Project | 01
Project | 01 El Archivo Libanés
Through the support of a Student-Faculty Collaborative Research Grant, Esmeralda Garcia Vargas, I spent ten days during Summer 2019 at the Centro Libanés in Mexico City. We applied for this grant in the hopes of locating Arab Mexican texts for inclusion in the study “Language and Literature in the Arab Diaspora in North America, 1965-2015.” Due to the differences in the publishing industries and their methods of dissemination, the number of Arab Mexican texts I was able to acquire in the United States was limited. Although the archives simply listed “libros” and “publicaciones” (books and publications) as part of their holdings, we found an overwhelming amount of material to work with, including several novels, collections of poetry, journals, magazines, and even a board game. Due to the large amount of material we uncovered we did not take the time to analyze any of it, and instead focused on digitization. We are still in the process of organizing and analyzing the hundred of digital files we created while in Mexico. As a secondary goal we had also hoped to interview Martha El Khouri, but we were unable to meet with her. Esme, however, located contact information for Carlos Martinez Assad—a famous novelist in Mexico of Arab descent—and he agreed to an interview. Esme has transcribed that interview and we are submitting an edited version for publication in Mashriq & Mahjar.
By all accounts, the trip was an enormous success. The interview with Assad was something I never would have expected to secure, and the amount of written material we uncovered far exceeded my expectations. In fact, my expectations were so dramatically surpassed that I have had to rethink the trajectory of “Language and Literature in the Arab Diaspora in North America, 1965-2015.” Beyond just reorganizing and expanding the study, though, there is also enough additional material for a second article, and Esme and I are working this spring to draft an essay on Arab Mexican poetry—a topic that has never been published on before. In addition to a successful research trip, Esme learned valuable research, writing, and translation skills. Traveling and working in an international archive taught her how to delve deeply into the history and culture of a place, how to explore and search for evidence to support a hypothesis, and how to adjust that hypothesis based on findings. She learned to close read a text, present her analysis in writing, and situate that analysis within its historical context. Participation in this project enhanced her educational experience at Linfield as she continues to pursue her BS in nursing.
Project | 02
Project | 02 "Language and Literature"
In 1994 J. Kadi called Arab Canadian and Arab US Americans “The Most Invisible of the Invisibles.” Today, as Canada and the United States grapple with the repercussions of the Gulf Wars, September 11, a prolonged occupation of Iraq, and most recently the so-called US “ban on Muslims,” that statement is no longer true. In both the United States and Canada, Arab immigrants are now acutely visible and socially constructed as “enemy,” “other,” and “fanatical terrorists.” This conflation of Arab with terrorist is often taken for granted by the public, media, and academics in both nations. To the south, however, a very different stereotype exists. In Mexico, Arab immigrants are not automatically construed as terrorists; rather they are seen as corrupt businessmen out to cheat “real” Mexicans. Even in the wake of September 11, the division between stereotypes in Canada, the United States, and Mexico has held firm.
This disparity in national and ethnic-identity politics suggests that the Arab Mexican community would have little in common with the Arab Canadian and Arab US American communities. However, the borders between these three nations are far from permanent and impermeable. Within the Arab American fictional world, the ability to cross borders is reflected in characters like the father in Bárbara Jacobs’s Las hojas muertas (1997), who is raised in the United States before moving to Mexico to raise his own family, and Kathleen in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees (1996), who moves from Canada to the United States for school. Characters also find themselves immigrating to different destinations than they first intended—such as the family in Héctor Azar’s Las tres primeras personas (1977), which first docks in New York, only to proceed on to Veracruz when turned away by immigration officials. As Arab families move around the globe from the Middle East to North America and then between Canada, Mexico, and the United States, parents are separated from children and cousins end up living in separate worlds governed by national borders and distinct languages. These seemingly disparate geographic spaces are connected, though, via the web created by the family ties within the Arab diaspora in North America.
Reading Arab diasporic texts from Canada, Mexico, and the United States together illuminates the deep interconnectedness of these North American geographies—and nowhere is this interconnectedness more apparent than in the novels’ use of language. Novels, and the languages used to write them, are cardinal spaces of cultural belonging. Arab North Americans’ inclusion (or not) of Arabic in their fiction establishes a linguistic identity that situates characters, texts, and authors within and beyond national spaces. By comparing representations of Arabic as a “foreign” language in novels from Canada, Mexico, and the United States, “Language and Literature in the Arab Diaspora in North America” argues that Arab diasporic writers use language as a marker for identity, and that they do so in contextually contingent ways. Within the United States and Canada authors claim ethnic and national belonging through representations of code-switching (alternating between two or more languages in conversation) and multilingualism that powerfully contest and transform ideas of citizenship and inclusion within the nation. In contrast, Arab Mexican authors utilize Arabic not as a tool to modify national belonging but rather to create a linguistic space that stands outside geography.
“Language and Literature in the Arab Diaspora in North America” makes two contributions to the field of contemporary literary studies. First, this project examines the role of language in texts written by multilingual Arab immigrant authors. I claim that these authors create texts that are invested in both exploring identity via language and in language play that is distinct to the Arab diaspora. Language functions as a tool in these novels to resist static conceptions of belonging, and instead represent and reinforce transnational identities. Although similar studies exist within African American, Asian American, and Latina/o literature, no such survey of Arab American literature exists.
Second, my project bridges significant gaps between the fields of Arab Canadian, Mexican, and US American literatures. Although Arab writings in North America share a deeply intertwined history dating back to the 1800s, prevailing disciplinary divides mean they are not read together. By examining Arab Anglophone, Francophone, and Hispanophone writings alongside one another, my research bridges both the political and linguistic divides that separate these works. I build on recent comparative scholarship that seeks to transcend national borders and examine Arab immigrant literature in the context of diaspora, such as Waïl Hassan’s Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature (2011) and Rodrigo Cánovas’s Literatura de inmigrantes árabes y judíos en Chile y México (Arab and Jewish Immigrant Literature in Chile and Mexico, 2011). Although these scholars recognize and argue for the transnational nature of Arab diasporic writing, these discussions are still circumscribed by language as each study limits itself to English-language texts or Spanish-language texts. My research considers texts written in English, French, and Spanish, bringing linguistically diverse writings into conversation with one another to attend to the themes that resonate across these boundaries and throughout the Arab diaspora.
Arab diasporic authors manipulate words in a variety of ways as they tell their stories: they code-switch, convert, and combine languages to illustrate shifting identities as they move around the world. In order to fully understand how these authors express their transnational and multilingual identities in writing, it is necessary to read their work in the original language. Their formal techniques, which include code-switching and genre-mixing, defy translation. Moreover, not all of the texts I am reading have been translated. My fluency in French and Spanish, as well as my wide breadth of knowledge in both North American and Middle Eastern studies, make me uniquely qualified to do this work.
“Language and Literature in the Arab Diaspora in North America” consists of five chapters. Chapter 1 argues that an Arab diasporic identity is inscribed within the female body through the cultural resources of food and language. Continuing the discussion of gender, Chapter 2 explores Arab American texts’ use of gendered rhetoric that justified Manifest Destiny a century earlier to articulate their belonging within the North American landscape, while Chapter 3 suggests that Arab American novels with non-linear narratives and queer characters challenge national and global politics. Chapter 4 extends the discussion of non-linear time to examine representations of generational, linguistic, and geographic conflation, while Chapter 5 elucidates how authors manipulate language to normalize the presence of Arabic and Arab bodies by inserting Arabic into the linguistic landscape of North America. Three presses have expressed interest in the book project, and I will be submitting proposals to each.
As Arab Canadian, Mexican, and US American authors negotiate Arabic and multilingualism within their writing they construct identities that encompass complex transnational configurations of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and religion. Although the Arab linguistic production of identity differs between Canada, Mexico, and the United States, all three Arab immigrant communities enlist language in the rhetorical and material pursuit of belonging. The first study in the field to compare nationally and linguistically diverse Arab diasporic texts, “Language and Literature in the Arab Diaspora in North America” demonstrates critical points of continuity and rupture within the Arab diaspora in North America.
Project | 03
Project | 03 Violent Fecundity
Scholars writing on US multiethnic and postcolonial texts have described code-switching in fiction as a method for reclaiming power by making the subject impassable, unknowable, or opaque to the monolingual reader. However, these analyses have focused on the incommensurate positions of linguistic insiders and outsiders. This article contends that Arab American author Mohja Kahf delivers an alternate ideology in her multilingual texts. Writing within a national context that conflates “Arab,” “Muslim,” and “terrorist,” and that uses Arabic as a cultural symbol to denote all three, Kahf employs an ethico-aesthetic paradigm to teach her monolingual English-speaking readers Arabic. In doing so she draws communities together through a translingual poetics that forges a space within the US national context that accepts and celebrates, rather than fears, Arabic.