The Arab Author’s ‘Place’ in America

A forthcoming (December, insha’allah) issue of American Book Review will have a focus on Arab-American literature, curated by poet Philip Metres.

The special section is anchored by essays from Metres and poet Fady Joudah.

Metres opens the section by giving a brief history of Arab-American letters. He quotes Evelyn Shakir: “the first generation of
Arab American writers…dressed carefully for their encounter with the
American public, putting on the guise of prophet, preacher, or man of
letters. They could not hide their foreignness, but they could make it

Metres then marks a turn in Arab-American literature after the emboldening theoretical work of Edward Said. This led to a new sort of Arab-American literature. Another turn came after 9/11, when non-Arab editors and readers “discovered” how Arab literature could answer the ridiculously persistent question of “why they hate us”.

Metres notes:

The enormous popularity of Honor Lost (2003), a fallacious memoir about an honor killing that sold hundreds of thousands of copies, is suggestive of the
thirst of readers to confirm their Orientalist views of the Middle East.

It’s in this fraught space that the great diversities of Arab-American authors find
themselves trying to write, and both Metres and Joudah use Deleuze and Guattari’s “minor literature” frame to examine the current state of Arab-American letters. Metres likens the place of the Arab-American author to that of the Palestinian, in that “There is no life or art, it seems, without the spectre of politics. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari, ‘the political domain has contaminated every statement.'”

This politics, as Joudah notes, is “not unlinked to imperial American  hegemony[.]” He finds the Arab-American poet placed “on a spectral chart
whose opposite terminal ends are hard politics and soft spirituality (and the
case is no different for Arab poets in translation).”

But if, Metres writes, “the language of the limit expresses the horizon of minor literature, then one can say that Arab-American literature extends from mainstream modes all the way to that experimental horizon.”

There are those who express an exhaustion with being used for politics, and who write novels in classic tradition. In the words of an Arab character of Diana Abu Jaber’s — I review her Birds of Paradise in the issue — “I hate Arabs. I hate Israelis. I hate soldiers. I hate Saddam Hussein. I hate George Bush. I hate politics, I hate words that begin with the letter p. So don’t ask me about any of it.”

Elsewhere, at another horizon, Metres says:

Arab-American writers employ the radically deconstructive modes of language-deterritorializing in an effort toward a globalist vision of literature —- I’m thinking here of Etel Adnan and Rabih Alameddine in prose, and recent poetry by Mahmoud Darwish, Venus Khoury-Ghata, Nathalie Handal, Fady Joudah, Khaled Mattawa, Farid Matuk, and Ghassan Zaqtan.

As for Handal, whose work I also discuss in the issue, she is herself already radically deterritorialized from Palestine, and, at a further remove, makes Lorca’s journey “in reverse,” from NYC to Andalusia, layering the Palestine, New York City, Andalusia of different epochs onto one another.

Ultimately, Metres’s essay is more hopeful and celebratory than Joudah’s, which spends more of its energy pointing towards the rocks and hard places of being an Arab-American author, where, “One is native informant or foreign expert within this process of ‘cultural translation,’ a process that must cope with the preconditions that are set upon it toward sameness.”

And yet Joudah also nods toward ways Arab-American poetry can thrive: “Arab-American poetry, as minor, should seek ‘something other than a literature of masters.’ It should revel in its immense potentiality to remain
in the margins (and the margins of margins) as a necessary criterion for its excellence and revolutionary, decentralizing force.”