The field of comparative ethnic studies has seen a change in focus from approaches that underline commonalities in the experiences of ethnic groups to emphases on processes of comparative racialization. Some of the areas of inquiry that are starting to benefit from this shift—whose theoretical paradigms have been developed and refined by a number of scholars, such as Grace Kyungwon Hong and Roderick A. Ferguson—include Arab American and African American studies. Therí A. Pickens's book, New Body Politics: Narrating Arab and Black Identity in the Contemporary United States, explores how this new focus can transform traditional approaches to both fields.
Focusing on Arab American and African American experiences of embodiment, this book analyzes how corporeality shapes and is shaped by the complex sociopolitical figurations of race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality. Specifically, Pickens's work probes the significance of embodied experiences such as breathing, touch, illness, pain, and death, in the production of discourses around the body and its symbolic connection to family and nation-state. The focus on the body as a reflection of the quotidian and the emphasis on the liberating possibilities associated with corporeal fragility, Pickens argues, mediate a critique of hegemonic institutional structures, normative social practices, and oppressive forms of national belonging.
The book is divided into five chapters, in addition to the introduction and the conclusion. While three of these chapters focus on a single author or cultural figure, the remaining two juxtapose Arab American and African American authors. The first chapter, "Respirating Resistance: Suheir Hammad's Invocation of Breath," examines Suheir Hammad's poetry collections, namely Born Palestinian, Born Black, ZaatarDiva, and breaking poems, to show how this poet uses breath to denounce and resist oppressive forms of silencing pertaining to the occupation of Palestine. Stressing the influence of black feminist poetics and hip hop, Pickens analyzes breath as a metaphor for resistance to antiblack and anti-Arab racism. She also examines the links displayed in Hammad's poetry between Arab and black bodies and their position vis-à-vis nationalist discourses to show how embodiment serves to problematize political and racial ideologies relating to Arab Americans and African Americans. The second chapter, "Try a Little Tenderness: Tactilic Experience in Danzy Senna and Alicia Erian," takes the notion of embodiment in the direction of touching to probe its role in disrupting the homogeneity of narratives of national belonging and projections of racial hierarchies. Pickens focuses on Senna's Symptomatic and Erian's Towelhead (and the filmic interpretation of that novel) to probe the power dynamics and political significance underlying instances of touching mixed-race characters' bodies, recuperative self-touching, or the healing touch by women.
The third and fourth chapters examine the ways in which bodily illness in Arab American and African American narratives allows for a renegotiation of national ideologies in relation to various forms of exile and displacement. The third chapter, "Unfitting and Not Belonging: Feeling Embodied and Being Displaced in Rabih Alameddine's Fiction," draws on novels such as Koolaids: The Art of War and The Hakawati: A Story to probe Alameddine's formal and thematic experimentation with notions of displacement, exile, caring, cure and patients. Framing her analysis through W. E. B. Du Bois's and Moustafa Bayoumi's questions about nation and belonging, Pickens shows that Alameddine's representation of the hospital space implies that "healing and belonging are neither desirable nor necessary" for "othered" subjects (12). The fourth chapter, "Beyond 1991: Magic Johnson and [End Page 243] the Limits of HIV/AIDS Activism," probes the representation of Magic Johnson's body in narrative, using Johnson's autobiographies, various media accounts and articles relating to this figure, as well as a music video, in an attempt to understand "embodied" tensions surrounding his illness "amid contradictory narratives about Blackness, athleticism, and subjectivity" (111). In the final chapter, "The Big C Meets the Big O: Pain and Pleasure in Breast Cancer Narratives," Pickens examines Audre Lorde's and Evelyne Accad's breast cancer narratives. Through her in-depth analysis of...