American Scheherazades - Auto-orientalism, literature and the representations of Muslim women in a post 9/11 U.S. context
The Graduate School, Stony Brook University: Stony Brook, NY.
The genre of Arab American novels has experienced a veritable boom in the last decade, which opens up a wide field of questions concerning the aesthetics and politics of Arab American literature in a post 9/11 U.S. context. In my thesis, I propose that Arab/Muslim American women writers employ varying forms of auto-orientalism to gain access to the U.S. literary market via citation of orientalist tropes and thus actively participate in the majority discourses surrounding Islam, Muslim women and Americanness. Citation of established orientalist tropes provides access to publication by way of its mutual legibility by majority discourses and minority writers. While such citation can easily confirm existing stereotypes, it might also work as a space for contestation and subversion of a binary/feminized orientalist reference. Even though the most common form of auto-orientalism is an essentialist type in the popular `oppressed Muslim women memoirs', I argue that a recent wave of Arab American novels challenges East/West binaries by squarely placing Islam within and as part of American culture via strategic auto-orientalist references. In this analysis I look at Mohja Kahf's novel the girl in the tangerine scarf and her poetry collection Emails from Scheherazad as examples of such a strategic form of auto-orientalism in search of its characteristics, transformative possibilities, and potential impact on American audiences. I build on Christina Civantos, Stuart Hall and Gayatri Spivak and conclude that a strategic form of auto-orientalism can be part of a discursive intervention and relinking of meanings around Muslim womanhood in America. Further, I connect Kahf's strategies with an alternative women of color feminist framework, because her work opens possibilities for Muslim American women's subjectivities in the in-between, as cultural mediators that defy East/West binaries and thus destabilize a clear cut notion of a stable U.S. culture based on normativity and escape a neoliberal logic of validating only certain kinds of diversity.