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Mosaics of Identity: Reading Muslim Women's Memoirs from Across the Diaspora

  • Author(s): Pazargadi, Leila
  • Advisor(s): Sharpe, Jenny
  • Rahimieh, Nasrin
  • et al.
Abstract

Mosaics of Identity: Reading Muslim Women's Memoirs From Across the Diaspora addresses Muslim women's life writing in transit since 9/11. This project follows the memoir boom fueled by many Middle Eastern women writers publishing in the U.S., Australia and Europe. By studying contemporary Arab and Iranian women's memoirs and autobiofictional works, this project investigates the expression of life writers who are trying to influence their local and global communities through the form of the confessional. This research project focuses on modes of self-representation in Middle Eastern women's personal narratives, paying careful attention to the narrative strategies they use to negotiate art and meaning within memoir.

The first chapter, entitled, "True Lies: Reviving Orientalism in Honor-Killing Hoaxes" argues that the two so-called "honor killing" memoirs, Forbidden Love and Burned Alive, were successfully believed as genuine memoirs for over two years, despite the fact that they were hoaxes, because of the political post-9/11 climate resurrecting Orientalist attitudes about the Middle East. These sensationalized works used Orientalist tropes to become best-selling memoirs and in doing so, they strike many questions about how their deception was successful. Although Muslim women's memoirs can serve as a forum for creating revisionist histories through female life stories, they also function as narratives written, published and marketed with the intentionality of producing works that perform the native informant's narrative. This chapter frames my exploration of Muslim women's memoirs in my other three chapters, which explore counter-narratives that defy these stereotypes constructed by dominant Euro-American literatures.

The second chapter, "Comedic Masks, Tragic Faces: Humor, Racial Passing, and Identity Fragmentation in the Memoirs of Firoozeh Dumas and Marjane Satrapi," argues that the use of humor and satire are formal devices in which Iranian immigrant women use to negotiate the precarious position of the immigrant liminal self. More specifically, these writers use humor as a metaphorical mask that allows them to partially conceal what they choose to communicate to their readers. Because this dissertation explores counter-narratives of neo-Orientalist testimonials, it explores the varying narrative devices that disrupt the conventions of memoirs penned by Middle Eastern women writers. In the memoirs of Dumas and Satrapi, the authors incorporate humor to critique Iranian, American and European societies.

Chapter Three, entitled, "Mosaics of American Muslims: Reading Islam Across Mohja Kahf's Poetry and Fiction," investigates the way Mohja Kahf carves out a space for Muslim Americans, especially for Muslim women, in her semi-fictional works. Though her novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is a fictional bildungsroman about the life of Syrian American, Khadra Shamy, it bears the semi-autobiographical perspective of the author, incorporating Kahf's personal experiences as a Syrian Muslim in America. By using fiction, the author is able to delve into sensitive and somewhat taboo issues surrounding her community and discuss American politics, without having to claim testimonial authenticity. In her autobiofiction, she is free to paint a diverse picture of Arab American and Muslim women, without being limited to the genre of memoir. This chapter discusses both her poetry and fiction to highlight shared themes resisting the essentialization of Muslim women as backward and silent. Her recuperation of veiling is a common motif that runs throughout both works, and it is significant since Kahf attempts to demonstrate the positive and personal expressions of veiling to American audiences.

The fourth and final chapter, "Dislocations of Self: Unfixing Identity in Rabih Alameddine's I, The Divine" explores the connection between the autobiographical voice and the narrative structure of a fictional autobiography presented as a series of first chapters. The author creates a fictional memoir from the perspective of a Lebanese American woman, Sarah Nour El-Din, who struggles to write her life story in a series of first chapters. Alameddine creates the anti-memoir, which refuses to limit itself to chronology, truth and conventional life-storytelling. Because every chapter begins as Chapter One, Alameddine draws attention to the difficulty of succinctly and chronologically writing one's life story in a memoir, while also engaging the varying voices of the autobiographical "I" to dismantle the notion of a unified self. By creating a fictional memoir, Alameddine mocks the form of writing so popular amongst contemporary Arab American women writers, and he resists rendering his protagonist as a transparent native informant and cultural guide for American readers.

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