Nationalism, the Literary Canon, and the Informal Novel

Many American readers and critics grant authors — particularly foreign authors — an instant counter-culture status; Youssef Rakha’s “In Extremis” (discussed yesterday), points to the many ways in which novels build on nationalist themes and are part of a nationalist-(chauvanist-patriarchal) project. Rakha is certainly not the only one to think so: Terry Eagleton has played on this playground, as does Hoda al-Sadda’s Gender, Nation, and the Arabic Novel: Egypt, 1892-2008 (2012, Syracuse University Press), which I have just begun reading:

Nice cover!

In the book, Elsadda argues not that the Arabic novel has not necessarily been limited by the nationalist project, but that the canon certainly has: “…the canon of Arabic literature, or the Arabic critical establishment, has accepted…that third-world literatures/Arabic literatures are defined by their colonial and anticolonial experience, hence priveleging the nationalist dimension in artistic expression[.]”

Of course, writers can straddle both sides of this line: Many are part of the formal, recognized, government-approved sector (hitting the right note when it comes to America, nationalism, Israel, and so on) but also with informal, unplanned, subversive aspects to their writing.

In her introduction, Elsadda mentions the recent kitabat al-banat, ridiculed and dismissed with this label of “girls’ books,” despite some of the works’ charm, popularity, and literary merit. One “girl” author (actually, she was a woman) told me that novelist Khairy Shalaby had derided the blog-to-book novels — like her Rice Pudding for Two and Ghada Abdel Aal’s I Want to Get Married! — as “kleenex novels.” (These were novels to be used once and promptly trashed, lest they…spread germs?)

Shalaby and Abdel Aal both have aspects of the “formal sector,” the national (novelistic) project, and both have aspects of the ‘ashwa’iyyat, the informal, sometimes-counter-cultural sector. (One can, and Elsadda does, say the same about certain feminist projects that have been presided over by First Ladies.)

Now, Egypt has always been pretty fierce in defending its ‘ashwa’iyyat, which is not alwasy so wonderful (pollution, poorly built structures, the toktok craze), but nonetheless it’s fun to see more of it in the literary sector.

Speaking of gender, narrative, and the informal (historical) sector, have you seen this?

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