We’ve never claimed to be scholars, but we’re getting a tad theoretical all up in here this week.
The reason? My little crush on Edward Said—that’s what. He died months before I first read Orientalism (1978), but that disappointment was slightly assuaged by the fact that my Middle Eastern literature professor once stood behind him to order coffee in a conference hall. (I am easy to please.)
I realize that not all readers have doodled “Edward Said is dreamy” on the inside of a PeeChee folder, so here’s Edward Said 101: Orientalism = viewing Eastern culture with Western eyes. That means that someone like me (German-Scottish-Cherokee hybrid from the Southeastern United States) can never see someone like Said (born in Jerusalem under the British Mandate, to a US-citizen father and Palestinian-Lebanese mother) without the lens of my own assumptions about his culture. This is a simplification, of course—a huge simplification—but you get the idea.
As much as it pains my liberal self to admit it, I will always see Said as “the Other.”
It’s something ingrained, he said, and it can’t be undone. I wrote a conference-length critical essay trying to disprove him, but there was no way out: my birthplace and my ancestry had branded me an Orientalist without my consent.
It is a part of me, always. All I can do is be aware of it. Because a lack of awareness might manifest as, say, a misplaced series of chuckles at a late-night showing of Road To Morocco, with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby hyping the stereotypes of an “exotic” land of belly-dancers and thieves.
Now, even though “Orientalism” is predominantly used to describe how Westerners see Arabo-Islamic culture, or how imperialist nations view(ed) their colonies, the scope has gradually widened. At the same time it has widened, it has also become more individual: me looking at you, you looking at me. How we see each other.
Remembering this is the key to reading Michael Hartford’s “Open Every Womb” without repeatedly wincing. The women, the girls, are people, and this story requires that we not only look at them, but see them. The American doctor’s tidy life is cut open by them—a jolting culture clash that is anesthetized by the required physician-patient niceties, and cultural respect that the physician feels may be misplaced. But, really, what are the choices? America-the-melting-pot, challenged culturally like Thomas Jefferson might never have imagined: what do we do? This story comes along at the same time as San Francisco’s attempted ban of male circumcision—on the ballot for November—making us examine what we will tolerate, what is equal, how far is too far. Are we really that much different from each other? Are visible scars the worst ones to have? Hartford is unabashed when injecting these questions into this compelling narrative, and we are thrilled to have him here.
Michelle Reale is a flash-fiction phenomenon, a Google-able writer with some mad chops (go ahead, look her up). She is one of those writers whose stories never disappoint. I would say that she writes slice-of-life stories, but that sounds too old-fashioned. But she kind of does, so I will say it: she is keenly tuned in to the minutiae of everyday living, and moreover, to the way that everyday living is goddamn extraordinary. “Robesh Contemplates Life Outside the Market” is no different, placing us square in the small universe of a non-American shop catering to Americans on an American holiday. Really, who else would think to represent that perspective? This is Reale’s forte. Seeing a situation, knowing there’s more to it than everyone else sees, and getting behind the most interesting set of eyes on the scene.
I get the sense that Bill Yarrow couldn’t keep from writing poetry if goblins descended on the earth and stole all the writing utensils. It’s in him, and it has to get out. In “Before the Door,” he pegs the reverie evoked by reentering familiar territory that doesn’t remember you, the search for place and the alarm of finding it. Where are we welcome, and how do we get there?
I know this: you are welcome here, no secret handshake required. Although I must say, if you’ve ever shaken hands with Edward Said, give me a wink and you’ll earn yourself an extra packet of sugar in your tea.
Art: Snake Charmer by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1870)