The ‘noteworthy fiction’ table at the local Barnes and Noble was my favorite area of four square feet in Michigan. I could spend hours skimming the titles, reading back covers, deliberating over which of the titles to choose as my companion for the next few weeks.
As I entered college and began studying Arabic, I began to reflect on my literary choices. Why weren’t there ever any Arab or Arab American authors on the ‘noteworthy fiction’ table? Surely they exist. And they must write at least some stories worthy of note.
In Chicago, the Seminary Co-Op became my preferred bookstore. I felt my way through the labyrinth of shelves stacked to capacity with more uncommon titles. I sought out last names that indicated some sort of tie to the region I had been studying through language and connected to by heritage. Over five years, I had curated a respectable collection of books on my own shelf, with authors whose literary voices I didn’t have the chance to hear growing up.
I am excited to share a few highlights from that shelf with you. Below you’ll find a list of some of my favorite books by Arab and Arab American authors. Maybe you’ll get a chance to read some of them in 2018, or perhaps you’ll have favorites you’d like to add to the list. In any case, I would love to hear about your engagement with these titles. Happy reading!
A Map of Home – Randa Jarrar
This novel centers around the protagonist, Nidali, and her family as conflict drives them from Kuwait to Egypt, and then the United States. Nidali’s voice is so wonderfully fresh and sharp, and I often found myself laughing at her narrations. This story is interlaced with many themes, from displacement to the density of family relationships, but to me was ultimately about growing up.
The Moor’s Account – Leila Lailami
This story is a fictionalized account of an historical event. It is written as the memoir of Mustafa, a Moroccan man who was sold as a slave after an unfortunate twist of fate. He is renamed Estevanico after being brought to Spain. He is then selected to accompany a group of explorers on an expedition to the New World, or modern-day Florida. It is full of adventure and exciting plot turns, while also diving into the dynamics of slavery and colonialism from a systematically silenced perspective.
Lifted by the Great Nothing – Karim Dimechkie
This novel is both tragedy and comedy. Max tells the story of growing up in suburbia with his Lebanese father, who has attempted to give his son what he imagines to be a truly “American” childhood. But in the process of trying to protect Max, the father has spun an intricate web of lies. This sets Max on a journey to seek the truth. The relationships in this story are saturated with deep love and empathy, yet also grave misunderstandings.
I, the Divine – Rabih Alameddine
This is the story of a Lebanese woman who finds tentative peace in self-imposed exile in the United States, told entirely in first chapters. Sarah, the protagonist, attempts and re-attempts to tell the story of her life, and with all these false starts, a plot-laden narrative unfolds. The author of this novel is one of my all-time favorites. If you end up enjoying this one, I would highly recommend you also check out The Hakawati and An Unnecessary Woman.
The Return – Hisham Matar
In this literary memoir, Matar tells the story of his search for understanding after the disappearance of his father during the Qaddafi regime. Matar also deals with the pain of exile and how it has shaped his identity, beautifully rendering attachments and relationships in Libya, New York, and London.
De Niro’s Game – Rawi Hage
I read this novel in a class taught by the brilliant Ghenwa Hayek, called “Narrating Conflict in Modern Arabic Literature.” This particular story is set in Lebanon during the civil war and told from the perspective of a young man who struggles to understand his place in it all. He tries to make a living for himself and his family, all while pursuing meaning in the senseless conflict and destruction that surrounds him. It is also a story about friendship and the different paths that we take.
The Hidden Light of Objects – Mai Al-Nakkib
A sparkling collection of short stories that stood out to me as tenderly evoked vignettes more than fully-formed narratives. I don’t remember the plots of the stories so much as how they made my feel; curious, filled with wonder, ready to seek meaning in the little moments that comprise mundane lives.
The Woman from Tantoura – Radwa Ashour
I saw this title in a charming bookstore in London, on the edge of Baker Street that leads to Hyde Park. I was drawn to the cover, which carried the name of my second-year Arabic instructor. Turns out she had translated this book! It follows the life of Ruqayya, who is born in a village of Palestine but displaced after the events of 1948. Ruqayya and her family are scattered around the world, but the events of the novel after the invasion of her hometown Tantoura unfold in Lebanon, Jordan, and the Gulf. Her voice is mature and measured, simple and frank, yet she does not shy away from evoking the bottomless pain of loss.
The Corpse Exhibition – Hassan Blassim
This is a collection of short stories that captivate the reader despite the disturbing images they evoke of Iraq during war and American invasion. His work recalls Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his use of magical realism and absurd treatment of violence. I would not recommend this title for readers with difficulty stomaching gruesome scenes. For those who can better tolerate such stories, I would say the challenge of reading this collection is instructive, especially for those of us who have been privileged enough not to experience war firsthand.
American War – Omar Al-Akkad
This dystopian novel imagines what America would look like if it split info a civil war spurred by political factionalism, regional disagreements about dependence on fossil fuels, and the imperial interests of other global superpowers. It is beautifully told and at the same time frightening, given the realities of climate change and political polarization.