“Neither here nor there”: A Conversation with Laila Halaby: 2 December 2020

Ishak Berrebbah, Laila Halaby

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    Arab American literature, especially the novel, according to the Arab American literary critic Steven Salaita, has developed “as a formidable art form in the Arab American community” (2011, 2). In Salaita’s view, Arab American literature “is undergoing something of a qualitative and quantitative maturation” (2). However, Salaita also points out that it is difficult to define Arab American literature because it is “diverse and heterogeneous” (4). The definition of Arab American literature is complex because the identity of its producers, such as novelists and poets, is even more complex per se. The diversity of Arab backgrounds for Arab-American authors is significant and their ties to both the Arab world and the USA hold political ambiguities and complex characterizations. Such diversity also plays a key role in determining the relationship between the Arab American community and other dominant minority groups. This relationship, as Fadda-Conrey suggests, features “common experience of struggle against marginalization and discrimination, as well as their continuous negotiation of issues related to identity politics, in-betweenness, multiple home fronts, and uneasy belongings” (2014, 8). It is, therefore, necessary to approach those who contributed to the creation of such a literary canon and understand how they reflect on their identity and also their writings. As such, I have conducted an interview with Laila Halaby – a prominent Arab American novelist – to shine a light on some of the components that form much of her own identity as a writer, as an Arab American, and also as an American citizen. This interview posits critical questions with regards to her two fascinating contemporary novels, West of the Jordan (2003), which won the prestigious PEN Beyond Margins Award, and Once in a Promised Land (2007). The former tells the story of four Arab female cousins of Palestinian origin in their adolescent years: Soraya and Khadija who live in the USA; Hala who lives between Jordan and the USA, particularly Arizona; and Mawal who lives in a small traditional Palestinian village known as Nawara. They live in differing conditions and encounter several bitter experiences due to cultural, political, social, and also economic reasons. The latter revolves around the story of a couple, Salwa and Jassim, who migrate from Jordan to settle in Arizona, in the USA, and search for better opportunities to lead successful lives. However, they encounter an inhospitable climate and experience the repercussions and the ravages of 9/11 events. They find themselves at a complex political crossroads and helplessly endeavour to straddle two different cultures.

    Laila Halaby was born in Lebanon to an American mother and Jordanian father. She spent most of the years when she was growing up in Arizona where she formed an understanding of her own identity as the meeting point of two conflicting cultures – a hyphenated identity. Halaby comments: “My father always lived in Jordan, my mother always lived in the States, so I’ve never felt like I’m Arab-American. I feel like I’m Arab and I feel like I’m American, but the hyphen is lost on me. Even though I feel like the hyphen is also where I live, you know? It’s funny” (https://americanwritersmuseum.org/my-america-laila-halaby/2020). Halaby justifies this claim with her answer in this interview: “When I was growing up and navigating these labels, Arab-Americans seemed like their own culture. I was two things, never a merged category. With increased immigration, ‘Arab-American,’ to me, is a much more general term than it was once.” She is currently working as a counsellor in psychosocial oncology at the Cancer Centre, University of Arizona on a Merck Foundation grant.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages12
    JournalCommonwealth Essays and Studies
    Publication statusPublished - 13 Apr 2021

    Bibliographical note

    Commonwealth Essays and Studies is licensed under a Licence Creative Commons Attribution CC BY NC ND


    • Laila Halaby
    • identity
    • Arab America
    • post-9/11
    • diaspora


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