- On the BrinkIdentity and Language in the Poetry of Arab-American Women
Almost a decade ago, Al Raida (lit. The Pioneer), a journal based out of the Lebanese American University, published an issue on "Arab Women Writing in English." Among its concerns, the journal hoped to highlight the problem of translating experience into language asking: "How does one translate their experience of Arabness into another language whose signifying capacities will always tend towards distortion?" Whether the language is a European one or British and American English, the particular power dynamics between languages are concerns posed within a post-colonial frame of imperial and non-imperial languages. This struggle to translate experience is illustrated in a quote by Abdelfattah Kilito, a writer of French and Arabic, who cites an ancient source that describes a relationship with the Arabic language in this way: "I defeated her then she defeated me, then I defeated her and she defeated me again" (21). In the struggle between the subject and language this question arises—whether or not language, given its state as an inheritance from previous generations, can bring into articulation an identity when in fact it has an identity of its own. If this encounter with Arabic highlights a tense relationship between the subject and his native language; a struggle that ends with language's victory and the defeat of the speaker, then any relationship with language used as a means to articulate an identity must be one of complete surrender to that language. The question of language's capability to express or articulate poses too broad a scope to attempt in this paper. However, the choice of a writer's language as a mode of identification through writing becomes a significant one when considering bilingual writers.
In his semi-autobiographical text, Monolingualism of the Other; or, the Prosthesis of Origin Jacques Derrida proclaims, "I have only one language; it is not mine" (2), a refrain he echoes throughout the rest of this work. At the heart of this contradictory statement stands the question of possessing language. As the foreigner, i.e. colonial subject, who speaks only the master's (or the host's) language, Derrida's dilemma of possessing language becomes a question of bestowing belonging through language, of being allowed access to a group, like a cardholder whose card [End Page 309] proclaims membership in a certain society. For Derrida, language only grants one an identity as a speaker of that language because of language's homogeneity with regards to itself: it is always open to assimilating the other.1 In justifying the refrain posed at the beginning of his book, Derrida qualifies it thus:
… a necessity that, however, is there and that works: translation, a translation other than the one spoken about by convention, common sense, and certain doctrinaires of translation. For this double postulation,
—We only ever speak one language …
—We never speak only one language …
is not only the very law of what is called translation. It would also be the law itself as translation.(10)
Taking Derrida's text as a starting point for thinking about questions of identity vis-à-vis language, this paper examines the works of three Arab-American women writers within the context of an ambivalent relationship to language embodied through a particular practice of translation. As a foundation for approaching questions of identity, Derrida's text poses the question of translatability, both as a means and mode of understanding the integral problem of identity through and in language.
This question of possessing a language—within its connection to an ethnic identity and the ability to translate both the language and an identity associated with that language—is the central metaphor in the poems below by Naomi Shehab Nye, Dima Hilal, and Suheir Hamad. Previous scholarship on Arab-American writers has focused on the negotiation of 'Arabness' within a community-based context, concentrating for example on ethnicity, religion, or within the parameters of reclaiming self-representation in writing. According to Carol Fadda-Conrey, writing, for Arab-American writers, especially post 9/11, "becomes an important tool to establish and practice self-representation, and to dismantle blanket and inaccurate portrayals inherent...