Though I’ve been at it for a few years now, editing this magazine still is full of surprises, and nearly all are pleasant. Finding new work you really love, and getting to correspond with—or even meet in person—the writer of that work is, of course, best of all. At the annual AWP shindig, our magazine also has the pleasure of joining forces with the University of Massachusetts Press, and that in turn has given me the opportunity of reading, meeting, and on occasion also introducing the winners of the AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. Last March in L.A. this privilege was a particular pleasure, because I got to read, meet, and then introduce Susan Muaddi Darraj. Her A Curious Land: Stories from Home is a treasure; since last spring, I’ve been recommending it to friends, or giving out copies, more or less non-stop. So you can imagine how pleased I was to hear recently that Darraj has also now won a 2016 American Book Award.
In reading A Curious Land, it occurred to me that Susan Muaddi Darraj is an archivist—in an important sense, if not the traditional one. In telling the stories of Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans, her stories offer an archive of language, of customs; they record those relations between people that, for lack of a better word, we call “civilization.” In her eloquent comments at the ABA ceremony a few days ago, Darraj said as much:
I had a college professor tell me once that there was no such thing as Palestinian people, that it was a “made up” nationality that Palestinians conveniently invented after 1948. This book is my answer to his comment, so many years later, because at nineteen years old, I didn’t have the words.
The philosopher Elizabeth Victoria Spelman, in her chapter on “The Heady Political Life of Compassion,” recalls what Ronald Hepburn once argued to be the central lesson of literature: that it fine-tunes our emotions. Spelman notes in particular that fine writing is the finest tuner of all. She comments, “The more carefully a situation is delineated, the more particularized the emotional response [that good literature] brings forth” (86).
In this time of increasing Islamophobia, we should not need to be reminded that not all religion is extremist, that not all Arabs are terrorists. . . or that, by the way, not all Arabs are Muslim. Yet clearly we do need this reminder; we need fiction, as well as history, to bring this lesson across, to translate the experience of other places, of other times, of other cultures, in a way that makes them real, irrefutable—and that makes our world larger and more just.
Though it may seem an odd parallel, the stories of A Curious Land actually reminded me of my classes with Gilles Deleuze, and his application to literature and film of a concept from the study of mathematical systems. Darraj’s collection gathers together a century of stories with headings that range from 1916 to 1998, and, thus, by implication also 2016. Each story in the book is linked to the previous story by some object, event, or character that returns and comes to play a role in this next story’s new historical moment.
The concept I recalled from Deleuze is related to this sort of structure, either its complement or its exact opposite. A Markov chain (according to all-knowing Wikipedia) is “a random process that undergoes transitions from one state to another . . . It must possess a property that is usually characterized as "memorylessness": the probability distribution of the next state depends only on the current state and not on the sequence of events that preceded it.” The entry then adds that “Markov chains have many applications as statistical models of real-world processes.”
When Susan Muaddi Darraj links her stories, each to the one preceding, by introducing a common object, event, or character, it is indeed memorylessness that is at issue: the lack of memory of contemporary culture, where so often it does seem that everything solid melts into air. As an act of resistance, an archivist in fiction like Darraj (or, for that matter, Grace Paley) uses the permanence of the page, and her own unforgettable voice, to record the enduring voices and ways of her people.
Sometimes the only effective response to ignorance is an archive.