Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Transformative Practices and Historical Revision: Suheir Hammad's Born Palestinian, Born Black

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Transformative Practices and Historical Revision: Suheir Hammad's Born Palestinian, Born Black

Article excerpt

As readers, we need to approach this literature [Arab-American] not with fixed expectations but in a spirit of open inquiry. As writers, our task is not only to claim and reshape the meanings of both "Arab" and "American," but also to explore an identity still in the process of being constructed--an identity which we are all, readers and writers alike, in the process of constructing.

--Lisa Suhair Majaj, The Hyphenated Author

Growing up, we start seeing that those parts of our lives are closely intertwined, and we can't really say this part is Arab and this part is American. It is as close as a pulse is. It is the whole thing that keeps us alive. Writing helps us see that and, whoever we are it helps us identify what makes the whole geography of our lives.

--Naomi Shihab Nye

As a subject who has been scarred by displacement and who entertains a complex relationship with memory, roots and origins, Suheir Hammad has unique insights into what Renato Rosaldo has called the "border zones of culture" (1). Her ambiguous location vis-a-vis memory and geographic, social, and communal spaces influences her articulation of narratives of belonging which are aware of their contribution to power configurations even as they denounce their dissymmetries and paradoxes. Such a tension results in a quest for methods and strategies aiming at using creative practices in order to shape intensely personal and idiosyncratic forms of representation. The intervention of this author in the canonical discourses revolving around ethnicity, identity, and literature, is based on the negotiation of modernity and traditions. It works along with the representation of complex, interrelated cultural identities in order to reshape our understanding of the political consciousness meditating strategies of self-inscription.

A Palestinian American, a woman, and a poet, who also identifies as Arab, American, and black, Hammad is an astute interpreter of the condition of exile and the creative resistance emanating from the careful and self-conscious deconstruction of hierarchies rather than in their reversal. As she works to reshape creative and multivocal spaces, she gives a new orientation to configurations of power, recognizing their inevitability while at the same time working towards their imaginative rearrangement in order to reduce the imbalance permeating the production and circulation of knowledge. Engaged in such negotiations, she provides a framework for seeing how the complexities of identity formation can be understood through a form of universalism which acknowledges the importance of gendered and ethnic specificities, while at the same time stressing the commonalities and zones of intersection among different groups. As such, the universal is redefined as a form of political awareness of the workings of power and systems.

Stressing the importance of such negotiations, this paper maintains that Hammad accomplishes a critique of power through the rearrangement of traditional geographies and seemingly unrelated spaces. In this process, she uses historical experience rather than geographic location as the frame of reference for the redrawing of maps of struggle against a number of oppressive practices. Such a rearrangement, I maintain, takes place through the use of a technique I term "combinatorial poetics" in order to establish a rapprochement between different histories and stories of struggle. In other words, Hammad's writing shows how, as Michel Foucault states, "a change in the order of discourse does not presuppose 'new ideas,' a little invention and creativity, a different mentality, but transformations in a practice, perhaps also in neighboring practices, and in their common articulation" (209). The paper also argues that in the struggle to reconstruct imaginative spaces and to unsettle hierarchies, Hammad exploits the flexible potential of borders and stresses the significance of discovering embryonic entities. …

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