What is ‘Distinctive’ About Arab-American Writing?

From the film Arab in America.

On the heels of Banipal 38: Arab American Authors (although he doesn’t mention the collection), the HuffPost’s Anis Shivani asked 10 Arab American writers: “What is distinctive about Arab-American writing today?

Most of the respondents wave their hands and say, Nay, there’s not much distinctly Arab-American. Says Hayan Charara: “In fact, about the only thing we have in common is our insistence on constantly challenging any singular notion of what it means to be Arab or Arab-American.”

However, it’s difficult to read a collection like Banipal 38 and not notice certain obsessions. (This includes the work of aforementioned Hayan Charara.) Translator Hosam Aboul-ela agrees that “there is nothing literary that characterizes the vast array of Arab-American writing,” but characterizes the obsession thus: “The only thing that really ties Arab-Americans as a community today—and also distinguishes them from other hyphenated American communities—is a widespread dissident attitude regarding American foreign policy.”

Of course, this don’t apply to all Arab-American writers. The Banipal 38 excerpt from Laila Halaby’s novel, Woman, Be My Country has no Arab-American characters, nor an interest in foreign policy, nor recognizably “Arab” themes. D.H. Melhem seems perfectly at home in America, at least in her Banipal38 writing, and Evelyn Shakir seems more interested in the oddities of her family than in foreign policy.

However, most of the other works of poetry, fiction, and memoir seem either to be explaining something about Arabs to non-Arab America (Patricia Sarrafian Ward’s novel excerpt dead boys has an Anglo American narrator coming to grips with her Lebanese husband’s past violence; Gregory Orfolea’s novel has an Arab narrator who was hurt in the September 2001 attacks) or to be talking about migration, war, and oppression without particularly trying to explain things to the outsider (Sargon Boulos, for instance).

Among several similar-sounding responses, Sinan Antoon’s is the most memorable. He said:

To write and try to publish (let alone work, and live) in the U.S. while Arab or Muslim after 9/11, means choosing one of two paths. The first entails self-orientalization and on it one proceeds to perform one’s circumscribed role as the entertaining, but always safe and grateful Arab in the grand political and cultural circus. …

The other path is that of standing outside the coliseum and distracting and disturbing the citizens-spectators on their way in or out. Screaming at times, if necessary, to point to other directions. Whispering, at others, into their ears stories about barbarians both in Rome itself and abroad. It’s not easy being a barbarian in Rome. The Romans rarely listen, but the barbarian has to keep it real.