Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist by
Tanyss Ludescher. (Book Review) - 12/22/2003
Suhair Majaj and Amal Amireh. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company,
Etel Adnan is
arguably the most celebrated and accomplished Arab American author
writing today. Although her early works were written in French,
most of her later works were written in English. In addition to
occupying a central role in Arab American writing, a branch of American
ethnic literature which has yet to receive its full share of attention
in the present multicultural environment, the versatile poet, essayist,
artist, and novelist also plays an important role in feminist and
postcolonial literature. Indeed, her feminist novel on the Lebanese
Civil War, Sitt Marie Rose, has recently attained the status of
"an underground classic" and is frequently taught at the
university level in literature classes which focus on ethnic American,
third world, or Arab women authors.
In many ways, Adnan's life is a study in displacement and alienation.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1925 to a Christian Greek mother and
a Muslim Syrian father, Adnan was raised in a society which was
segregated into enclaves and divided by ethnic and religious factions.
She grew up speaking Greek and Turkish in what was, at least for
Muslims, a predominantly Arabic-speaking society. Her primary language
was French, the result of a French convent school education, which
was itself a remnant of the colonial era. In 1949, she traveled
to Paris where she obtained a degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne.
Adnan's encounter with Paris, the capital of French colonialism,
was a pivotal experience in her life because it confirmed her deep
love for French culture and heightened her feelings of ambiguity
and mistrust for the country which had colonized her homeland and
alienated her from her Arab roots. In the coming years, most of
which were spent in California, punctuated by long stays in Lebanon
and France, she would experience numerous episodes of wrenching
personal and political turmoil during a series of catastrophic events
in the Arab world, including the Algerian War of Independence, the
Lebanese Civil War (an event she witnessed firsthand), and the ongoing
Palestinian conflict. Despite this turmoil, Adnan's life has been
marked by a complex search for an identity, which is both nuanced
and life affirming.
In their excellent "Preface: Situating Etel Adnan in a Literary
Context," Majaj and Amireh explain why a text of this nature
is sadly overdue. Despite Adnan's growing stature, based on a large
body of artistic and literary work, which includes numerous oil,
ceramic, and tapestry works as well as thirteen books of poetry
and prose, the author has attracted little serious critical consideration.
This paucity of critical analysis is particularly serious given
the current political environment which nurtures persistent negative
stereotypes vis-a-vis Arabs in general and Arab women in particular.
As the editors point out, "Novels by Arab women are used in
the classroom as sociological texts." They are viewed as "reflections"
of "a reality assumed to be marked by unmitigated and ahistorical
oppression, exploitation, and violation by Arab men." All too
often, the editors note, students approach these texts with "preconceptions"
that have been fostered by the media. "Thus," they observe,
"these novels fail to teach students something new, instead
simply confirming what they already 'know.'" The excellent
group of essays which Majaj and Amireh have skillfully selected
will go a long way toward addressing this issue.
The preface is followed by a detailed introduction that includes
a useful summary of Adnan's life and career. Although the preface
and introduction contain abundant scholarly material, including
footnotes, bibliographic materials, publishing history, and theoretical
and historical context information, they are written in an expressive,
lucid prose, which is blessedly free of scholarly jargon.
The essays in the collection are divided into two sections. The
first section, "Beyond Borders: Etel Adnan's Writing and Art,"
contains critical assessments of Adnan's poetry, prose, and art.
The first three essays deal with Adnan's poetry. Readers who are
familiar with Adnan's complex and often indecipherable poems will
find these essays particularly helpful. Although Caroline Seymour-Jorn's
attempt to delineate the multiple allusions in Adnan's long poetic
work The Arab Apocalypse ("The Arab Apocalypse as a Critique
of Colonialism and Imperialism") is informative, it can, at
times, be repetitive and formulaic. More successful are the essays
by Eric Sellin ("Etel Adnan: a Cosmic Poet") and Michael
Sells ("Irremediable Ecstasy: Modes of the Lyric in Etel Adnan's
The Spring Flowers Own & Manifestations of the Voyage").
Wisely, these authors do not attempt to pin down Adnan's meaning
and technique in a definitive way. Instead, they point to the considerable
influence of modern French poetry on Adnan's poetic oeuvre and attempt
to situate the texts in the context of Arab, American, and European
poetry. Approaching the texts in a suggestive and allusive manner,
they draw on their own poetic experience to elucidate the texts.
As such, their essays can be regarded more as insightful appreciations
than scholarly criticism.
Readers who are intimidated by Adnan's difficult and challenging
poetry are often surprised to find that Adnan's travel narratives
are lively and accessible. Indeed her works often leave readers
with the delicious and intimate feeling that they have encountered
the female mind at its thought-provoking best. In "From Beirut
to Beirut: Exile, Wandering and Homecoming in the Narratives of
Etel Adnan," Wen-Chin Ouyang explores the multiple forms of
exile in Adnan's life, including political, cultural, linguistic,
familial, gender, and geographical displacement. Examining Adnan's
prose works, Of Cities and Women and Paris, When It's Naked, she
detects a perceptible trajectory in Adnan's life, a voyage of discovery
which begins in Beirut and irrevocably wends its way back to the
homeland. The only essay in the volume that focuses exclusively
on Adnan's visual art is provided by painter and art critic Simone
Fattal, the founder of the Post-Apollo Press, Adnan's major American
publisher. Like her poetry, Adnan's artwork, which is often used
to illustrate her poetry texts, is sometimes obscure, and Fattal's
essay provides us with a unique insider perspective on her work.
Finally, readers of Adnan's Of Cities and Women, a prose work, in
the form of a series of letters addressed to Lebanese writer Fawwaz
Traboulsi, will be delighted to discover that the editors have included
a response from Traboulsi, "Variations on an Andalusian Theme:
Undated Letters to Etel," which also uses the epistolary format.
Following in Adnan's footsteps, Traboulsi offers a meditation on
Southern Spain's Andalusian past. His comments, among other things,
on the tumultuous Spanish Civil War and the effect it had on his
generation of Beirut thinkers, provide a valuable insight into the
intellectual life of the Lebanese capital during the last several
The second section of the book focuses on Adnan's provocative novel,
Sitt Marie Rose, which was published in French in 1977 and translated
into English in 1982. The section begins with a poem called "Mary
Rose," a terse and moving poem by Haas Mroue, which describes
his friend, the social crusader Marie Rose, whose death and martyrdom
at the hands of a childhood friend, now a member of the right-wing
Christian Phalangist party, inspired the book. The poem is followed
by a fascinating essay, "The International Reception of Sitt
Marie Rose" by Annes McCann-Baker, which examines the publishing
and translation history of Adnan's controversial novel. We learn,
for example, that the book elicited widely different responses from
the leftists in West Beirut and the Christian Phalangists in East
Beirut. Because of its controversial nature, the Arabic translation
of the book was not marketed in Christian East Beirut and the editors
of Adnan's newspaper, l'Orient-Le Jour, were advised not to publish
The next two essays examine the social milieu in which the novel
was written. The first, a solid and informative essay, titled "Transgressive
Subjects: War, Gender, and Colonialism in Sitt Mare Rose,"
places the novel in its historical and political context. It explains
the causes of the Lebanese Civil War, the history of colonialism
in the region, and the role that patriarchy plays in Lebanese society.
The second political essay in this section, Mohomodou Houssouba's
essay, "Ever since Gilgamesh: Etel Adnan's Discourse of National
Unity in Sitt Marie Rose," raises important questions about
the problematic nature of Adnan's discourse, in particular, the
inherent contradictions in Marie Rose's wholehearted rejection of
tribalism and acceptance of pan-Arabism. Although the essay is thought
provoking, Houssouba's arguments are often obscure and difficult
The final two essays in the volume approach the novel from an entirely
different perspective. John Champagne's essay "Among Good Christian
Peoples: Teaching Etel Adnan's Sitt Marie Rose" offers useful
insights based on his own inventive approach to teaching Adnan's
novel in the classroom. Champagne argues that although historical
context is useful, it will not help student readers understand the
novel if they are not keenly aware of their own subjective reactions,
the personal and historical baggage they bring to the novel as,
for example, Western Christians. The last text in the volume, the
comparative essay "Voice, Narrative, and Political Critique:
Etel Adnan's Sitt Marie Rose and Nawal El Saadawi's Woman at Point
Zero" by Pauline Homsi Vinson, places Adnan in the larger context
of Arab feminist writing. As the editors point out, essays like
Homsi Vinson's are important because they combat the prevailing
Western stereotype that Arab feminist writers are "either escapees
from, or lonely crusaders against, their culture."
Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist
is an important and necessary addition to the growing body of criticism
on ethnic and postcolonial literature by women. We can only hope
that editors who approach Arab American criticism in the future
will do so with the same scholarly excellence and careful attention
to detail that these editors have displayed.
(Who is Tanyss
Ludescher - University of Connecticut)
Tanyss Ludescher is a doctoral candidate in ethnic American and
postcolonial literatures at the University of Connecticut. She returned
to graduate school after teaching English for ten years at various
universities in the Arab world, an experience which included a memorable
five-year stint at the American University of Beirut during the
final stages of the Lebanese Civil War. She is currently completing
a dissertation on the nationalist political orientation of the first
generation of Arab American writers.
This material is published under license from the publisher
through the Gale Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. All inquiries
regarding rights should be directed to the Gale Group.
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