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Feminist and Queer Literature

Panel IX-27, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • Literature is no less important than other fields of the humanities in disrupting mainstream national histories. This paper showcases how the Syrian-Canadian queer writer and activist, Ahmad Danny Ramadan, contributes in his novel, The Clothesline Swing (2019), to undoing the authorised discourse imposed by Al-Assad's autocratic regime. By attempting to digest the current horrendous events in Syria and reassess the past to fathom the reasons for the countrywide shattering, the protagonist unfolds untold histories and stories re-narrating them in a way that challenges the formal histories accredited by the official authority. In support, the field of memory studies proffers a fitting framework to investigate the novel in discussion. As the narrative evidences, re-visioning the country's politics, namely of Al-Assad’s era, occupies a prominent space of the author’s concern. Ramadan’s effort, in this respect, accords with Pearlman’s observation that “Syrians’ telling of their own stories produces new narratives. [...] They are refusing the collective silence that buttressed authoritarian rule for decades” (2016). Registering histories in fictions becomes, therefore, an awakening to the self-indulgence that has sustained the dynamic dispositif (Foucault), yet more significantly, it is a means of resistance. For, by writing counter-histories in works of fiction not only the dominant histories are defied but also the dominant collective amnesia. Between visibility and invisibility, fictional texts by either reviving actual obliterated histories or inventing alternatives stretch the playground of historical possibility. Cultural memory studies provide an effective methodology in inquiring into the dynamics of reimagining and consequently rewriting the nation, and in expounding the epistemic and structural benefits of this reimagining. Cultural memory “is concerned not with actual events but their cultural repercussions; [...] and with representations of memories” (Saunder, 2008). In-depth, in their “performance of cultural memory”, fictions play the role of “catalysts” by “drawing attention to ‘new’ topics or ones hitherto neglected in cultural remembrance” (Rigney 2008). As such, The Clothesline Swing, as an autofiction, contributes in its interpretation of the historical politics of Syria to the national collective memory. More importantly, it might “record counter-cultural memories that official cultures tend to repress or try to forget” (Saunder 2008). I see a striking resemblance here between Saunder’s case study and the effort, in the novel, as well as, in other documentary volumes, like Syria Speaks (2014). “Tell me a story”, frequently reiterated in the novel, seems to be the call for Ramadan’s Scheherazade to unfold secrets and to interrogate the nation.
  • Lina Huwayyan al-Hasan is one of the first Syrian novelists to dive into the world of the Bedouin tribes in the Syrian desert. In several of her novels, Huwayyan al-Hasan, who is herself of Bedouin origin, investigates and documents the history, culture, and social life of the Bedouin community as a form of exploring what she calls, the repressed memory of her own self. This paper focuses on Huwayyan al-Hasan’s 2009 novel, Sulṭānāt al-raml (The Sand’s Sultanas), which draws on the life stories of multiple Bedouin women, whose legacy continues to occupy the Bedouin community’s collective memory and imagination. Set in the Syrian desert at the turn of the twentieth century and against a background of profound social and political transformations, the novel explores the complex lived experiences of powerful heroines, whose bodies are liberated from patriarchal codes of morality and whose identities are not determined by fixed points of reference. Additionally, the lives of these women unfold through a strategic juxtaposition of fictional accounts, intergenerational storytelling, western travel narratives, and nationalist legal documents and political speeches. As I investigate the novel’s representations of Bedouin women and its straddling between fiction, ethnography, and history, I argue that Sulṭānāt al-raml interrogates the dynamics of both colonialism and anti-colonial nationalisms. The novel’s activation of the nomadic, desiring female body as a charged site of agency allows for alternative genealogies and articulations of the Bedouin female subject beyond paradigms of sameness and difference, on the one hand, and alienation and national belonging on the other. Additionally, Huwayyan al-Hasan’s cross-genre intertextual practices—the engagement of the fictional narrative with the historical and the ethnographic—further interrogate the power structures at play in hegemonic discourses and the tensions that inhabit mediated forms of representation, rendering history making a type of literary practice.
  • Evelyn McHale, the subject of the photograph "the most beautiful suicide," wrote in her suicide note, "Tell my father, I have too many of my mother's tendencies." This final testimony reverberates the trauma of what it means to live as a woman, to have too much of your 'mother's tendencies.' To be a woman is to connected and subjected to forms of commodification, ownership, and control. This research examines the space in which the trauma of womanhood reaches its apex, and a narrative of the living turns into a narrative of death. By utilizing the literature from, on, and about female suicide in Arabic literature, this research expands on the complexity of suicide, going past the psychoanalytic approach. I analyze how the writings and lives of historical female authors who have committed suicide have been showcased and utilized by modern female Arab authors in navigating their suicidal flirtation, specifically through In the Footsteps of Enayat al-Zayyat By Iman Mersal and The Return from Sylvia Plath by Asma Hussain. In which both authors formulate a lineage and relic of female suicide.
  • A 1919 Egyptian revolutionary named Marcos Fahmy wrote in a letter addressed to Egypt’s high commissioner General Allenby that the revolution is the beginnings of “an emancipation that will allow this so-called minor to take, without trepidation, a few necessary steps in order to fortify its muscles and begin its march to adulthood (Pollard 167).” His deployment of the metaphor of the nation as a child is echoed almost one hundred years later during the 18 days of the Tahrir Uprisings. One of the many creative banners that were on display in the square during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution addressed to Hosni Mubarak reads, “Leave… my hand hurts, I have exams to take, I need to work/shave/shower/sleep/give birth”. In the first example, the child is deployed as a metaphor for the accelerated progress of history and, in the latter, the protestor waits for Mubarak to leave so that she can birth a new Egyptian lineage. Children and the futurity they promise or foreclose are the focus of this talk. Studying Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun (2000) and Basma Abdel Aziz’s Here is a Body (2021), I argue that tropes of immaturity, growth, and development that underpin notions of childhood are coopted into the service of both the hegemonic powers as well as the resistance. In Soueif’s novel, poor, village mothers’ wombs serve as sites of intervention for the state, where campaigns for forced use of contraception proliferate. Set after the 2011 Revolution, Abdel Aziz’s novel re-inscribes the notion of the nation as nascent: innocent, naïve, dependent. In both novels, the representation of childhood are deployed as a barometer to predict how well a nation will survive, while reflection on reproduction reflect the concern of one generation for the next. I consider how depictions of children bear upon questions of nationalism, futurity, and resistance. I argue that while narratives about children are susceptible to romanticization in any given historical and social context, it is critical to see them as contested terrains, sites in which the tensions and conflicts of the larger society manifest themselves. In other words, this paper reads the history and politics of Egypt through the ways in which its women writers represent childhood, the lives of children, and how children are regulated and managed, acted upon, imagined and contested.
  • This paper reads Salwa Bakr’s 1986 story Ihda wa thalathun shajarah jamilah khadra’ (“Thirty-One Beautiful Green Trees”) as an intersectional feminist critique of crony capitalist development in post-infitah Egypt. Assuming the form of a secret letter written by Kareema Fahmi, a woman confined to a mental institution for trying to cut out her own tongue, I argue that the narrator’s fugitive testimony of her oppression at the hands of conservative social forces can be read as a tragic allegory of post-leftist utopian thought in the neoliberal age—one that calls out to our present global moment of environmental degradation and neo-fascism. While Kareema’s portrayal of the decay of her beloved city as a struggle between vermin, birds, and trees seems to place her critique outside the realm of politics, drawing on Yasmine Ramadan’s theorization of space in modern Egyptian fiction, I contend that Kareema’s fabulistic mapping of Cairo reflects the crisis of representation that ensued with the liberalization and privatization of Egypt’s economy. In this context, I argue, Kareema’s former engagement with collective anticolonial nationalist movements has necessarily given way to an individual mode of embodied politics, consisting primarily of witnessing, gasping, and weeping. I conclude by suggesting that Bakr’s story can also be read as an uncanny postcolonial feminist rendition of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, which restages the political-economic dilemmas of mid-nineteenth-century New York in late-twentieth-century Cairo. Like Bartleby, Kareema’s queer notion of work disrupts business as usual at her place of employment, and her intransigence in the face of various authority figures ultimately results in her premature civil death. At the same time, quite unlike the example set by Bartleby’s mild ‘politics of refusal’, I argue that Bakr marks the insurgent figure of the paranoid hysteric and the unruly, democratic convulsions of her fleshy body as key to the articulation of alternative futures.