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The Shatat and the Literary Imagination

Panel II-9, sponsored byArab American Studies Association, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
This session considers the productive disruptions and disruptive productions of contemporary Palestinian literature as a worldly enterprise. To situate Palestinian literature in the world, it begins with the premise that the shatat helps to name the constitutive threads linking longstanding attachments to land; ongoing histories of dispossession; juridical and affective regimes of refugeehood and return; and variegated contexts for place-making, community-building, and the cultivation of political imagination. Panelists probe the ways the shatat as a historical condition and set of political, aesthetic, and geographic orientations shadows and saturates Palestinian literature writ large, from its intellectual framing to the institutional infrastructures that hold space for its circulation. Panelists enter the problem-space of these concerns through a range of questions, archives and modes of argumentation. We begin by considering the sedimented institutional contexts–academic, US political-cultural, and neo-imperial–in which a not-quite coherent Palestinian American literary study labors for legibility in Arab American and Ethnic literary fields. We then consider disruptions to the boundaries between “Palestinian literature” and “Palestinian-American literature” through a “radical” reading practice that centers both rootedness and revolutionary or disruptive movement–unsettling national literature’s relationship to the nation-state. We then turn to the innovative aesthetic practices of several Palestinian poets in the U.S.--George Abraham and Zaina Alsous—whose imagined geography of the shatat is intimately entangled with contemporary US imperial culture, and given texture through embodied affinities to abolitionist and decolonial histories and visions. Finally, a Palestinian literary technomediated poetics of embodied experience is considered, through the case study of the 2020 Palestine Writes Literature Festival to consider whether such poetics might reveal intimacies of Palestinian sociality unrestricted by the limits of state sovereignty and borders.
Media Arts
  • How do contemporary Palestinian poets in the United States take up questions of form, aesthetics, and history? What are the sensibilities that such work hones? This paper considers the poetry of George Abraham and Zaina Alsous--works whose innovative forms render sensible the entanglement of the Palestinian Shatat in the contemporary currents of minoritarian knowledges and social movements. Abraham and Alsous, in distinct if resonant way, challenge the imagined geography of US imperial culture. Works such as Birthright (Abraham) and A Theory of Birds (Alsous) put pressure on the presumption that the Palestine question is somehow distant, external, or outside the bounds of US concern, or that it is somehow distinct from a wider multi-species ecology. Instead, infusing a sensibility for the Shatat as entangled with Black, Indigenous, and Queer of Color thought, Abraham and Alsous formulate poetic affordances that crack open the Shatat's intimate concern with bodies, species, and politics, and point toward abolitionist and decolonial horizons.
  • In thinking through the category of “Palestinian literature” – at least semantically – the relationship of place (Palestine) to narration (literature) appears deceptively self-evident. Palestinian literature is that writing belonging to those making up the Palestinian nation. Almost immediately, this modern literary category is problematized by the modern political one. The Western assault on Palestinian national formation has been unrelenting throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. Unpacking this category, “national literature,” then necessitates determining first what we mean by “nation.” Expanding the Palestinian canon to include Palestinian-American (and other Palestinian diasporic) literatures so that it reflects the geographical diversity of its creators is fundamental to contesting the settler-colonial state’s intentional fragmentation of Palestinian identity – that is, the erasure of Palestine and Palestinians from space and time in large part through expulsion and physical dispersal. This proposed literary expansion, however, also surfaces concerns. How can we re-examine the relationship between “Palestinian literature” and “Palestinian-American literature” in a way that productively disrupts the ostensible boundaries between them? How do we develop a comparative analysis that is attentive to contextual particularities, so as to identify pivotal points of convergence and build connections across geographies while maintaining the distinct political, cultural, historical and linguistic character of the literatures they produce? And, how do we address the overrepresentation of exilic Palestinian identity – particularly of those in the United States – due to visibility, access and cultural capital that writers in Arabic may not possess? In response to this question, I elaborate a “radical” reading practice – that is, one that engages both rootedness and (revolutionary or disruptive) movement. I deploy this method in parallel readings of Hussein Barghouti’s Blue Light and Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home, illustrating how these works unsettle national literature’s relationship to the nation-state, and provoke alternative literary and political imaginaries.
  • In reflecting on Palestinian literature as a worldly enterprise, in this paper I look to the intersections of digital storytelling and technomediated platforms to explore two framing questions related to narrating the Palestinian context: first, what does it mean to articulate a Palestinian technomediated poetics of embodied experience? What would such a poetics look like? Second, would such a poetics reveal intimacies of Palestinian sociality unrestricted by the limits of state sovereignty and borders, displacing the specificity of location in accounting for a “Palestinian literary tradition?” If so, how? To draw out an example of a technomediated poetics of embodied experience, in this paper, I turn my attention to the 2020 Palestine Writes Literature Festival to examine the possibilities of Palestinian embodied experience presented in the festival’s content and form across Palestine Writes’ social media platforms, the “Welcome and Opening Remarks,” its program book including the welcome statement from co-conveners, Susan Abulhawa and Ben Mullen. In centering the creative and generative life-forms of Palestine along with the complex intimacies of existing as Palestinian both in the shatat, the diaspora, and in Palestine, the Palestine Writes Literature Festival offers a unique example of what Ashlee Cunsolo Willox et al. (2012) refer to as Indigenous digital storytelling. According to Willox and her co-authors, Indigenous digital storytelling invites a “way to celebrate the individual and the collective, and to lend respect and credence to the lived experiences of individuals through the collective co-creation of individual narratives, and provides participants with the opportunity to work together, tell and share stories, listen to others, and learn” (132). This is to say, the digital platform enables a narrativization of lived actuality activated by and through participation between the content created and presented in digital form and their audience. Accessible on various social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, the 2020 Palestine Writes Literature Festival thus brings Palestinian sociality into conversation with the “rest of the world” decentering settler colonial notions of sovereignty and geographical authority.
  • This paper begins with two observations. First, since it coalesced in the 1980s, Arab American literary study has mostly understood itself as a branch of ethnic history, imagining literary texts offering representational access to an ethnic subject. Second, Arab American studies, despite consistently avowing Palestine as the ideological and historical origin of its discursive field, has not in fact dedicated much energy to elaborating a specifically Palestinian American literary subject, instead subsuming that possibility in a larger national-diasporic Palestinian subject. A question arises from this intersection: Where should we look for a specifically Palestinian American literary study? In order to fully comprehend the Palestinian American literary field Arab American studies needs to explore critical possibilities outside ethnic history’s shadow. On one hand, a tension in Arab Studies’ ethnic-history paradigm is that the identity term “Arab American” is a catachresis (in Spivak’s terminology) that contest the nationalized historicism often coarticulated with ethnic history: the term “Arab American” often operates as a racialized geographical metonym, referring to people with family histories in what we now call the “greater” Middle East (itself a recent concept), but which in common usage includes plenty of non-Arab ethnic groups, and it can serve to suppress political and cultural histories that run oblique or transverse to narratives of nationalized ethnicity. On a related hand, subsuming the possibility of Palestinian American literature to the larger transnational category of Palestinian literature risks occluding the specific institutional contexts of the emergence and circulation of Palestinian American legibility in US academic and cultural discourse. Anchored in key Palestinian American literary texts, this paper explores how Palestinian American literature can function as a critique of ethnicity’s genetic form of nationalist historicism in Arab American literary study. If Palestinian literature can be seen as a post-1948 phenomenon, it can be useful to think of Palestinian American literature as a post-1967 phenomenon, its urgency a function at once of the June war and of the post-Viet Nam reorganization of the Academy. But while defining it is on the one hand easy—no one is likely to argue with a definition that locates it at the intersection of identifiable author and identifiable content—this is on the other hand precisely the issue: what is involved in recognizing the context and subject matter of Palestinian American literature, and how are these categorical criteria established? This paper excavates the history of Palestinian American literary visibility.