Reconfiguring the Scholarship on Arab American Transnational Literature

Contemporary Arab-American Literature: Transnational Reconfigurations of Citizenship and Belonging
By Carol Fadda-Conrey
New York: NYU Press, 2014.

By Theri Pickens

Scholars familiar with Arab-American studies – literature in particular – waited anxiously for a critical text that promised to "conceive homes and homelands as constantly changing and evolving entities that are configured and redrawn based on individual and communal positionalities and outlooks." Within Arab-American letters, notions of national belonging and citizenship "defies the hegemonic classification of minority bodies in the US according to restrictive trajectories of national, ethnic, and racial inclusions and exclusions." For this reason, Carol Fadda–Conrey's "Contemporary Arab American Literature: Transnational Reconfigurations of Citizenship and Belonging," is a long awaited treasure. This text amplifies and expands the scholarship regarding Arab-American notions of citizenship. In so doing, the author provides a much-needed compendium to existing scholarship and already lively conversation.

Rather than proceed in strict chronological order, this book provides a constellation of readings that reimagine the nature of transnational relationships. The introduction covers well-worn ground in defining the limited term "Arab-American" as well as a brief history of Arab-American literary production in the United States. For those well-versed in Arab-American studies, this material may appear redundant but it is integral to Fadda-Conrey’s ensuing discussion (and will be useful for readers for whom this is the first critical look at Arab-American literature). The first chapter, “Reimagining the Ancestral Arab Homeland,” challenges the conception of Arab homelands as fixed in the minds of second and third generation Arab Americans. Fadda-Conrey argues that these authors destabilize the nostalgia mediated by older generations. She continues this discussion in the second chapter by focusing on the shifting, gendered, geo-political aspects of transnational movements. She argues that female protagonists revise the conception of Arab American identity itself. Their notions of home are neither as stereotypical nor as stable as one might claim or seek to believe. In the third chapter “The Translocal Connections between the US and the Arab World,” Fadda-Conrey develops the idea of the translocal, which she understands as useful for theorizing about the specificity of place and space when thinking through transnational connections. The local remains constitutive of the global, in other words. The final chapter examines literature about 9/11, Arabs, and Muslims, positing that various authors clarify the necessity of transnational notions of citizenship in order to understand Arab-American critiques of the US body politic.

At a theoretical level, "Contemporary Arab American Literature," evinces sophistication in thinking about the role of transnational affiliation. Thus far, scholarship has devoted itself to pointing out the places where transnational identities exist and investigating the various strategies deployed to negotiate the hyphen between Arab and American. In Fadda-Conrey’s analysis, authors and artists do not merely move back and forth, but also transform spaces and ideology. For instance, the author’s reading Annemarie Jacir’s "Salt of this Sea" (2008) places a particular emphasis on the protagonist’s demands for recognition. Fadda-Conrey leaves room for the ambiguity that a discrepancy between “exiled Palestinian returnees and those who remained behind after 1948 and 1967” creates while pointing out the privilege that inheres in such an exchange. Here, the author theorizes about how settler colonialism forecloses multiple possibilities regarding the right of return (i.e., through arrest) and proffers unexpected avenues (i.e., the protagonist’s use of her US citizenship to get into Jerusalem). In her development of the translocal, Fadda-Conrey’s discussion of Rabih Alameddine’s "I, the Divine” gestures toward the protagonist’s ambivalence as an indication that characters are not caught between two poles, but rather centering two specific geo-political spaces that are “local” to them.

Most novel, Fadda-Conrey’s book offers a widened definition of literature, which includes film and art in its deliberations. Some critics might complain that this mixture leaves little room for the consideration of genre and collapses significant differences between conversations in poetry, fiction, drama, film, and fine arts. However, I would reframe that objection to emphasize the author’s implicit argument that all of these works speak to the issue of transnational negotiation. This represents the hallmark of interdisciplinary study: binding together the conversations about literature, film, history, and fine arts. In fact, Fadda–Conrey's analysis of fine arts and film by Arab-American artists uniquely repositions this art from the margin to the center of a conversation. This alone makes the book worth studying. Moreover, Fadda-Conrey anticipates the arguments of those inclined to read these artists and authors simplistically. Her acknowledgments and rebuttals of those interpretations buttress the idea that each genre of art participates in a larger conversation.

"Contemporary Arab American Literature's” chapters include multiple objects of inquiry. Each chapter offers no less than three works of literature and at least two other media under discussion. I can understand why one may consider this a misstep in an otherwise sophisticated and complex discussion. It leaves little room for depth in the way of close analysis on the various texts. Nonetheless, the varied material provides a starting point for discussing other aspects of those texts. To be clear, Fadda-Conrey's book intends to theorize, not necessarily provide a comprehensive reading of the texts in question. More to the point, having a plethora of texts under discussion functions as approbation of her point: that Arab-American literature (broadly defined) questions the easiness with which people define Arab home and American homeland.

Fadda-Conrey’s critical text fits easily into the recent upsurge of critical texts on Arab-American life. "Contemporary Arab American Literature" is in direct conversation with Syrine Hout’s "Post-War Anglophone Lebanese Fiction" (Edinburgh 2012). Readers interested in thinking through the exigencies of gender, belonging, and representation would want to read Nadine Naber’s "Arab America" (NYU Press 2012), and Evelyn Alsultany’s "Arabs and Muslims in the Media" (NYU Press 2012). Those who wish to pick up the threads of race and citizenship should examine Sarah M.A. Gualtieri’s "Between Arab and White" (University of California Press 2009) and Wail Hassan’s "Immigrant Narratives" (Oxford 2014). It is a rich and exciting moment in critical discussion about Arab-American life, indeed. 

This review will appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 19, No. 68. 

© Copyright 2014  AL JADID MAGAZINE