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Resonances: The Work and Legacy of Etel Adnan (1925-2021)

Session X-08, sponsored by Arab American Studies Association (AASA), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
In an interview with Gabriel Coxhead, Etel Adnan explained: “I grew up with people whose worlds, whose lives, had been destroyed. So I understand devastation, I understand refugees, I understand defeat.’” Yet, as Coxhead observes, Adnan’s art, “runs in such an opposing direction – towards expressions of happiness, contentment, confidence.”* This panel explores the many dimensions of Adnan’s work and the ways it resonates in more than one artistic, literary, or geographic dimension. In 2001, Lisa Suhair Majaj and Amal Amireh remarked that even though “Adnan occupies a central role for a transnational community of writers and artists,” her work, paradoxically, “remains understudied.”** This panel seeks to redress the paucity of scholarly work on Etel Adnan, a figure whose writing and artwork encourage us to rethink fixed notions of literary, artistic, national, gendered, and linguistic categories. Inviting considerations of the ways in which Adnan’s work resonates in multiple spaces, the presenters on this panel examine the relationship between Adnan’s language choices and her artwork, between her literary works and her critique of violence and exclusion, and between her feminism and her approach to nature, art, urban environments, and migration. Linking these explorations together is attention to how Adnan approaches image, politics, and history through a deeply humanistic and hopeful cosmic vision that is nonetheless unflinching in its refusal to look away from tragedy, cruelty, or violence. Finally, this panel also addresses the ways in which Adnan’s work queers gender and genre boundaries and resonates in the art and literature of Arab, diasporic, and Arab American writers and artists today. *Etel Adnan. "Interview with Gabriel Coxhead." Apollo Magazine, 16 June 2018. https://www.apollo- magazine.com/the-colours-i-use-are-the-colours-of-california-an-interview-with-etel-adnan/ **Lisa Suhair Majaj and Amal Ami, eds. Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001, p.1.
Disciplines
Literature
Participants
Presentations
  • This paper examines the trope of the journey in three works by Etel Adnan: Journey to Mount Tamalpais (1986) The Manifestations of the Voyage (1990), and Of Cities & Women (Letters to Fawwaz) (1993). In each of these texts, Adnan focuses on some aspect of nature (Mount Tamalpais, the linden tree, stars, the sea) and pairs it with specific built environments (a staircase, a road, a city) to explore ideas on art, feminism, loss, and exile. In Of Cities, Adnan declines to write “a formal letter on ‘feminism,’” as her friend Fawwaz Traboulsi had requested for his magazine Zawaya, and instead composes a series of letters from different cities to which she travels, with the purpose she says, of “living that which was given to me.” In Tamalpais, Adnan declares the mountain a woman and elucidates how “geographic spots become spiritual concepts.” In Manifestations, she asserts that “exile emigration the voyage/ are the halts of Knowledge,” inviting us to explore the relationship between places, movement, and the literary trope of the journey. Unlike the triumphalist wanderings of Odysseus, the exploratory "rihla" of Ibn Battuta, or the poetically ambitious journeys of Bashō and Dante, Adnan invites her reader on a “journey into the unknowing.” From the vantage of exile and through her painter’s eyes, Adnan traces layers of history in geography, describes the shape and color of light on surfaces, observes the ruins of abandoned places, and elucidates an embodied feminism that situates women’s experiences in specific social, economic, and political conditions as well as in nature and in specific places. This paper argues that Adnan’s uses of the idea of the journey disrupt typical narratives of gender, nature, art, nation, and migration. A comparative approach to her work, moreover, reveals how it not only converses with older texts but also resonates with more recent narratives of migration by Arab American writers such as Laila Lalami, Zeyn Joukhadar, and Rabih Alameddine, who, like Adnan, unsettle the relationship between the detached observer and the knowable subject, between the place of departure, nature, art, gender, and the notion of arrival. -Etel Adnan, Of Cities & Women (Letters to Fawwaz). Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 1993, 3. -Etel Adnan, Journey to Mount Tamalpais. 2nd edition. New York: Litmus Press, 2021, 4. -Etel Adnan, The Spring Flowers Own & The Manifestation of the Voyage, The Post-Apollo Press, 1990, 42. 6 Ibid, Of Cities, 34.
  • In Sitt Marie Rose (1977), Etel Adnan recounts the story of Marie-Rose, a Lebanese Christian teacher who was kidnapped and brutally murdered by a right-wing Christian militia for supporting the Palestinian cause and refusing to be exchanged for her Palestinian lover at the outset of the Lebanese Civil War. Upon being interrogated, the transgressive Marie Rose defies her kidnappers, lashing out at them for their internalized colonialism, sectarianism and xenophobia. However, Palestinians and their supporters are not the only targets of violence and othering in the novel. Rather, other women, disabled children, Syrian laborers—and the environment—have their own experiences of violence and marginalization as Beirut is split into East and West, and militarized masculinity becomes the new social order. Drawing on Sara Ahmed’s conceptualization of “stranger danger,” embodied encounters, and migration, this paper provides a contextual analysis of Sitt Marie Rose, focusing on the novel’s engagement with intersectional violences, including colonial (and “postcolonial”), gender, environmental, sectarian and racialized violence. I show how in Sitt Marie Rose, orientalism and colonialism are not portrayed as the evils of an exclusively Western occupier; rather, it is the upper-class Lebanese who—in their advancement of the colonial legacy—internalize self-deprecating discourses of what it means to be “Arab”/“Lebanese” to violate and exclude disenfranchised “others” whom they deem as primitive, foreign, and subhuman. I demonstrate the novel’s relevance today, particularly in light of Lebanon’s recurrent political polarization, the Syrian refugee crisis, the ongoing oppression of Palestinians, and the country’s socio-economic meltdown. Finally, I draw comparisons between the novel and other cultural production, including contemporary films that engage with Lebanon’s lingering struggles with internalized colonialism, xenophobia and exclusion.
  • In protest of France’s continued colonial subjugation of Algeria, Etel Adnan famously declared “I did not need to write in French, I was going to paint in Arabic.” A polyglot and renowned author, it is perhaps odd that Adnan turned away from language to abstract art in order to communicate her prodigious creative and intellectual vision. Adnan, however, did not understand the two forms as disparate and often incorporated script in her paintings and drawings in her writing. Works like her 2008 painting “Voyage au mont Tamalpaïs,” which incorporates a painted image of Mount Tamalpais in California juxtaposed with lines of Arabic script, suggest a deep affinity between painting and writing that is rarely explored in the scholarship on Adnan. This paper begins to fill this gap with an interdisciplinary examination of the intersection of images and words in Adnan’s oeuvre. Using her essay “To Write in a Foreign Language” as a point of departure, I argue that Adnan’s difficult and complex relationship with language constituted a main source of inspiration for much of her work across a variety of disciplines. In allowing her creativity to rest within the nebulous space between word and image, Adnan developed a powerful theory of dislocation that impacted future generations of Arab writers in both the United States and the Middle East.