- Contemporary Arab-American Literature: Transnational Reconfigurations of Citizenship and Belonging by Carol Fadda-Conrey
Critical scholarship on contemporary Arab American literature has proliferated exponentially in the last decade due to the combined efforts of scholars such as Lisa Suhair Majaj, Steven Salaita, Layla Al Maleh, Waïl Hassan, Syrine Hout, and Therí Pickens. Carol Fadda-Conrey’s scholarship has been at the forefront of this movement, and her debut monograph, Contemporary Arab-American Literature, is a timely, compelling contribution that broadens the critical terrain by emphasizing the dynamic nature of homes and homelands in the United States and the Arab world.
Fadda-Conrey’s meticulous study surveys a rich catalog of Arab American literary and cultural production from the 1990s to the present, including poetry, fiction, nonfiction, memoir, drama, film, and visual art. She highlights how Arab American literature enacts “transnational modes of … belonging,” challenges insular formulations of US citizenship, and ultimately destabilizes the “binary logics” undergirding “current Orientalist and neoimperial US understandings of national, political, and religious identities” (3–4). The book’s central claim provocatively identifies the Arab homeland as an integral force in facilitating Arab American belonging in the United States. Fadda-Conrey argues that many circuits of return, both real and imagined, enable critical appraisals of the Arab homeland to provoke a defiance of “exclusionary and uniform types of US citizenship” (3). The introduction provides a concise Arab American literary history, aligning its development to Arab American immigration waves (1880–1925, 1945–67, 1967–present) and calling attention to the tradition’s rootedness in the United States. Rather than a “split vision” embraced by earlier critics, Fadda-Conrey advocates a less fractured formulation of identity that enacts a “transnational vision” where simultaneous belonging is at the heart of “transnational reconfigurations of citizenship” (29). She advances a theory of [End Page 93] “transnational consciousness” that foregrounds prevailing concepts of translocality and rearrival while capturing how Arab American subjects lay claim to the United States. Each chapter makes the case that the US landscape is transformed by their presence in both imaginative and concrete ways (9).
The first chapter establishes the primary status of the Arab homeland in facilitating belonging for second- and third-generation Arab Americans by documenting gaps and disconnections that materialize in how each generation represents different enactments of cultural memory. She examines the immigrant domestic space, where children frequently question the nostalgic, celebratory narratives of their parents and grandparents. Drawing attention to Arab American literature’s predilection for imagining figures of grandmothers and fathers as conceits for the Arab homeland, Fadda-Conrey assesses the gendered implications and demythologizing capacity of such discursive moves in the works of Theresa Saliba, Joe Kadi, Diana Abu-Jaber, and others. Paramount to these writers’ negotiations of intergenerational inherited memories is the impulse to make a connection across generations that “lies outside traditional gender roles” and actively revises patriarchal modes of “cultural knowledge” (40–41).
Fadda-Conrey’s most significant intervention in terms of transnational feminist discourse emerges in her emphasis on female travelers in the second chapter, where she theorizes the degree to which gender constitutes home and maps the “gendered geopolitical dimensions of transnational movements” (67). The second chapter privileges journeys to and from Arab homelands, where subjects experience a process Fadda-Conrey labels a rearrival that alters through self-reflection and introspection the way Arab Americans understand themselves and the homes they return to in the United States. While the chapter does embrace a travel-as-transformation paradigm, Fadda-Conrey situates the complicated nature of returns within multiple modes of knowing and deconstructs the essentialism of romanticized liberation narratives. Her emphasis on a “transformative rootedness in the US … one that generates a particularly American type of Arabness or … an Arab type of Americaness” (85) inscribes a more contiguous form of belonging contingent on individual negotiations of attachments and intrinsic shifts in self-knowledge.
Thematizing translocality, the third chapter probes the efficacy of bringing the Arab homeland directly into the US space through imaginative “re-member[ing...