November 27 | Jack Morton Auditorium
Thank you for joining the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and the Institute for Middle East Studies for “Finding Home,” part of the Literary Conversations series examining the role of literature in some of the most urgent debates of our time.
Tonight’s conversation features three writers at the forefront of a tradition that stretches back a century, when new arrivals from the Middle East created clubs and journals to showcase the first literary works by Arabs in the United States.
Those early writers chronicled the trauma and promise of migration, the jolt of being uprooted and replanted on foreign soil with no guarantee of making it. They wrote about the difficulties of sorting what stayed and what was discarded in the assimilation process. Sometimes, they were accused of nostalgia, a critique that always made me wonder what was wrong with celebrating your food, your grandmother, your homeland.
In the decades since, identity and culture have endured as central themes, but they’re no longer the only frames for Arab-American literary contributions. Subjects and styles continue to evolve, reflecting a diverse, innovative generation of writers that is building on – and sometimes subverting – the work of the pioneers.
The changes reinvigorate the question asked by the Palestinian-American poet Lisa Suheir Majaj in a 2008 essay: Is there even such a thing as “Arab-American literature?” Is there, she asked, “some ‘Arab-American’ essence defining and binding together individual texts as part of a larger whole?”
Perhaps the tie that binds Arab-American writers today is a resurgent political force that insists on treating them as perpetual outsiders, despite their nearly 100 years of sharing who they are through novels, poems, and plays. They’re still fighting ugly stereotypes and white-savior tropes in the lopsided battle to tell their own stories as independently and authentically as possible.
Tonight, you will hear from the writers I wished for as a young bookworm with a funny name growing up in Oklahoma. I searched libraries for characters whose names, food, religion, or language reminded me of those in my family’s home. But all I could find was, “The Bobbsey Twins and Their Camel Adventure,” or stacks of bodice-rippers with swarthy desert tribesmen and captive Arabian princesses.
The good news: the proliferation of writers like the ones we’re hearing from tonight mean that Arab-American readers can be choosier these days. And it should be emphasized that readers from other backgrounds also benefit from stories that crack through tired narratives and show Arab and Arab-American experiences in all their complexity, through works that the editors of one anthology of Arab-American fiction called, “neither acts of betrayal nor acts of eulogy that sing uncritical praise.”
Those are the kinds of voices in conversation tonight. You will hear from a Lebanese-American novelist known for her intimate portraits of teenage girls wrestling with the pressures of identity and tradition. You will hear from a Syrian-born writer who packs powerful, even devastating, truths into the few lines of his very short stories. And you will hear from a fiction writer who drew from her own upbringing in South Philly to tell the stories of four intergenerational families whose roots are in Palestine.
Because of these writers and many others broadening the canon, when my young son goes looking for himself in the pages of a book like I once did, he has a better chance of finding a reflection.
Born in Damascus, Syria in 1968 and now living in Pittsburgh, Osama Alomar is the author of three collections of short stories and a volume of poetry in Arabic, and performs as a musician. His short stories have been published by Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Words Without Borders, The Southern Review, NewYorker.com, The Paris Review Daily, Conjunctions.com, Vice.com, Guernica Daily, The Outlet (the blog of Electric Literature), Noon, The Coffin Factory, Painted Bride Quarterly, Gigantic, The Literary Review, and Dissent. New Directions published Fullblood Arabian, a pamphlet-sized collection in 2014, and the story collection The Teeth of the Comb in 2017.
Susan Muaddi Darraj’s
Susan Muaddi Darraj’s short story collection, A Curious Land: Stories from Home, was named the winner of the AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, judged by Jaime Manrique. The book was published in December 2015 by the University of Massachusetts Press. It also won the 2016 Arab American Book Award, a 2016 American Book Award, and was shortlisted for a Palestine Book Award. In 2018, she was named a Ford Fellow by United States Artists.
Laila Halaby is the author of two novels, Once in a Promised Land (a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Authors selection; named by the Washington Post as one of the best 100 novels of 2007) and West of the Jordan (winner of a PEN/Beyond Margins Award), as well as a collection of poetry my name on his tongue (Syracuse University Press, Spring 2012). Halaby was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship for study of folklore in Jordan and holds two Masters’ degrees in Literature and in Counseling.
Laila has always been interested in the power of the creative voice and its role in healing from impossible-seeming traumas. What started out as a lark – listening to Palestinian refugee kids recount folktales – has turned into a lifelong obsession with stories and creativity as an antidote to suffering and she has found ways to incorporate storytelling in all of her social service jobs, including her work with people trying to quit smoking, with homeless youth, and with therapy patients. She currently works as a counselor with cancer patients, as a program coordinator in an expressive arts program for refugee survivors of torture and trauma, and as a museum educator. She also designed a series of programs at the VA hospital and taught creative writing in the Polytrauma Unit there for a few years.
Hannah Allam is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslim life. She previously spent a decade as a foreign correspondent at McClatchy, serving as Baghdad bureau chief during the Iraq War and Cairo bureau chief during the Arab Spring uprisings. She has also reported extensively on national security and race/demographics. Her reporting on Muslims adapting to the Trump era won national religion reporting prizes in 2018. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won a Polk Award for Syria reporting and an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq. Allam is on the board of the International Women’s Media Foundation and was a 2009 Nieman Fellow at Harvard. She lives in Washington.