Talking through the Door is an anthology of prose and verse, fiction and non-fiction, by seventeen authors whose families came from Iran and other Middle Eastern lands (but not Israel). When the volume's editor Atefat-Peckham died in 2003, the project languished for a decade until Lisa Suhair Majaj took up the task and completed it, including new material written in the ensuing years.
In the best parts of the book, readers will find fictional vignettes of American immigrant life rendered into art. These works range from delightful yet forgettable to tedious and sophomoric. The many scenes depicting people gathered around tables of food and talking about the "Old Country" give rise to the notion that there is nothing particularly Middle Eastern about most of the narratives here, other than the names of people, places, and things. Substitute any other ethnic names for the Mahmouds, Sittis, and Yousefs and a different diet for the bulghur, kibbeh, and lamb at those tables, and the stories could be those of any ethnic group that immigrated to America in the late nineteenth or twentieth centuries, struggling to succeed through a combination of assimilation and reverence for the old ways.
If the book were only that, there would be little objectionable about it. But there are also non-fictional entries that dictate the tone of the entire volume and strike a decidedly sour note. Atefat-Peckham's 2003 introduction provides a study in special pleading, depicting Western literature from Dante to the Romantics as an unbroken chain of animosity for all things Arabic and Islamic and asserting that those "racist" sentiments were greatly amplified with the birth of the United States and evident in its canonical authors: Twain, Melville, Wharton, Hemingway, even Benjamin Franklin. Mid-volume are two 1996 essays by Joe Kadi, their centrality suggesting a theory of Middle Eastern
American writing around which the other pieces orbit. Kadi's rhetorical tantrums focusing on "cultural Appropriation ... an imperialist attitude in which privileged people want to own segments of other people's cultures" positively reek of Edward Said's attacks on "Orientalists." But Kadi's bête noire is "white people"—the term appearing forty-two times in fewer than thirteen pages: "White people haven't analyzed a monster related to racism, that is, classism and the global capitalist system." It is an act of "cultural genocide" when white people express an interest in Arab culture if they "haven't done the work necessary to become allies of people of color ... don't engage in acts of solidarity around specific issues such as Native self-determination or Palestinian liberation ... don't read books by radical authors of color."
It is unfortunate for the other writers represented in this volume that their works are sullied by the childish attempts at political discourse framing them.