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I N T R O D U C T I O N The history of literature and of criticism demonstrates that if anything is constant in our understanding of the literatures of the world, it is the varied and changing conceptions of those literatures. Identity only further complicates the matter, and for Arab American poetry this also happens to be the sphere toward which most discussions gravitate and the traps from which most Arab American poets work ceaselessly to break free. Whether the thirty-nine poets represented in this anthology like it or not (I would argue that most of them dislike it), identity is, for their readers, typically both an entry and exit point to their poems. It is a troublesome affair—the defining of a people—but it also serves as a starting point for renewal. Without a doubt, the poems here do their part to trouble and reshape any notions of a literature or a people called Arab American. The term “Arab American” itself is relatively new. Arabs, and Americans of Arab descent, populated the United States, in significant numbers, long before a name for them (one that did not also serve as a slur) became common . Yet the label “Arab American” remains contentious, and this contentiousness illustrates one of the most recognizable products of the polemics of identity: the incredible resistance to any and sometimes all understandings about a collective identity, whether found in literature, politics , or elsewhere, either from within the group or from outside it. Keith Feldman, writing about the historical emergence of the Arab American category , argues that this category “has been implicated historically in the maintenance of exclusionary practices of US racial nationalism, even as it has revealed the contradictions of such practices.” For my part, I was also aware of the role that anthologizing Arab American poetry could play in reifying such practices. For better or worse, I relied in great part on the poems collected here to guide any debates (of course, I chose the poems), and again, for better or worse, these poems do what the members of any group generally excel at when it comes to matters of identity: they disagree with each other. They disagree, yes, but in doing so they initiate and foster change, and they resist it too. Each in its own way disrupts the notions and expectations that most people have of Arab Americans, while simultaneously working together, as a body of literature, to express something that is undeniably Arab American, even if this something is always under constant xiii 1CHARARA_pages_i-164.qxd:Layout 1 11/14/08 2:36 PM Page xiii modification. Literally, from poem to poem, and from poet to poet, “Arab American” is accepted, rejected, maintained, and altered. Homi K. Bhabha puts it this way: identity, as a form of knowledge, operates in such a way that it “allows for the possibility of simultaneously embracing two contradictory beliefs, one official and one secret, one archaic and one progressive, one that allows the myth of origins, the other that articulates difference and division.” Bhabha suggests that an identification that simultaneously embraces ambivalence and alterity is impossible to encapsulate in a fixed image. The homogenous object of discourse becomes a heterogeneous subject , one whose “identity” is both true and false, recognized and contested. Walid Bitar fittingly notes in “Survival of the Fittest” that “Our ancestors wouldn’t know what to make / of us if they were here.” This confusion is not limited to “ancestors” or the past. The individual, in the present moment, must also contend with difference and ambivalence. The poet must negotiate the contradictions between himself and his ancestors, himself and those “unlike” him, as well as between himself and those “almost” like him. While such negotiations can lead to a kind of liberation from identity, they often end up in a tug-of-war between recognizing and rejecting one’s subjectivity, as is the case in Lawrence Joseph’s “Curriculum Vitae”: I might have been born in Beirut, not Detroit, with my right name. Grandpa taught me to love to eat. I am not Orthodox, or Sunni, Shiite, or Druse. Baptized in the one true Church, I too was weaned on Saint Augustine. Eisenhower never dreamed I wore corrective shoes. Ford Motor Co. never cared I’d never forgive Highland Park, River Rouge, Hamtramck. In another poem, “Sand Nigger,” Joseph highlights both the complexity and the irony of this kind of recognition-rejection of subjectivity. He describes himself as...


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