Ajnabieh - The Foreigner (ajnabieh) wrote,
Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

Three Arab Diasporic Authors You Should Read

My reading habits are funny. It comes down to two major categories, generally: genre fiction, in particular mystery novels, by white Anglo/American authors, and literary fiction written by Middle Easterners or South Asians, or folks from those diasporas. It's just the way I've been grabbing books lo this past decade. I'm making an effort to branch out, to read more widely; it's not easy, once you get in a rut. I think a lot of people are doing this lately.

So, when talking about this with [personal profile] holyschist, it occurred to me that lots of other people probably shared my desire to read more diversely, but that they probably have their own fixations on certain communities and genres. I thought that I'd make a post, rec some authors I love, and try to encourage more people in their direction. These are all authors I feel passionate about, authors I'd make a point of going to see read, authors whose books I buy when I've got money. They all tell amazing stories, and do it with powerful language and at least a little political edge.

In writing this, I've deliberately left off authors that you probably know of already: Diana Abu Jabber, Naomi Shihab Nye. I've also not mentioned famous Arab authors who don't live in the West: Naguib Mahfouz, Nawal al-Sadaawi, Nizar Qabbani, Salwa Bakr. And I've stuck to Arabs, which means this isn't the place to sing my love of everything that Marjane Satrapi has ever done. Every list has its limits. (But you should feel free to rec authors that you love in the comments! And I may write another post later on another theme.)

Hanan al-Shaykh

During the PEN Festival one year, I saw that Hanan al-Shaykh was on the program, in a 'dialogue' with Salman Rushdie. I squeed like a fangirl, roped my roommate into coming with me, schlepped from Brooklyn to a hotel in Midtown. Rushdie interviewed al-Shaykh, and then chatted about writing and politics. (Both of them are London-based.)

All the audience questions were for Rushdie. After the event, there was a long line of people to get him to sign their books. I was the only person who wanted al-Shaykh to sign something (my copy of The Story of Zahra). She was lovely and polite to a fangirl who couldn't manage a coherent sentence. I was livid on her behalf.

al-Shaykh is one of the many Lebanese authors who began as a novelist of the Civil War; her first novel, The Story of Zahra, focuses on the damage the war did to women's lives in Beirut, and was acclaimed as a seminal feminist novel in the region. Since then, she's consistently pushed boundaries, writing about homosexuality, migration, and always about the complicated and nuanced emotional lives of women.

She's also unique among authors whose work appears in translation in that she works with her translators, at least on her more recent books, to re-edit them in English and make sure that they meet her standards. Arabic to English translations are generally appalling, and frequently cut out huge amounts of text; Ghada Samman's Beirut Nightmares is about 33% longer in Arabic than in English, for instance, and when I did a close-reading retranslation of a section of Story of Zahra my senior year in college for a lit paper, I found that huge chunks of the original text were just...missing. (Note to translators: if you're translating a seminal feminist novel, and a male, misogynist narrator speaks the words "Do you think this makes me a girl?" THAT'S PROBABLY IMPORTANT AND YOU SHOULDN'T CUT IT OUT. F-Y-I.) Even titles change: The book published in English as The Golden Chariot, and which ends with the madwomen from the asylum in the story ascending to heaven in said chariot, is actually called in Arabic al-’Araba al-dhahabiyya la Tas’ad ila-l-Sama, The Golden Chariot Does Not Ascend to Heaven, which IS KIND OF AN IMPORTANT CHANGE. Sorry to go all caps on you, but this is a subject that makes me ranty, given that I'm someone who's major argument is that it's very important to listen, very closely, to what Arabs and Arab-Americans are actually saying, to undo discursive injustices against them. HARD TO DO THAT WHEN THE TRANSLATORS DON'T TRANSLATE RIGHT, Y/N? Anyway, what this means is that al-Shaykh's books are well-translated, and that the language in them is beautiful--and author-approved.

al-Shaykh's most recent book is nonfiction, a biography of her mother. Here is an excerpt from it in the Guardian, and here's a video of her reading from it.

Rabih Alameddine

"I come from the lands of Scheherazade, who could not afford to be dull. Had she not dressed her tales in fineries — oy, vey. In the Lebanese dialect, to embellish is to “salt and pepper” a story, to add spice, so to speak, to make less bland. Without it, one might as well eat Kraft Singles."

--Rabih Alameddine

I will admit that my aesthetic and cultural groundings are in contemporary urban American queer culture; it's where I became an adult, it's where I became an organizer, it's where I mentally locate myself. I think part of my love for Rabih Alameddine is that he shares some of this grounding. I first read his novel Kool-AIDS: The Art of War my freshman year in college, as I worked on a paper about homosexuality and politics in the Middle East. It's a breathtaking, semi-experimental novel about AIDS and the Lebanese Civl War. From that moment, I was hooked. Alameddine is that rare writer who brings together a clear sense of humor, feet very firmly planted in multiple places, and a wonderful sense of language. When he writes about Lebanon, it feels like a Lebanese novel. When he writes about the US, it feels like an American novel. The hybridization that he pulls off is really stunning.

I've read everything of his but The Perv, and I recommend them all without reservation. Each is very different. KoolAIDS is very much an AIDS novel, one firmly located in the art scene of the 80s and 90s, as well as in civil war era Beirut. An image from it has always stuck with me: the HIV+ and very famous artist protagonist has sex with a one night stand; in the morning, the guy is freaked out that he had sex with someone who was positive, even though the protagonist had disclosed last night, and they had had safe sex. So the protagonist goes out and gets HIV+ tattooed on his chest...and then an art magazine wants to do a story about it. It's such a realistic story, and so incredibly communicative about the character in question. (Whose name I have forgotten. Dammit.)

I, the Divine is a novel in first chapters. Literally: the narrator, Sarah, keeps trying to write her memoir, and never gets further than the first chapter. She tells stories, sometimes over and over again, revealing more and more about herself each time; there's a chapter she tries to write when she's drunk and weepy; there's her constant redefinition of herself in each iteration. It's a novel about trying to find your authentic self, in a world where authenticity isn't really possible. It's a novel where the last first chapter really has taken you somewhere--and also feels like it needs a chapter two to follow it. It's a mindblowing technical feat. And a brilliant novel. It's probably the most accessible of his works; I recommended it to my mother for her book group, for instance.

The Hakawati, his most recent novel, is...epic. There's no word but epic. There's no concept other than epicness that covers this. The only book I can think of to compare it to is The Satanic Verses; both of them feature a modern-day story interlocked with a rearticulation of mythological story. As I said when I reviewed it for 50_books_poc, "This is a book where you realize, seven hundred pages in, that the major features of one of its central plot lines has been used to set up, of all things, a Heather Has Two Mommies joke, set in medieval Baghdad. It's a book where there are rainbow colored imps named after the major prophets of the Bible, who turn into extremely gay parrots and bother the royal classes in the interest of demonry everywhere. It's a book of prostitutes who find their husbands at shrines and then go on to conquer cities, basically for fun. And it's a book about Osama al-Kharrat, successful architecht, flying back to Beirut from his home in Los Angeles to visit his father as he is dying, the story of his grandfather, a hakawati (storyteller), and of his childhood. It is all of these things, and I cannot tell you which one of these is most important, because it is sometimes all of them on a single page."

I'd probably say, if pressed, that Rabih Alameddine is my favorite writer. His works are very close to my heart.

This site supposedly contains a reading Alameddine did from The Hakawati, but I can't get it to play. In the meantime, here he is in a clip from an interview:

You can read at least part of The Hakawati at Random House's page for it. And several of his books have previews on Google Books.

Mohja Kahf

Marshmallows are banned
from my little mosque
because they might
contain gelatin derived from pork enzymes
but banality is not banned,
and yet verily,
banality is worse than marshmallows

--Little Mosque Poems

Mohja Kahf is a brilliant writer. She's a
sex-positive angry feminist muhajjaba English professor, which is one of those word-jumbles most people think is impossible. Her poems are breathtaking; her prose is moving. She is also--and you can't discount this--hilarious. I saw her perform at a conference once, and she brought down the house, between a supremely dirty poem about dishwashing and the story of a young Egyptian con woman extorting hundreds of dollars from a secular humanist meeting in the Midwest.

I have her novel, Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, sitting on my to-read pile right now. I'm frustrated that Muslim WakeUp, home to her column, Sex and the Umma, which was mostly short fiction on sex in Muslim communities, appears to have disappeared off the internet, both because it was awesome as a site and because I wish I could link you to her prose. But here and here are some of her poems, and if you scroll down to the bottom of this column, there's the PDF of an interview with her that republishes one of her stories.

And this is her performing. OK, I wept like a baby watching it.

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Tags: literature

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