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Literary Memoir as an Arab American Art Form

By Raff Ellis 

General Thesis: 

            Arab American writers have an opportunity to make artistic and cultural contributions through employment of the literary memoir genre.  This writing domain allows the author to inform and educate the reading public about his or her culture and heritage by enticing readers to identify with the trials and tribulations experienced by their ancestors.  Arab American writers should be driven, not only to showcase their talents, but also, through skillful exploitation of their craft, to help overcome the negative feelings and prejudice that exists towards their people.

Introduction – 

My thoughts on this subject are largely drawn from personal experience as a published author.  I freely use, as a case in point, my adventures with researching, writing, publishing, and marketing my memoir, Kisses from a Distance, published by Cune Press, Seattle, Wash.  By virtue of the inferences and conclusions extracted from my personal journey, I endeavor to expose a few underlying truths that will hopefully give impetus to the use of this literary genre in general, and as an Arab American cultural art form in particular.  I also draw upon my interactions with various segments of the Arab American community to glean additional insights and conclusions that will be useful for this discussion.   

The literary memoir as an art form - 

Everyone is familiar, of course, with the literary genre called biography.  That category of literature differs from the memoir in that the latter chronicles a slice of the lives of the individuals involved—not their whole existence.

Within each genre of literature, not unlike other specialties such as medicine, there are sub categories that further define and inform their content.  Thus, we should examine what separates the common memoir from a literary one.

The literary memoir is a personal work that must also include the author’s reflection and exhibit development, much like a poem or novel. In this way, simply recording the experiences partaken is not enough; what matters is the way in which those experiences are interpreted.  This is done through creative, literary writing, and not expressed merely in the uniqueness of that occurrence.

A literary memoir can be riddled with philosophy and learned allusions.  In the case at hand, it should delve into and describe a universal concept—such as the immigration experience.  What makes a memoir truly impressive is not the story as expressed per se, but the way in which the story is articulated—its lyrical tone and rhythmically structured sentences.

Memoirist Bernard Cooper says; “A good memoir does more than dredge up secrets from the writer’s past.  A good memoir filters a life through resonant narrative, and in so doing must achieve a balance between language and candor.  It is not the subject matter of my memoirs that I hoped would be startling, but rather language’s capacity to name what was once nameless, to define what had once been vague and chaotic.  The chief privilege of writing a memoir was the opportunity to go back and make sense of events that left me dumbstruck, mired in confusion, unarmed with the luminous power of words.”[1]

In the essence of the memoir, the power of language is being emphasized, but not at the expense of the truth of the narrative.  It is important for the memoirist to realize that a literary exposition is not the mere statement of facts, ala recitation of history, but an engaging narrative that compels the reader to read on.  Thus, literary memoirs have great audience appeal and allow authors to expand the knowledge of the reader without the undue feeling of lecturing them on history.  They should easily absorb the material and identify with the characters, be they Arab or any other ethnicity, and in fact feel empathy for them.  Thus, the literary memoir becomes an excellent vehicle for Arab Americans to get the story of their culture, heritage, history, struggles, and successes in front of the American public.  After all, if the purpose is to overcome stereotypes, what better way than showing people that their characters are indeed human and not warranting the institutional prejudice that has been accorded them.

The writer as an artist - 

As an author, and one who has occasionally counseled other aspiring writers, I have often reflected on how seemingly easy it is to become a writer, and yet how hard it is to become a published writer.  It seems anyone can embark on a writing career because it poses no economic barriers to entry.  All that is needed, at a bare minimum, are the most common of tools—a pad and pencil.  Even the acquisition of a computer has fallen within the means of most people who have an inclination to put words on paper.  And, it appears that writing requires only a primary education to get started on the road to authorship.

If, however, we look more closely at this craft, to examine just what it is that a writer does, we find that the wordsmith is in reality an artist who merely happens to use different tools.  Instead of brush and oils he paints his canvas with pen and ink.  Instead of a musical instrument using notes and scales, he composes his melodies with syllables, words, and sentences.  Instead of hammer and chisel he painstakingly sculpts paragraphs, chapters, and entire books.  Instead of camera and film, he takes snapshots of his thoughts and develops them in his notebook or on a keyboard.  Instead of stimulating our brains with a flood of colors, shapes, or sounds, he tickles our senses with metaphors and similes that send us on flights of fancy. 

The author’s interpretation of personal experiences, and the world in which we live, is the tapestry from which he creates and displays his artistry.  Like all other artists, however, the writer has a vision of the world that the casual observer overlooks, or must be induced to see.  The writer is like an architect, but one who designs his buildings with ideas riveted into the girders of common speech.  He toils in solitude, coping with the fact that his art form is easily under-appreciated because it seems that anyone can do it, and indeed many try.  Yet, to be successful, the writer must be extraordinarily creative, applying his talent in ways that others can only appreciate as readers. 

What does it take to write a good literary memoir? 

First and foremost the author must have good writing skills.  Fluency with language is a necessary, albeit insufficient requirement for composing an acceptable artistic product.  There is a lot of bad writing loose in the public domain, as we well know, and it encompasses all types of media—newspapers, magazines, books, and the Internet.  Just because a work is published doesn’t make it good, or even true.  Commercial media are businesses and as such are subject to the constraining imperatives of time and money.  Often, editors need to fill space or satisfy particular readerships, and must do so within specified budgets.  The limitations of time often compel management to rush items into print that upon closer inspection could have been better composed or edited.  Also, the need to show profits—a primary force in recent staff reductions—has adversely affected the quality of the final product. 

Writing is hard work!  Pounding on a keyboard is analogous to hammering on piano keys—one can more easily produce a cacophony of words than a pleasing melody.  The reading public is not disposed to consuming individual nostalgic reminiscences without the ancillary enjoyment of a compelling storyline.  It cannot be emphasized too strongly that one does not wake up one day and decide to become a writer—a painter, sculptor, or musician—because it takes an apprenticeship of sorts to become skilled at any craft.  Some writers have been serving apprenticeships unaware they are doing so.  For example diarists who were busy keeping journals over long periods were in fact honing their skills, even though it might have only been a subconscious impulse.  It is my contention that if you search the backgrounds of successful artists you will find that they indeed served an apprenticeship of some sort, somewhere, over some period of time. 

Another necessary component of writing a successful memoir is skillful research.  The ability to do high-quality research can be likened to that of a first-class detective trying to solve a mysterious crime.  It is not enough to just look up information in reference books—anyone can do that.  You have to develop the ability to assess the quality of the information and discern whether or not it’s true.  Do not be startled to discover that many publicly acceptable legends that have been handed down through the years are absolutely false.  Just think of George Washington and his cherry tree, or that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves.  As one author said, “Historians often disagree…”  Indeed they do and one man’s facts are another’s myths. 

As an example, one of the most commonly accepted urban myths—that people find very difficult to disbelieve even after being shown otherwise—is the notion that immigrant names were changed willy-nilly at Ellis Island.  I researched this tidbit extensively and could find no evidence that would support it.  I challenged some of the myth’s most fervent advocates to show me any documentation that an immigrant walked away with from Ellis Island that would prove the story to be true.  There were none because the immigration agents worked with the documents the new arrivals brought with them—their passports and visas.  They also worked from the ship manifests on which were recorded the newcomers names and countries of origin.  Indeed, if an immigrant’s name was changed, it occurred when one of those records was created at the point of origin, not at Ellis Island.  But in fact, many immigrants voluntarily changed their names when they reached their final destination.  Some wished to Anglicize their names to better assimilate into their new surroundings.  Many came from countries that used alphabets with letters and pronunciations not found in the English language, and rather than continue with unpronounceable names, many chose to change. 

The caveat here is that just because many people say it’s so, or it has even been codified in books, doesn’t make it true. 

Research sources –

There are many obvious research sources such as Ellis Island ship manifests[2], Census Bureau records[3], old newspapers and history books.  But some are not so obvious.  A city or village’s Chamber of Commerce is one that does not immediately come to mind.  If the ancestor being researched had a business, as many Arab Americans did, you might not know when or where the business was started or if it was in more than one location.  Chamber records can help you follow that trail.

There are also population records other than those from the Census Bureau.  In many States, various counties or parishes also kept a census.  Remember also that New York’s Ellis Island was not the only debarkation point for Middle Eastern immigrants.  Boston, New Orleans, and Montreal Canada were among other popular ports of entry.  Also, many Syrians and Lebanese started their expatriate careers in Central and South America before finally landing in the US.  There are Mexican Border Crossing records available at the National Archives[4], which document many such arrivals. 

Archives also exist that relatively few people know about—university, religious, and military are but a few.  As an example, at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the Southwestern Archives and Manuscripts Collection[5] houses unpublished materials, some of which was contributed by Arab Americans.  Also there are religious archives kept by sects that had missionaries stationed in the Middle East.  These are invaluable in providing the researcher with a glimpse into what life was like at the time when many chose to emigrate.  Personally, I found the Presbyterian Historical Society[6] archives in Philadelphia to be extremely useful for the research I was conducting. 

The bottom line is that there are many sources, depending on the type of research being performed—but they have to be looked for.  A good detective will find them. 

Inherent problems in using oral histories – 

It is a fact of life that many of the stories of immigrants, in the process of being handed down, have become embellished to the point of non-recognition.  The Ellis Island example given above is but one such story that has reached mythical proportions.  But it is far from the only one. 

I have read several family histories, written by first and second generation Lebanese Americans.  Frankly, some are quite humorous due to their outrageous inaccuracies.  One immigrant’s recollection claimed he walked 120 miles from Damascus to Beirut when the distance is less than 60 miles.  Another claimed his ship docked at Ellis Island, which had no facilities for such moorings.  Others have inserted historical events, such as Ottoman slaughter of Armenians, woefully out of chronological order, perhaps to validate their stories of malfeasance by the Turks.  The stories of Ottoman persecution, as told by young Lebanese boys of eleven or twelve who came to America prior to WWI, really have no basis in fact.  I’ve read claims that the Ottomans kidnapped young Lebanese boys to serve in their armed forces[7], and some of these lads stated they were sent to America to escape that fate.  In fact, the Ottomans were not allowed to enter Lebanon, as it was constituted in that time period.  The only reason I can deduce for these stories is that these youth were told such tales to frighten them into staying close to home.  

Other stories I’ve read include the claim that several Lebanese peddlers became fluent in the various languages of their immigrant clientele.  Although it’s true that many, out of necessity, learned the abbreviated foreign language of trade, i.e. the ability to exchange greetings, count money, and use the foreign names of the products they were hawking, they certainly never approached fluency.  There were too many problems with attaining proficiency in English—which many also never truly mastered. 

It is easy to take at face value these handed-down tales, but they don’t make good memoir copy if they’re not true.  In fact, once discovered, these inaccuracies may actually turn the reader away from the entire story.  So, oral histories[8] must be thoroughly checked out before being included in your manuscript. 

The Objective of the literary memoir - 

As mentioned above, the objective of using this particular literary genre is to educate the general public, while entertaining them, about Middle Eastern heritage and culture.  In this way we will help overcome the negative stereotypes presented in the media about people from that part of the world. 

To do this, and get published by a reputable press, is truly a daunting task[9], one that becomes more difficult with each passing day.  In spite of the obvious artistry involved and pleasure derived, writing as a profession is becoming an endangered species.  Although there is no shortage of writing talent in this modern age, the written word is under attack from many directions.  It is in the process of being eclipsed by the proliferation of electronic devices available in today’s society.  The shorthand of text messaging is but one symptom of writing’s demise.  This nouveau method of communication uses the barest of syllables and words, totally unencumbered by the elegance of language, all in order to feed society’s ever-increasing need for instant gratification.  Booksellers are struggling.  Mainstream publishers produce fewer titles and refuse to print books by unknown authors, no matter how deserving.  Many newspapers no longer do book reviews, the irony of which seems to be lost on them.  Think about it—the very same people who are in the business of selling the printed word are doing less and less to promote reading of the self-same printed word. This is done in the name of cost effectiveness.  How long will it be before they convince their remaining customers that they too are obsolete?  And why is all this important to the Arab American writer? 

The market conditions place an additional burden on these writers because they do not have a tailor-made audience for their work, one that would help establish them in the marketplace.  And without a definable niche in the marketplace it is well nigh impossible to attract a publisher. 

Oh, you may say, what about the Arab American market?  And the publisher will ask (as was I), “Just how big is it?”  “And how many of them buy and read books?”  These are questions that can’t be reliably answered because one cannot point to any verifiable track record.  What book about Arab American culture can you cite that was a best seller?  Of course there have been successful Arab American writers—but their heritage or cultural musings were not the food of their best sellers.  “What about Kahlil Gibran?” you may ask.  My answer is, “Look, the guy has been dead nearly 78 years.  Is that the best we can do?”  Also, that esteemed writer was dishing out philosophy and spiritual messages that only began to resonate with readers many years after his death.  And I love his work, especially the poem, Dead Are My People[10].  But I don’t think his Opus Magnus, The Prophet, qualifies as a celebration of Arab American culture. 

In some respects Arab American writers have a similar lament to that of Black job seekers of yore—we have to be better than our counterparts to get our work noticed or published.  This doesn’t mean it can’t happen—it’s just much harder. 

The Arab American community as a market – 

What is the role of the Arab American community in this effort?  Can they be depended on for support?  How is that support to be marshaled?

First of all, what are the characteristics of a community?  The dictionary says: 

community, n.

A social group of any size whose members

a.       share a distinct identity

comprise a segment of society

with common interests

with large numbers of whom may reside in a specific location

who may share government

have a common cultural and historical heritage

with sharing, participation, and fellowship 

It certainly looks, on the surface at least, that an Arab American community exists.  But how does it act as a group to remedy the wrongs that have been mentioned, i.e. discrimination and negative stereotyping by the media?  Can we point to a concerted action by the “community” that has had a positive effect on this problem?  Indeed, what can it do to have a positive influence? 

It is my contention that the Arab American community is in itself so diverse that it defies the definition of a community.  It is composed of different religions, nationalities, linguistic dialects, generations, education levels, and even traditions such as food and music.  Many of its members do not want to be identified as having been descended from the Arab culture because it can only cause them grief.  Suffice it to say that the root cause of this problem is stereotyping.  It is my contention that if being “Arab” was held in esteem by the American public, most would be loathe to deny it. 

The most frequent collision Americans have with our culture happens with food.  The many successful Middle Eastern restaurants attest to this reality.  Although this can be seen as a good, it does not create a lasting, favorable impression for our culture per se.  Indeed most consumers don’t even connect the dots—that the people who produce this delicious food are to be admired and accepted as American equals.  It’s no different if the fare is Chinese, Vietnamese, or Italian.  It is a culinary, not a cultural experience, which only provides transitory sensory gratification and does not make the partaker more favorably disposed to the heritage or ancestry in any lasting way.  People who dance the polka don’t really think any better, or worse, of Polish people.  And it doesn’t stop them from telling Polish jokes.

The Arab American community doesn’t shrink from recognizing the accomplishments of other Arab Americans—after they’ve become famous.  Yes, we are duly proud of Danny Thomas; Peter Blatty; Casey Kasem; Helen Thomas; Ralph Nader; Ray Lahood; Gen. John Abizaid; Dr. Michael DeBakey; and many, many more.  We are even proud of, and call them our own, those who are not “pure” Arab Americans but have some Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian or Palestinian blood.  As an example, George Mitchell, who is half Irish, half Lebanese, is considered one of our own.  Web sites compile lists of prominent Arab Americans[11] who number among the titans of business, the arts, medicine, and politics--many of whom have never said publicly that they are Arab Americans. 

But what of those in the community who haven’t made it?  Those who are struggling to get noticed, swimming upstream against the stiff current of prejudice or the normal hardships of getting recognition?  What has the community done to help them? 

One of the problems is that we don’t know if they are good or not.  America is a nation of critics (also something Arabs excel at) and many make their living as members of the American cognoscenti, ready to tell us if a movie, restaurant, book, resort, or city deserves our patronage.  We’re just not ready to throw our support behind someone who hasn’t been recognized as really good by one or more of these pundits. 

But what if an artist or writer does get good reviews by American critics and his work is awarded a few accolades?  Will the community get behind him or her then?  I can only relate my personal experience in that regard.  As the author of a literary memoir who, against all odds had it published by a reputable press, I can tell you what happened to me. 

The state of the industry today, as mentioned above, requires an author to shoulder virtually all the marketing of his product.  This very time-consuming work requires a nearly full-time effort to make a dent in the marketplace.  In the beginning I had great expectations for my work and dove headlong into the fray. 

I sent out literally thousands of postcards, eMails, and letters to newspapers, radio and TV stations, web sites, and individuals.  I gave away nearly 200 books for publicity purposes.  My postage, promotional materials, and travel costs alone have exceeded $10,000.  Nonetheless I had great expectations—especially for the Arab American population. 

I’ll share a couple of my experiences—just to show what the artistic members of our community are up against. 

Although my book is about three Lebanese Maronite families, it was written to appeal to the general public, most of whom also have immigrant backgrounds.  Indeed, letters I’ve received from a cornucopia of ethnicities has borne this out.  These other nationalities identified closely with the events portrayed in the book because they knew their grandparents or parents had similar experiences. 

However, since the book was basically about Maronite families, I hatched the bright idea of sending complimentary copies to all the 80 Maronite Churches in the US—hoping the pastors would look at it, see its worth, and recommend it to their parishioners.  I got three letters of acknowledgement (3.75%) thanking me for the book.  The local Maronite pastor where I live never acknowledge receiving it.  A letter and repetitive phone calls went unreturned.  I mentioned this to his bishop, who was one of the three respondents, and shortly thereafter I got a phone call from the agitated pastor asking me, “What’s the big deal about this book?” 

The big deal is that the book has been acclaimed by some pretty reputable critics, informs people about an immigrant group that has been denigrated by the media, and leaves people with a positive image of our culture and heritage.  That was the big deal that he failed to grasp! 

I also wrote and sent books to two nationally syndicated radio shows that are hosted by “Arab Americans,” George Noory’s Coast to Coast AM, and Diane Rhem’s The Diane Rhem Show.  They do author interviews on a regular basis.  I never heard back from either one. 

What can the Arab American community do? 

It is my contention that the Arab American community badly needs a central unifying principal or purpose, one that is non-threatening to any of its disparate membership.  I propose that the community put its energy into developing a network devoted to fighting unfair characterization by the media through the work of its artists.  The Internet is a powerful tool that can be used to inexpensively mobilize the Arab American community in ways that would unite rather than magnify their current divisions.  There are all sorts of religion and nationality based networks and web sites that have been set up--all of which are oriented to a particular special interest.  Why not set up an arts network?  The many disparate groups could be solicited to join together under a non-threatening umbrella, which could then be alerted whenever an Arab American artist is deserving of publicity and support. 

This is a goal to which no reasonable person could object.  I assert and reiterate that the easiest, non-threatening way to reach the American public is through support for Arab American arts and artists.  If the community, from time to time, would pick an artist, and throw him/her their support, they could make a huge dent in this problem.  It doesn’t matter what the medium—make it into a best-seller.  Once it hits the charts, the general public will have to take notice.  As an example, if a book were bought by only 2% of Arab American households, it would easily become a chartbuster.  Then the goal of educating Americans to the existence of a people who can be admired and appreciated would surely be enhanced. 

So get on board—spreading the word through a community is a powerful marketing tool. 

Conclusion – 

If Arab American writers are to make an impact on the American public, they must be prepared to hone their skills and write material that is interesting and appealing to a general audience.  They also have to gear up for the hard work it takes to get published and to market their creation.  Only through widespread distribution will the desired impact be made.   

After the Arab American artists have done their job--producing worthwhile literature, music, or any of the other myriad art forms—the community must rally behind them and help them to succeed—only then will they be directly aiding the greater cause of gaining respect for our culture and heritage.


[11] http://www.aaiusa.org/arab-americans/23/famous-arab-americans 

Raff Ellis is a first generation Lebanese Arab American and freelance writer.  He spent his entire business career in the computer business, beginning as a programmer and concluding as the CEO of a research and development firm.  He is a frequent writer of essays, short stories, magazine, and newspaper articles.  He makes his home with his wife Loretta in Orlando, Fla. 

raff.ellis@yahoo.com

www.raffellis.com

   

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