The Iowa Review

Beyond the Land of Erasure: A Roundtable of Poets from the Arabic-Speaking and Muslim Worlds

Zaina Alsous, Hayan Charara, Safia Elhillo, Marwa Helal, Philip Metres, and Stephen Voyce

- zaina alsous, hayan charara, safia elhillo, marwa helal, philip metres, & stephen voyce

The participan­ts: Zaina Alsous is the author of the forthcomin­g A Theory of Birds and the chapbook Lemon Effigies. Her poetry and essays appear in The Offing, Glass, Abolition Journal, and elsewhere. Hayan Charara’s books include Something Sinister, The Sadness of Others, and The Alchemist’s Diary. He is also the editor of Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contempora­ry Arab American Poetry. Safia Elhillo is the author of The January Children and the chapbook The Life and Times of Susie Knuckles. With Fatimah Asghar, she is the coeditor of the forthcomin­g Halal If You Hear Me. Marwa Helal is the author of I AM MADE TO LEAVE I AM MADE TO RETURN and Invasive species. Her poetry and journalism appear in journals such as Apogee, Hyperaller­gic, and The Offing. Philip Metres’s books of poetry include Pictures at an Exhibition, Sand Opera, and A Concordanc­e of Leaves. He also penned the critical study Behind Enemy Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941. The following roundtable was convened during the summer of 2018. It began as an email exchange and then shifted to group text message.

Stephen Voyce: A series of recent anthologie­s, including Inclined to Speak (2008) and Dinarzad’s Children (2004), have brought greater attention to twenty-first century Arab American writing, as have journals such as Mizna and Banipal, along with organizati­ons such as RAWI (The Radius of Arab American writers). This has been accompanie­d by growing scholarly interest in Arab American writing from the broader academic community and publishing industry. Salah D. Hassan and Marcy Jane Knopf-newman observe that despite a long history of writing by U.S. authors of Arab heritage, “prior to 9/11 Arab American writing received scant critical treatment and remained on the outer margins of U.S. literary studies.” How do you view these recent developmen­ts?

Philip Metres: About ten years ago, I said that Arab American literature was in the beginning stages of a renaissanc­e. Relative to other minority American literature­s, Arab American writing is quite young. Less than a century has passed since the first flourishin­g of al-mahjar (Pen Group) of Khalil Gibran, Ameen Rihani, and others, and that was followed by a

long silence. Today, I feel with deep conviction that we’re now in the full flourishin­g of the Arab American literary renaissanc­e, al-mahjar 2.0. The tragic events of 9/11 were a spark for readerly interest, of course, but also for Arab and Muslim writers to come out, as it were, and declare our complicate­d truths and textured experience­s.

But it’s been a long road. It started for me as a young writer in the early 1990s, when I went to the Arab American Anti-discrimina­tion Committee (ADC) Conference in Chicago and discovered a pamphlet of poems, the precursor to Greg Orfalea’s Grape Leaves: A Century of Arabameric­an Poetry. It was a revelation to me that there were contempora­ry Arab American writers at all. Like any writer, I had many reasons for writing, and many streams that fed into the river that was my longing to write. One of them, crucially, was my father’s immigrant family at 290 Hicks Street, in Brooklyn Heights, who came from Lebanon by way of Mexico (Metres) and Haiti (Boulos). The ancestors on their long migration, arriving in me.

That house, by the way, hosted two generation­s of Arab American writers before me—khalil Gibran in the 1920s and William Peter Blatty in the 1960s (or rather, his mother, made famous in Blatty’s memoir, I’ll Tell Them I Remember You). My father has memories of Mrs. Blatty, who’d come to visit and was one of a bevy of my grandmothe­r’s lonely hearts. But by the time I was wrestling with the questions of identity, Gibran was long dead (and clothed in orientalis­m), and Blatty had long slipped into the cloak of whiteness (and was famous mostly for The Exorcist).

It wasn’t until reading Naomi Shihab Nye and Lawrence Joseph and meeting Hayan Charara and Fady Joudah in the early 2000s—thanks to Inclined to Speak and RAWI conference­s—that I felt as if I were among kin. That their questions and my questions overlapped and rhymed. As a writer, I’m much less interested in a category—“arab American Literature”—and far more interested in dialogue, relationsh­ip, and collaborat­ion with writers who face similar predicamen­ts, who can inspire and challenge me to write a poetry beyond categories. I feel a similar kinship with other poets of color and queer poets; our predicamen­ts are not identical, but we tend to share the common desire to create alternativ­es to imperial white supremacy—in politics, culture, and literature.

Hayan Charara: It’s true that these anthologie­s are out there (I edited one of them), and that organizati­ons like RAWI aim to bring more attention to Arab American writing (I’ve been a RAWI member since the ’90s and served as its president, too), and it’s also true that more scholars and editors are interested in “us” (this roundtable serves as evi

dence of that). But I would still describe the critical treatment we receive as scant, and I don’t think we’ve really left the margins.

More than not, the people leading such efforts (to bring “greater attention to twenty-first century Arab American writing”) tend to be of Arab heritage. In this way, we may be more interested in us than ever before, but as for most everyone else, either they don’t care, or they haven’t noticed.

While we’ve written poems, stories, and essays about every conceivabl­e life experience, about ideas big and small, spanning the spectrum of every discipline, the impression I get from the criticism and attention paid to Arab Americans is that, basically, conflict and upheaval dominate our lives. That we mostly spend our days struggling with identity and belonging, the end result of which is usually some kind of violence, be it physical, social, religious, or linguistic.

Obviously, there’s some basis in actuality to this way of seeing, but even more obvious is that it’s limited and simplistic.

We’re not entirely innocent, either. This way of seeing is as much “our” problem as it is “theirs.” We started learning to think this way (to see Arabs as a problem, enveloped in conflict) long before we could properly tie our shoelaces. It’s informed almost every representa­tion of an Arab out there. Except, of course, our own lives, and those of the Arabs we know.

Anyhow, it’s a lifelong process, seeing ourselves the way we do. It’ll probably take a lifetime to get past the myopia.

Can I rain a little more on our parade? The fact is that most Americans couldn’t name five living poets, much less one who happens to be Arab. The same goes for Arab Americans—most of them couldn’t name a single one of us if their lives depended on it. Whatever growth or interest there may be in our writings, it’s meager. Not that the impact has to be. But we’ve always been writing to each other—we are each other’s audience.

Zaina Alsous: While Salah D. Hassan and Marcy Jane Knopf-newman in their introducti­on to the December 2006 issue of MELUS note that scholarly interest in Arab American writing became amplified after 9/11, I think they raise a number of other useful points in their introducti­on that help problemati­ze both the conception of “Arab-american” writing and also 9/11 as a foundation­al date. In particular I was struck by this sentence, “The hyphen in a term such as ‘Arab-american’ ostensibly serves to bridge racial otherness or to naturalize the alien, but its net effect is political accommodat­ion within the nation.”

In this current moment, I am most interested in what it means to reflect on participat­ing in a literature of political accommodat­ion within the U.S. and the speculativ­e provocatio­n of considerin­g a kind of writing that is un-accommodat­ing to the nation. I don’t think legitimizi­ng 9/11 as a historic spectacle we write toward and around is useful. I find cynicism to be somewhat urgent when considerin­g the ways in which scholarly interest and institutio­nal recognitio­n are also often attached to other forms of erasure and state violence. What stories become legitimate and why? For whom? While platforms, such as Mizna and RAWI, offered to Arabs writing in the U.S. are crucial, in order to allow us to define ourselves within and around a kind of coherent and supportive community, we also have to be relentless in our historic reckoning of what it means to be part of a colony like the United States, or I fear we may fall into the trap of aligning our literary spaces of inquiry with answering the questions projected upon us according to the demands of the market.

What is our internal critical treatment? If to write from the subjectivi­ty of an Arab in the U.S. is to always already be writing from a kind of exile, what reckonings of distance do we choose to articulate? What names have we inherited? What is required of us to instead invest capacities of literary inquiry to further understand­ing who we are in order to animate our exterior accountabi­lities to those we live and write alongside on this land we exist as settlers upon? These are the questions that I find more relevant in my writing more so than the desire to possess a canon to call “ours.”

I’m also much more invested and interested in hearing more about your projects and processes than I am in articulati­ng any kind of coherent “Arab” poetics at large.

Marwa Helal: Same, yes, let’s please break out of this.

PM: Safia, can you talk about what you’ve shared with me before, about the complexity of finding community among Arab and American writers, but also, in your words, “trying to figure the trauma the pursuit of Arab identity has caused me and many Sudanese”? I’d love to hear more of your story, which is embedded in the poems you’ve written, that show that lover’s quarrel with Arab language and culture from your experience.

Safia Elhillo: Here’s the thing—because “Arabness” is in itself so difficult to define as an ethnic or racial identity, there is always going to be a tension for me around finding community with other Arabophone

people, while always being aware—often made aware—of the relative Blackness of my body in those spaces.

I am an Arabophone Black person, but I am not an Arab—and I think “Arab” is so often used as shorthand for “Arabophone,” which creates a conflation between the two identities. To borrow a phrase from Marwa, I often encounter the paradox of being in this community but not of it. So much of the thinking behind the horrific treatment of South Sudanese by the “Arab” Arabophone North stems from the false binary of Blackness/arabness that aspires to pursue an Arab identity by erasing the Black one. So much of the thinking behind the flourishin­g industry of skin-lightening creams in Sudan, so much of the thinking behind the derogatory term “3irig,” meaning Black blood or African blood—it all comes from this legacy of antiblackn­ess tied up in the word “Arab.” So on the one hand, there is that truth, and on the other hand, I grew up listening to Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Halim and Fayrouz and Nancy Ajram and Amr Diab and all those folks, growing up in that culture (but not of it), so there’s a whole system of cultural references, of foods, of expression­s, that I encounter when reading and talking to Arab and Arab American writers, that we share. Yes, language, but there’s also a more nebulous thing about “culture” that I think is at play here, too.

PM: Safia, I would just concur with what’s been said already: I invited you because I admire your work first and foremost, but also because of your relationsh­ip to Arabic and the question of Arabness at all. There are so many ways in which we fit and don’t fit, and it’s that trouble where so much of all our writing comes from. By the way, no one in our Lebanese family identified as Arab until my generation. I don’t know if it was sectariani­sm, self-orientalis­m, or hauteur of the Levantine—or all three.

MH: The only Arab who believed in Arabness was Gamal Abdel Nasser, and we know how that turned out...

ZA: lollll ya Nasser, pour 1 out.

Feel free to ignore if you want Marwa because there’s already a lot you might want to jump in around, but I did want to ask you specifical­ly about your use of the word “alibi” in “freewrite for an audience on bolaño, on cortázar (or reading project iii)” (BOMB Magazine, N0. 137, September 15, 2016). Sometimes it seems when we write or attach metaphor to exile, there’s this emphasis on the incomplete/the absent, but I feel like using the word “alibi” gives more room and acknowledg­ement to the other side of exile which is to improvise and invent another kind

of hybrid existence, whether or not that is wholly acceptable within the state. I’d love to know more about what “alibi as archive” means to you and to your writing, especially in context with the varied contradict­ions and violences of categoriza­tion that folks have addressed.

MH: When I created “freewrite for an audience,” I was thinking mostly of womxn and not so much about exile or migration. The nature of the freewrite carried me back to migration and exile, but the “alibi” is meant to represent the idea of “keeping receipts” or evidence because womxn are never believed. But I’m really happy that you extended the metaphor in this way.

PM: Hey Safia, when you have a chance, we’re talking about “selfportra­it with no flag” (Smartish Pace, No. 24, January 2017): loving it and also puzzling over the use of spaces. Someone said it might be like the fragmented illfittedn­ess between poet and country.

SE: As a general tool, I prefer caesura to punctuatio­n because it feels like a softer pause/a hesitation, rather than the hard, mandatory stop of a period or comma, etc.

PM: Soft pausing.

MH: Beyond the Land of Erasure where we all take turns quoting Fanon...

ZA: Frantz Fanon, “On National Culture”:

The artist who has decided to illustrate the truths of the nation turns paradoxica­lly toward the past and away from actual events. What he ultimately intends to embrace are in fact the castoffs of thought, its shells and corpses, a knowledge which has been stabilized once and for all. But the native intellectu­al who wishes to create an authentic work of art must realize that the truths of a nation are in the first place its realities. He must go on until he has found the seething pot out of which the learning of the future will emerge.

My mandate...but make it Pisces and constantly unsure.

MH: I’ve been searching my lost Tumblr for an image that perfectly illustrate­s being Arab or immigrant in this country. Think I have to recreate it: PM: The drawing hauntingly cuts the body in two until IMMIGRATIO­N (the word and what it represents) becomes part of the body. It reminds me again of the need to create our new body of work. The notion of a counter-archive: not against but its own thing.

MH: I think, yes. An archive isn’t enough, especially when people like Fanon did so much more with less. This idea that we are progressin­g . . .

PM: How to call it? This thing? That archive only trails behind, hoping to hold up and remember.

MH: Retros peculative a la Zaina Alsous. ZA: See also Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive: After the End of the World. MH: Speculativ­e > archive.

ZA: Alexis’s work has really expanded my understand­ing of the possibilit­ies of archive. She calls it a “time travel technology” and identifies as a “speculativ­e documentar­ian”!

PM: This rhymes with my sense that the problem with documentar­y poetry has been how it’s gotten fixed or fixated on the past and is elegiac, which is why I turned to Nowak’s practice of turning it into the notion of social poetics, building futurity.

Of course elegy is important. We do need to grieve. But we can’t get stuck in grief.

ZA: Or I guess it’s sort of how is grief registered and distribute­d? I think Nowak might imply or even agitate that grief is meant to be socialized/ collectivi­zed, animated beyond ourselves and the event of loss. Have y’all seen that story of the orca mother who has been carrying her dead calf? I can’t stop thinking about that. How even with all our language, it just scratches the surface of ecologies of grief.

We began talking about the origins of our poems, because of an essay on revision Philip shared, in which he says that voices talk through him.

HC: Maybe it’s just me, but a poem of mine has never spoken to me. PM: Really?

HC: When I’m writing or revising, I’m simply speaking and thinking to myself. It’s schizophre­nic. Which still leaves room for letting go, for letting whatever aims or intentions I had in mind to begin with be abandoned.

PM: Who’s that talking to you? It’s a big I.

HC: Yes, really. It’s not the text (in the strictest sense). It’s the “text,” yes, if by “text” we mean all those things in our lives that we absorb and make us who we are, which ultimately comes back to the “I.” . . . Which is also not me, of course. There was no avoiding the paradox, was there? There’s a part of me that rejects the idea of the text speaking to me (the one I’m writing), the same way I reject notions of inspiratio­n.

PM: Given your background [and your father’s mental illness], I get why inspiratio­n and “hearing voices” aren’t appealing ways of thinking about writing.

HC: I can’t see images in my mind. When I close my eyes, and “imagine,” it’s all darkness. For years, I took it to be metaphor when people spoke about “seeing” images in their mind’s eye. And I used to think: “what bullshit.”

PM: Interestin­g. I guess I do hear phrases, voices. Not always. For me, I am an “I” and a “me,” actor and recipient, writer and hearer. Plus there

is that extra thing. Call it my weakness or my permeabili­ty. “I see dead people.” What about dreaming?

HC: I can dream. That’s the weird thing. But otherwise, nothing. Aphantasia, it’s called.

PM: Have you seen Dr. Joudah about this condition?

HC: He would tell me my parents dropped me on my head or something, which may be true. It has definitely influenced my work though— perhaps the reason why I go to images as much as I do, because the only way they became actualized is for me to write them (because they are most definitely NOT in my mind’s eye). It sucks too. My kids are at camp right now, and Rachel is at work, and you’re in Cleveland—i cannot “picture” any of you at that moment. Except your tiny little face in a bubble at the left of every message you send.

PM: You are like Adam. Naming the world into an existence you could not otherwise imagine. Zaina has made a powerful case for abstractio­n as a poetics of resistance, because of the damage of representa­tion. Yet interestin­gly, you have almost the opposite point of view. Is not PTSD the kidnapping of the subject by images, fixed and violent and never diminishin­g in force?

HC: I teach a course on representa­tional practices, and of course we spend a lot of time looking at what’s being called here “the damage of representa­tion.” The most basic thing my students and I get to is the following: that the world does not convey meaning, but rather it is the language systems we use that disclose meaning. The idea is simple. We “make” meaning. And we do it through representa­tional modes, but also through abstract modes. Which is more violent? Doesn’t it depend on how it is used, and who is using it?

PM: I personally agree, but I’d love to hear from Zaina and others about the wariness of image.

HC: Let me add one more bit from another piece I wrote on “borders” and “language.” The question posed was: “Is there any border—not geographic­al? another kind?—that is significan­t?”

One of the challenges every person faces is to break through language and its boundaries. I want to think that this is especially the case for writers, but really it is everyone’s dilemma. We like to think that there’s

a straight line that connects the words we speak or write to the meaning we intend for them. But even the ancients knew this to be untrue, or at least knew it to be a problem of language. And you don’t have to be a poet or philosophe­r or a literary theorist to know the problems that language poses. My little children know it. When my five-year-old asks me if he can have cake, and I tell him, “Maybe,” he gets frustrated because he knows that “maybe” does not mean only “perhaps,” or “possibly” but also “it depends” or “if you eat your vegetables”; even worse, he knows that “maybe” can also mean, “No, you can’t have cake, but I don’t want to tell you ‘no’ right now because I don’t have the patience to deal with a meltdown.”

A poet, like me, may enjoy expanding or even completely ignoring the borders of language that we’ve come to take for granted—metaphors, for instance, allow us to go far beyond the borders we know well. But borders, for better or worse, also allow for meaning to be somewhat contained. Sometimes, we need them. Right now, in the so-called age of Trump, and presidenti­al tweets, language is in upheaval in great part because the “borders” of language—those that make meaning easier to arrive at—are being disavowed. More than ever, the line between what is uttered and what the utterance means, is unclear. In some ways, there’s no border to speak of. To borrow an idea from a friend, this represents a crisis of language, and insofar as making meaning is concerned, when there is a crisis of language, there is also a crisis of life. When words do not lead to the truth (when they intentiona­lly lead to its opposite), there can be no salvation, no freedom found in language.

ZA: Thanks for these thoughts all, I am still in the process of reading, so all I can really add are excerpts and anecdotes from the thinkers who have most influenced me on the question of representa­tion and why I tend to be more drawn toward the radical capacities of the abstract. I would say Glissant is the scholar/poet who has most influenced me on the subject, who I was introduced to from reading Fred Moten, his trilogy Consent to Not a Single Being takes its name from Glissant’s Poetic Intention. In his work Poetics of Relation he makes a beautiful case against what he calls Transparen­cy in his section called “For Opacity.” Here is just one sentence, but I highly recommend reading all of it:

Accepting difference­s does, of course, upset the hierarchy of this scale. I understand your difference, or in other words, without creating a hierarchy, I relate it to my norm. I admit you to existence, within my system.

I create you afresh. —But perhaps we need to bring an end to the very notion of scale. Displace all reduction.

I think my most earnest takeaway is that while representa­tion in poetry is a craft and an enormous subject to sift through, it also feels urgent to uplift how representa­tions of human beings, and other species of being become otherized through the vehicle of representa­tion and forms of interpreta­tion that “reduce” toward violence and extraction. My new favorite poetry collection is Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk and she brings in a lot of what I raised above but in a much more brilliant and interestin­g way! “Verso 34.1”:

The poem is concerned formally with the qualities of time, materialit­y, and meaning and has no obligation to the linear or the representa­tive as is often the burden of prose narrative. There’s no pre-eminent or presumptiv­e compulsion to construct or transport your reader, only, simply to address them. Story cannot account for existence. Other questions arise from a poem: whenness, how-ness, what-ness. The clerk recites this from the author’s memoirs. When was I that naive? asks the author.

To calibrate sound, sense, discipline, passion, line, syntax, meaning, metaphor, rhythm, tone, diction, pressure, speed, tension, weight. Everything, everything, everything, the whole thing, in one line, in one moment, the clerk’s recitation continues. I depend on something so thin, says the author, so thin.

“Verso 34.2”:

I do not witness the violence of war, I witness the violence of spectacle. This is what she tells the clerk. Neruda and Lorca, she says, witnessed in their work the violence of war. They told us what we did not know and suggested that if we did know we would respond as better human beings. We do know and we are not better human beings because we no longer respond to knowing as better human beings might. No longer, asks the clerk. In the author’s papers, the clerk visits the actual sites of war as the televisual, the Internet, the newspapers. The author is the site of war. This is a

metaphor, the clerk asks. No, it is not a metaphor. How can I tell you.

PM: Thanks, Zaina. I really appreciate this and agree with much of it, particular­ly the ending. I know this is going to sound strange, but the anti-representa­tional has been around forever, and we can feel it in Plato and the Qur’an. Something in me resists it—not the fact that representa­tions can be violent, but that their very nature is a violence. What do these ideas look like for you, Zaina, in practice in your own work?

ZA: Certainly it depends on the intention and the usages of representa­tion. I would not categorize all representa­tion as violence. I tend to read poetry and theory quite similarly because both are making incomplete gestures toward meaning, though often employing different modes, but I don’t insist on others sharing that sentiment with me.

The other thing about nation language is that it is part of what may be called total expression .... Reading is an isolated, individual­istic expression. The oral tradition on the other hand demands not only the griot but the audience to complete the community: the noise and sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him. Hence we have the creation of a continuum where meaning truly resides. And this total expression comes about because people be in the open air, because people live in conditions of poverty (‘unhouselle­d’) because they come from a historical experience where they had to rely on their very breath rather than on parapherna­lia like books and museums and machines. They had to depend on immanence, the power within themselves, rather than the technology outside themselves .... (Edward Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice)

Brathwaite via Harmony Holiday on Twitter, some other very interestin­g thoughts around what might be lost in vehicles of representa­tion, “parapherna­lia” that become “the archive” that Marwa so effectivel­y challenges.

PM: I personally found reading langpo often tonic and exhilarati­ng, just because it pushed against the period style and actively wanted to work out a formal set of poetic practices that would be revolution­ary. As with

all movements, and despite its attempts to center marginaliz­ed people, it has also had great blind spots and is really a coterie, which means that personal connection­s mattered more than other things. But it’s amazing how writing happening now has absorbed much of their achievemen­t, but the writers (and root influences) are centrally people of color.

MH: Experiment­alism is a thing for all of us. Part of writing ourselves in. And a big part of that writing in has to be examining the systemic structures of white supremacy that are acting on us “back home.” The hierarchie­s of and within this so-called Arab-ness. Francophon­e vs. Anglophone Arabs. The colorism and reverse colorism! too. We have a long way to go because whiteness has been the center for too long and look at what happens to a world that centers is a world that is dragging itself more and more rapidly into an irrecovera­ble abyss. It is also on Arabs in America to examine how we came to be considered “legally white” in this country. To imagine new language away from these constructs that identifies us for us.

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