Editors’ Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Arab American poetry. Read the rest here.
In September of 2013, U.N. inspectors concluded that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons on its own people near the Ghouta area of Damascus, killing roughly 300. This, reported through liberal U.S. media outlets such as NPR, finally brought the civil war that had been developing since 2011 in the land of my mother’s people to my liberal U.S. awareness. It was during this time that white U.S. writer friends, on learning I was working on a new manuscript of poems, started asking, “Are you writing about Syria?”
The most generous take on the question I can imagine still renders it ridiculous since, at least for those sincerely interested in artistic experiences of conflict, positioning really should matter. Given a choice between my book and, say, Adrenaline by Ghayath Almadhoun, it is absolutely Almadhoun we should be reading—since he is a Palestinian refugee born and raised in Syria whose positioning has situated his imagination in relation to particular acts of witness; since he is the one who has, by his own account, lost some 200 friends and acquaintances since 2011 to Assad’s regime; since it is he, now living in Sweden, who hears bombs in the background when he can get through by mobile phone to his mother who is still in Damascus1.
The less generous take on my friends’ curiosity about my writing is that they were asking with a mixture of compassion and disgust. I assume compassion because otherwise every interaction would be reduced to the pursuit of advantage. But I believe that behind my friends’ question there was also some measure of disgust. I couldn’t help hearing this friendly question as a more intimate version of the exchanges I’ve had with some white U.S. writers who felt they could ask me to account for what they saw as the increased market value of writers “of color” in the wake of the intense attention cultural commentators, critics, and readers gave to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. The arched civility of these exchanges barely concealed the implication that white reading series curators, prize judges, hiring committees, editors, and publishers were failing in their responsibility as gatekeepers of distinction out of fear of being called out, usually on social media, for more or less passively maintaining a white supremacist order.
These exchanges were particularly painful when they touched on the multiplicity or imprecision of my own heritage, blending as it does my father’s Andean mestizaje with my mother’s line of migrating Syrians. When my writing was included in Poetry magazine as part of a folio from a Latinx anthology, a white poet and editor who knew that my work had previously been awarded an honorable mention in the Arab-American Book Award asked, “Are you going to use every identity to get published?” Such “micro-aggressions,” at least among my network of writers of color, are a fairly banal part of our professional and artistic lives. Just as routinely we assure ourselves that white U.S. writers have to dismiss our work as a function of some current frenzy of political correctness because they cannot imagine that their own success may have ever been the outcome of lazy reading practices conditioned by long-standing racialized habits of assessing value. The “haters,” we say, suffer from imaginations so impoverished that they cannot account for one or another form of “excellence” or “magic” honed through the very act of surviving generations of such “haters.”
Is it solipsism or co-dependence that these self-affirming formulations betray? In any case, most days I believe them. But it’s also true that our very inclusion into this or that journal, this or that list of finalists, this or that reading series can sometimes be a kind of erasure. Take, for example, this introduction to three contemporary Syrian poets—Akram Al-Katreb, Osama Esber, and Firas Sulaiman—each writing about their country’s civil war:
Their poems have in common the voice of the suffering in the ancient lands of the Middle East and the longing of the exiled poet. We loved these fiery new works, their live language, and the love the poets show for their native war-torn country. We hope you’ll like them, too2.
I don’t mean to trash the good work of a venue such as National Translation Month where this introduction appeared. We’re starved for literary translation outlets, and I’m grateful to learn about more contemporary Syrian poets. Still, the breezy way this passage “appreciates” art born of trauma should feel, well, off. The way this language associates contemporary suffering with “ancient lands” risks naturalizing that suffering by coding it a-historic and inevitable.
If white U.S. writers can’t see how their educations, career paths, and their very concerns are racialized, that doesn’t mean U.S. writers of color should insist on pretending our success or inclusion is in every instance natural and self-evidently earned. When a culture’s excellence, such as Syria’s today, is included into the U.S. literary conversation in simplifying terms, it seems we are in fact caught up in some cold market calculation, executed however unwittingly, that trades in reductive identities instead of in art or in the questions from which art is born.
I’m not interested in prescribing anything for anyone, particularly in regards to how we identify or how we show up publicly and in our work. Writers and artists who tend to their ancestors and who find their work nurtured by ancestral wisdom fascinate me. Cautiously, and on the recommendation of writer Raquel Gutierrez, I’m reading Gloria Anzaldua’s posthumous Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro, in which Anzaldua develops her ideas about how pre-conquest indigenous knowledge can inform her artistic, spiritual, and political practices. I approach this work with caution because unlike many of my friends, or many of the writers with whom I’m happily grouped, I recognize more degrees of displacement between my life and the traditions observed by the generations that precede me. As far back as I can see I come from opportunists and immigrants who were ready to leave whatever they had so they could keep moving and who were ready to weaponize what privileges and resources they carried with them to get over in each new context. I reserve the right to explore all traditions through which my ancestors articulated their lives, but I offer preferential treatment to their acts of resistance, such as these were, not to their avowals of racial identities that were never, in any damn way, devised for our benefit.
I am interested, for myself, in both taking advantage of moments of inclusion and in troubling them. I’m proud to be included as an Arab-American, or as Latinx, or queer, but know that I’m writing as a real American. What could that mean? One of my favorite writers, Brandon Shimoda, recently sent me this excerpt from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:
“Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, it hides his descendants from him, and divides him from his contemporaries; it continually turns him back into himself, and threatens, at least, to enclose him entirely in the solitude of his own heart.”
Of course de Tocqueville was wrong. American democracy, such as it is in 2018, could not more tightly bind me to my ancestors, descendants, and contemporaries. The binding is made of bodies, their muscle and sinew that hold the memory of tensing in anticipation of and against forced displacement, tensing in anticipation of and against local racial and sexual terrorism, tensing in anticipation of and against exploitation in corporatized farm, factory, and university, tensing in anticipation of and against anticipatory criminalization. If I’m a real American I’m not alone, I’ve got all my victims with me.
I won’t illustrate the point by inserting here the ubiquitous posters and memes that remind us that the only good Arab is a dead Arab. I will say that maybe the only good American is a suicidal American. I am reading and studying about it, growing and getting better every day. I’ve learned enough to know that American suicide of the kind I’m imagining could not be material. When the white U.S. citizen Rachel Corrie knelt her body between the home of a Palestinian pharmacist and an Israeli Defense Forces armored bulldozer, she was killed, and her death generated no policy, legal, or diplomatic consequence3. I guess I’m talking about killing the idea of America in ourselves. Haven’t you heard of the bell makers of medieval Europe who, once they realized warmongers found their molds to be close enough approximations of the shapes of early cannons, destroyed their molds rather than letting them be used for war, and so destroyed the capital that generated their livelihoods and their identities? Haven’t you heard of the Vietnam War Veterans honored as heroes who presented themselves before the White House en masse to throw their medals over the fence and unpin themselves from the state? Haven’t you heard of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who in 2018 marched to the border with Mexico and threw their passports over the fence and into the dirt? Would you like to?
My friend, the Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah, says that’s just stupid. He says only someone with a passport’s sure purchase on a powerful state would dream such a theoretical suicide. Months earlier it was my turn. I ended whatever long and winding conversation we were having over the phone by raising my voice to say that everybody chooses their own comfort and safety first unless they’re pushed, irrevocably, into radical action. Maybe the realest American is not a type of person, maybe it’s the act of oscillating between those two positions, between the dream of whole cloth undoing on the one hand, and of inclusion into some awful guarantee of safety on the other. And maybe by turns, with my victims and my friends, we’re doing it together.
2. “Trees of Flame Grow: Three Syrian Poets in Translation” National Translation Month, http://nationaltranslationmonth.org/trees-of-flame-grow-three-syrian-poets-in-translation/