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From Documentary to Fiction – Stories of Lebanese Immigrant Women
By Pauline Homsi-Vinson
Remember Me to Lebanon: Stories of Lebanese Women in America
By Evelyn Shakir
Syracuse University Press, 2007
Those who know of Evelyn Shakir’s writing from her seminal 1997 book, “Bint Arab: Arab and Arab-American Women in the United States,” know her to be a skilled chronicler of the lives of Arab women immigrants and their daughters in America. By recording the words of various women across three generations, beginning with the 19th century, Shakir has given public visibility to the presence of strong, active and well-defined communities of Arab women in America.
The title of Shakir’s new book, “Remember Me to Lebanon: Stories of Lebanese Women in America,” may at first glance suggest a similar effort, with the main difference being an exclusive concentration on women of Lebanese origin living in the United States. While such a book might be interesting, what Shakir presents is even better, as it reveals her ability to carry her documentary skills into the realm of highly dramatic and delightfully nuanced fictional storytelling.
As in “Bint Arab,” so, too, in “Remember Me to Lebanon”: Shakir presents a variegated picture of women of Arab origin and different religious backgrounds living in America in various times and places. Also like “Bint Arab,” “Remember Me to Lebanon” addresses intergenerational conflicts between Lebanese immigrant parents and American-born daughters, as well as cross-cultural tensions between Lebanese immigrants and “mainstream” Americans.
Unlike “Bint Arab,” however, “Remember Me to Lebanon” moves away from strict documentary into the realm of fiction. This shift allows Shakir greater freedom to draw memorable portraits of idiosyncratic, highly animated characters in a series of pithy vignettes.
Throughout this collection, Shakir presents different scenes that focus on the ways in which various women living in America come to grips with their Lebanese origins. Only one story of the 10 speaks from a non-Lebanese point of view. Aptly titled “I Got My Eye on You,” the story deals with the ethnophobia that was exacerbated by the September 11th attacks on the United States. In this story, a non-Lebanese American spies on her Muslim-Lebanese neighbors with growing paranoia about the threat that she imagines to be posed by “the boys with scary eyes.”
Even more impressive than Shakir’s handling of her thematic material is her easy rendering of realistic, flowing dialogue that moves easily between the urban jargon of east coast American cities of the 20’s, to the youthful American speech of the 80’s, and the imported Arabic expressions of Lebanese immigrants and their children.
“Remember Me to Lebanon” is an insightful collection that not only expresses the fullness and complexity of the Lebanese immigrant experience in the United States, but also evokes memorable characters whose very fictional status allows them to emerge in more vibrant and vivid detail than might have been possible in a strictly documentary-style of writing. Having established herself as a capable chronicler of the lives of Arab women in America in “Bint Arab,” Shakir now demonstrates her talent as a skillful storyteller, whose narratives – to use Horace’s oft-repeated dictum – both instruct and delight.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vols. 13/14, nos. 58/59 (2007-2008)
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