Michelle Hartman, Breaking Broken English: Black Arab Solidarities and the Politics of Language (Syracuse University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Michelle Hartman (MH): In the preface, I trace the origin of this book to my experience in a desegregating elementary school in the United States. I remember a scene from fifth grade and how it related to the fiercely contested politics of language in that school, particularly between Black Language speakers, who were students and parents, and white teachers and administrators. In some ways, my deep interest in language started then.
I also trace the origins of this book to another personal line of interest, the raising of Black children in Montreal between Arabic, English, and French—a similarly but also differently contested politics of language in daily life. My everyday experience of language and its politics intersects with my intellectual interest in language politics, how they play out in literature, and in particular how politics and aesthetics engage and constitute each other in literary texts. This, in turn, connects closely to my own political commitments, especially around the liberation of Palestine.
When I searched for scholarship around these different issues, ideas, themes, and commitments, particularly work that brings them together, I found very little. Black-Arab solidarity is talked about a little, language use in English-language Arab literature is talked about a little, politics and language are talked about a little. Palestine is talked about, but rarely in relation to culture and language. I wrote this book to tie all of these topics together and to try to link politics, literature, language, and culture.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MH: The book addresses Black-Arab solidarity over time, especially from the 1960s and 1970s through to today. It looks closely at solidarity, not only as it is narrowly construed as political, but also at artistic, poetic, and literary expressions of this solidarity. The book focuses a great deal on Palestine, though this is not the only question or issue addressed in relation to Black-Arab solidarity in the United States, or in these literary works.
I want to take a moment here to actually mention the literary works that I analyze in the book. At the various readings and launches I have done to promote the book so far, I have come to realize that I really want people to read the works I am analyzing and discussing as much, if not more, than my own book! If people all go out and read these amazing works of fiction and poetry and think through them, so much of my job is done.
In the final chapter, I discuss my translation (from Arabic into English) of Radwa Ashour’s memoir, The Journey, a memoir of her time studying African American literature in the United States in the 1970s. Prior to this, I analyze two works by Randa Jarrar, A Map of Home, and stories from Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, especially as related to the politics of gender. I work in depth with Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin, her creative use of Palestinian language in English, and also her thematizing of African American life in the United States. In the first chapter on poetry, I work with pieces by Naomi Shihab Nye, Saladin Ahmed, DH Melhem, and Suheir Hammad. All of the poems I read are written in one way or another as homage to African American figures, and I use this lens to explore direct expressions of solidarity in relation to what I call the “soundscape” that is created in order to encode these messages.
Suheir Hammad’s work is also a part of my theoretical framework, and I read her breaking poems in relation to critical work by Fred Moten, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, James Baldwin, and Geneva Smitherman. This group of writers and thinkers is the real inspiration behind the analysis. I try to work with the cultural criticism that Jordan, Baldwin, and Smitherman were producing in the 1970s and onward, particularly about language use in the United States and the need to value Black language and its cultural importance. I put this in conversation with the criticism and insights into poetry by Lorde, Moten, and Hammad.
The book might sound like it is very big and sweeping and, in some ways, it is. I try to bring a range of exciting ideas together that push us forward to think about freedom and liberation. But at the same time, I am a literary critic. I also focus on aesthetics and language within the texts and offer ways to think about them in relation to these bigger issues and ideas, through small and specific examples.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MH: Years ago, I wrote several pieces on literary expressions of Black-Arab solidarity—too many years ago! This book is, in many ways, a means of following up and working through some of those early thoughts and explorations. Rather than mostly focusing on literature written in Arabic, however, it is a sustained look at Arab and Arab American fiction in relation to, and in conversation with, African American intellectual thought and literary expression.
But this does not mean that the book is unrelated to my previous work on language and literature. My last book, Native Tongue, Stranger Talk: The Arabic and French Literary Landscapes of Lebanon (2014), is also a study of language use—Arabic words and expressions—in French-language literary texts by women authors. In many ways, the techniques and the strategies used by the authors I analyze in this book have something in common with and speak to the kinds of writing I am analyzing in Breaking Broken English. What is different in my new book is that I draw mostly upon Black intellectual and cultural resources and rely on this to shape and frame the study. This is important to how my study develops and the directions it takes, which in turn informs the content of the book—which is, after all, about Black-Arab solidarity.
Finally, it may not seem as obvious, but writing this book is closely related to my work and thought as a literary translator from Arabic to English. One chapter is devoted to an analysis of my translation of Radwa Ashour’s memoir, The Journey. I draw on my experience as a translator to do this, and also my extensive work in translation theory and the politics of translating Arabic into English.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MH: I hope that people who care about Arab and Black literatures and cultures will read this book, and also people who are interested in politics but who do not necessarily think of literature and poetry as relevant.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MH: I am currently working on three main projects. I am translating two novels from Arabic into English, the IPAF-shortlisted Summer with the Enemy by Shahla Ujayli and She, Me, and the Other Women by Jana Elhassan.
The second is a multi-year collaborative project with my colleague Malek Abisaab, called “Women’s War Stories”sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We are bringing together history, literature, and artistic practice in telling women’s stories of the Lebanese Civil War.
I am now embarking on a third project in collaboration with my colleague at the University of Toronto, rosalind hampton. It explores the complex relationships between Black students and other students of color in progressive political organizing at two Canadian university campuses, through an analysis of student newspapers.
J: Two of your projects above talk about collaborations; in what ways is this book the result of collaborative efforts, thought processes, and work?
MH: The same question is often posed about translation work, which—like academic writing—is at the same time intensely individual and isolating and deeply collaborative in the thought and effort that goes into producing it.
I see the project of this book as collaborative in a number of ways. The first is that it was conceived for and published as the first book in the new series of Critical Arab American Studies at Syracuse University Press, edited by Carol Fadda. Carol is a colleague with whom I have had many conversations over the years and whose commitment to a more engaged and critical Arab American studies makes the work of so many of us possible. Some of the people who I was talking to and thinking with in different ways at the beginning of my work in this area, so many years ago, are also involved in the book series—such as Rabab Abdulhadi, Sarah Gualtieri, and Nadine Naber. Colleagues such as Therí Pickens, whose work has deeply influenced and pushed my own forward, are also involved in that series.
Collaboration also means thinking alongside work different from your own. This has been the case with Lena Merhej, whose drawing graces the cover of my book.
For me, the political work I do, inside and outside of academia, is crucial to the production of my analysis and scholarship. For this, I think of groups I work with closely like SPHR McGill, CUWU, a local network of professors, BDS Quebec, and Faculty for Palestine (in Canada). The way in which my conversations and actions in those groups influences what I write and how I think cannot be underestimated.
Excerpt from the book
Jordan Black/ June in Jerusalem (pp. 71-74)
Each breaking poem in Hammad’s collection has many meanings; these are illuminated and expanded when they are read aloud not only as a collection of sounds that are connected to meanings and not merely as printed words. The soundscape more largely is a crucial part of Hammad’s contribution to the philosophy and practice of breaking and what is created in the break. My final example here returns us to the figure of June Jordan. None of the breaking poems are dedicated to any individual and unlike previous collections of Hammad’s poetry, they do not make frequent reference to important poets, artists, and musical figures directly or by name, though there are some. Hammad does however inscribe these poems within multiple literary, cultural, and political traditions—particularly Black American ones—in often less direct ways. The second poem in the collection, for example, indirectly highlights June Jordan. The subtlety of how this and other uses of language play out in “(wind) break (her).” From the very title, for example, wordplay and double meanings add layers to the poem, which must be deciphered through sound not just the way the words look printed on the page. “Wind break her” read literally leads us to believe that the wind might harm the female person, the poet perhaps. But the sound implies that the poem is telling us something opposite: it invokes clothing used to protect against the weather and suggesting her resilience as a wind breaker. This poem, like many others in the collection, juxtaposes many words which, when read together in different combinations, give different meanings, drawing a wide range of allusions. The first stanza reads:
fairuz turquoise dawn ears ring
voice diwan detroit divine
smoke full lips fall on back baalbek
museum mezze sabra jordan black
june in jerusalem.
The placement of these at first seemingly unconnected words is the key to analyzing his poem. There is a way to read the poem as operating outside of English grammar, in that there are no verbs. Taking into account the zero copula, Arabic and Black Language both have grammatically correct sentences that do not use verbs. Moreover, though it is possible to read the poem as having no verbs at all, a number of the words here can be used as either nouns or verbs—“dawn,” “ring,” “voice,” “smoke,” and so on. The first line immediately draws attention to this word play and its double meanings, at the same time alerting the reader to the importance of sound. It is through sound and reading aloud that it is possible to decide if “ring” should be understood as a noun or a verb: “ears ring,” invokes earrings, as much as the sound reverberating in your ear. Hammad’s language thus might be called grammatical multiplicity rather than insufficiency, as Moten would have it. It is important to underline, however, that Moten is actually playing off the notion of insufficiency and rather referring to how such grammars are viewed and understood. For him, of course, this is lyrical surplus, the very location of sounds that can become home.
Hammad’s theorization of the break is productively read with Moten’s. This can be seen particularly well in “(wind) break (her)” in the kinds of grammatical and word play explored in the examples above, which are connected to other kinds of play like that in line breaks. Her work creates undeniably distinct soundscapes to hold its lyrical surplus. The line breaks are meant to be where a line stops and meanings stop, but in poetry each line can also be read as spilling into the next, depending on how they are constructed, a technique poetry critics call enjambment. Hammad uses line breaks to challenge and inscribe meaning, to play with grammar, and to create sounds. Words that seem unconnected then can be connected, and other words connect differently than they might otherwise. In “(wind) break (her),” for example, “Fairuz” and “turquoise” are placed next to each other. The juxtaposition of these two words can read as a translation, which it is—as the two words mean the same thing in Arabic and English—but no indication is given of this. If the two words are read as a sentence with a zero copula, they would become “Fairuz is turquoise,” in Standard English. No indication is given that these words mean the same thing; Fairuz is absent from the glossary at the back. You must supply this knowledge yourself in order for this level of meaning and word play to become clear. Fairuz is not just the precious stone, after which a color is named but also an iconic singer, whose songs for Palestine are particularly well known and appreciated throughout the world.
Hammad connects Fairuz, and thereby also turquoise, to the ears ringing in the same line, which leads to the word “voice” opening the following line. This reinforces the meanings connected to the iconic singing voice. The word “voice” then introduces the words that follow, “diwan detroit divine,” an alliterative trio that that makes use of an almost identical sound pattern with the two words on the ends. A diwan in Arabic can mean a place to sit or a gathering, and is the origin of the word divan or sofa in English. This is close to the godly, heavenly, or wonderful meaning of the word divine. In Arabic this word has another meaning as well: a collection of poetry is also a diwan. These two words are separated by Detroit, a city known today for both its majority Black population and important musical history, as well as large and well-established Arab American communities. The three words create sound together that infuses a positive meaning to Detroit, and connects this both to poetry and also a place of gathering. The concept and word “divine” is one also often associated specifically with the singing voice of Fairuz, tying the first and second lines together in meaning, as well as sound and grammar.
Poetry, gathering, and positive meaning, as well as sounds and divinity are then echoed and reinforced further in the last line of the stanza. The surface meaning of the word “June” is of course be the month, and this has meaning in the context of Palestine and Lebanon—associated with Fairuz—for being the month of the Six Day War of 1967, also referred to as the June War, particularly in Arabic. This meaning is then reinforced by the word “black” preceding it; “jordan/ black june” can be read as an allusion to the Black September massacres of Palestinians, which took place in Jordan, the word preceding “black” in this stanza. The word “sabra” reinforces this implied meaning, being the location of a different massacre, at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in September 1982. This placement of the words, however, adds another layer of meaning and can be read as Hammad calling the name of June Jordan. “jordan/ black june” could be a way of naming the poet and then referring to her proudly as Black. June Jordan’s famous poem “Moving Towards Home” is dedicated to the children of Atlanta and Lebanon, in the aftermath of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, further shoring up this suggestion. Inverting her name and using the line break to add in the adjective reverses grammar and challenges the reader/listener to think in more depth about layers of meaning. Another link drawing this all together is the diwan of poetry, and the sounds of the divine voice of Fairuz ringing out and singing for Jerusalem to June Jordan who wrote of the massacres at Sabra.