The Millions

A Year in Reading: Mira Assaf Kafantaris

The through-line coursing through this year is the sad familiarity of loss. My mother is often on my mind; Lebanon is often on my mind; my children are often on my mind. Trumpism that will outlive Trump is on my mind. I think of endings a lot, all the people I loved and lost, the griefs I have grieved. I think of what I take for granted, what I ignore, what I carry with me. I think of this Eavan Boland line a lot: The ache of things ending in the jasmine darkening early.

January: The Lebanese uprising choreographs my joys and disappointments. You see, in the fall of 2019, massive protests broke out over the impossibility of life in a state that suffocates the living. So much is at stake, but most urgently for me, the promise of a feminist breakthrough. I feel a hunger to learn “the wreck and not the story of the wreck,” as Adrienne Rich tells us, to connect to my Arab heritage, to learn the work of protofeminist Arab women writers. I read Layla Baalbakki’s second novel al-Aliha al-mamsukha (The Deformed Gods, 1960); I savor the rhythm and cadence of my mother language, my internal language, carrying me into the rich and deep world of my ancestors. In its essence, this novel disrupts the model of virtuous, submissive Arab womanhood as intrinsic to the welfare of the umma, or the commonwealth, in the aftermath of coloniality. In the protagonist Mira’s rejection of patriarchy–she says at one point, “I’ve had it up to here with fathers. If he weren’t dead, I’d wish he was”–I sense a groundswell of desire for feminist liberation billowing, unfurling. The more I read, however, the more dejected I become; Mira’s quest for subjectivity and power can only be imagined, called forth, made possible, at the expense of Black and brown migrant workers. In the Arab world, as elsewhere, hierarchies of race and gender work together to oppress those who are farthest away from whiteness.

I devour the trenchant words of ’s , which exfoliates, among other topics, the racialization of Asian Americans’s classic work In addition to chronicling Cha’s achievement as an experimental artist, Hong recounts her tragic rape and murder days after the publication of . To fully understand the impact of Cha’s remarkable work, its reception and afterlife, Hong tells us, we need to consider it alongside the sexual violence and brutal death she endured as a Korean-American woman living in a world that has yet to create a place for her in it.

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