By Sarah N Dillard
I first read Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi after 9/11 and before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It’s a novel about a 16-year-old girl named Liyana who moves from Missouri to her father’s ancestral village in Palestine, just days after her first kiss. I learned many things about the world, about my family and about myself in the pages of Nye’s novel. Together, Liyana and I embarked on a journey that has been my path ever since.
Until that point, habibi, meaning my love, was a word I’d only heard spoken by members of my own extended family. I thought it was our language. In reality, it’s Arabic, the 5th most spoken language on the planet. Some time before I encountered Habibi, I’d been told that my grandmother was Arab. Naturally, I thought her parents were buried in the pyramids. Then came 9/11. Then, the invasion of Iraq. Suddenly, “Arab” meant more than mummies and the sphinx. It meant terror. Tremors became an earthquake.
In the pages of Habibi, I found Palestine. As a kid, I was really confused that I couldn’t find Palestine on the maps. Aside from family, I’d never met or seen someone from Palestine. Other people, even map nerds like me, and especially adults, said things like, “Palestine doesn’t exist.” Seeing Palestine written in ink, next to Arabic words and familiar foods, showed me that we weren’t alone. There were others like us and others like me.
Fast forward about ten years. I’ve left my small Northwestern town for a big Midwestern one. I’ve just returned from time in the Middle East--the opportunity of a lifetime. Palestine isn’t abstract anymore. I’ve found the diaspora. I’m volunteering for an organization called Mizna at the Radius of Arab American Writers Inc. conference. Arriving late, I step into the auditorium to catch the end of a piece about diaspora and exile, those fundamental experiences of the Palestinian condition. Later, after the chills subside, after I stop crying, after the words are only an echo in my mind, I learn that the author’s name is Dina Omar. The piece, Cartographies of Disappearing: Meditations on Where to Bury our Dead has stayed with me ever since. Every time I reread it, I am overcome with the sensation of community, solidarity and of being heard, even without speech.
I have collected many of these touchstone experiences with literature and writing over the years. The authors who have touched me most and with whom I feel an intense kinship are Arab American women. Among them stand the aforementioned Nye and Omar, as well as Randa Jarrar, Najla Said and Elmaz Abinader, and so many others. Some of these women, I’ve only met in fleeting moments. Most do not know I exist. Despite this, they have been my mentors and my guardians. Their words have given me strength and conviction and have shown me vulnerability and nuance. They have become my pantheon and my sisterhood. To this day, they inspire me to grow.
This story is not unique. Diversity in publishing and the arts matters. Art begins a conversation about what is and what can be. Art demands that people make sense of things in relation to their own lives. This is true even if the art presents something entirely new or even antithetical. Through art, the unknown becomes the familiar, the stranger becomes the neighbor and the enemy becomes the friend.
In working toward greater representation, it’s not enough to stumble upon works written by people from underrepresented communities. Genius doesn’t always win awards and it doesn’t always garner the greatest earnings. Privilege doesn’t stop at the bookstore doors. Often, people must intentionally seek these voices out and support them. Publishing remains predominantly white and male, although changes are underway. Like every business, the publishing industry responds to the demands of consumers, even if it does so slowly. In the meantime, there are small presses providing vital alternative spaces for underrepresented writers to wet their feet or to speak directly to community members in ways that the mainstream press may not allow for. Support these spaces. They are essential.
Importantly, reaching out to underrepresented artists and writers will enrich your life regardless of who you are, as well as the creator’s. You’re not paying anyone a favor. Whether you’re able to find your own community through words, or if you’re reaching across difference to find a new perspective, you will be transformed by the work you discover. Artists who don’t look like me, think like me or experience the world like I do, have challenged my worldview, have helped to define my values and have made me a stronger and better person, with a clearer understanding of what justice for all actually looks like. With your support, artists will not only be able to sustain themselves, they will be able to continue to create, challenging our convictions and daring us to be better.
Support can take many forms, not all of which are financial.
1). If you’re in the position to purchase a book, consider the storyteller. Is this coming from a place of experience or of detached observation?
2). If you’re looking for a book that your public library doesn’t have, request that they purchase it. In this way, the work will be available to others and the author will receive compensation.
3). Show up. Attend art events in your city (many of which are free), including those featuring artists from underrepresented backgrounds.
4). Recommend the work that touches you or that you learn from. If you are able, gift it. If some of their work is available online, share it on social media.
5). Support the work of marginalized artists, regardless of what they are creating. For example, a fantasy novel by a Native author is as worthy of your support as their memoir.
6). Once you’ve read one book, read another. No community is a monolith. Delve into the conversations between authors writing from a particular experience. This isn’t a checklist--don’t tokenize.
One last tip: remember that no one has a singular social identity. My identity as a cisgendered, heterosexual, college-educated, white woman of Arab and European descent (this, being the short list) influences my experience of the world in specific ways. Each of these perspectives are a part of me and I can’t speak directly from one. Don’t expect this of the artists you are supporting.
Want more ideas?
Equity in Publishing: What Should Editors Be Doing, Antonio Aiello
6 Things White People Can do to Support Writers of Color, Ashley Truong
Blog: Tell Everyone I Am Affirmative Action, Elmaz Abinader
Book: A Map of Home, Randa Jarrar
Book: Habibi, Naomi Shihab Nye
Poem: Cartographies of Disappearing: Meditations on Where to Bury our Dead, Excerpts available in Mizna, Dina Omar
Book: Looking for Palestine, Najla Said
Sarah N Dillard is a #youngprofessional currently taking America HQ by storm. She likes working with words and thinking about art and social justice and is inspired by the badassery of her family and family of friends. Aside from her day job, she works with Mizna, a Twin Cities based Arab American organization that publishes a literary journal. She talks about Mizna too much, thinks everyone should read the journal and credits the Mizna community for changing her life. You can also follow Sarah’s book reviews at itsjustanotherbookblog.blogspot.com.