‘A Poetics of Return’: Talking Migration and Return with Wessam Elmeligi

In his latest book Cultural Identity in Arabic Novels of Immigration: A Poetics of Return, Wessam Elmeligi, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, looks at the meaning of return in Arabic novels:

By Tugrul Mende

From Ibn Tufayl’s twelfth-century Hayy ibn Yaqzan to Miral al-Tahawy’s twenty-first century Brooklyn Heights, Wessam Elmeligi is interested in the meaning of cultural identity and what immigration and return look like in Arabic novels. He talked about the meaning of immigration and return in Arabic novels, as well as what return means for him, personally. 

How did you initially come to this topic, of cultural identity in Arabic novels of immigration?

Wessam Elmeligi: I have always been interested in things related to identity. I am originally from Alexandria, a city known for its cosmopolitan and multicultural experience that perhaps helped define those terms. Growing up, I traveled with my family to several Arab countries. I have always believed in cultural interactions that enrich but do not undermine one’s sense of identity. With the recent increase in migration all over the world, issues of identity, othering, and accepting, have become intense. I felt I needed to revise concepts such as culture, identity, and even immigration. My experience as a university professor has helped shape part of my understanding of these terms. I teach comparative literature and translation. I have taught English and American literature to Arabic-speaking students and taught Arabic literature and language to non-native speakers. I have seen the interaction between cultures in classrooms. I guess over the years, the idea of cultural identity has been brewing in my mind. 

Immigration as opposed to traveling, and the aspect of cosmopolitanism, have been very much part of my interpretation of what this book is about. I wanted to examine a different side of immigration that is not only the more pressing image of immigration as part of an exile or asylum for refugees only. There is another aspect that is very cultural, and that has been going on for centuries. The current situation is overshadowing that. That is very unfair to immgrants, to the homeland, and the land of destination. This side-stepping, moving away  from the cultural aspect of identity and of immigration is very unfair to the identities of the immigrants.

The book is based on issues I’ve thought about since I moved to the United States, although I have always thought and been interested in cultural identity. I still manage to be surprised and feel the cultural differences. Cultural identity is something that should not be taken lightly, and it is really important to understand this. 

What do you exactly mean by “A Poetics of Return”?

WE: Aristotle’s Poetics was a book of literary theory in a sense. In my book, I am specifically referring to how the motif of return is narrativized, how writers use narrative strategy to tell their stories. Since I noticed that return is a theme in quite a few novels written in Arabic, I wanted to examine how return is expressed in writing, hence poetics. This is part of my attempt to arrive at a contemporary Arabic literary theory. There is a lot of dependence or reliance on literary theories that were not particularly written or thought of addressing the global south and Arabic literature. There are attempts to change this, and I try to contribute my own share. 

What came first: the theory or the books? 

WE: Some of the novels attracted my attention first. I felt there were something in common between them. I started to look at some theoretical backgrounds and once I had a concept, I went back to look a the novels and started looking for more novels that validated this idea. I was inspired by some of the writers such as Naguib Mahfouz, who is one of my specialties, if you can say that; one of my favorite writers. Looking back at the ancient Egyptian narrative, the Tale of Sinuhe and Mahfouz’s adaptation in The Return of Sinuhe (1941), you see one of the earliest narratives written about return, where someone leaves in exile and always wants to return. He does return in the end. Mahfouz uses the same character and the same details of the journey, but changes the true motive for Sinuhe’s leaving, merging the classical narrative of identity with a 20th-century love story. I felt this triggered something important. The notion of return is clearly very important for this part of the world. In Arabic literature, there is the concept of hijra or migration and there are also travelogues. In the primary Islamic narrative of hijra, leaving ultimately ends in return. I thought the motif of return seems to be at the heart of the concept of migration, which raised the questions: If migration is not permanent, then what? Is there always some kind of return?  

How much do the concepts of return/migration differ in the novels that you are discussing in your book? 

WE: They are pretty different. I divided the book according to different types of return. There are those who should have returned but would not return, those who really wanted to return but could not return, and those who managed to return but returned as different people. For example in one of Naguib Mahfouz‘s short stories, the character really wanted to return from the very beginning. In a novel by Taha Hussein, the main character never wanted to return. It is interesting how he is  negatively portrayed. He stayed in France and ended up dying, after he was morally and socially lost in the land of destination. Other types of return are psychological. In Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights, the main character returns psychologically. She stays in New York, but her mind returns. She eventually imagines that she has returned. In Yemeni wirter Abdul Wali’s novel, the main character dies the night before his return. In Tayeb Saleh’s Season of Migration to the North, Mustafa Said returns and brings the land of diaspora with him back to his homeland. Those are some examples. The reasons for migration differ and also the types of return differ, wether they are cultural, psychological or physical. A failure to return can also mean death, a physical or a cultural death. 

How much of this book do you relate to personally?

Wessam Elmeligi

WE: I feel a lot of writing is impacted by our personal backgrounds, even if some writers deny that. At least your personal experience somehow defines a lot of what you do. Part of my experience involved my reasons for coming to the US. I did not leave because I was estranged. I return almost every summer, and I am in touch with a lot of people in Egypt. I left to learn more and to contribute more. Maybe I left in the spirit of my ancestral cosmopolitanism. This is an important aspect of migration. Current affairs focus on political reasons only, overshadowing other motives. There are economic reasons as well, for instance.  Intellectual reasons for traveling, including curiosity and learning, have motivated migration for centuries. At the same time, I did not find discussion about this kind of immigration a lot around me. There were experiences that I felt did not speak to me the way that I expected. At a certain point, I even thought of return. I go back frequently anyway. I am living this conflict between staying and returning. I think writing is my return.

 Did you leave out some novels that you would have liked to include? 

WE: There were novels that I thought of including, but I had to be very strict with myself. I wanted to focus on novels that had the motif of return. The return had to be very clear. There had to be an attempt to return. Some novels inspired the concept. I looked for the rest. Like I said earlier, I compare Mahfouz to ancient Egyptian literature. The same goes for Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a medieval novel. I searched for other works, and some seemed to encapsulate the questioning of multiple identities, such as Reem Bassiouney’s novel. Some were lesser-known novels, such as Abdul Wali’s novella that tackled different angles, or novels that have not been translated before such as Sonallah Ibrahim’s Amrikanli and Suhayl Idris‘ The Latin Quarter. Some were seminal works, such as the works by Taha Hussein, Tawfiq Al-Hakim, or Yahia Hakki. I’m the director of the new Comparative Literature Certificate at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, so in the past couple of years I’ve been really immersed in reading comparatively about Arabic literature in preparation for the program. My focus in this book is on novels written in Arabic, as opposed to Arab-American novels written in English, or Anglophone and Francophone literature.

While choosing the books you discussed in your new work, did you have a chance to talk with any of the authors you worked on? 

WE: No. I could have with some of them, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to have a chance to offer my perspective as a reader. I wanted to see how their writing impacted me, what they have transferred, actualized, dramatized. An interview would serve a different purpose. It’s not that type of book.

How much does your work as a scholar influence your work as a writer of graphic novels?

WE: When you are a creative writer and at a same time you are a critic or a researcher, you have the advantage to have the ability to put yourself where the writers are. You can understand the writing process. But at the same time, there is always a danger that you want to write that novel that you are reading. You have the privilege to look at the writer and understand what they are doing. Besides, the challenge with the graphic novel is that it is also a visual medium. My two graphic novels focus on diaspora and immigration. One novel is called Y and Y and was named after the initials of my children’s names. It is about two children who wake up in a deserted city. They decide to stay. It is a reaction to immigrating or moving away from the familiar setting of home. My second novel is Jamila. It’s about the journey of an Egyptian woman from Nubia to the US. She eventually decides to return. It’s a graphic novel about return. So you can see that both novels show my preoccupation with this idea somehow.

What were the translation challenges in putting this book together?

WE: Translation was very much a part of this work, and I welcomed the challenge of looking at books that were not translated. It was integral to my research to look at works that were written in Arabic. I am a translator as well and recently I have translated and published Arab Women Poets, which included more than 400 poems. Translating fiction is of course different from translating poetry, because of the narrative flow and how the plot progresses. In poetry, things such as musicality and rhythm, for example, are important. 

When you translate something, you become it. You become very close to it which is very different from writing about it when it is already translated.

In what way is this book connected the overall direction of your research? 

WE: My larger project is looking for a contemporary Arabic literature theory. I’m experimenting specifically with peripheral writing, you know, graphic novels, science fiction, and the like. I’m interested in narratological analysis. Arab writers are master storytellers. I try to highlight that. 

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit