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Volume 56, Number 2March/April 2005

In This Issue

Of Stories and Storytellers
Written by Lisa Suhair Majaj
Photographed by Lorraine Chittock

Author Profiles
Author Profiles

It started small, as most things do. In the 1980’s, anthropologist, journalist and broadcaster Barbara Nimri Aziz was the only member of the famously influential John O. Killens writing workshop in Brooklyn who wasn’t African-American. After Killens’s death in 1987, Aziz recalls thinking, “Surely Arab writers also need the same privacy to discuss their personal and historical issues freely.” Two years later, she began interviewing writers for her weekly radio show “Tahrir: Voices of the Arab World” on Pacifica–WBAI. Her experience convinced her there were enough Arab writers in the United States to “form a club of some sort.”

So at the 1992 American–Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) convention, Aziz posted a flier announcing a meeting to explore the idea. Five people showed up, including journalist Leila Diab, and, informally at least, the “Arab Writers Group usa” had its start. “I still maintain there are not that many of us, but the way news is rolling in, I wonder,” wrote Aziz in one of the group’s first mailings.

She didn’t have to wonder for long. At the ADC meeting the next year, 14 people gathered in what was widely considered a foundational meeting. In the spring of 1994, the group adopted a name suggested by poet Mohja Kahf: “Radius of Arab–American Writers, Incorporated,” or RAWI (which means “storyteller” in Arabic). Soon there were more than 50 members. In late 1996, led by Aziz, RAWI formally incorporated and a board of directors was convened comprised of a dozen writers, poets, editors, translators and critics—and one attorney. The new board voted in writer and artist Etel Adnan as president and Aziz as vice-president. (Today Adnan still holds that title; Aziz is executive director.) To poet Khaled Mattawa, Aziz has long been “the main fixture” for RAWI. “Her endurance has kept the organization surfacing,” he says.

RAWI’s mission, Adnan wrote in her first letter as president, is “to be a gathering nucleus, a catalyst for creative energies, a starting point for more creativity.” That these creative energies have borne fruit is clear. A members’ anthology, A Different Path, appeared in 2000, co-edited by Diab and poet D. H. Melhem. Since 2001 RAWI has held an annual writing workshop at the ADC convention, and since 2002 it has sponsored an annual creative nonfiction contest initiated by Alice Nashashibi. Links to the Arab world have included delegations to the 2002 opening of the new Alexandria Library in Egypt and the 2003 Arab Writers’ Union con- vention in Algiers; last year Adnan addressed the Union of Moroccan Writers. RAWI’s own first nationwide meeting is planned for this June, and its current membership hovers around 150.

RAWI’s most substantial accomplishment, however, is its newsletter (“a virtual living room,” says Mattawa), published three times a year. First produced by nonfiction writers Ron David and Jean Bond, it was recently turned over to critic Stephen Salaita. Over the years it has grown to 12 pages of information on publications, competitions and workshops as well as member interviews and discussions of themes in the field. Salaita’s goal is “extensive interchange,” and to foster this, he hopes to see a RAWI Web site soon. There is, he says, a “general lack of meritocratic snobbery” among RAWI members. “Well-known writers and scholars were always willing to help me when I was a student by answering questions, responding to e-mails and being extremely generous with time and ideas. Rawi should help ensure that our community never loses this spirit.”

Rawi’s Goals

  • Provide a support network for professional writers.
  • Link writers in the United States with colleagues in the Arab world.
  • Encourage writing among Arab–American youth.

Before RAWI, Arab–American writers were almost entirely invisible on the broader American literary scene, and they were just as invisible to each other. They could take for granted neither receptive audiences nor a supportive literary context. True, the early 1900’s saw mahjar (“immigrant”) writing in both Arabic and English in the United States, and in 1920 a literary organization, Al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya—“The Pen League”—was established. (Although short-lived, this group is still invoked as a model by US-based writers working in Arabic.) But the main impact of the mahjar writing was on Arabic, not American, literature. Immigration quotas, xenophobia and economic struggles all hampered the development of Arab–American creative writing in English. Despite the success of individual authors such as novelist Vance Bourjaily, most English-language texts revealed the pressure on authors to ignore or distance themselves from their Arab identity. As critic, translator and anthologist Salma Khadra Jayyusi notes, between the mahjar period and the reemergence of Arab–American writing in the 1970’s there was “a very clear discontinuity.”

Four historical events set the stage for RAWI. First, the civil rights movement of the 1960’s opened new spaces for immigrant and ethnic literary voices and made possible the so-called “hyphenated genres” of literature: African-American, Asian-American, Jewish-American, Italian-American and others. Then, second-generation Arab–Americans, economically and linguistically better positioned to follow cultural pursuits than their immigrant parents, turned increasingly to literature as their form of ethnic self-expression. This coincided with the third event: the arrival after 1960 of well-educated, often politically astute Arab immigrants. Fourth, various international political crises in the Middle East forced Arab–Americans to grapple with their identity and the “write or be written” imperative: Define yourself or others will define you.

The Arab–American writing that emerged reflected both ethnic affirmation and politics. In 1982, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon deeply affected the Arab–American community, and a small booklet of poetry called Wrapping the Grape Leaves: A Sheaf of Contemporary Arab American Poets, edited by Gregory Orfalea, was published by ADC. The expansion of this collection in 1988 to a full-length anthology (Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab–American Poetry, co-edited by Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa) was groundbreaking. Brought together between the covers of this book, Arab–American writers began to realize that they constituted a community. As Boston writer and critic Evelyn Shakir observes, “In the early 1980’s, I don’t think such writers necessarily thought of themselves as ‘Arab–American writers.’ …These days they and those who follow in their footsteps are almost forced to identify themselves in this way, or else explain why they refuse that label.”

Then came the 1991 Gulf War. Arab–American authors had faced political difficulties before, and Aziz insists that the political climate of the time did not play a direct role in the genesis of RAWI. But something about the time was ripe. Playwright Kathryn Haddad, who in 1999 founded the literary journal Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America, recalls that prior to RAWI she had searched in vain for an Arab–American literary forum and, in its absence, had joined an Asian-American group. Rawi, she says, affirmed that “there was someone else out there.” And it made her feel that Mizna would someday be possible, too.

Although RAWI’s inception also coincided with the advent of the Internet, its growth as an organization has taken place largely outside cyberspace. But it reached writers. Egyptian–American Pauline Kaldas recalls her first encounter with the RAWI newsletter: “I remember looking at it in astonishment,” she says. Until that moment, “who I was and what I wrote about was not something I saw reflected in the world around me.”

The sense of community that RAWI both represented and encouraged has built self-confidence and provided what Adnan calls “implicit encouragement.” D. H. Melhem comments, “When a climate of acceptance and creative ferment becomes conscious of itself, it tends to promote that atmosphere and augment its elements, like a kind of magnetic field. So it would not be extravagant to say that RAWI has served to encourage the production of Arab– American writing.” Elmaz Abinader puts it succinctly: “I feel like I have an international posse because of RAWI.”

New On the Shelf

In addition to the “Recent Works” listed with RAWI members’ portraits and comments, the following are other notable publications by members.

  • Scheherazade’s Legacy: Arab and Arab–American Women on Writing, Susan Muaddi Darraj, 2004
  • West of the Jordan, Laila Halaby, 2003
  • The Cairo House, Samia Serageldin, 2003
  • I, The Divine: A Novel in First Chapters, Rabih Alameddine, 2002
  • The Alchemist’s Diary, Hayan Charara, 2001
  • Off Keck Road, Mona Simpson, 2001
  • Ghost Songs: A Palestinian Love Story, Kathryn Abdul-Baki, 2000

The network has also enabled authors to imagine at last a culturally informed readership. Kaldas calls it “an ideal audience”—one comprised not just of Arab–Americans, but of everyone who understands multicultural issues. Indeed, Arab–American writers repeatedly cite as their models authors who depict multicultural complexities: James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Irena Klepfisz, Sandra Cisneros and Jhumpa Lahiri; Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou; Louise Erdrich and Maxine Hong Kingston. These and others have inspired RAWI members with what author Diana Abu-Jaber calls “the courage to believe that there was room and openness for different sorts of stories.”

Such models are particularly important to Arab–American women writers, who confront dual stereotypes of culture and gender even as they dominate Arab–American letters and make up some 60 percent of RAWI’s membership. Aziz notes that for the most part, Arab–American women “are driven, as are women of color everywhere, by political motives, to speak against stereotypes, to ‘set the record straight.’” But the catch is that in a stereotype-laden context, writing that is culturally self-critical may be taken as reinforcing negative cultural images—bad cultural pr. It’s a problem confronted by ethnic writers generally; for women, the dual burden of both cultural and gender ambassadorship creates a heightened self-consciousness that can chill intellectual exploration.

Yet such burdens can also have upsides. Abinader contends that Arab–American women writers “are getting more attention than male writers because…Arab men are still unsettling figures to the American sensibility.” Playwright Betty Shamieh observes that “it was easier for me to become a writer because I am a woman, and, in my family and in many immigrant families, there is much more pressure upon men to be breadwinners and go into more stable fields.”

One of the hot-button issues in RAWI concerns the definition of the genre. Does anything written by an Arab– American qualify per se, or is “Arab–American writing” restricted to Arab–American themes? Some, like Shakir, cannot understand “why work that does not address the Arab–American experience should be labeled ‘Arab–American.’” Others, like Kahf, are of two minds: While the category “Arab– American” is useful and important, writing should be judged not simply on the basis of ethnicity, but of quality.

And within the contested genre, how “Arab” and how “American” are “Arab–American” writers? Some note that Arab–American participation in Arab culture is necessarily limited—sometimes drastically—by language, geography and experience. Others urge Arab–Americans to strengthen their ties to the Arab world: Jayyusi, director of the Project of Translation from the Arabic (PROTA), which translates Arabic literature into English, insists, “We need to make our voice heard in America, not just as writers in English, but also as ambassadors of a great and rich culture.” But for Mattawa, whose work is rich with Arabic cadences and allusions that are conjoined to English rhythms—“the Qur’an, folktales, history, Arabic poetry…Hopkins’s ‘sprung rhythm,’ jazz syncopation”—the more urgent task is to take stock of, and assert a claim to, the American context by enriching the dialogue among Arab–Americans’ diverse influences.

As writers explore these influences, other kinds of dialogues emerge that cross artistic and ethnic lines. New York writer Suheir Hammad, for instance, is best known lately for her role as co-writer and performer in the 2003 Tony Award-winning Broadway show and HBO series “Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.” Drawing on music from sources as varied as jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, Egyptian singer Um Kulthum and Raï star Cheb Mami, Hammad voices her deep solidarities with other peoples of color. As she puts it, “The marginalized always make these connections. Always.”

For Joanna Kadi, editor of the 1994 landmark feminist anthology Food for Our Grandmothers, one way to view Arab–American writing is as one form of cultural work amid the other arts, all of which link Arab–Americans to other historically oppressed communities. Kadi, who is also a writer, musician, artist and activist, sees such work as both critical and celebratory. When she first started writing, she admits, it was out of a sense of duty: to explain oppression. But although she remains grounded in her identity, she now writes “because it’s fun and creative, because of love and connection and community, because of being such a verbal Arab and needing somewhere to put all those words and ideas!”

Clearly, the more writers can take for granted a supportive community, the more free they are to follow independent creative paths. For poet David Williams, “knowing that others are out there, working on similar material, is liberating. One can be relieved of feeling the burden of always needing to explain everything.” Chicago playwright Jamil Khoury, co-founder of the Silk Road Theater Project, concurs, noting that a community context makes it easier to explore individual experiences instead of “feeling pressured to somehow represent ‘all’ Arab–Americans, or represent us only in a certain light.”

Khoury’s work is indicative of what Elie Chalala, editor of Al-Jadid: A Review and Record of Arab Culture and Arts, sees as the increasing openness of Arab–American writers. Al-Jadid means “the new” in Arabic, and Chalala, who established the journal in 1995 as a forum dedicated to Arab and Arab– American culture and the affirmation of intellectual freedom, has a particular interest in writing that challenges authoritarian structures. A decade of reviewing and publishing Arab– American writing has convinced him that this literature is becoming thematically more daring. For example, he says, authors now tackle “even topics that cannot be brought into the open in some Arab societies.” Shakir agrees, noting that Arab–American writing reflects “an increased willingness to move beyond nostalgia and celebration and to present a more complex and nuanced rendering of the Arab–American community.”

Haddad observes also that Arab– American writers, both immigrants and American-born, focus on “international politics, or on racial politics… that have to do with international politics” to a greater extent than other “hyphenated” American artists. Given the cold shoulder mainstream literary journals typically give such political writing, Mizna, she says, provides an important forum.

Finally, there are those authors for whom ethnicity is but one facet of their literary persona. Naomi Shihab Nye, one of the leading American poets who is no less beloved as an Arab– American author, is as well-known for her writing about the American Southwest as for her Arab-themed work. Novelist Mona Simpson, author of four critically acclaimed books, rarely draws on her Arab–American ethnicity at all.

Since 9/11, less seems to have changed than one might expect. As poet and anthologist Nathalie Handal notes, “The challenges are the same—marginalization, exclusion and so forth.” What is needed, says Nye, is to “speak honestly without growing exhausted,” to be what Aziz calls “a long-distance runner”—one focused on “issues of craft and writing as a profession.” Arab–American writers are now confronting the same difficulties shared by all other writers, most notably the shrinking publication market caused by concentration in the publishing and bookselling industries. Activist Arab– American writers share much with activist writers in general—Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forché and others— and like them, they write to confront violence, address inequities and bear witness to our times.

As for future literary directions, the watchwords seem to be diversity and courage. Kahf calls for expansion into new genres: science fiction, children’s fantasy, romance, corporate crime, action and murder mysteries. Meanwhile, Patricia Ward urges writers to “write what they believe in,…not what they think they’re ‘supposed’ to write.” Ward, whose first novel dealt with the emotional impact of the Lebanese civil war and the disjunctions of exile, notes that her next work is a fantasy epic. After reaching a point of despair in writing about the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, she says, it came to her that “if you start in another world, the reader cannot possibly have any preconceptions.”

As Arab–American authors weave their ever-expanding stories, they affirm the community that sustains them. For Aziz, as for others, RAWI’s main contribution has been to inspire people “to press ahead with their dreams to write.” After all, says Nye, “it’s a thin veneer, those headlines, but books, stories, poems, music, art—that’s where we feel at home.”

Lisa Suhair Majaj

Lisa Suhair Majaj
Nicosia, Cyprus

Recent works: These Words (chapbook), 2003; Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab–American Writer and Artist (co-editor), 2002; Intersections: Gender, Nation and Community in Arab Women’s Novels (co-editor), 2002; Going Global: The Transnational Reception of Third World Women Writers (co-editor), 2000.

Favorite writers: Naomi Shihab Nye, David Williams, Maxine Hong Kingston, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Hegi, Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forché, Toni Morrison—and more.

Quote: In difficult times, poets and writers have always provided lifelines. How lucky we are today to have such an expanding array of Arab–American literary voices. As a writer, I feel personally enriched by this growing community. As a critic and scholar, I marvel at what is unfolding before my eyes. And I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Photo: Marian Adamou Violaris

Lorraine Chittock Lorraine Chittock (www.cats.camels.com) grew up between England and the United States, which taught her much about biculturalism. She is now traveling around the us with her dogs, Dog and Bruiser, while writing her next book. “Nomadism is not an escape from society, but a return to natural rhythms deeply imbedded into us.” Photo: Troy Snow

This article appeared on pages 24-35 of the March/April 2005 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 2005 images.