Sunday, November 6, 2011

Arab Spring sparks renewed interest in Arab-American literature

Arab Spring sparks renewed interest in Arab-American literature
By Rand Dalgamouni

AMMAN - The Arab Spring has generated more interest in Arab-American writers and their reflections on the changes taking place in the region, an author said on Tuesday.

“The media in the [United] States has been reaching out to Arab-American writers,” Susan Muaddi Darraj told reporters.

“Whether we like it or not, we are viewed as spokespeople for Arabs in America,” the Arab-American writer said. “My identity as an Arab American is a political identity.”

Muaddi Darraj was in Jordan to launch the Arabic version of her short story collection “The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly”, which was translated through the US embassy’s Arabic Book Programme.

During her visit to the Kingdom, the author also met with Jordanian writers and students at several universities.

At a media roundtable yesterday, she said the aftermath of 9/11 has led to a greater interest in Arab-American writing.

Some authors took advantage of that interest by writing “damaging” books that were not based on actual facts, she charged, citing Norma Khouri’s 2003 book “Forbidden Love” on so-called honour crimes in Jordan.

“The book caused a lot of damage… it hurt the depiction of Arab women and men in the Middle East,” Muaddi Darraj elaborated, adding that “there’s a lot that we [Arab-American authors] have to do to fix the damage”.

Khouri had claimed that her book was based on a true story, but 75 factual errors were unveiled in 2004 by journalist Malcolm Knox of Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, with help from Jordanian activists Amal Sabbagh and Rana Husseini.

Their findings exposed the story as a “work of fiction” and revealed that the book contains over 40 erroneous statements regarding Muslims and Arabs.

Muaddi Darraj, who is also an associate professor of English at Harford Community College, told reporters she feels she has “a responsibility towards my readers to explain our culture”.

Due to the stereotypical depiction of Arabs in the media, she said most Americans think that Arab women are either “belly dancers” or oppressed, while Arab men are billionaires or terrorists.

“I want to show them that Arab women are mothers, doctors, teachers,” the author explained, stressing that she seeks to create “real, authentic” characters in her writings so that readers see them as a “challenge to what they view as Arabs”.

She noted that the experience of Arab Americans as an immigrant community is not foreign to the American reader.

“Our country is a country of emigrants… if [readers] can make the connection on a human level, they can make it on a political level.”

Muaddi Darraj, who has written several works of non-fiction, highlighted the power of fiction in breaking stereotypes by forming a connection with the reader.

“In fiction, you get to fuse truth with politics and fuse different experiences… and the reader brings his or her imagination to it, which creates further sparks.”

“The Inheritance of Exile: Stories from South Philly” follows the lives of four Palestinian-American friends: Nadia, Aliyah, Hanan and Reema, whose families emigrated to the US and settled in South Philadelphia.

The 2007 book was a finalist for the Association for Writers and Writing Programmes award series in short fiction.


"This sweet, sorrowful book is rich with insight. The Inheritance of Exile tells an authentic story of Arab-American life--these characters are true, expressive, and moving. A fully engaging, satisfying collection indeed." --Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Origin, Crescent, and The Language of Baklava

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