Interlitq: Could you begin by giving us a bit of personal background, your own narrative, how you have gotten to where you are now?
AH: I was born in the rustbelt of Ohio, while it was still flourishing. Before I was a year old, my family moved (in a 1956 Chevy station wagon, pulling a trailer my dad made) to Manson, Washington, a small apple-growing community on Lake Chelan, a slender 50-mile long lake winding snake-like from arid, sagebrush lands near the Columbia River up into the Cascade Mountains. My father served as minister in the community church there. My brother still lives there. It was an idyllic childhood. I grew up hiking and swimming. The landscape is indelibly imprinted in my mind. The area only fairly recently (within the past century) had been settled by pioneers. Members of the Wapato Indian tribe still lived on land in the community. I remember dressing up like a Native American when I was a kid—moccasins, quiver and arrows, a feathered headdress. My father gave me a Mohawk, on my insistence. “The red-headed Indian,” neighbors called me.
Because my father’s profession, we moved around a bit. We spent several years in a fairly rough mining town in northern Idaho, where I learned to ski. Then I spent my high school years in Tacoma, Washington. It was the 70s—the era of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. I grew my hair out and wore a macramé headband. For college I wanted to get as far away from home as possible. I went to the American University’s School of International Service in D.C. planning to become a diplomat. When I had an internship at the State Department I snuck time to read novels by John Irving and John Gardner, and began to hang out around literary types, conjuring up a dream of a literary life. After graduation I got married and sojourned for two years on Cape Cod, thinking that I’d write the Great American novel in a couple of years. When it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, I applied for graduate school—in English. I returned to the Pacific Northwest—home territory—to the University of Washington in Seattle.
Upon completing all requirements for the degree except the dissertation, I applied for a job teaching English composition at the American University in Cairo, propelled by a desire for adventure and a wish somehow to shape an identity different from the mainstream, the norm. I got the job and headed off to Egypt, with my wife and a four-month old son, vowing not to return until I finished my dissertation. “Writing Differently Somewhere Else: The American Expatriate Novel.” Four years later, dissertation in hand (along with a young daughter born in Egypt), we returned to Seattle for a year. An agonizing year of searching for a job led to an offer from Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a place I’d never heard of before. I’ve lived here (in the place I like least of any place I have lived) longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. Soon after moving here, bored and pulling my hair out, I applied for a Fulbright grant to teach American literature at Damascus University, which I got. The two years in Syria (1992-94) were two of the richest in my life. There was a vibrant, lively artistic community. Artists, poets, filmmakers, and colleagues from the university frequently came to our apartment in Muhajareen. I published a collection of my stories there (translated into Arabic by my friend Osama Esber), which received favorable reviews in the Syrian press. For the past ten years, I’ve been directing a Middle East program here at Middle Tennessee State University, which I helped establish, while also teaching in the English Department. And over the course of these years, I’ve been going back and forth to parts of the Middle East. These narratives—these travels—have certainly had an effect on my professional interests and writing. They have made me who I am.
Interlitq: What people have had the greatest influence on your life?
AH: I’ve been blessed to have known some amazing, impressive people in my life, beginning with my two grandfathers, both of whom traveled extensively and came to visit when I was a kid. They had a big impact on me. One had been a missionary and lived for years in China. The other had worked with the American Friends Service Committee assisting with Palestinian refugee resettlement after the State of Israel was established in 1948, then worked with Quaker schools in Kenya in the 60s. He would return from trips to Africa with gifts—ebony carved gazelles, small toy drums with zebra-skin heads, replicas of a miniature shield and spears. That’s probably how I got the travel bug. Both of them wrote about their experiences abroad.
Then there is Abdul Aziz Said, one of the most remarkable human beings I’ve known, who taught the first class I took at American University, Introduction to World Politics. Immediately I was drawn to him. He was charismatic, intelligent, and spiritual. He had grown up in Syria and was a pioneer in his field, with books on Ethnicity and World Politics, Human Rights, and Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East. I have him to thank for nurturing my interest in the Arab world, and ever so subtly introducing me to Sufism.
I was fortunate to be at the University of Washington while Hazard Adams was teaching there. He had recently moved back to the Northwest, his home, after setting up and running programs at Irvine, California. A Blake and Yeats scholar and a well-known figure in literary theory, he’s also written novels, a critical study of Joyce Cary, a fine book on life in academia (The Academic Tribes) and a memoir, Academic Child. I took classes in the Romantic Long Poem, Critical Theory, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake with him. He’s had an exemplary career as a teacher, administrator and writer and remains an important model for me. Like all great teachers, he taught more than the subject at hand: He conveyed deeply held humanistic values and something about how to live a meaningful life. For some time I have been collecting notes for an essay on influence and mentorship called “What Would Hazard Do?” He just turned 90 and is working on another novel, his 33rd book, he tells me, counting books he’s edited.
Finally, there’s Paul Bowles, who I first visited in Morocco in 1986, flying from Cairo, and saw about a half a dozen times (in Tangier, New York, and Atlanta) before his death in 1999. I’d been captivated by his stories, and found his life fascinating as well. We struck up a correspondence when I was in Seattle, and I developed a strong desire (like others had before me) to make the pilgrimage to Morocco to meet him. I think I wanted his life. He rubbed elbows with some of the greats of the 20th Century—Stein, Aaron Copland, Tennessee Williams, Mohammed Choukri. He seemed to have lived where and how he wanted (outside, as an expatriate, in Morocco), without ever having a “real” job. He crossed cultural boundaries, spending most of his life in the Arab/Islamic world. And he was a consummate artist. All of this has resonated strongly with me, and influenced the course of my own narrative. Bowles went when “the going was good.” The world is a much different place now. I seem condemned to live in a condition of belatedness.
I realize, a bit sadly, that my life will never be as large and that I’ll likely not create works as great as those of these three mentors I’ve been so blessed to have known.
Interlitq: And literary influences?
AH: Flaubert, Gide, Joyce, Proust, Faulkner, Djuna Barnes (Nightwood), to name of a few, in addition to Bowles.
I have a pantheon of books on my shelves in my office at home. On one shelf is a cluster of books that I think of as somehow like the kind of book I’d like to write: Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, Henry Adams’s Mont-St. Michel and Chartres, Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love, William Burroughs’s My Education: A Book of Dreams, Walter Benjamin’s Arcade Project, Roland Barthes’s Lover’s Discourse, Claudio Magris’ Microcosms, W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, and Marcel Bénabou’s Jacob, Menahem, & Mimoun: A Family Epic. What do they have in common? All are in some way daring and ambitious. Some encapsule massive projects. All seem to burst out of established genres, finding their own forms as if their content refused to fit conventional designs. And all are marked by a distinctive writing style. I admit, I am seduced by style.
Other shelves are reserved for books by and about writers I’ve written about: Adonis, Bowles, Burroughs, Alfred Chester, etc. Derrida and Nietzsche take up a whole shelf. There’s a shelf of my own pubs. Then, there’s a shelf reserved for books by a circle of cherished friends: Michael Beard, Brian Edwards, Osama Esber, Heather Folsom, Oliver Harris, Beatriz Hausner, Ellen Hinsey, Andrew Hussey, Brian Kiteley, Jill Levine, Michael Wolfe, and others. (I notice in putting together these lists that B’s and H’s are disproportionally represented!)
Interlitq: What are the greatest challenges presently facing higher education?
AH: The Golden Days of higher education in the U.S. are over, it seems to me. (Here again, I feel somewhat belated, seeing that opportunities were greater and conditions better for my mentors than they have been for me. And I don’t see things getting any better.) Higher education has, in my view, been one of the great products of U.S. culture. In the post-War period, aided by G.I. bill, the U.S. saw an expansion of higher education. With prosperity of 60s and 70s, state institutions grew, and provided high-quality education at affordable costs to large numbers of students from middle class families.
Higher ed is now in crisis, and has been for at least a couple of decades, partly due to shrinking resources and shifting management practices. More and more universities (particularly public institutions) are run like corporations. Often administrators have little or no experience with or commitment to the profession of teaching or scholarship and research. Decisions are made purely on the basis of financial considerations. A greater reliance on part-time, contingent faculty is just one unfortunate consequence of this. I am reminded here of two administrative principles set out by Hazard Adams in The Academic Tribes: 1) Administrators should come out of the ranks of those in the teaching profession (and return to those ranks); and 2) Allowance should be made in universities for a certain degree of inefficiency and eccentricity. “The tolerance of eccentricity, although sometimes puzzling to outsiders, is inevitable in academic life, despite the range of irresponsibility it sometimes protects,” he writes.
Costs of education have risen at the same time state legislatures, struggling to balance budgets, have slashed allocations to higher ed. (The situation differs from state to state.) Tuition has been increased in an attempt to make up for budget shortfalls, resulting in a diminishing gap between tuition costs at public and private schools. Public schools, following practices of private schools, have become more and more reliant on corporate money. Our state has determined that money to colleges be allocated based on student retention—that is, the percentage of students an institution retains, not how much information students retain!—so our university has made huge outlays of resources toward those ends, hiring rafts of counselors, and starting up all kinds of “Student Success” initiatives (as though we had not before now been interested in student success!). In the process, teachers (who spend the most time with students, know best how they are doing, and have the most influence on them) are dismissed or sidelined. Faculty morale is as low as I’ve seen it during my career, particularly in the Humanities which have been under siege.
Those of us in the profession have not always done a good job, inside and outside the academy, of defending the value of what we study and teach. This kind of reticence or timidity seems to be having an effect on intellectual work. I’ve always felt that it was important for intellectuals to speak truth to power. I’ve been keenly aware that a good many of our most prominent and effective public intellectuals (e.g., Edward Said, Gore Vidal) are no longer on the scene. Noam Chomsky continues, almost a solitary voice in the wilderness. With notable exceptions (Judith Butler springs to mind), my generation seems not to have produced many strong, oppositional, critical voices. We’ve been far too timid, far too focused on our own careers. It’s not always easy to speak out against injustice, stupidity, etc. In a period of “political correctness” we often shy away from saying anything that may be construed as offensive or not conform to the party line. We all know that within the realm of Middle East studies, one group or another has often worked strategically to suppress open debate and the expression of certain viewpoints. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Trumpster! I believe in open, honest, civil discourse—where we speak respectfully and show respect for those who might think otherwise.
Often things that need to be said (truths of one sort or another, or perspectives that are suppressed) are not said. I always try to ask myself what are the present taboos. What are the things that would be considered most heretical. These things shift.
In a recent letter, commenting on the current state of higher ed, Hazard Adams wrote to me, “It’s a sorry picture, and I think it’s going to be worse, unless faculties rise up and resist, with people like the present governor of Wisconsin around.” I don’t see faculty rising up in arms, unfortunately. A mood of demoralization, paralysis, and self-interest prevails. We faculty tend, in times like this, to take refuge in our little cubby-holes, resigning ourselves to what’s going on—and what’s going on, the damage that’s already been done, isn’t pretty.
Interlitq: What do you see as recent trends in the field today?
AH: First of all, I work at the intersection of a number of fields. I’m not always sure just what my field is. American literature remains my home base, and I teach various classes in modern and postmodern literature and culture, as well as courses (on the grad level) in the development of the American novel and the American expatriate novel. I’ve long been interested in transnational issues, even before it became fashionable. I’m interested in what happens to people, ideas, and cultural products (films, books, etc.) when they move across space and time. Certainly this has become a focus within the field of American literature over the past couple of decades, propelled by the work of Donald Pease, Amy Kaplan, Brian Edwards, Wai Chi Dimock, Ramón Saldívar and others who explore relationships and interactions between the U.S. and other cultures, over time—immigration issues, the nature of empire, globalization, etc.
Within the field of literary theory, another key area of interest for me, there seems currently to be no dominant approach or method. Rather, the field is heterogeneous. In some ways, that’s liberating. It allows thinkers/scholars/critics to go whichever way they choose, without feeling obliged or coerced into a certain mode of thinking or viewing texts. Still, we might miss the presence of a dominant to press against, the challenge of engaging in some kind of agonistic struggle (á la Harold Bloom). We can look back and recall dominant critical/theoretical paradigms such as New Criticism or Deconstruction. And we can recall and appreciate the work of feminist, race, queer, postcolonial criticism/theory and cultural studies which asserted itself against prevailing norms and practices, with the aim of radically altering our the way we think and do things. All of these approaches still have validity and appeal. At the same time, we’ve seen a number of new trends emerge. One is expansion of geographical scope, a conscious move to embrace global dimensions of theory. The recent 2nd edition of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism includes works by critics and theories outside the hegemon—e.g., Adonis (Syria/France), Karatani Kôjin (Japan), Zehua Li (China), C.D. Narasimhaiah (India). In addition, we’ve seen interest develop around new formalism, ecocriticism, ethics and human rights, digital humanities, and diasporic and transnational literature and theory. Theory, I’ve always contended, responds to real interests and concerns of particular cultures and particular historical moments. New trends clearly reflect concerns and interests of our times.
Meanwhile, translation studies has developed into a field in its own right (with its own anthologies containing key texts from Borges and Benjamin to Venuti and others). As interesting as it is, when I’m translating I don’t think in the least of theories. It is all a matter of thousands upon thousands of choices, as one tries to create a vibrant and readable text in the target language.
I don’t know how to characterize the status of Middle East Studies. I’ve been going to the annual Middle East Studies Association annual convention fairly regularly for two decades. It’s always a pleasure to see people I’ve known in one place or another, at various points in my life. So, it’s been personally meaningful. The field is by nature interdisciplinary, including historians, political scientists, sociologists, and people involved in the study of religion, film, gender, literature, etc. The field also is divided by region, language, culture, or country, with panels on Kurdish issues, Syria, the Gulf, Iran, Israel, Egypt, etc. Though Said’s work (Orientalism) has had a huge impact on the field, it seems as though the field has generally been fairly conservative, resistant to and relatively uncontaminated by theory.
Interlitq: What have you been reading lately?
AH: I always seem to be reading several books at the same time. I’m always eager to receive and read books by friends and colleagues. I’m always on the lookout for fresh, new, lively, innovative voices in fiction and poetry. And I frequently return to classics (Homer, Dante, Dostoevsky. James, Joyce, etc.) This spring I read a recently published collection of stories by the marvelous Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector—a six hundred- page volume. It was wonderful to read it in bits, one story at a time, seeing her development as a writer over a lifetime. I just finished reading Hunters in the Dark, a thriller by Lawrence Osborne, set in Cambodia, recommended to me by a friend. He’s been compared to Bowles, Highsmith and Graham Greene, all of whom I’ve admired greatly. Now I’m reading Brick Lane, by Monica Ali, a novel that deals with a contemporary Bangladeshi immigrant family in London. In the queue (summer reading) are a few other Anglophone novels (Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Amitav Ghosh’s Hungry Tide), Brion Gysin’s The Process (a wild romp of a novel written in the 60s, set in Morocco), Throwing Sparks a novel by contemporary Saudi writer Abdo Khal (loaned to me by a Saudi Ph.D. student), a few Dave Eggers novels (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, A Hologram for the King) which I’m reading because a student of mine is doing a thesis on Eggers.
In terms of critical works, I’ve just finished reading my young colleague Jimmy Fazzino’s fine new study World Beats: Beat Generation Writing and the Worlding of U.S. Literature that I’ll be reviewing for the Journal of Beat Studies. I have also been asked to review Brian Edwards’s wonderful recent book After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East (for Interventions), David Damrosch’s World Literature in Theory, and Rebecca Walkowitz’s Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (for Comparative Literature Studies). Also on my desk are Ross Posnock’s book on Roth and Bella Brodzki’s book on translation, Can These Bones Live? which I’ve been perusing. Next week I will be rereading material for an American lit survey for undergrad majors—beginning with Native American creation stories, up to contemporary writers such as Leslie Silko, John, Cheever, Toni Morrison, and Juno Diaz.
A lot of summer reading!
Interlitq: What work you’ve done are you most proud of?
- “Crossing to Abbassiya,” my first published short story (Cimarron Review) that has been republished in a number of places and translated into Hungarian and Arabic.
- An essay “Out in the World: Reconstructing Jane Bowles’s Unfinished Novel,” (The Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin, vol. 25. No. 2). I transcribe and try to account for the various strands of the novel that I found in Jane’s notebooks in the Harry Ransom Center archives. Paul read the piece and said I made more sense of the novel than he ever had.
- Translations of a couple of long and complicated poems by the great modern Arab poet Adonis (“The Time” published in Grand Street and “A Desire Moving through the Maps of the Material” published in Sulfur), done in collaboration with Osama Esber.
- My little book Paul Bowles, Magic & Morocco, published so beautifully and elegantly by Jeffrey Miller of Cadmus Editions, one of the last publishers of his kind in the U.S.
Interlitq: What are you working on now?
AH: For better or worse, I usually am working on a handful of projects at the same time. A couple of years ago I decided to shift my focus away from academic writing. This past year I finished up two essays I’d promised to editors—one on William Burroughs’s Collaborative Spirit (for a new volume of essays on Burroughs), and one on teaching modern Arabic literature in translation, for a new MLA volume (edited by Michelle Hartman of McGill U.) And I just wrote a review of a wonderful new, beautifully packaged collection of CDs, Music of Morocco, recorded by Paul Bowles in 1959, for the Journal of North African Studies. Once I revise for publication “Paul Bowles: Translating from Tangier,” a paper I gave in at a conference on Translation in Exile in Brussels in December of 2015, I’ll will have no more commitments for academic essays. Just a handful of reviews. Hurrah!
I have been trying to readjust my GPS, directing my attention toward “my own work” (that phrase we so often use, somehow to try to lay claim to things that lie closest to our deeper desires and impulses, as opposed to things we do for the profession). For the past several years I’ve been working almost every day on what has seemed to be an almost never-ending translation project, from Arabic to English, of the powerful, difficult novel A Banquet for Seaweed by Syrian writer Haidar Haidar, in collaboration with Osama Esber. (A chapter was published a couple of years ago in ILQ.) I’ve also been working on a short story, and collecting notes for a larger project that I’m simply calling “My Book.” It has something to do with me and the Middle East. I’ve begun to think more about legacy. What’s still in my tank? What do I want to leave behind?
Interlitq: What do you want for yourself now?
AH: That’s a great question. I think about it a lot. It’s occurred to me that we often hold on to goals or things we wanted for ourselves in the past, even though circumstances change and we change. I’ve always been a romantic. Travel, connection with others, and literature have long been my driving passions, which I’ve pursued in one way or another. They still are. I want good things for those closest to me, those I love and care about. I want still to make or create something truly meaningful, significant to me and—perhaps—more broadly, to others. I’d like to write a book that makes a difference. The past decade or so I have been disappointed with both the pace and quality of my production. And, I continue to wrestle with where I live and work. Middle Tennessee is in so many ways (geographically, intellectually) a swamp, a wasteland. I’d always thought I’d be an expatriate, living and writing differently somewhere elsewhere. That may not now be realistic. I feel rather belated, like Lambert Strether in Henry James’s marvelous novel The Ambassadors, who goes off to Paris as a middle-aged man. Still, though, I want to move. I still dream of living in a vibrant, stimulating place, full of life and creativity, with at least a handful of friends who share these values. Meantime, as my Sufi mentor Abdul Aziz Said urges (channeling Rumi in the Mathnawi), I am polishing the heart.
by Lara Alcantara-Lansberg
The Groves of Academe