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The Trouble of Middle Eastern Literature

Australian warships left these shores for the Persian Gulf in August. My body registers the news as instant alienation. In a moment, I become an involuntary foreigner, filled with love for a distant geography that occupies me more than ever before and the dread of another devastating war. For many Middle-Easterners, this is a familiar process. First come the bombs, then boots and batons. But somewhere in this hellish exercise, ever so subtly, bad books play a role too.

I fear we are going to see another memoir boom – like the one that followed 9/11 – filled with hair-raising escapes to the West and honour-killing hoaxes which lend themselves to the neoconservative romance of saving us from our own bigotry. I blame the Anglophone book industry for this: Middle Eastern writers, commercial publishers, writers’ festivals, and middlebrow readers are all complicit.

The thought keeps me up at night. In my insomniac readings, I come across an essay called ‘The Meaning of The Lebs’, by Ruby Hamad in Meanjin. She objects to Australian reviewers’ persistent reading of Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs (2018) as an ‘edgy’ autobiographical account rather than a coming-of-age story. To illustrate her point, she focuses on an essay by James Ley in this journal. In her reading, Ley

proceeds to castigate the novel’s fictional characters, calling them ‘gronks’, ‘imbeciles’ and mocking their ‘wispy moustaches and baby brains’. I have read Ley’s review several times, and I continue to marvel at the slippage of the mask, at the way he seemed to say the quiet part out loud, the barely contained contempt. And I wonder, does Ley even now not realise that at some point in his review he was no longer writing about fictional characters?

Ley appears to be in a bit of a pickle: he is at fault for disliking the characters for their misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism; he is also guilty of belittling them because they might be real after all. Or worse, he is talking about the Lebanese boys of Ahmad’s alma mater in south-western suburban Sydney. What blunts Ley’s critique, in Hamad’s view, is that he is white (a word that she uses more than thirty times in her essay) and as such prone to inserting his jaundiced impression of ‘minorities’ into his critique of aggressive masculinity in the novel. ‘What, then, do we do’, she asks, ‘about these white people who still cannot separate their racialised perceptions of us long enough to read, comprehend, and review our work fairly, and yet insist on judging it?’

Race matters. But something in me resists this call to locate the ‘meaning’ of a literary work in its author’s ethnicity, not least for practical reasons. Once this coupling of value – in the register of both strength and worth – and identity is established, reading becomes a tool for totalising the ways that the text registers a world in all its complexity, only to exhaust various possibilities of interpretation for a mechanical and overdetermined explanation. Besides, what are we supposed to uncover that we do not anticipate? That deep in the Western psyche the Middle Eastern person is unimaginative and belligerent? That their stories must be true, or else uninteresting and unworthy of circulation?

We are beating a dead horse here, partly because the contemporary literary marketplace inhibits the delimiting potential of reading in the name of identity for a larger group. This is symptomatic of a conundrum for Australian Middle Eastern literature, from craft to consumption.

It is common practice for the publishing industry to divide up market sectors according to descriptors of identity, including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, health and illness, (dis)ability, and age. This is often talked about as a tactic for addressing the diversity of representation and readership constitutive of contemporary publishing. Different publishers assert their line on body politics more or less plainly. In Australia, Black Inc. has made perhaps the boldest statement in this trend with their ‘growing up in Australia’ series, while Brow Books champions publishing writers from ‘demographic margins’ and/or writing from ‘literary margins’. Economies of scale vary but the language game is consistent. From zines to conglomerates, publishers have embraced the idiom of humanitarian advocacy to reflect their growing consciousness of the intersection of the politics of genre, gender, and race.

A less attractive repercussion, which is often neglected in the celebratory buzz around the rhetoric of inclusion, is the ironic reproduction of racial difference in Australian book culture. What I am describing is the normalisation of a bourgeois ethnography in the literary marketplace that keeps classifying some writers as outliers, unless they belong to the safe category of heterosexual male settler, the well-implied ‘real Australians’ of the foundation myth of the white nation. The further you move away from this imaginary centre, the easier you slip into reified writerly typologies which are posed to express their grievances to (and against) Australia’s ‘tolerant’ reading public. This is cognate with Ghassan Hage’s articulation of the paranoia that ‘the aggressive politics of the border will affect the loving interior’ which, he explains, ‘is why we like to push border politics out of our sight. We keep them where they belong: at the border’.

Middle Eastern writers occupy a particularly jeopardised position on the peripheries of this imaginary, where to exist as a writer presupposes inventing palatable difference in ways that make readers feel special and accepting. Middle Eastern literature, then, becomes a part of the package for an ethically-sourced, all-inclusive and guilt-free cultural diet that perpetuates a certain recognisable image. The irony is that the cosmopolitan nationalism that operates at the heart of this process has zero tolerance for anything other than itself, unless others are so glaringly ‘othered’ that they settle as pardoned misfits in the margins of its knowledge landscape.

There are ideological affinities between this manner of literary consumption and the ‘progressive’ vernacular that has been adopted by writers’ festivals. In both, there is some focus on exhibiting the writers’ ‘relatable’ (humbling, ennobling, moving – pick your adjective) lived experiences. If, for example, you happen to be a writer of Afghan Hazara background, then there is an expectation that you write and talk about the traumatic experiences of life under the Taliban. This imperative of marking racial difference is not only provincial but encouraging of loaded clichés. Meanwhile, cases of egregious behaviour towards non-white writers – such as Michael Cathcart’s unapologetic use of N-word at 2017 Sydney writers’ festival – are almost exclusively blamed on the ‘whiteness’ of the interviewers or panellists, and not so much on the ways that festivals are deeply invested in recreating the racialised gaze.

With an increasingly influential role in the literary sphere, writers’ festivals promise to bring writers into direct contact with the public, where they can read from their work, provide commentary on it, and be interviewed live among their potential readers. These occasions sustain a flair of solidarity with writers as the underclass – underrepresented and/or underpaid – of the arts market. This impression of writers’ festivals overlooks their proliferation in the context of an epistemic change in the 1980s and 1990s across the English-speaking world, whereby neoliberal governments embraced a populist agenda of diversification in representation as part of their multiculturalist project (then a good thing but not any longer, apparently). Australia followed suit; writers’ festivals have mushroomed since the 1990s with an appetite that echoes the pop cultures’ obsession with the ‘real’ and proximity to celebrity. These events are now an indispensable part of the cultural cityscape not only in the highly image-conscious Melbourne and Sydney but in other big cities and small towns alike.

This shift towards the primacy of the ‘real’ (the reality of writers’, characters’ and readers’ lives) over the textual demands conformity to its principles of reading as if the relationship between representation and the representer was an obvious moral choice. The collapse of distance between authors, the ‘authentic’ (Hamad’s term) lives of their characters, and readers has strong implications, for any serious critique of these fictional spaces waddles awkwardly between ad hominem attacks and appeals to virtue. ‘Authenticity’ suggests qualities of containment and fragility. It values stability over fluidity. It points to a certain susceptibility to defilement due to change. The authentic, by nature, is excessively self-conscious. It is constantly under the attack of invisibility; to survive, it has to be recognised with minimum effort at all times.

Reading for authenticity is hardly disruptive of the publishing imaginary that keeps repositioning the Middle East in its ideological extremity, where, if lucky, our writers become exceptional suspects for prizes in life writing and multicultural literature. It is this ideological complicity with the liberal logic of the book industry, and not the critics’ skin colour, that curtails the possibilities of resistance and recognition in the Australian literary field.

This also plays into the hands of a corporatist cultural economy that has framed writing about the Middle East vis-à-vis various forms of violence in what is consistently exhibited as morbidly dysfunctional societies. We simply stop being, when we stop being troublesome. This collective image repackages the colonial aesthetics in a Fox News version of the Middle East with a repertoire of post-9/11 subject matter: Tampa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Cronulla riots, ISIS, Charlie Hebdo, Lindt Café siege, Manus Island, Christchurch. You get the picture.

There is room for examining the making of the Middle East in Australia’s literary imagination in outward-looking and inventive ways. To start, it helps to surrender the attachment to the ways that writers and writing reaffirm our sense of moral or historical truths. We may do better if we view critique not so much as being something or somebody, but as a doing which involves a series of dynamic interpretive acts that are put to practice in relation to texts. This opens the space for interrogating how and why writers engage in mythologising their literary careers by adding panache to the objects, geographies, and people that they write about. Isn’t that what writers have been doing since Homer, anyway?

In 2013, I came to Melbourne as a PhD student in Australian literature. This was after having written my Master’s dissertation in the same area in Tehran. It dawned on me soon after my arrival that many people ‘related’ to me by resurrecting what they remembered of memoirs of escape from Iran, such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Betty Mahmoody’s Not Without My Daughter, and Alison Wearing’s darkly sexualised and stupefied image of Iranians in her travel book Honeymoon in Purdah. Some of these memoirs were instant hits. Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) – a book about the author’s mission to liberate a group of young women by teaching them canonical works of English literature – was a movement in itself. It remained a bestseller on New York Times Book Review list for one and half years with mass appeal among different readers. In 2004, Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the literary memoir had become one of the most-read titles on American campuses. Soon, it was one of the most-borrowed non-fiction books in U.S libraries. Nafisi became a divisive figure, with admirers as notable as Susan Sontag and critics who went so far as accusing her of giving ideological justification to the American Invasion of Iraq. The heat on both sides of the debate only minted the book’s status as the literary affidavit of a civilised defector to the West.

Like its North American counterpart, Australian Middle Eastern literature, in its dominant mode, has been promoted to the reading public as a set of motifs which evoke terrorised spirits and terrorising places. As a mini-market sector, it also has its own tropes, selling points, alliances, gatekeepers, and provocateurs in what Pascale Casanova calls the ‘non-economic economy’. Here, power relations remain indiscernible, ‘save to those most distant from its great centres or most deprived of its resources, who can see more clearly than others the forms of violence and domination that operate within it’.

At the popular end of this subfield are big publishers and their misery memoirs adorned with grossly sexualised cover images: child brides peek coyly from behind purdah and minarets reach out high into the skies, sometimes both at the same time (hint hint). Kooshyar Karimi’s three memoirs, I Confess, Journey of a Thousand Storms and (wait for it) Leila’s Secret, were all published (the last two by Penguin) hurriedly between 2012 and 2016 – right throughout the years that Australia was busy establishing the ‘Pacific Solution’. Jana Wendt, writing for SBS, sensationalised Karimi as the embodiment of the Middle Eastern writer on steroids; he was a ‘doctor, dissident, refugee, spy’. Bad taste lingers so decidedly that makes it hard to believe it is incidental. Epithets galore to describe writers and characters, sometimes in titles nothing short of eighteenth-century proto-novels. Again for Penguin, Robin de Crespigny wrote her non-fiction debut The People Smuggler, the True Story of Ali Jenabi, the Oskar Schindler of Asia (2017).

How many of these books do we need then? Given the relatively small number of Middle Eastern refugees accepted in Australia in the current iteration of border regimes compared to other parts of the world, the abundance of these narratives gives an overrepresented picture of Australia as a charitable, albeit choosy, host. It gets worse when the true heroes of the story are good Aussie battlers (or when Australia itself is cast as the guardian angel) armed to the teeth with compassion, determined to accommodate us in the lucky country. Allen & Unwin has a long list of books in this genre, with some recent examples such as Emma Adams’ Unbreakable Threads (2018) and Munjed Al Muderis’ Walking Free (2015). My least favourite are books about terrified Middle Eastern kids by children’s authors, including some well-known names in the field, among which Libby Gleeson who deserves a medal in unapologetic orientalism for Mahtab’s Story (again, published by Allen & Unwin in 2008).

Small literary magazines, such as Mascara Literary Review, occupy the ‘activist’ end of this subfield with a stated mission to work towards subverting the racial and cultural dynamics of the publishing field. The sentiment is shared more widely by the recent growth of a ‘network’ of literary magazines that act as ‘interceptors’ of systems of distribution of the literary product in order to promote culturally and linguistically diverse writers, including Peril, Liminal and Djed Press. And then there is the underrated work of organisations like Writing Through Fences and Behind the Wire which help refugee writers in detention to publish and circulate their work through their website, and in some cases, ultimately through literary magazines, or in book format.

I have regularly attended events about Middle Eastern affairs and writers in Victoria in the past few years, mainly at the Wheeler Centre and Melbourne University. Broadly, they are organised, in one way or another, in relation to the now rhetorical question whether a white person can write about people of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. I have seen white men getting, at times voluntarily (we do strange things for guilt) grilled because they work in some gatekeeping capacity for literature of ‘minorities’. Creative Writing students ask anxiously if they can ever go anywhere near migrant and refugee characters, in the fear that they might, God forbid, gag our ‘voice’. This must feel restrictive to some writers, whether emerging or established, white or ‘ethnic’.

Some of my writer and academic friends only roll their eyes when we are out of these events. When I press them on why they don’t say anything about it in public, I am told several variations of ‘I can’t but you should. You have the right name for it.’ The irony does not escape me that to gain the legitimacy that allows me to critique the agents involved in propagating the image of the Middle Eastern person in Australian publishing, I first need to claim a presentable amount of the same ‘ethnic’ currency. I am rewarded for repositioning myself in the moral hierarchy that has created the critical stalemate that I want to question in the first place, to ride on the assumption that if you are a Middle Eastern man or woman, you cannot be a bad writer or a bad critic of the same subject.

What is unnerving about this is the insidious ways that the culture industry subjects Middle Eastern identity to a neoliberal logic that manufactures hypervisibility. This tends to politicise writers’ lives only to sell their works in a depoliticised market, all the while masking the relationship between image production, middlebrow culture, and the branding of authorial identity. Hidden in this is the libertarian belief in the ultimate autonomy of the individual, that the market is both a pure reflector of our deepest desire to be happy and the only way forward towards liberty and equity for all.

The problem is not that white people write about us or ‘judge’ our writing. Resorting to that truism, well-intentioned as it may be, discounts the limits of ‘progressive’ intervention in the literary field. The real issue is that our literature does not exist as literature. Australian Middle Eastern writing is yet to announce itself as a growing body of work that speaks to and about a significant global agent with the potential to trouble the image of the Middle Eastern person as merely targeted and antagonised by various shades of Western imperialism in the course of this young century. Unless this is foregrounded in our critical and creative grammar, no amount of structural change based on the language of rights and diversity in judging panels of literary prizes and writers’ festivals can effectively address the absence of Middle Eastern writers in the archive of contemporary Australian literature.

This has not been missed by writers themselves. Some of the most critically acclaimed diasporic writers of the recent years – here I am thinking of Nam Le, Julie Koh, Ali Alizadeh, Michelle de Kretser, and Michael Mohammed Ahmad – have depicted aspiring author-characters who find their ambitions for literary reputation at odds with racialised and gendered marketplace. The public visibility of these authors is fostered in regimes of reception which fetishise their literary success; but such regimes simultaneously amplify and erase ‘difference’ in order to maximise the opportunities of marketing their hyphenated identities, which are always articulated in relation to literal and/or diasporic borders.

I have witnessed a similar frustration in Behrouz Boochani, the author of No Friend But the Mountains. Boochani chooses carefully to call himself a novelist; he has consistently referred to No Friend But the Mountains as a work of fiction and to the narratorial voice as ‘the writer’. Boochani’s insistence on the literary value of his work is an act of political resistance; one of the greatest artistic achievements of No Friend But the Mountains is its refusal to be yet another fight-and-flight-to-the-West memoir. This book has won a few awards, including the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and NSW Premier’s Special Award, but none for the category of fiction. And I am yet to see any bookshop in Melbourne, independents or chains, to display this book in the ‘Australian fiction’ section and not on the memoir/autobiography shelf. Boochani knows what it means to be classified as a ‘refugee writer’. In an interview with The Guardian days after his freedom, he said: ‘I can’t walk away from this experience, but as a novelist, it is finished for me. I am going to write about different things.’

That, I hope we will see soon. My bigger hope, though, is that Australian book culture can take Middle Eastern writers not as survivors, champions, or ideologues but as writers first, capable of creating worlds far beyond their troubled borders.

Works Cited
Anne Donadey and Huma Ahmed Ghosh, ‘Why Americans Love Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran’, Signs 33 (3), 2008: 623-646.
Ben Doherty, ‘Behrouz Boochani, brutalised but not beaten by Manus’, The Guardian, 16 November 2019.
Ghassan Hage, Against Paranoid Nationalism (London: Pluto Press, 2003).
Jana Wendt, ‘Doctor, Dissident, Refugee, Spy’, SBS, 2 October 2016.
Pascale Casanova, ‘Literature as a World’, New Left Review 31, 2005: 71-90.
Ruby Hamad, ‘The Meaning of The Lebs’, Meanjin, Autumn 2019.

This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Creative Victoria. This stage of the series has also been funded by Arts Queensland and Arts Tasmania.