One Minute With Diana Abu-Jaber on Teaching Arab Lit in America

Diana Abu-Jaber is most recently the author of Birds of Paradise, which is out this month, as well as of the award-winning memoir The Language of Baklava and the best-selling novel Origin and Crescent, which was awarded the 2004 PEN Award for Literary Fiction and the American Book Award.

ArabLit: Arab-American authors don’t seem to have the visibility in the U.S. that Arab and Arab-British authors have in the U.K.* Or am I wrong about that?

Diana Abu-Jaber: I think there might be a lot of reasons for that, extending into our various colonial histories as well as the differences in the educational relationships between America, England, and the Middle East. There are also differences in the way America and the U.K. connect with their immigrant communities. I’m not as familiar with the UK scene, however, but I can say that I’ve seen a big change happening over the course of my own career, in terms of the attention given to Arab-American writers– and multicultural writers in general. When my first novel, Arabian Jazz, came out in 1993, I didn’t really know much about other Arab-American authors and books. That’s not because they didn’t exist, but because they weren’t taught and weren’t highlighted in the media. A younger generation is coming into preeminence, but it’s taken a long time, and they’ve had to do battle, of course, with Western fears and preconceptions about Islam, race, and other cultural differences.

AL: What are some of your favorite texts and authors to teach? Why?

DA-J: I have a core of texts I like to go back to year after year and then I switch in a few new titles each term. I love Joe Geha’s collection Through and Through; Mohja Kahf’s Emails from Scheherazad; Naomi Shihab Nye’s Never In a Hurry; Samia Serageldin’s Cairo House; Ibtissam Barakat’s Tasting the Sky, and Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home, to name but a few.

AL: Do you teach works in translation, or are they all written in English?

DA-J: For the Arab-American class, the books are generally all written in English– many of these authors don’t even speak Arabic. Sometimes I teach classes on Arabic literature, so most of those books are in translation.

AL: What do you have on the syllabus that we wouldn’t expect?

DA-J: Unfortunately, I think all the names on the syllabus are unexpected to the modern American college student; but even for insiders I think Joe Geha doesn’t have the visibility that he should, nor does Anton Shammas, whose amazing work, Arabesques, is often on the roster. [Editor’s note: translated from the Hebrew.]

AL: What motivates students take the class (besides filling a requirement)? What motivates you to teach it?

DA-J: I teach at Portland State University, which is a very progressive, alternative, yet hard-working, shirt-sleeves school in a very progressive, alternative city. So there’s a lot of openness there, real interest in diversity, a true wish to engage with different cultures and new ways of speaking. And I think there’s a lot of honest curiosity about these cultures and a religion that have been so demonized in our media and foreign policy. It is my father’s culture, the one that I was raised in, within America, so I personally feel a real connection there, a pride and love of my ancestry, and of my multicultural brothers and sisters who are trying to make their stories heard. Offering this class seems one small way that I can help do that.

*Note: I’ve updated the list of literary events in North America this fall, thanks to Middle Eastern Studies Librarian Robin Dougherty. But it still doesn’t compare to the list of literary events I was able to put together for the U.K. Diana Abu-Jaber has a number of literary appearances this fall. You can also follow her on Twitter.