Mazen Naous, Poetics of Visibility in the Contemporary Arab American Novel (The Ohio State University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Mazen Naous (MN): In Poetics of Visibility in the Contemporary Arab American Novel, I argue that Arab Americans exist in a precarious position that I call hyper-in-visibility, a paradox of simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility that occasions the necessity for Arab American representations of Arab American lived realities. Engaging the interplay between and combination of aesthetics and politics in contemporary Arab American novels, I demonstrate that the novels’ poetics cannot be extricated from or subsumed under the content. In my analyses of form and aesthetics, I uncover crucial transcultural and transpoetic possibilities that extend beyond the politics of representation.

The book examines the novelistic poetics and cross-cultural practices of Arab American writers before and after September 11, 2001. The literature (and cultural production more generally) of Arab Americans is just emerging from years of neglect in the US academy, where it was not readily admitted into the canon alongside other rubrics for literatures of migration and exile. The book aims to secure a space for Arab American literature in the fields of postcolonial diasporas and transnational American studies, and to assert its importance to aesthetics and artistic innovation. Drawing upon works that have received varying degrees of critical attention, the book sets out to expand, complicate, and unfix dominant notions of “Arabs” in the United States. One of the project’s principal goals is to demonstrate how Arabic, Arabs, and Islam are in continual dialogue and negotiation with their adopted country despite their ostensible linguistic, cultural, and religious opacity and otherness.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MN: In the 1990s, Arab American writers spoke of their cultural invisibility in the United States. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 threw the Arab and Arab American communities into sharp relief, however, and brought with them the responsibility, which Arab American writers continue to carry, of engaging and challenging pernicious stereotypes and Islamophobia in the United States. The designation “Arab American Writing” is necessarily political both in terms of its reception and its subject matter, but Arab American writing is also art. Unfortunately, both the classification and the critical reception of Arab American writing continue to posit the cultural production of Arab Americans in overdetermined sociopolitical matrices that prescribe certain readings, which tend to deemphasize the works’ artistic significance. The tendency is to promote readings of Arab American novels as issues novels, as if Arab Americans are incapable of sophisticated artistic interventions. The aesthetic and political elements in Arab American fiction are symbiotic and co-generative, and my book investigates this relationship. In so doing, the book reimagines and reimages largely unrecognized subjects in Arab American communities, who are rendered invisible by Islamophobia’s singular and reductive representation of Arabs and Muslims (and the conflation of the two).

Poetics of Visibility analyzes artistic detail and innovation, and explores the relationship between politics and aesthetics. It offers analyses of Diana Abu-Jaber’s Arabian Jazz and Crescent, Rabih Alameddine’s Koolaids: The Art of War, Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land, and Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. In the book, I engage the novels’ poetics, which include painting/vignettes; counterpoint in the style of J. S. Bach; lingual improvisation and blue notes as influenced by black jazz expression; creative overlaps between Christianity and Islam; anagrammatic play; and oral storytelling and framing in the style of A Thousand and One Nights. These poetics capacitate the novels’ theorization of their own interventions, and enable Arab American characters to emerge as visible transcultural citizens within transnational and transpoetic frameworks. These include LGBTQ communities, complex Muslim characters, Muslim women and feminists, Christian Arabs, Druze Arabs, and secular Arabs.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MN: While I have always been interested in the art of Arab American literary production, Poetics of Visibility is the culmination of years of research and writing on the relationship between aesthetics and politics in the works of Arab American authors. This project has allowed me to better engage the novels’ transpoeticism, which intersects with the production of many cultures. The novels I analyze enter into a complex and creative dialogue with the Bible, the Qur’an, Shakespeare, Homer, A Thousand and One Nights, African American jazz, and J. S. Bach. These form multiple, productive combinations, which I describe as Arab American polyphonics.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

MN: I expect my book to contribute to debates on aesthetics and politics in Arab American literature and on ethnic and minoritarian literatures in the United States, and to play a role in promoting Arab American literature as art.

It is my hope that the book will find its way to multiple intellectual, artistic, and political spaces. I believe that it would appeal to scholars in the fields of Arab American studies, American studies, queer and feminist studies, art, music, and culture.

Outside of academia, I hope that my project would serve as a guide to the diversity of Arab Americans, and as a resource for artists, musicians, and cultural practitioners who are interested in the cultural production of Arab Americans. Furthermore, I would like Poetics of Visibility to find its way to anyone who is invested in intersections and solidarity as counterpoints to ethnonationalism and cultural essentialism. Here as well, I hope that the book underscores the value of contemporary Arab American poetics to the pursuit of a more just United States.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MN: My next monograph, provisionally titled The Musiqa of Arab American Literature, will focus on the musical-lingual interart preoccupations in Arab American literature, and extend the scope of engagement to include Arab American poetry. My new project’s aim will be to investigate the presence and approximations of musical themes, forms, and sounds in contemporary Arab American novels and poetry. The Musiqa of Arab American Literature takes up the following questions: Why does music play such an important role in these works? How do Arabic and Western musical forms (individually and in combination) complicate, energize, and critique the sociocultural and political contexts represented in the novels and poems? How does music create audibility on Arab American terms? How does musicality estimate and sound out oral storytelling components?

J: How do you perceive your book in relation to the coronavirus pandemic? 

MN: When one writes a book, one does not think of competing with a pandemic. I have given serious thought to the impact, and even viability, of Poetics of Visibility in these difficult times. So many of us are busy surviving and so many are suffering, so why should anyone consider Arab American visibility and art? In contemplating this, I came to the realization that I might be asking the wrong question. That is, why should survival and scholarship be mutually exclusive? Art is about hope and so is transcultural visibility. Poetics of Visibility advocates for a world of intersections and generosity, one that resists the closing of minds and the closing of borders. It seems to me that in these dark moments of the pandemic, we must continue to affirm life and work for a more just world.


Excerpt from the book

In the case of Arab Americans, the term “transcultural” is critical on more than one level. While “transcultural” and “cross-cultural” appear to overlap in meaning (and both may describe people and things as well as many different aspects of literature), I use “cross-cultural” to suggest more clearly delimited or identified actions or practices of moving between cultures, as when Salwa Haddad, a character in Leila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land who is born in the US to Jordanian parents of Palestinian descent, grows up in Jordan, and reimmigrates as an adult to the US as a US citizen. While Salwa is able to negotiate the cultures that constitute her identity, she largely relinquishes her Palestinian and Jordanian roots in favor of a consumerist US citizenship. Matussem Ramoud, a Jordanian American character in Abu-Jaber’s novel Arabian Jazz, drums to the music of John Coltrane while fusing the beats of a vagrant drummer in his childhood village in Jordan. Matussem’s combining of two musical expressions is an example of transculturality […] In this formulation, Matussem’s blurring of musical boundaries is not an act of appropriation; rather, it is an act of participation, an acknowledgment of the transformative power of African American cultural expression. The African American experience is long and arduous, and it provides myriad models for cultural and creative resistance to racism and silencing. Matussem’s compound rhythms attest to that, and place Arab and African American drumming traditions in dialogue. The poetics of sound and rhythm call forth transcultural visibility out of the reductive silences of invisibility.

Silencing and invisibility are closely related. For many disenfranchised and vilified groups in the US, cultural apartheid is a lived reality. The continuing intimidation and silencing of Arabs and Muslims in the US closely relate to the denigration of Arab American cultures. Arabs and Muslims (and as conflated) are perceived as an un-American, violent group whose backward culture has nothing of worth to contribute to the US. And this perception facilitates cultural silencing and cultural apartheid. If these are the ravages of Arab American hyper-in-visibility, the lived transcultural experiences of Arab Americans speak otherwise […] Arabs are a heterogeneous and mixed people, and they carry a long transcultural memory that derives from their trade with Asia, North Africa, and Europe. Europe and the US’s interactions with the Middle East and North Africa are filtered largely through the machinations of imperial, colonial, and interventionist ambitions. From the Crusades to the US’s multiple interventions in their region, Arabs continue to add to their already rich cultural topography by virtue of exposure to the cultures of occupiers.

When they immigrate to the US, Arabs enter a negotiation with the multiple cultural inheritances of the US population, both adding to and acquiring cultural capital in the process. Theirs, like any other group’s, is a specific mode of transculturality, an Arab American-oriented transculturality, which, while productive, is not immune to the coercive influences of power within their communities and in relation to the dominant culture. Nonetheless, Arab American-oriented transculturality, which operates both on individual and collective levels, is valuable in that it dialogically interweaves Arab America into the sociocultural and artistic fabrics of the US. Furthermore, transcultural citizenship counterpoints transnational forms of the same, but it further deemphasizes the nation as a point of reference. The Sikes-Picot Agreement (1916), which divided the Ottoman-held areas of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine between the French and British, ultimately created “national” spaces of European making. Add to that anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia in the US, which represent Arab Americans as un-American, and the utility of transculturality as a designation becomes clear. The multiplex poetics of visibility in the novels I explore underscore transcultural modes of being in their combinations and forms […] Poetics of visibility—a poetics that disrupts the racialization of Muslims and Arab Americans—allows us to revisualize Arab and American cultures horizontally, as they create more equal and dialogic connections that transcend, in the space of poetics, the inequalities of power relationships.

If Islamophobic and anti-Arab constructions are capable of creating diversionary fear and loathing, in which scapegoated groups become the receptacles of all socioeconomic and cultural ills, the aesthetic expressions countering them must be effectively transformative and interventional even though they lack the public-relations arsenal available to the dominant culture. This is no small feat, and Arab American writers alongside many disenfranchised groups have had to take on this difficult responsibility.

Arab American writing frequently conveys an awareness of the role that art plays in giving voice to Arab American truths and lived realities […] And the presence of painting, photography, and music in the novels I analyze is further amplified by the combinations into which they enter. These include combinations of literary and art forms, identities, languages, and/or names. For instance, the character Matussem’s accented English combines with the poetics of jazz improvisation […] Matussem’s accented jazz improvisations deterritorialize American English and produce lingual-musical expressions that are neither simply lingual nor musical but an improvisatory combination of both. Such poetic combinations have a direct relationship to the identities of the characters who produce them […] In other words, the transitive/improvisatory aspect of poetic combinations sets the framework for further combinations on the levels of aesthetics and identity. No combination is ever complete or final.

Furthermore, acts of combination navigate seemingly disparate cultures and experiences, using contiguity to suggest equivalence […] For instance, Alameddine’s Koolaids juxtaposes the war on AIDS—and the war on gay men—in 1980s and 90s San Francisco with the Lebanese civil war in intersecting vignettes/fragments told by multiple narrators. The novel’s fragmentary form, consisting of 244 vignettes capable of entering into seemingly inexhaustible combinations, exposes the cruelty and hypocrisy of representations of the AIDS epidemic and the Lebanese civil war in the mass media and religious discourse. Readers of Koolaids struggle to find their way through the vignettes, which mimic aesthetically the vertiginous and painful experiences of AIDS and civil war.

The associations and combinations do not end there, however. The characters’ Arabic names travel to the US and appear in English-letter transliterations. As markers of difference and/or of Islam, names also reflect inequalities of power. The narrator of Ameen Rihani’s 1911 novel The Book of Khalid, which is considered to be the first Arab American novel written in English, asks: what is in a name? The question is undoubtedly rhetorical (and likely ironic), as names carry cultural meanings that tend to become invisible as they travel to non-Arab locations. Despite the names’ reappearance in transliteration, allowing non-Arabic speakers to approximate their sounds, their meanings do not readily translate. Yet names carry much significance to the characters attached to them. Furthermore, the narrator’s question is itself is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet […] In context of Shakespeare’s play, Juliet uncouples Romeo’s name from its association with the house of Montague. As such, Romeo’s name becomes Juliet’s enemy, not Romeo himself. Needless to say, such uncoupling is not available to Arab and Muslim Americans. Quite the contrary, their names render their owners guilty by cultural association. This consideration extends beyond Arab America and Arab American fiction. For example, “Moor” (Moraes) Zogoiby, the narrator of Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, also asks the same question in his investigations of his family’s history. The novels I analyze in Poetics of Visibility pay close attention to characters’ names, and their poetics attempt to recover their meanings and cultural resonances from forms of invisibility, including curtailment and Americanization.

Framing is another important aspect of formal and associative play in my archive of Arab American novels. The influence of A Thousand and One Nights’ frame-narrative is palpable in Once in a Promised Land and Crescent. Both novels offer a storyteller and a narrator, who share the overall narrative. Once in a Promised Land uses the classic framing device—offering two storytelling sections “Before” and “After” the central narrative—to challenge and reframe dominant stereotypes of Arab Americans. Crescent offers a storyteller and a narrator who must share the space of every chapter, most of which begin with Sirine’s uncle’s storytelling before moving into the realist narrative. The uncle’s storytelling metaphorizes and recultures Sirine’s experiences, and the novel tasks readers with reconciling the storytelling and realist sections, and, consequently, the largely manufactured rift between Arabs and Americans […] Transculturality is not easily attained, and those seeking it must engage framing in its multiple and complex valences […] The novels in this study make their political and cultural interventions as much through literary devices as through content. It is the novels’ heterogenous and combinatory poetics that bring forth complex forms of visibility from invisibility, and, in so doing, constitute a poetics of visibility that makes visible Arab American transpoetics. This is no mere tautology, however, but a mutually constitutive association: poetics of visibility, visible poetics.