Anastasia Valassopoulos. Contemporary Arab Women Writers: Cultural Expression in Context London: Roucledge, 2007. Pp. 176. [pounds sterling]60.00 hardcover.
Anastasia Valassopoulos's book covers a wide range of Arab women's literature and advocates a critical engagement with Arab women's writing that goes beyond tried and tested feminist paradigms. Valassopoulos discusses novels from Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria and Palestine but emphasizes that her choices were nor "guided by location but by issues of theme and form" (2). Enabled by the "growing field of translation and distribution of Arab women's literature" (1), Valassopoulos considers it necessary to broaden the disciplinary forum of discussion of these works. Thus her ambitious and insightful book has a clear agenda: it seeks to promote the study of Arab women's writing as an integral part of postcolonial and feminist studies.
This book is directed at an English speaking audience. Valassopoulos goes to great lengths to justify the use of translated material; besides being concerned with raising the visibility of these novels, she feels the need to discuss material which is available to a wide readership: "I did not want to engage with material on which I would have the last word. I write in the spirit of transcultural and transnational communication, and if a work has been translated and is readily available, then I invite a community of readers to participate openly in its interpretation" (2).
Throughout the book, Valassopoulos emphasizes the need to contextualize Arab women's writing and cautions against employing critical approaches that may stifle rather than open up new possibilities for reading these texts. A commonly held critical assumption, which Valassopoulos finds problematic, is, for example, that "Arab women's writing only has one thing to offer: an affirmation of oppression. Read critically, many of the works that I discuss reveal a deep-seated mistrust of any foreclosing arguments that would seek to predetermine their meaning" (4). Valassopoulos also avoids focusing on "questions of faith and ethnicity" as these issues threaten to "dominate the discussion on Arab women's literary production" (2). Instead, she argues for employing a variety of critical approaches such as "feminist, queer, postcolonial and cultural theories." Not only will those approaches benefit the study of Arab women's literature, a critical engagement with their writing can in turn enrich and productively "inform contemporary literary criticism and theory" (3).
The first chapter outlines the critical reception and study of Arab women's literature. Not only is this chapter very well-informed and useful for those outside the field of Arab literature and criticism, but it also lays down clearly and concisely the methodological framework of this book and clarities the author's stance on key concepts such as Arab feminism and her championing of an inclusive and mutually informed employment of feminist and postcolonial theoretical concepts. The following chapters expand on these programmatic statements but are by no means confined to proving their validity. In fact, every chapter has a very distinct focus and agenda, both in terms of thematic treatment and methodology.
Valassopoulos dedicates one chapter to the discussion of the early novels of Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero, Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, and Two Women in One. Valassopoulos produces sensitive and meticulous close readings of the novels in dialogue with feminist and postcolonial theory, and persistently probes and interrogates the relations between the literary, theoretical and contextual and offers complex and bold conclusions: "I am not certain that it is possible to speak of a postcolonial feminism without referring to El Saadawi's polemics and her early fiction. …