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Sand Niggers, Small Shops, and Uncle Sam: Cultural Negotiation in the Fiction of Joseph Geha and Diana Abu-Jaber

From: Criticism
Volume 43, Number 4, Fall 2001
pp. 423-444 | 10.1353/crt.2001.0047

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Criticism 43.4 (2001) 423-444

"I don't care how many Bonanza you watch, nothing get your brain ready for real America!"

Matussem Ramoud, from Arabian Jazz (89).

THIS ESSAY will examine the emergence of Arab American literature as it relates to the sudden visibility of this community in the political and cultural topography of the United States. Over the past decade, a growing body of scholarship has analyzed the growth and makeup of domestic Arab life, in the process crystallizing the designation Arab American, if not the boundaries surrounding such a broad term. Arab Americans have been active socially and politically throughout the twentieth century, but after 1967 emphasis on cultural preservation and political activity not simply as American citizens but as Arab citizens of America has led to some recognition of an Arab entity by mainstream America. Accompanying this activity has been a body of literature, examined by scholars such as Lisa Suhair Majaj, Evelyn Shakir, Joanna Kadi, Munir Akash, and Khaled Mattawa, as specifically Arab American. Where text-specific analyses exist, however, they tend to deal more with poetry than fiction, perhaps simply because up to this point the available poetry is more extensive. I seek to fill a gap in Arab American literary scholarship by focusing on two works of fiction, Joseph Geha's Through and Through: Toledo Stories (1990) and Diana Abu-Jaber's Arabian Jazz (1993).

I have chosen these two texts for practical, theoretical, and aesthetic reasons. Although continuous Arab artistic expression existed in the United States throughout the twentieth century, Through and Through brought before the public important fictive depictions of the Arab American community that demand interrogation in relation to that community in particular and to American Studies in general. Arabian Jazz constituted at the time the most sophisticated aesthetic offering by an Arab American author of fiction. It was, one might say, a landmark work in the Arab American tradition, not unlike Momaday's House Made of Dawn in that of Native America. More crucial are the range of themes in both books, which explore the "othering" of Arabs in American society, assimilation patterns, stereotypical attitudes by both White and Arab characters, gender relationships, and the complexities of ethnic signification (often a layered process among Arab Americans). The texts are therefore adequately multivalent to introduce Arab American fiction to a wider audience while simultaneously informing our understanding of American literature in total. And finally, the negotiation of dual Arab and American identities into productive constructions of literary fiction offers scholars a wide range of critical underpinnings with which to work. Before I enter into that analysis, however, some background is necessary.

Arab American Literature Today

Arab American literature is quickly growing sophisticated in scope and ample in content. It represents the voices of its community and so far exhibits an impressive range. Moreover, it is not limited to Arab themes. Many works successfully translate Arab American characterizations into wider cultural contexts, and others deal little with Arabs at all. Given the scope and content of this work, and the establishment of Arab cultural journals such as al-Jadid, JUSOOR, and Mizna, it is probable that Arab American literature will appear more prominently in American literary studies within the next twenty years. My purpose here is not to spend time defining the limits of these studies or predicting future avenues of Arab American writing. Even if desirable, an attempt of this nature is possible only upon much wider text-specific explication by both an Arab and non-Arab readership. Rather, I will present a brief overview of current Arab American literature, examine its potential foundations, and propose possibilities for usefully situating it within the broad spectrum of American letters.

The designation "Arab American," like any classificatory phrase in ethnic studies, is immediately problematic. It does not adequately represent the large contingent of Arab Canadian authors who are often joined with their peers to the south as "American." More important, a good amount of work written and received as Arab American is produced by authors with no Arab background. For instance, in the anthology Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists, editor Joanna Kadi includes selections...



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