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History and Future in Palestinian Diaspora Literature

Panel IV-16, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
"Posthumanists" such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, and others have changed the landscape for global humanities practitioners, challenging us to ask new questions about our own human-historical, identity-centric fields. In particular, they have challenged us to relinquish our hold on a relatively shallow, linear history that marks the Anthropocene. In literary studies, we have seen the emergence of theoretical considerations of futurity, futurism, and speculative history displacing more traditional historicist frameworks, notably through the following assemblages: alternative history, counter-futurism, narratology, Afro- and indigenous futurisms, dystopias/utopias, posthumanism, animality and extinction studies, and science/speculative fiction and poetry. On this panel, scholars consider the social, literary, cultural, political, epistemological, and institutional implications of interpretive practices that focus on, and attempt to leverage, the intersection of futurity and history in Palestinian diaspora literature. This panel is organized around questions like: How does an interpretive focus on the future and futurity affect literary study of the Palestinian diaspora? How do writers and cultural producers of the Palestinian diaspora read history and the future? How do they imagine historical implication? How do and should we as critics and historians read history and future into Palestinian literature and material artifacts? What are Palestinian literatures' and archives' histories–political, social, cultural, and institutional–and to whom are these histories and materials proper? Does understanding Palestinian diasporic literary and archival history, and also the Palestinian production of history, demand a national frame? How does an interpretive privileging of futurity affect the ways in which literature is imagined to, and literary critics are able to, represent territorial nationalism and its importance? Does the privileging of futurity illuminate modes of resistance or offer possibilities for radical change, or on the contrary does it reinforce patterns of complicity with existing conditions?
  • Since it began to coalesce in its current form in the 1980s, Arab American literary study has mostly structured itself as a branch of ethnic history, with literary expression offering a window onto a relatively coherent (albeit assailed) ethnic subject whose coherence, in turn, is anchored in a “homeland.” In this, Arab American literary study largely follows its parent field, Arab American studies, which consolidated in the late 1960s and emerged in (and grounded itself in the epistemologies of) disciplines such as history, sociology, and anthropology. This ethnic project leverages conceptual anchors such as dialectics of home, assimilation, migration, memory, cultural exchange, nostalgia, and dynamics of citizenship and transnationality, among others; but whatever its specific configurations, Arab American literary study can too easily assume its primary task is to represent the history of an Arab American ethnic subject. Rather than belonging primarily to the history of a nationalized ethnic subject— via interpretive frames such as Arab migration or Diaspora, for example—Palestinian American literature should be approached as a particular regime of writing that obeys its own logic and has its own history. While Arab American literary study certainly organizes its knowledge practices around an ethnically legible subject (that, following Barbara Harlow, we might term resistant), Palestinian American literature is less genetically dependent on the normalized self-evidence of that subject than it offers ironic analytical perspective on that subject’s normalization, most notably through an extended and multivalent exploration of the thematics of futurity. In this paper I argue that Palestinian American literary texts—work by writers such as Susan Abulhawa, Laila Halaby, Hala Alyan, Diana Abu Jaber, and Randa Jarrar, among others—frequently, in their elevation of a poetics of the future over a backwards-looking territorialism, critically contest a subject-based, territorial-nationalist, ethnic historicism. Specifically, considered together they demonstrate that ethnic culture should be understood as a function of repetition rather than of inheritance—and that therefore Palestinian American literary study needs to develop critical paradigms other than territory-based nation-cultural negotiation.
  • Mx. George Abraham
    Ongoing Zionist ethnic cleansing induces different, though interconnected, embodied existential conditions on Palestinians, in both Palestine and diaspora. Adopting Mbembe’s Necropolitics (Duke University Press, 2019), the former are direct victims of a Zionist “laboratory for a number of techniques of control, surveillance, and separation” (43), while the latter, especially those living in Western states, are othered and treated as bodily excess with respect to their state’s normative imaginations of citizen populations. What ultimately unites Palestinians across geographies of exile is an Indigenous relationship to their land, despite linguistic, socio-economic, and cultural differences implicit to diasporic being, and the various relations to death induced by colonial powers, from Zionist occupation forces to US surveillance and police apparatuses. This paper explores the figurations of these relations, to and among the many worlds of death imposed unto Palestinians, in poetry. How are Palestinian poets representing their selves in relation to death in their various geographies? How are Palestinian necropolitics figured across English and Arabic? What deaths are implicit to Palestinian poetic existence in English, and how is language, itself, a site of necropolitical violence? Considering a mix of Palestinian poems in English and Arabic, this paper asks: how do these works speculate, despite these necropolitical and existential conditions, to imagine a future beyond Zionism? What linguistic potentialities and futurisms exist, despite the colonial conditions underlying diaspora, for Palestinians working in an Anglophone American context? Against the grains of archival erasures, considered both in a historical sense as well as the landscape of contemporary Anglophone media, how can poetry serve as a model for more responsible English around Palestinian (dis)embodied existence? To examine these questions, this study considers a mix of Palestinians writing in Arabic, such as Samih Al-Qasim’s Sadder than Water, Mourid Barghouti’s Midnight, and Maya Abu Al-Hayyat’s You Can Be the Last Leaf, alongside contemporary Palestinian American poetry projects such as Zaina Alsous’s A Theory of Birds, and recent Palestinian speculative literary collections with Strange Horizons, FIYAH Magazine, and Mizna. As a Palestinian poet myself, this piece weaves between cultural and necropolitical theory, critical readings of Palestinian literature, lyric meditations, and ars poetica. This paper ultimately considers the ways in which Palestinian poetry enacts a permission to speculate a future for the Palestinian people, by both confronting and imagining beyond the entangled death worlds of the Zionist project, the American settler project, and colonialist Anglophone literary canonical imaginations.
  • The Remis Auditorium in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts reverberated with laughter as Cherien Dabis’s narrative film May in the Summer screened for a full audience on the opening night of the 9th annual Boston Palestine Film Festival (BPFF) in October 2014. In the film, three Palestinian-American sisters—May, Yasmine, and Dalia—sit poolside at a Dead Sea resort in Jordan for May’s bachelorette weekend. Dalia and Yasmine bicker over each other’s Arabic language skills, an argument which turns out to be less about proper pronunciation and more about whose relationship to cultural authenticity is more precarious. Eldest sister May—played by filmmaker Dabis—interjects to settle the argument, glaring with frustration over the top of her dark, oversized sunglasses. With a mix of annoyed paternalism and knowing irony, May interrupts her younger sisters: “Guys, you speak equally shitty Arabic!” In the theater’s darkness, spectators emitted the kind of amused chuckles that originate from that same knowing irony. It is a bittersweet amusement produced at the intersection of insecurity and inaccessibility. This scene, and the audience’s reception of it, exemplifies how a politics of cultural authenticity undergird diasporic cinematic representation and, in turn, how Palestinian-Americans struggle to uphold and represent that cultural authenticity in diaspora. Based on ethnographic research at the Boston Palestine Film Festival, this paper examines the role of film festival participation in cultivating, maintaining, and representing Palestinian identity in diaspora. Through interviews, participant observation, and visual and discursive analysis of films, this paper investigates how concerns over identity, self-determination, and belonging within the diasporic context of the United States are represented in and projected onto Palestinian cinema and negotiated through festival curation and participation. In particular, the interviews reveal how Palestinian-Americans are drawn to Palestinian cinema, festival organizing, and spectatorship for reasons that are deeply tied to concerns over their subjectivity within the United States and their relationships with both Palestinian and American cultures and identities.