19 March 2003
A new ethnic literature is attracting growing attention in the United States. Arab-American writers and poets are carving out a new role in the nation's literature, just as African-American, Asian-American and Latino writers did in years past. But as international tensions mount, these writers also face a special set of challenges.
When Diana Abu Jaber began to write a story about an Iraqi-American chef, inspired partly by the lively group of Iraqi students she'd met as a college teacher. She wanted to mix humor and romance with serious questions about cultural identity questions that have always interested her as a writer of Jordanian-American descent. But after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Ms. Abu Jaber wondered if she should keep writing her book.
"I was thrown into a kind of despair, and I thought, people aren't going to want to read this book," she said. "This is not appropriate any more. And I spoke with a number of friends, American friends who all said to me, 'No, please, finish the book. We need to hear this story, perhaps now more than ever.' And that was what gave me the courage to keep going."
The book, called Crescent, has just been published. And while Diana Abu Jaber believes she and other Arab-American writers are attracting more attention these days, she says it isn't always positive.
"Sometimes people want me to speak from certain political perspectives or they're kind of accusatory," Diana Abu Jaber said. "I feel like the actions of a few extremists have unfortunately come to represent in many peoples' minds the whole culture, so I've wanted to be one of the many alternate voices out there, so people can see the diversity and complexity and beauty of the Arab culture."
These pressures come at a time when the Arab-American literary community is growing bigger, more visible and more active. Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye says she's seen a huge change in the past few decades.
"Part of it is related to the fact that we have discovered one another around the country," Naomi Shihab Nye said. "There's a much stronger sense of family among Arab-American writers than there was when I was just getting out of college, for example, at which time I didn't know a single other one."
Many Arab-American writers are poets, a reflection of the cherished position poetry has held in Arab culture. Gregory Orfalea, who's of Lebanese and Syrian descent, co-edited Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab American Poetry.
"Anyone who's visited the Arab world finds out very quickly that it [poetry] is used in public ceremonies and private grievings," said Gregory Orfalea. "Always a poem is read at a burial. You see it at political rallies, evening feasts. I think it must go back to the oral traditions that started in the Arabian peninsula. Poetry was always a touchstone for meaning."
Gregory Orfalea believes that with its emphasis on feelings and personalities, it's a poetry that can enrich the rest of American literature.
"Arab poetry is passionate poetry, very people-obsessed," he explained. "There's bakers, uncles, aunts, barbers, everyone from a local village society that is discussed in it. Arab-American poetry is very people-obsessed and maybe we can do more to populate, or help populate poetry."
But Arab-American writers are also drawing on sources outside their community.
Exotic is one of the poems Suheir Hammad recites when she appears in Russell Simmons' 'Def Poetry Jam' on Broadway.
"Don't want to be your exotic. Women everywhere look just like me…" read Suheir Hammad. "Some taller, darker, nicer than me. But like me just the same. Women everywhere carry my nose on their faces, my name on their spirits. Don't seduce yourself with my otherness. The beat of my lashes against each other ain't some dark desert beat, it's just a blink."
Now 29, Suheir Hammad was born in a Palestinian refugee camp. But she was raised among Latinos and African-Americans in New York City.
"I am definitely a child of the hip hop generation. I grew up in and around the culture in 1980s Brooklyn [New York]," Suheir Hammad said. "And like everything else in my childhood, hip hop absolutely influences the choice of vernacular and the rhythm of my writing."
Suheir Hammad is also deeply affected by the heritage of her Palestinian parents.
"My parents' experience of dislocation has definitely entered the body of my work," she said. "And my parents spoke Arabic at home, and I have a real love for the Arabic language, the music of it, and the deep meaning of it."
An expanding circle of women writers is shaping Arab-American literature. Elie Chalala edits Al Jadid, a journal of Arab-American culture based in Los Angeles. He says the focus of that literature has shifted in recent years from politics to more intimate concerns.
"Many Arab-American writers, particularly women, were very daring to start dealing with autobiographical questions, personal questions with family, sexuality, other issues," he said. "And of course it was made possible because they were writing in this country."
It's hard to ignore politics in the current political climate, and poets like Naomi Shihab Nye have written numerous works on topical themes. But her poems focus on the human toll taken by the Arab Israeli conflict, or on individual responses to the September eleventh attacks, or, as in a poem called Red Brocade, the gentle lessons that can be learned from Arab hospitality.
"The Arabs used to say when a stranger appears at your door, feed him for 3 days before asking who he is, where he's come from, where he's headed," she said. "That way he'll have strength enough to answer, or by then you'll be such good friends, you don't care. Let's go back to that, right? Pine Nuts? Here. Take the Red Brocade pillow. Your plate is waiting. We will snip fresh mint into your tea."
Naomi Shihab Nye says she hopes Arab-American literature will eventually become just another one of the many ethnic strains in American literature collection of poems, stories and dramas colored by a distinct heritage that speaks to everyone.