This is a compilation of poetry, fiction, essays and drama confronting issues in Arab American writing.
Post Gibran: Anthology of New Arab American Writing
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Anthologies tend to abide by certain spoken and unspoken rules. From the Greek word, anthologein (“flower gathering”), anthologies tend to gather the greatest hits of a specific genre or theme and often rely on a rather exclusive canon from which to pluck their blooms. Given the increasing economic pressures in the publishing world, anthologies also have tended to opt for commercially safe, “representative” gatherings of the usual literary suspects. At the same time, the poetry world has also recently witnessed a proliferation of theme-based anthologies.
Post Gibran, a collection of recent Arab American writing, appears to buck the rules of both the canonical and the commercial anthologies. Multi-generational and multi-genre, Post Gibran is more a poetics of Arab American writing than a collection of museum pieces. Editors Akash and Mattawa worked against the rules of the anthology game by actively soliciting “new and previously unpublished works…writing that confronted issues Arab-American writers have not tackled in the past.” Moreover, they “encouraged cross-genre experiments. We asked poets to send us their experiments in fictions, essayists their attempts at drama or a screenplay, and so on. Changes in form, we felt, are important signifiers of changes both in subject matter and tactics.” The editorial strategy counters the immigrant tendency to narrow and reify the histories and present realities of the Old Countr(ies).
The resulting collection is full of surprises: a mosaic of novel fragments, essays, manifestoes, short stories, and memoirs, all of which reflect on and propose ways of writing Arab-American experience. Many of the selections confront the experience of liminal subjectivity, the riddle of dual identity-people who are read as “Arab” by Americans, and “American” by Arabs. Elmaz Abinader’s “Sixty Minutes” and Kathryn Abdul-Baki’s “Ghost Song” document the inner conflicts over negotiating divided identity. Both involve what we might term “checkpoint scenes”-scenes in which characters find themselves detained, searched, and harassed by military personnel. In each case (the first in Saudi Arabia, the second in Israel), the Arab-American woman is able to extricate herself physically only by virtue of her U.S. passport, but not without momentarily experiencing what her Arab sisters (and brothers) frequently endure. Penny Johnson’s “The Lessons of Leila,” by contrast, is told from the perspective of an American teacher who finds herself inexorably pulled into a post-funeral demonstration in the West Bank by a twelve-year old named Leila.
Other selections set in the United States detail how Arab-American experience involves an intricate weaving between historical memory and the present, between an Arab past and an American present. In Diana Abu-Jaber’s “The Way Back,” the writer’s husband takes her on a surprise trip to the Onondaga Nation reservation, but upon entering, she momentarily believes that she has returned to Beit El Salaam refugee camp where she lived as a child. She almost refuses to enter. Later, interspersing her present situation as an American with memories of her family’s expulsion from their village, she meditates: “What is a refugee camp? A skin between you and the elements, a place of laying bare, exposing throat and eyes, sister to the concentration camp. Death is there. It is in the sunrise when we wake; it is in the sewers running down the street, the homes of metal strips. Dust fills the air and coats our tongues. There are no beginnings to stories in refugee camps…. Still, we cook, we thank-God and scoop up the rice in one quick fist, we dance threaded together, give release to our spirits” (5).
Overall, the strength of this anthology lies in its refusal to claim representativeness through canonical works. (For example, well-known poet Naomi Shihab Nye contributes only a short essay). Still, Post Gibran covers a surprisingly large territory-at once aesthetic, geographical, and political-from the experience of Copts in Egypt to Armenians in Lebanon. Salah El-Moncef’s postmodern-cum-magical realist adventure “A Tree with a Dream” reads like Kafka by way of Baudrillard. Political poems about women’s bodies-Mojha Kahf’s “My Body is Not Your Battleground”-juxtapose interestingly against poems delving into the courtly love tradition, like Samuel Hazo’s “The Origins of Western Love.” David Williams’s poem to his father, “Inheritance” reflects on the way in which the fragmented and exilic identity of Arab-Americans speaks to, perhaps, the fragmentary nature of all identity: “I wanted you to tell me what really happened,/some story bigger than yourself.//Instead you left me scraps. Well maybe/we all put ourselves together like that.”
Rating: 5 / 5