In Remember Me to Lebanon: Stories of Lebanese Women in America, Evelyn Shakir explores the life and identity of second and third generation Lebanese American women.
Shakir, a literature professor and daughter of Christian Lebanese immigrants, draws on current events and her cultural heritage in her writing.
Although the characters in her first collection of short stories are fictional, Shakir says they were inspired by women she knew. "There is no one on one correspondence between people I knew and the characters in the stories. But some of them certainly were inspired specially by older women I knew when I was a child."
Most of the 10 stories in Remember Me To Lebanon deal with identity. Shakir says the
depth of her characters' identity crisis depends on whether they were adults when they came to America, or were born or raised in the United States.
"The second generation is the generation to which I belong," she says. "I always say they are in the most difficult position."
Shakir says the first generation know who they are. "They may have difficulties in the new country. They may have conflicts, but their sense of identity is pretty strong. They know where they came from."
The third generation, the grand-children of immigrants "are essentially Americans by and large and have this interesting ethnic background," Shakir says.
But, she says, the generation she belongs to, the children of immigrants "tends to be caught between two cultures, two traditions. They are trying to bridge that gap. I found that difficult. I think many do."
Americans of other ethnic backgrounds may recognize that feeling. What makes the Arab and Muslim Americans' experiences more distinctive, Shakir says, are the political and military conflicts in the Middle East, including the war in Lebanon.
"One way, in which the war has been devastating, I think, to Lebanese families is that it has separated them," she says. "I know many older women whose children left the country because there was no future for them there. So these older women and men, parents and grandparents have been separated from their children and from their grandchildren."
But some of Shakir's female characters want to be separate, and often strive to establish their independence in the face of family pressures. In a story titled "Oh Lebanon," a young Muslim woman, born and brought up in Lebanon, comes to the United States to go to college.
"Her father is perfectly happy with that. But he doesn't see entirely what her motives are," she says. "He thinks she just wants to continue her education, but she is really desperate to escape. The war has had a far more profound and devastating influence on her than her father or anybody realizes. So, she wanted to distant herself from Lebanon itself, from the people there, from the society because it's all very painful to her. At the same time, there is of course a part of her, deep down, that longs to reconnect with it as well because it's home."
Many children of immigrants, Shakir says, try to distance themselves from their Lebanese or Arab roots, only to rediscover them as they get older. In "Let's Dance," the daughter of a divorced American mother and Lebanese father introduces herself as an Arab for the first time in her life when she gets to college. Evelyn Shakir drew on her childhood memories for that story.
"When I was a child, I was embarrassed by my background. I was embarrassed by my family because my parents spoke with an accent," she says. "I was embarrassed by the funny food that we ate. Even politically, I was embarrassed, because my father was very sympathetic towards the Palestinians. I was picking all these other messages from the society all around me, which essentially said that to be critical of Israel was to be anti-Semitic. I thought, 'it can't be that my father is right and everybody else is wrong.' So, that was something that was shameful, something to be embarrassed about as well. I think people moved beyond that now."
Shakir's "I Got My Eye on You," reflects the suspicion directed at many Arab immigrants after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In this short story, we meet the collection's only main character who is not Arab, an elderly American woman, living alone, nervous about the activities of her Muslim neighbors.
"This Arab Muslim family, they have lived there for a while, about 10 years I think," Shakir says. "At first she has no problem with then. But then, as the story progress, she becomes increasingly suspicious of them."
The story plays with the idea of the evil eye, Shakir says. In addition to the title 'I Got My Eye on You,' there are several mentions of charms against the evil eye in the story. "What you finally have at the end is kind of a mirror image where she is watching them and they are watching her. And the question is whose eye is the evil eye."
Evelyn Shakir says the variety of female Lebanese characters in her short stories should dispel the notion that there is a single, definitive Lebanese American woman. These stories, she adds, are also a reminder that women of Lebanese background have been part of the American tapestry for more than a century.