Heelless Shoes, Plus a Brief Rant on ‘Ethnic’ Fiction

Over at Ha’aretz, Shoham Smith reviews Heelless Shoes, an anthology of Arab women writers, edited by Ami Elad-Bouskila, with stories by Hanan Al-Shaikh, Liana Badr, and Latifa Baka (who contributed the title story) and others.

The anthology appears in the context of the Bridges series, is part of an important project spearheaded by editor and literary critic Prof. Ami Elad-Bouskila, who continues to present Hebrew readers with Arab literary works. It does offer its readers vignettes about the “situation of women” in the Arab states. However, one must immediately add that the picture that emerges from a significant number of the stories will undoubtedly surprise all those who are accustomed to the traditional image of the Arab woman (a backward slave deprived of all human rights) or who anticipate fiction with “female” characteristics (melodrama, an inflation of characters, descriptions from kitchens and bedrooms, etc.).

Smith brings up a really good point–I think fiction by Arab women (and people of color in general) is all too often subject to the agenda that readers bring to the stories. In the past, I’ve received all sorts of innocent (and ignorant) comments during writing workshops, comments that reveal more about the reader than they do about the writing. Recently, in the margin of one of my stories, someone scribbled the words “So human!” I felt like saying, “Fancy that! Yes, we’re human!” Or, another thing I get asked a lot is to describe scenery or furniture. “It’s such an exotic setting,” they’ll say. “Make the most of it!” Once, a reader was disappointed that I simply referred to a carpet as “a rug.” He wanted more description, because, he said, “Morocco has such beautiful rugs.” I’m actually a stickler for precision and detail, but I don’t mind going on the record as saying that I don’t care about the fucking rug. If you want rugs, go read National Geographic. But if you want to hear about the kid who weaved the rug, then maybe I’ve got a story for you.