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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

In conversation with the women who won Arab American Book Awards 

Hala Alyan, Safia Elhillo and Pamela Pennock picked up awards for their works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction respectively. We speak to them about their winning works

Hala Alyan won the fiction award for her debut novel Salt Houses
Hala Alyan won the fiction award for her debut novel Salt Houses

Displacement, trauma, grappling with multi-hyphenated identities and Arab-American activism, are some of the themes explored by this year’s Arab American Book Award winners.

Hala Alyan, Safia Elhillo and Pamela Pennock picked up awards for their works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction respectively. The awards, which were established in 2006 by the Arab American National Museum in Michigan, honour books written by and about Arab-Americans.

Hala Alyan won the fiction award for her debut novel Salt Houses, which tells the story of a multigenerational Palestinian family who are displaced from their homeland after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict and traverse multiple geographies. Alyan previously won the 2013 Arab-American poetry award for her debut collection Atrium.

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

She tells The National that winning her second award was in some ways more exciting than her first one. “I have always written poetry and feel comfortable with the genre. This is my first attempt at fiction-writing and to have my work recognised in a genre that is new to me feels like an even greater honour.”

Alyan felt drawn to writing her novel, she says, because “I wanted to tell a story that I knew and understood.

“My family’s story was of losing everything because of unexpected events, starting afresh in the United States and having to rebuild their lives. Through this novel I wanted to show a snapshot of the way immigrants carve out a life in a new country.”

The novel documents the effects of intergenerational trauma, which her family also suffered, and Alyan describes writing the book as a “cathartic experience.” Even when the story became too painful to pen, she found herself coming back to it again and again. “There were definitely times when I felt an obligation towards this family. It feels absurd, but I couldn’t abandon them.”

Salt Houses feels particularly relevant today given the high levels of displacement in the Middle East, but Alyan says there’s no single narrative of displacement. “There’s no one formative experience of diaspora and migration. I write of a family that belongs to a certain economic status. They can afford education and are upwardly mobile. However, it does not protect them from the effects of war or the painful trauma of displacement.”

“If there was one message she would like readers to take away about displacement from Palestine, it is that “there are one hundred ways to be Palestinian. It does not require one to be in a particular location. That does not mean there isn’t an acute longing for one’s homeland, but I think that when one no longer has access to a place, it does not make you any less from it.”

Safia Elhillo won this year’s poetry prize for her debut collection The January Children. The original starting point for her book was a series of poems she wrote about the Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, as a way of alleviating homesickness when living alone for the first time. “The poems became a new entry point to thinking about my childhood and my parents, and my grandparents – that element of nostalgia was the first component that came together. As the character of Abdel Halim solidified in my mind, I started to trust the character [a fictionalised version of Halim] to be able to hold bigger, stranger ideas.”

Her subject also provided the opportunity to explore her relationship with the Arabic-speaking world. “Writing poems to and about Abdel Halim turned into writing poems about a lost sense of nation and nationalism – a world gone; extinct – in more concrete ways and with more concrete feelings once I had a name and a body to assign those emotions to. I also started writing about my own blackness in the context of the Arabic-speaking world, by writing about, and as, the ‘asmarani’ [brown girl] in so many of his songs.

Safia Elhillo won this year’s poetry prize for her debut collection 'The January Children' Image by Aris Theotokatos
Safia Elhillo won this year’s poetry prize for her debut collection 'The January Children' Image by Aris Theotokatos

Wrestling and reconciling multi-hyphenated identities is also a theme in her work, and being given the award brought up a moral conundrum for Elhillo who has had trouble “identifying as Arab” over the past few years and has been “trying out alternate names for my particular intersection, such as Arabised African and Arabophone African.” Although she is bilingual Arabic and English, and weaves Arabic into her poems, she says she doesn’t “identify, ethnically or racially, as Arab at all. I’m trying to find space in that naming to reflect that I am from the Arabic-speaking world, but that has no bearing on my racial or ethnic identity as a Sudanese person.” As a result, she was initially hesitant to receive the award, even though she felt it was a great honour. “I didn’t feel like I could accept it unless I let the judges know that I wasn’t sure that it fit the particular way I identify myself, and gave them the option to rescind the award and give it to someone who might be a better fit. They were very kind and heard my case and maintained the decision to give me the award, so I feel much better about it now.

The January Children by Safia Elhillo Courtesy University of Nebraska Press
The January Children by Safia Elhillo Courtesy University of Nebraska Press

Pamela E Pennock’s ground-breaking research into Arab-American activism between the 1960s and late 1980s won the non-fiction prize. Pennock, who teaches history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, says her desire to learn more about the Arab-American experience for her students lead to her book The Rise of the Arab-American Left: Activists, Allies, and their Fight Against Imperialism and Racism, 1960s-1980s. “I’m trained rather broadly in the social and political history of the 20th century, and I did not have much knowledge of Arab-American history at all. Around five years ago, I was teaching my course on 1960s America. Giving lessons about social protest and the Vietnam War to Arab students made me aware of what was missing from the narrative and in particular when I got to the part of the course where we talk about Sirhan Sirhan [a Palestinian who assassinated senator Robert F Kennedy in 1968], it’s the only time an Arab-American shows up in any of the readings. My students were struck by that. It occurred to me that I did not know much about Sirhan and it made me curious to find out more.”

Pamela E Pennock’s ground-breaking research into Arab-American activism between the 1960s and late 1980s won the non-fiction prize
Pamela E Pennock’s ground-breaking research into Arab-American activism between the 1960s and late 1980s won the non-fiction prize

She found out that Sirhan’s defence lawyer was from Detroit and fortuitously his manuscript papers were in the university’s archives. “I went to go to look at his papers but realised the lawyer had been involved in a whole host of Arab-American organisations and political causes and this opened up this whole area of research to me.” Pennock says one of the areas she found most fascinating was the flourishing campus activism in the 1960s. She says Arab-American students were printing leaflets and holding rallies for Palestinian rights and other Arab issues and were networking with African-American civil right groups and anti-Vietnam war groups. “They prioritised forming alliances with leftist non-Arab groups. They saw themselves as part of the global left and took part in solidarity protests with Latin Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Indian-Americans. They invited major figures, such as [Civil Rights activist] Stokely Carmichael who spoke very strongly in favour of Palestinian rights, to come to their conferences.”

'The Rise of the Arab-American Left: Activists, Allies, and Their Fight Against Imperialism and Racism', 1960s–1980s by Pamela E. Pennock Courtesy North Carolina Press
'The Rise of the Arab-American Left: Activists, Allies, and Their Fight Against Imperialism and Racism', 1960s–1980s by Pamela E. Pennock Courtesy North Carolina Press

Surveillance, infiltration, and crackdowns of Arab-American and all leftist groups was a tactic of the Nixon administration through its Counter Intelligence Program and Operation Boulder. Pennock notes that the Counter Intelligence Program dampened protests and created fear, leading to a dramatic decline in contributions to Palestinian charities in the mid-1970s, but there was another effect they didn’t expect. “Operation Boulder backfired as it awakened many Arab-Americans who had not previously been political – especially some Muslim and Christian groups who were targeted. Consequently, alliances formed between groups who had previously been at odds with one another.”

Speaking to these three women highlights just how diverse the Arab-American experience is. There is common history of course, as covered in Pennock’s work, while Elhillo’s poetry illuminates how hyphenated identities are fluid, personal and sometimes tricky.

But, as Alyan points out, being outside of the region – and living in America – doesn’t make her or her peers any less Arab, or their stories any less relevant.

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