The Politics of Legibility: Writing and Reading Contemporary Arab American Women's Literature

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Olwan, Dana
Arab American Literature , Contemporary Women's Literature , Literature and War , 9/11 , Islam , Race and Racism , Middle East , Gender , Literature and Politics , Feminist Theory , Transnational Feminism , Islamic Feminism , Reception Theory
This dissertation focuses on contemporary literature produced by Arab American women authors. My study utilizes the works of Diana Abu-Jaber, Mohja Kahf, Suheir Hammad, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Laila Halaby, to raise questions about the processes, methods, and practices of writing, publishing, and reading Arab American women’s literature. Influenced by developments in contemporary Arab American studies, postcolonial, and reception theories, this dissertation examines, from an interdisciplinary perspective, novels, poetry, prose, and online articles that these authors produced in the aftermath of the First Gulf War until today (1993-2007). A study of this literature, I argue, facilitates a more comprehensive understanding of the history of Arab American literature, its recent trends, and possible futures. Chapter Two focuses on the work of Diana Abu-Jaber, one of the most important Arab American women authors today. Tracing literary developments, shifts, and alterations in the author’s work, I argue that Abu-Jaber uses her writing to humanize Arab Americans for her predominantly western audiences. Focusing on what I see as shifts in the author’s political commitments and ideals, I analyze her large body of works in order to understand how they are influenced by the western publication industry, marketing strategies, reader demand, and literary fame. Chapter Three deals explicitly with the works of Mohja Kahf as I examine the author’s attempt to reconfigure Islam’s negative status in the United States by defying the politics of literary representation and challenging the restrictive cultural, racial, and religious boundaries of the Muslim ummah or community. I argue that the author’s work challenges both the mythologies of representations surrounding the figure of the Muslim woman in the West and the gendered and sometimes exclusionary parameters of the Muslim ummah in the United States. In Chapter Four, I shift my focus to the writings of Naomi Shihab Nye, Suheir Hammad, and Laila Halaby. I examine how these authors negotiate the national trauma of September 11, 2001 and state of emergency ensuing in the wake of the attacks. I assess how these authors render legible Arab American and Muslim American encounters of 9/11 and its aftermath.
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