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Broadening the Bookshelves: Getting to know Middle Eastern literature

In this month's column, we’re focusing on Middle Eastern literature.

An outdoor portrait of Dr. Jumana Bayeh, standing next to yellow flowers in front of a body of water flowing past a row of buildings.
Dr. Jumana Bayeh
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I am obsessed with the idea of homeland. As an immigrant, I write about my own homeland of Taiwan frequently, with a kind of wistful nostalgia that borders on dreaminess. This doesn’t make me unique or even remotely interesting since most of us come from a place, whether domestic or international, and think of it in warm fuzzy overtones. But after talking to Dr. Jumana Bayeh – senior lecturer at Australia’s Macquarie University in modern history, politics, and international relations, author of The Literature of the Lebanese Diaspora (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), President of the Australasian Association for Literature, and deputy chair of the Arab Theatre Studio – I have even more to process.

“The crux of diaspora literature,” Bayeh tells me, “is [that it] always contains a character [who is] not quite at home even though they are at home. They’re feeling like they’re out of place despite the fact that they’ve grown up in this place or lived in this place forever.” And for the genre of Middle Eastern literature, in particular, this is further complicated by the idea that there are actually two meanings of homeland we can contend with. One, says Bayeh, is the concept of homeland that is the “conventional and very conservative idea of home and homeland in diaspora thinking, which is there is an original homeland. It’s either in existence, or we’re going to make it come into existence, and we need to all return back to that place because that’s the place where we belong. It’s rooted in territory, it has borders.”

The second type of “homeland,” though, further addresses the idea of diaspora: “I see a different model of home [that] is not the conventional one. I think it’s one that we live. This model of home is quite fluid; it’s not grounded in place. It’s about the ideas, the objects, the memories that we carry with us. It’s in our lived experiences in kinship, family, community.”

Bayeh goes on to further draw distinction between the two types of homeland that she sees: The former, she says, may encourage folks to look at a homeland as being exclusionary to one type of people, or story, over another. But the latter “[isn’t] about defining a piece of territory as my home and to the exclusion of all others because, as you know, when you draw boundaries, there are people inside of it. But then there are people that you want outside of those boundaries in that second model of home. I think this second model of home in diaspora that I’m getting, in particular, from Arab texts stems from the fact that a lot of the work that [Arab writers] produced and the characters that they have, they don’t necessarily want to return home. There is no home. There is no home that they think that they can return to or want to return to. They have attachments to the place that they might have been born in, but it’s not somewhere that they’re seeking to return. The home is not an idealized space.”

For writers from the Middle East, where borders are more dependent on geopolitical happenings than perhaps in many other regions of the world, this second homeland is critical. Bayeh reminds me that this diasporic literature, too, belongs to the Western experience since it is originally written in English, but she adds, “What [Middle Eastern diasporic writers] are doing is contesting … a western notion of home as being stable and fixed in place. [In] Western Europe or Australia or America, we have these ideas that we can have a home and homeland (if we ignore, in the American and the Australian experience, our Indigenous populations that have been displaced). And I think Middle East and diaspora writing does challenge that view of a circumscribed home that exists in a particular place; that we can go to or that we should strive to one day return to and settle in. It wants a more accommodating vision of home. It wants a home that can take in the other and, in an ideal situation, can erase the concept of the other as strange or something that’s threatening from the outside; [something] that’s coming in to take our resources or whatever. That kind of dissipates in this particular model of home.”

The concept of a diasporic home that allows for a broader embrace of experiences is appealing to me, but I want to know more about what some of the attachments Bayeh spoke of might look like. “[The attachments] are not about property and ownership, but they can be attachments to the town that you came from or that the character might have come from. But I see attachments more in memory, in objects, in connections between people. But also there’s a lot of…attachments to discovery. Discovery of the self, like the identity of the in-between character or the migrant character. One novel in particular, by [Mohja Kahf] called The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, is about [the protagonist] trying to find a place for herself. So she goes through various aspects of her identity, and she’s really attached to trying to work out who she is, where she fits, and where she belongs, and she comes to a resolution at the end. It’s quite obvious that she belongs nowhere and kind of everywhere she can be. She can be Arab, she can be American, she can be Muslim, she can be a woman, you know, a feminist and all those sorts of things. So there’s some kind of embodied attachment, if that makes any sense.”

This embodied attachment leads to a broad intersectional identity. “One of the things that [the characters] do strive for is…a kind of security that allows them to just be the many things that they are, creating a world, a space where they can just be without having to deal with all of the other layers of not belonging, like racism.”

Bayeh points to The Tribe, by Arab-Australian writer Michael Mohammed Ahmad, as a good representation of this: “It starts off with the main character as a primary school child growing up in a part of Sydney. It’s set inside a home and all about this home space. You maybe only get one tiny scene of an experience of racism for this character. …The whole book is about creating the home space, how the space becomes this kind of world where Arab migrants just get on with living. The child character is not aware of racism, in a very poignant way. 

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“The book was shortlisted for a few prizes, and I talked to one of the judges, asking, ‘What did you think of that book, and why didn’t it win the prize?’ And she said to me, ‘The book just made me feel like it was just trapped in a home, and I didn’t get anything else.’ What she wanted from the book was what you get from migrant fiction, which is, ‘Kid goes to school. There’s all this racism. He comes home.’ This book did not deliver that. And so it didn’t fit the mold of what the reader wanted. For me, it was just such a refreshing, different piece of work from the migrant literature I read.”

Almost against my wishes, my brain immediately draws a direct line between “migrant literature” and politics, so I ask Bayeh if there is a way to read Middle Eastern literature without marking it as political. “Unfortunately – and this isn’t just about the fiction I work on – I do think that all art is political,” she says. “And I don’t mean that politics is always about a trauma narrative. If you’re watching something as banal as the original ‘Sex and the City,’ and you saw no [characters of color], that’s political. Or, you’re watching the remake of it now – yeah, they’ve included some. That inclusion is political.”

Bayeh also points out that the publishing world often wants to slot literature into geopolitical boundaries: “Don’t assume that these texts these writers create, whether they are novels or poems or whatever, can be easily slotted into a national boundary. This is how the discipline of literature really operates: We talk about American literature, we talk about Australian literature, and so on and so forth. ‘If it’s not Lebanese, what is it? Well, it’s [set in Australia]. No, it’s not quite Australian. Well, how does it fit into the Australian literary scene?’ So what this [diasporic] fiction does is really bust open one of those foundational assumptions that we have in the various studies, this categorization of fiction around national boundaries. Even if you’re looking at queer fiction. It’s always like, it’s a queer writer from America.

“I think you can push yourself and be a bit more radical. There is a benefit of [geopolitical characterization] for purposes of argument. And you know, there’s no way for me to escape talking about Lebanon if the character and the author identify as Lebanese or Palestinian. But that doesn’t mean that I have to do what the marketing convention expects of me or what literary convention expects of me, which is to talk about this novel as only a representation of Lebanon or of Palestine. What do you do with text where the author’s ancestry might be Lebanon, but none of the book deals with Lebanon at all? It’s set in a small part of Western Sydney? It’s Australian fiction, but then it excludes Australian fiction because it doesn’t tell the story of conventional white Australian literature.

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“It’s a tricky point I’m trying to make. I feel trapped by it,” she says. “But, you know, the language is limited, and [we] need to find another language we can use to talk to talk about it.” 

Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA program at Bay Path University and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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