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Literary Dissemination and Reception

Session XI-12, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • In October 2015, the Amman-based outlet 7iber published an article entitled, “How Reading Jordanian Literature Has Become Nearly Impossible.” The piece enumerated the “systemic” challenges faced by authors in cultivating a local readership: steep publication costs, meager institutional support, a paucity of venues for promoting literary work, and—above all—the lack of a robust book distribution network. During subsequent field interviews in 2019, various authors, publishers, and booksellers emphasized this final point in particular. Succinctly put, literary works did not seem to be reaching local readers. In light of these structural obstacles, authors, publishers, and booksellers with an entrepreneurial ethos and the requisite technological literacy have turned to social media platforms—namely Facebook—to promote new works, construct public personas, and draw readers towards bookstores. These individuals thus offer an illustrative case study of the imbrication of offline and online worlds, seeing as they are simultaneously invested in online spaces (e.g., Facebook literary interest groups) as well as offline places (i.e., Amman’s bookstores and presses). How then do these literary figures conjure up a shared sense of a place within online spaces so as to cultivate a "local" readership? Drawing on digital ethnographic methods, in addition to anthropological theories of place-making and scale-making, this paper analyzes how authors and booksellers utilize various social media affordances (e.g., live streaming), specific speech genres, images, and video in order to produce particular notions of scale—whether local, regional, or national—within the digital realm. This paper looks at two case studies: 1) a tech-savvy author who generates a social media persona for himself as a cosmopolitan-yet-local "ibn al-balad"(a “true son” of the country, or “homegrown”), and 2) a mobile bookseller that uses specific visual genres to conjure up a sense of Amman as a reading city. I contend that attention to these online-offline encounters not only furthers our understanding of the literary field in Jordan but also speaks to broader questions of how place as well as scale are produced, mediated, circulated, and experienced in diffuse, unexpected ways. If place, as Michel de Certeau posits in The Practice of Everyday Life (1983), is “composed of intersections of mobile elements” (117), then the practices of these literary figures illustrate how place and locality coalesce within ever-increasing connectivities between the virtual and the actual.
  • Dramatic literature is a superb example of a literary genre that is reflective of and responsive to people’s everyday socio-political reality and their lifestyle and values. This study aims to explore the trends and tendencies that a computational analysis of 200 Iranian plays reveals to us about the complexity of everyday life in Iranian society and its shifting multi-layered contexts. Iranians’ everyday life is grounded in the Islamic Republic’s uneasy mix of political Islam, populism, and neoliberalism as well as citizens’ values, relations, patterns of social mobility, pleasure-seeking, and consumption, and their ideological repositionings and religio-moral ambivalence. Our data-assisted analysis reveals trends and topics in playwriting that may not be visible from a close study of this corpus. As a subfield of Natural Language Processing, topic modeling and its powerful text mining technique allow us to discover latent data in large corpora and the relationships between the data. More precisely, this generative statistical model helps us identify collections of words that co-occur together in each playscript but also co-occur in other playscripts throughout the corpus. One strand of our computational analysis includes transcribing the scripts to machine readable formats, finding sentences where most common words were used and annotating them by hand, then downloading the trend data and further analyzing it in Python. Examining the changes in lexical choices and the frequency of phrases over time (from 1880 to 2015) helps us trace the trajectory of playwrights’ visions and concerns in this temporal frame. It also sheds light on the themes and verbal motifs that were utilized frequently in the dramatic world of the corpus plays in order to dramatize the above-mentioned values, patterns, and practices in Iranian dramatic repertoire and the shift that happens to them. Rather than offering definitive answers about the role of drama in reflecting the everyday lives of Iranians over this timespan, our contextualized methodology of data-assisted analysis allows us to ask questions in new ways, resituate our assumptions, and thus contribute to the multiplicity of perspectives that exist in both playwriting and the research about playwriting.
  • 1941, Cairo: Mayy Ziyāda, a giant in the Arab renaissance, dies at fifty-five in isolation - a stark contrast to an early life lived amongst the greatest politicians, activists, and scholars of her day. The circumstances of Ziyāda's death and subsequent near-disappearance from the literary canon embodies a brutal indictment on the reality of life as a female scholar. Ziyāda wrote profusely in her lifetime; however, she is eerily silent about the period towards the end of her life, when she is accused of insanity and forcefully institutionalized at The Lebanon Hospital for the Insane. No narrative of her suffering exists; no justice cry pounds on the grave. May-Nights of Isis Copia by Waciny Laredj, takes on this narrative gap by fabricating a record of Ziyāda’s journals from the institution. Laredj writes in her tongue to tell the story of her institutionalization, with an interwoven connection to a wider narrative of female suffering. This paper examines the ways in which fiction revises the historical record in the case of Ziyāda, utilizing theories of critical fabulation; works that rely on archival research and fiction to tell purposefully untold stories, and feminist theories on hysteria and gendered violence. Seeking out a vision of Arabic intellectual history that could be possible if those brutally suppressed from its creation were given materiality through lore and archive.
  • This paper presents a reader reception study of Egyptian author Mīrāl al-Ṭaḥāwī’s award-winning novel Brooklyn Heights as read by diverse groups of national and transnational readers and critics. Originally written in Arabic and published in Cairo in 2010, al-Ṭaḥāwī’s diasporic novel relates the story of Hend, a single mother who immigrates to New York City from Egypt with her young son. The non-linear, fractured narrative centers on Hend as she wanders between present-day life in post-9/11 America, childhood memories in a Bedouin village, and her married life in Cairo. Within a year of its publication, Brooklyn Heights won a major Arabic literary prize that provided translation into English and publication with the well-established, international American University in Cairo Press, which successfully introduced the novel to global, Anglophone markets and audiences. Using data collected from the social cataloguing network Goodreads, I analyze bibliographic data, ratings, and identity markers like language and location, and provide critical, close readings of Arabic- and English-language reviews of al-Ṭaḥāwī’s novel. I bring commentaries by these lay readers (referring to Guillory’s distinction) into conversation with relevant, contemporary debates among professional readers in works of postcolonial scholarship and in Egyptian literary journals, specifically the problematic discourse on kitābat al-banāt (girls’ writing) in which al-Ṭaḥāwī often featured. Drawing on postcolonial studies, reader and reception studies, and cultural studies, e.g., Amal Amireh, Graham Huggan, Samia Mehrez, Sarah Brouillette, and James Procter, I identify and examine alternative modes of reading employed by Goodreads readers that traverse linguistic and national boundaries and defy the kinds of reading typically anticipated and practiced by critics and scholars. These modes include, most prominently, emotional and anthropological readings, conflation of the author and her text, and harsh criticisms of literary prizes like that won by Brooklyn Heights. I argue that such varied, non-critical reading practices, far from being invalid, provide valuable insight into reader engagement with the novel and, when examined alongside literary critical approaches, reveal the role of the reader—both implied and actual—to be a consistent, underlying concern regardless of readers’ language, country, or profession, and a key factor in how they read this text and its author. This paper is part of a wider call to incorporate more critical studies of readers and reception into postcolonial literary studies, which traditionally has either neglected this aspect or privileged Anglophone readers and scholarly reading practices.
  • Can Islam be funny? Responding to Talal Asad’s famous proposal to approach Islam as a “discursive tradition” anchored by a canon of sacred texts, a number of scholars have instead proposed an emphasis on fun, play, or more generally the ambiguity of “everyday life” in Muslim societies (Deeb and Harb 2013; Schielke 2012). But humor and satire have rarely been examined as speech acts of religious elites, even though they might offer “flashes” of political possibility within the constraints of a seemingly overdetermined discourse (Benjamin 1968; Navaro-Yashin 2002). In this paper, I consider the role of humor and satire among a particularly “serious” cohort of Muslim scholars in Morocco, specialists in the discipline of the qira’at. Study of the qira’at, the seven canonical vocal renderings of the Qur’an, has been on the rise in Morocco, thanks to a broader, state-driven “recitational revival” (sahwa tajwidiyya). I build my analysis off of two contrasting ethnographic scenes. First, students’ sharing and collective audition of YouTube videos featuring performative mistakes by older, well-known recitation specialists; and second, one qira’at teacher’s reference to satirical poetry as a meta-commentary on students’ desire to leave a class session to pray. Interestingly, the first scenario occurred in a shared apartment, a relatively private setting free from the type of authoritative oversight common in the classroom setting. But while humorous responses helped emphasize clear and shared understandings of “correct” performance in the first scenario, the teacher’s discourse in the second left the question of correct ritual practice open. Engaging this tension, I argue that such humorous exchanges among scholarly elites are key sites for what Shahab Ahmed calls the explorative dimensions of Islamic tradition-making (Ahmad 2015; cf. Alatas 2019), something ethnographers may miss by focusing exclusively on “everyday” Muslims. Here, clear interpretations do not necessarily emerge where authority figures are most “present,” nor is satire strictly a weapon of the weak for subtly contesting political power. Rather, authority figures themselves might leverage humor to break preconceptions about Islamic orthopraxy and open up new interpretive possibilities with which adepts must contend, in this case advancing their pedagogical transformation into a transgenerational class of elite scholars known as “The People of the Qur’an” (ahl al-Qur’an).
  • Maghreb literatures (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) constitute, as other peripheral literatures in the World Republic of letters, plurilingual (Arabic, French, and Tamazight) and transnational literary fields, i.e. structured by the opposition between a national and an international pole. The writers of the latter are rather published and recognized abroad. Because of historical, as well as political and economic reasons, the Francophones have long been overrepresented at the international pole, contrary to the Arabophones (especially the Algerian Arabophones, who have long been marginalized in the Arab literary field). But even for the Arabophones (and the Tamazighophones), the French language and France seem to have maintained their centrality for further internationalization through translation: this hypothesis, based on the Algerian case (see: Tahar Ouettar or Waciny Laredj; but not Ahlam Mosteghanemi), however, needs to be verified thanks to the bibliographical database I am building. Nevertheless, I want to address the question of the extent to which this post-colonial (if not postcolonial) relationship between France and the North African literature has been reshaped by the globalization. To what extent do English and the USA play a more central role in the internationalization of North African literature? In addition to the database of translation of Maghreb literature I am constituting, I conduct interviews with the American importers of this literature : editors, translators, literary agents, and scholars. I try to understand their motivations, and their work in framing this literature for the American market (as “North African”, “Arab”, “French”, “Francophone”, “Postcolonial”…). I will focus also on exceptions to the general trend I have shown. It happens to concern three women writers. Moroccan Arabophone Leila Abouzeid was translated in English before French. Algerian Francophone Assia Djebar was recognized in the USA before entering the Académie française. Moroccan Leila Lalami, although trained in French, is the first major North African Anglophone writer, living in the USA. How can we explain this quicker recognition of these North African women writers in the USA compared to France? This question will be addressed through the study of their translations and receptions. As this is ongoing research, not all the questions raised above will be addressed.