Arab American literature is an integral part of the American literary scene. This literature gives us access to Arab American voices and an insight into their personal lives and artistic experiences.
Although it has become more visible post-9/11, Arab American literature has existed in the US since the 1920s. The genre has undergone many developments since its inception, but it remains an important part of American literature.
Al-Rabitah Al-Qalamiyya (The New York Pen League) was the first Arab American literary society. It was largely responsible for establishing Arab American literature in the US; members included Gibran Khalil Gibran, whose book The Prophet has never been out of print, and Ameen Rihani, who wrote The Book of Khalid, the first Arab American novel.
After the success of the Pen League, there was a hiatus in the production of Arab American literature until the publication of Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab American Poetry (edited by Gregory Orfealea and Sharif Elmusa, 2000), and Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists (edited by Joanna Kadi, 1994) which brought about a new wave of Arab American literature in the US. As these publications illustrate, Arab American literature includes a range of genres from poetry to prose.
Today, there are many Arab American novelists who are both popular with the masses and respected by critics.
Diana Abu Jaber is the recipient of numerous awards for her works Birds of Paradise and Crescent.
Mohja Kahf is an accomplished writer of prose (The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf), poetry (Emails from Scheharazade), and scholarly texts (Western Representations of the Muslim Woman). Mohja Kahf has also been very vocal about the civil war in Syria, which she has discussed on her blog and on Twitter.
Other recent Arab American writers who have gained widespread popular and critical attention include:
While these writers differ greatly in terms of their style, approach, and content, they deal with similar thematic concerns: how to respond to 9/11, hybridity, and religious and cultural identity formation. Although 9/11 did create a surge of writing by Arab Americans, over a decade later they are still producing a wide range of texts that have earned their place in American literature.
Much of Arab-American literature is concerned with questions of identity, hybridity, cross-cultural differences and misunderstanding. While some Arab-American writers approach these topics from a personal and introspective perspective, others use their work to address wider political and social issues, such as the attitudes towards Arab and Muslim Americans following the 11 September 2001 attacks.
Literary and Artistic Organizations
A sort of modern day, revamped New York Pen League, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers Inc.) is a community for Arab American writers to voice their thoughts, discuss the future of their work, and maintain connections to one another. They have a yearly conference that is attended by many of the prominent Arab American writers today, at which they can exhibit both their scholarly writing and their artistic work.
Another collaborative outlet for these writers, Mizna is a forum for all types of Arab American art, organizing talks, community events, and festivals to promote Arab American artists.
For more information, a useful article on the history of Arab-American literature by Lisa Suheir Majaj can be found here: “Arab American Literature: Origin and Development.”