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Anis Shivani

Anis Shivani

Posted: September 29, 2010 03:45 AM

We asked some of the brightest stars in the Arab-American literary firmament what they think most stands out about Arab-American literature today. Every new strain of literature in this country undergoes familiar periods of marginalization and ghettoization (perhaps self-reinforced), before breaking through into the mainstream. At some point, readers and critics stop thinking of the hyphenated literature from an exoticizing perspective, and instead treat the writing on its own terms. To what extent has this process already happened with Arab-American writing, or is still happening? Who are the writers making the most original contributions, in fiction, poetry, and other genres? Are there circumstances unique to them, in finding acceptance and legitimacy for their work, or is their path to recognition perhaps even aided--in a strange twist of irony--by the very attention presently focused on the Middle East? These writers, with a diverse inheritance of Arab-American culture, share their thoughts, and we hope you will too.

Sinan Antoon
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A few months after 9/11 I was invited to a conference at Tufts University on "Arab-American Writing Post 9/11." I submitted an abstract for a paper entitled "A Rabid American Writing Today." The organizers corrected the title thinking "Rabid" was a typo! To write and try to publish (let alone work, and live) in the U.S. while Arab or Muslim after 9/11, means choosing one of two paths. The first entails self-orientalization and on it one proceeds to perform one's circumscribed role as the entertaining, but always safe and grateful Arab in the grand political and cultural circus. There are always openings and many Arab-Americans are more than willing to play the role (you know the names). There might be an improvised moment here or there and some indignation, but the narrative is, more or less, fixed for the Uncle Toms. The other path is that of standing outside the coliseum and distracting and disturbing the citizens-spectators on their way in or out. Screaming at times, if necessary, to point to other directions. Whispering, at others, into their ears stories about barbarians both in Rome itself and abroad. It's not easy being a barbarian in Rome. The Romans rarely listen, but the barbarian has to keep it real.

Sinan Antoon is an Iraqi-American poet, novelist, filmmaker, and translator, the author of two novels (including I'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody), and two poetry collections. Read Sinan's work here and here, and watch him here, here, and here.
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