When my collection of short stories based on my years as a UAW worker at the former Cadillac plant in Detroit hit the streets in 2004, many readers were amazed to discover on its pages real human beings with real dreams, love affairs and creativity, working in factories. The most common remark people made about the book was that the characters didn't fit any of their notions of factory workers.
No kidding. I didn't think I did either.
But the problem of typecasting, and storytellers internalizing those stereotypes, is a powerful one facing writers of any definable ethnic, racial, work, gender or otherwise non-majority group.
The other problem is finding someone to talk about the craft with someone from outside mainstream America. Questions of syntax, style, form and content can take on a whole new meaning for those straddling two or more cultures. Writing a poem or story from the relative comfort of American assimilation is difficult enough. But when you're bringing your culture to the page, including everyone's assumptions about your culture, figuring out how you should feel and which words you should use can make writing an even lonelier experience than it already is.
According to journalist Barbara Nimri Aziz, those specific issues began to arise as the drumbeats of the first Gulf War rolled, and Arab-Americans, African-Americans and others began expressing opposition. As a reporter and radio producer for Pacifica Radio "a real hub of peace and justice activism" she found herself in an excellent position to hear what writers were saying. "I saw the power of coalitions and network building among so many people striving for justice."
In her online memoir, Aziz says she received a great deal of support from other ethnic groups in her early days of coalition building. She was a privileged visitor at novelist John O. Killens' creative writing workshops, as well as at Medgar Evans College in Brooklyn. "The support of these African-American writers was something I had never, ever experienced in 20 years of academic dialogue in British and U.S. universities."
Connecting with Arab-American writers was slower. At the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Conference (ADC) in Washington, D.C., in the early '90s she put out the call for the writers to meet with her. Six responded. "We signed our names and agreed to keep in touch. Only Laila Diab from Chicago followed up."
But they persisted. They added to the initial list, sent out a newsletter and called for another meeting at the next ADC in Washington. People showed. Author Mohja Kahf suggested they call the group Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), an acronym denoting the Arabic word for storyteller. More than 15 years later, RAWI claims a membership of 215 poets, fiction writers, playwrights, bloggers, filmmakers and others. It has grown from local New York roots to a mailing address in Virginia and organizational leadership based in various U.S. cities.
From May 17-20, more than 150 RAWI members are expected to confer at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, the core of metro Detroit's Arab population, one of the largest Arab communities outside of the Middle East.
"It is a spiritual homecoming for Arab-American writers," says Khaled Mattawa, current RAWI president.
The conference's title, "Writing While Arab: Politics, Hyphens and Homelands," according to Mattawa, assistant professor in the English department at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, "is a play on 'driving while black or brown,'" the catchphrase referring to law enforcement profiling. Mattawa notes, "Arab-American writing is a viable and vital literary genre in the U.S. But we have complex relationships with fellow U.S. citizens."
In other words, "'Writing while Arab' speaks to our hyper visibility as a sign of the times," says metro Detroiter Deborah Alkamano, RAWI secretary and a conference organizer.
Historically, America trots out negative images of Arabs whenever Middle East crises flare. Immediately after 9/11 anyone who could remotely be construed as Middle Eastern faced the possibility of harassment. The issue grows more pervasive as conflicts continue.
The Rawi.org Web site functions as a forum for the group. For example, says Mattawa, "With the June 2006 Lebanon War, the site began publishing dispatches from the front, as well as poems and essays about the war; it was a beginning conversation."
In metro Detroit, the Arab-American ownership of businesses frequented by non-Arabs can be a source of friction. Racial and ethnic tensions abound according to conference coordinator Rola Nashef, especially between Arab store and gas station owners, and African-Americans. It's a topic she tackles in her film, Detroit Unleaded, which is to screen at the conference.
Mattawa says that Arab-American writers are often "brought in" to the mainstream to provide an immediate response at critical times, for example, after 9/11 or the most recent Lebanon war. And then, he says, "We fade away."
Far from allowing Arab-American writers to fade away, Anan Ameri, director of the Arab American National Museum, sees the institution's mission as documenting and preserving their work.
"Arab American writers have been around a long time and have not been acknowledged," she says. "The conference helps by facilitating writers to get together in a cultural setting and gives exposure to the museum." The museum has hosted festivals showcasing Arab arts and entertainment, but this is the first devoted to writing.
There's no getting lost with such topics as "Beyond Baklava and Grapeleaves" or Aziz's workshop, "What's with the Tabouli?" Food is a powerful metaphor for expressing the intimate details of cultural relations, especially the lives of women.
In addition to the workshops, 15 poets, including Naomi Shibab Nye, long familiar to Detroit audiences, and locally based poets Alise Alousi and Kevin Rashid, read from their works. The conference concludes with the Azouma, a big dinner seeking to raise money for future RAWI activities, as well as a ceremony handing out an annual fiction prize, a service award, a lifetime achievement award and one honor that goes to an "emerging voice."
The event has attracted panelists and participants from around the world, including Canada, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt, Germany, the United Kingdom and Cyprus. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend.
As its name suggests, RAWI has become a lifeline from the heart of the Arab-American community to a literary world with aesthetics still being defined. Nashef asserts, "An Arab-American genre is new in anything. We are the ones creating the genre; everything is new."
"Writing While Arab: Politics, Hyphens and Homelands" runs May 17-20 at the Arab American National Museum, 13624 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-582-2266. For further information, visit RAWI.org.
Lolita Hernandez is a poet and fiction writer. Send comments to email@example.com