Art in the press

Etel Adnan: Critical Essays on the Arab-American Writer and Artist by Tanyss Ludescher

Ed. Lisa Suhair Majaj and Amal Amireh. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2002.

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 decades.

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 her work.

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 to follow.

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.

Tanyss Ludescher

(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.

(Book Review) - 12/22/2003