The Hyphenated Author: Emerging Genre of 'Arab-American Literature' Poses Questions of Definition, Ethnicity and Art by Lisa Suhair Majaj

Lisa Suhair Majaj

Is there an Arab-American literature? On the face of it, the question seems a simple one. Of course there is Arab-American literature, if what is meant by this is poetry and prose by American authors of Arab descent. It is true that we have not produced as much literature as other ethnic groups, even accounting for the small size of our population. But writing by Arab-Americans would appear, to the casual observer, to be proliferating.

For evidence, one might point toward two anthologies, “Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab American Poetry,” and “Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists.” One might mention special issues of journals focusing on Arab-American writing (such as the forthcoming issue of Jusoor) as well as the newly inaugurated journal, Mizna, dedicated entirely to Arab-Americans. And one might note the new books that appear with growing frequency from established and new Arab-American authors alike.

The question, however, is not whether there are Arab-American writers, but whether there is such a thing as Arab-American literature–whether, that is, there is some “Arab-American” essence defining and binding together individual texts as part of a larger whole. To raise this question points toward a broader contestation over what it means to be Arab-American.

The Arab-American community, shaped by a century-long history of migration, is remarkably diverse. It includes third and fourth generation Americans as well as recent immigrants; people from different countries and different religious denominations; those who speak no Arabic and who speak no English; people who identify primarily with the “Arab” side of their heritage and those who identify primarily with the “American” side. This diversity complicates assessment of what constitutes “Arab-American” identity.  

At the present time there are two main viewpoints: The first view that Arab-American identity is in essence a transplanted Arab identity, turning upon a preservation of Arab culture, maintenance of the Arab language, involvement in Middle Eastern politics, and a primary relationship to the Arab world. From this perspective, attenuation of “Arab” characteristics and involvement may be taken as representing a betrayal of Arab heritage and hence of Arab-American identity. The second view, however, is that Arab-American identity is intrinsically American and should be understood in relation to the American context and American frameworks of assimilation and multiculturalism. From this perspective, the process of ethnogenesis, the creation of something new and different out of the conjunction of Arab and American cultures, is central to Arab-American identity.

Of course, these perspectives are not necessarily opposed: many Arab-Americans engage in political activism on Arab issues and preserve Arab culture in their lives while also seeking integration into the American context. But there tends to be a discernible orientation toward one or the other side of the hyphen.

This tension over identification similarly informs literary discussions. For some, “Arab-American literature” involves a project of cultural translation, in which literary works (usually written in English, although there is another discussion to be had about Arab-American literature in Arabic) celebrate and convey “Arab” themes and sentiments to readers in the U.S. From this perspective, texts which depict “non-Arab” topics, or topics considered taboo in Arab culture (such as homosexuality) may be judged as not really Arab and hence not really Arab-American.

For others, “Arab-American literature” is an American literature, but one which takes as its specific goal the exploration of ethnicity. From this perspective, “Arab-American” texts are those which portray the immigrant experience in the U.S. and/or the conflicts experienced by second and third generation Arab-Americans. Texts that address issues other than these, that are set in non-U.S. contexts (whether in the Middle East or in altogether different locales) or that fail to include identifiable “ethnic” content may be viewed as not really Arab-American literature.

The desire to define “Arab-American literature” through specific thematic content is understandable. As Arab-Americans we have always been largely invisible – when we’re not being targeted and demonized.   Arab-American literature has been doubly invisible, partly because there is not a great deal of it, partly because of the lack of recognized categories to make it visible. (The fact that Arabs are legally defined as “white” – without, however, receiving the benefits such mainstream identification ought to bring – has not helped matters.) In response, critics have sometimes sought to delineate “Arab” or “ethnic” qualities in texts, pointing toward such things as the cultural valence accorded family ties, the intrinsically “Arab” valuation of poetry, and the focus of tragedies and war in the Middle East.

But such approaches, while important, do not account for writers who identify as Arab-American, but whose work does not treat recognizably “ethnic” or “Arab” themes. Consider, for instance, novelist Mona Simpson, poet Samuel Hazo, and naturalist Gary Paul Nabhan – authors of some renown, whose work touches only tangentially on “Arab” or “ethnic” themes. These writers identify themselves as Arab-American. But is their writing part of Arab-American literature, or not?  

Or consider authors who do address recognizably “Arab” and “ethnic” material, but only in part of their work. Although Naomi Shihab Nye, for instance, is one of the most prominent Arab-American writers today, much of her work does not treat recognizably “Arab-American” topics. Indeed, in 1991 Gregory Orfalea observed that out of the poems in Nye’s (at that time) three published collections, only nine percent contained “recognizably Arab or Palestinian content.”

Similarly, while poets Lawrence Joseph and David Williams often address identifiably “Arab” themes, a significant portion of their work treats completely different themes and locales. There are, to be sure, internal connections that link the work of each of these authors: a characteristic stance, a way of looking at the world. But these connections are not always overt, and not always “ethnic.”  

In the case of such writers, should only that part of their work that is recognizably “Arab” be characterized as “Arab-American,” while other parts of their literary oeuvre are excluded? And given the lack of consensus among Arab-Americans over what constitutes Arab-American identity, who should be charged with the authority to make these distinctions?

It may be too premature to arrive at an answer to these questions. But a few comments may nonetheless be made. Although I have a critical interest in ethnic literary “signposts,” I believe that passing judgment on Arab-American literature on the basis of content is inadvisable. Writers are not simply spokespeople for their communities; they are artists. Their goal is not to produce sociology or ideology, but literature.

At the same time, writers of course are affected by, and write out of, their identity and experience. Texts by Arab-American authors that on the surface have nothing to do with “Arab” or “ethnic” themes may, upon closer examination, reflect the impress of ethnicity. Italian-American critic Fred Gardaphe has argued that “the challenge to contemporary American writers of Italian descent will be deciding not so much where their loyalties as intellectuals lie [in speaking for their Italian heritage or seeking a place in American culture as artists] but how to fashion an identity as artists out of influences provided by both Italian and American cultures.”   Much the same is true, I would argue, for Arab-American writers, as they fashion their artistic identities out of Arab and American influences.  

So is there an Arab-American literature? I believe there is. But despite its century-long history, it is still an emergent literature. Like Arab-Americans themselves, Arab-American texts are part of Arab culture, part of American culture, and part of something still in the process of being created. Arab-American writers write out of their Arab identity, out of their American identity and out of the identity produced when these two cultures come together. The art that results is Arab-American because it arises from the experience of Arab-Americans–personal or public, “ethnic” or not.

This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol.5, No. 26, Winter 1999.

Copyright © 1999 by Al Jadid

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