s no point.”
“Where did it happen?”
He closes his eyes. “My God, Lucille.”
“You have no right. You brought it up.”
“What more do you want?”
“Just tell me where, that’s all.”
“In a building, in a basement. O.K.?”
She feels like a jealous wife peeling away the layers of truth about an affair, where they dined, the motel, the sheets, the putrid smell of the beige patterned carpet.

Both of these excerpts—Orfalea’s and Sarrafian Ward’s—leave the reader breathless, wondering what will happen next. Thus far, neither excerpt has given us an opportunity for reflection, for enjoying the feel of prose or the texture of the characters, but they certainly have managed to hook their readers on plot.

Susan Muaddi Darrj’s novel, The Well, begins in a slower time, 1966. At least, the excerpt is titled “Palestine, 1966.” The main character, Amira, has a much slower and more deliberate life than the protagonists in dead boys or The Fiends. As we meet her, she seems to have made the decision to become a nun (plot-wise, I assume this signals to the reader that a disastrous love affair is around the corner) and, while her sister Huda is sick of life as a refugee in Jordan, Amira tells herself she is content.

This is a quieter excerpt, one more focused on the particularities of character and landscape, but certainly enjoyable, and—while I didn’t feel breathless at the end—I wanted to read on.

Kadhim al-Hallaq had the honor of writing the excerpt—titled “Arriving in America,” from My One-Eyed Father and His Six Wives—that felt to me like Arabic literature. It was denser than the other excerpts, and while there was still an insistence to the plot (the confused Iraqi-refugee narrator is picked up by police in Chicago) there was also an insistence to the language, and to the particularities of experience.

The language didn’t always work: “He had mousy features and a lanky body, and his fine, mousy hair hung in his face.” (Or perhaps it’s just me, who doesn’t know how to picture “mousy features.”)

But sometimes it did: “Utter exhaustion overcame me as I went up one escalator and down the other, getting in the way of the crowds and asking random people what to do. They would stare intently into my face, straining with the maximum amount of concentration humans are capable of, in order to understand what I was trying to say, then point upwards or downward.”

There is an absurdity to this excerpt, as the investigator who interrogates our narrator ends up, that same night, in bed with him in a Chicago hotel. The excerpt ends there—in the hotel—and it makes me wince a little with its corny love scene. I find myself hoping that something will bring our narrator back to Earth.

About the authors:

Gregory Orfalea has written two critically acclaimed works of nonfiction. His most recent—Angeleno Days: An Arab American Writer on Family, Place, and Politics—was one of the finalists for the 2010 PEN Award. The winner was Vicki Forman’s This Lovely Life.

Patricia Sarrafian Ward has a previous novel, The Bullet Collection, which received the GLCA New Writers Award, among other accolades.

Laila Halaby also has a novel out, West of Jordan, which won the PEN Beyond Margins award.

Kadhim al-Hallaq, who was born in Basra, has been previously published twice in Banipal.

Susan Muaddi Darraj‘s collection of short stories, The Inheritance of Exile, was named Book of the Year for short fiction by ForeWord Magazine. You can read more about Muaddi Darraj on her website.