- The Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English: The Politics of Anglo Arab and Arab American Literature and Culture ed. by Nouri Gana
At nearly five hundred pages, The Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English is expansive, comprehensive, and unique. To date, it is the only collection dedicated solely to the study of the Anglophone Arab novel. In its geographical scope, it is far-reaching: its chapters cover Arab American, Arab Canadian, Arab Australian, and Arab European output by writers rigorously studied and theorized, such as Ameen Rihani and Ahdaf Soueif; pedagogically popular, such as Diana Abu Jaber and Laila Aboulela; literary but less established, such as Hisham Matar and Rawi Hage; and little theorized and little studied, such as Mona Simpson.
In its scholarly scope, this collection is equally ambitious. The well-wrought introduction provides a wide view, historicizing the development of the Arab novel in English. Several chapters do similar work while focusing on particular writers’ oeuvres or particular continents. Many of the chapters zoom in with nuanced close-readings of specific novels. Regardless of how focused the lens, the collection’s promise and premise are to explore this rich literary landscape by examining how “Anglophone Arab novelists have negotiated the multidirectional and transnational exigencies that inform their writings” (11).
This is important work and a much-needed addition to a field the theorizing of which has remained scattered and fragmented. To slightly reword a question from chapter 15 by Mara Naaman, “What is added to our understanding of [the] novel [as a genre] by analyzing it alongside or within the context of other novels written by authors who share the same ethnicity or culture?” (368). Just as importantly, we might consider what is added to our understanding of, specifically, the Anglophone Arab novel as a genre by analyzing its “composite literary affiliations” (11), “transnational [End Page 124] collaborative entanglements” (8), and “multiple beginnings” (5)? This collection’s attempt to answer these questions is a significant venture as the answers will enrich, ground, and solidify this field of study.
As with many large collections, the book delivers on its promise unevenly. Wail Hassan’s “The Rise of the Arab American Novel: Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid,” a shorter reprint of a previous publication, is the chapter that lives up to the collection’s promise most rigorously, mining confidently and with depth the transnational collaborations and literary affiliations that permeate Rihani’s novel. Here, we see how the Arab American writer replaces the Orientalist as interpreter and translator of the Orient, producing a work whose “language is radically deterritorialized” (47). Inspired by the picaresque and the maqama, the novel critiques, synthesizes, and recasts both East and West via literary form. Unsurprisingly, Nouri Gana’s own chapter also delivers. In “In Search of Andalusia: Reconfiguring Arabness in Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent,” Gana artfully explores the resonances of Andalusian conviviality reimagined and employed by Abu-Jaber in the context of a post-9/11 America. Both of these chapters explore, with much substance and focus, the transnational collaborations and literary affiliations of the works at hand. They also point to some answers to important questions, posed though not satisfactorily answered, in chapter 5: “What makes an ‘Arab novel in English’ an ‘Arab’ Novel?” “What is the weight of the adjectival modifier in that phrase [Arab novel]? What is its relation to the genre which it modifies?” (128-29). Answering such questions widens the scope of the critical study of the Anglophone Arab novel from simply the “ethnic,” “multicultural,” or “diasporic” novel to the novel itself as a genre.
While many of the chapters, as the introduction asserts, focus on textual close-reading, this is not always done with an eye towards the book’s overarching goals. Some chapters appear to make the awkward move to fit into the book’s mission, but they do not necessarily do so successfully, remaining limited and limiting. Still others never...