The new literary front: public diplomacy and the cultural politics of reading Arabic fiction in translation

Summer 2011

The lack of attention to reading and reception in postcolonial literary studies makes it easy to forget that one of the field’s earliest points of reference is a theory of reading. Fredric Jameson’s controversial 1986 essay on ‘Third-World Literature’, which famously distinguishes ‘first-world’ from ‘third-world’ writing, also posits a difference between ‘first’ and ‘third’ world readers by arguing that the ‘first-world’ reader is seriously limited as a reader of ‘third-world’ texts. This essay returns to Jameson, and to the idea of national allegory, as a way of understanding and responding to the popular and academic reception of Palestinian and Israeli literature. Although metropolitan readers have generally been very willing to read both Palestinian and Israeli texts as national allegories in something like the sense described by Jameson, readers of Palestinian and Israeli women’s writing have tended to privilege these writers’ gender over their nationalism. Drawing on the work of two of the most internationally recognizable female novelists from Israel/Palestine, Orly Castel-Bloom and Sahar Khalifeh, the essay argues that national allegory should be understood as a reading and a writing practice, one that writers of both genders anticipate and emphasize in contexts where the nation’s political and imaginative force remains urgent and immediate.

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NF 73 Reading After Empire