“An Ecology of Intimacy”

An Ecocritical Approach to Native American, First Nations, and Palestinian Resistance Struggles in Relation to the Land

1. Introduction

In the title’s quote, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Nishnaabeg) calls attention to a way of living designed to “generate life” (Simpson, 2017: 3) in a communal setting. In his study of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Daniel Heath Justice (Cherokee) asserts that by focusing on the many responsibilities that we have to one another such writing makes us whole. Settler colonialism, on the other hand, in its highlighting of the individual, produces “lonely and isolated subjects” (Justice, 2018: 43) who are accountable to no one. This essay focuses on two Indigenous works, Terese Marie Mailhot’s (Seabird Island Band) memoir Heart Berries (2018) and Susan Abulhawa’s (Palestinian) novel The Blue Between Sky and Water (2015). Albeit writing in different genres, these authors were selected for their tendency to complicate the notion of kindship in all its many forms. Relationship to the land, to the non-human world and, most importantly, to community—through writing each complicates these themes. For example, Mailhot critiques the “genre-marketing” (2018: 126) of tribal literature that generalizes about Native people’s connection to the earth. For that reason, she avoids romanticizing tribal people. As Justice notes, no community is monolithic. Moreover, each culture is unique. Nevertheless, he continues, each “speaks to the notion of collectivity” (Justice, 2018: 153), a theme that both Mailhot and Abulhawa put in the center of their books.

Moreover, Mailhot and Abulhawa both value writing as resistance, a way to take back their own stories as well as the history of their people. Coming from colonial-settler societies, each understands how easily their presence can be erased. In order to combat such erasure, Mailhot and Abulhawa rely on the respective collective memory of their people along with personal family histories that had been passed down through generations. In this way they take control of their stories to ensure that they are not misused. Along the way they find that kinship comes in many forms. Biological, of course, but also, in their case, community comes to mean for them a fellowship of writers, fellow artists that fulfill for Mailhot and Abulhawa a sense of belonging that they had not had earlier in their lives.

Summary of the Books

Terese Marie Mailhot started her memoir while she was in a mental institution where she had committed herself after a nervous breakdown. In this work she wrote her way out of the traumas of her past—her alcoholic mother and abusive father, several stints of foster care, a failed first marriage during which she lost custody of her first son. Eventually, she found her calling and a community at the American Indian Art Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her marriage to her writing teacher produced a second son. All of this she worked through in Heart Berries, a body of work that chronicles the chaos of her past. Through writing she hoped to heal herself as well as help others with similar backgrounds.

Unlike Mailhot’s memoir, Abulhawa’s The Blue Between Sky and Water is fiction, an account of the Baraka family’s odyssey after they are forced to flee their village for Gaza in 1948. Abulhawa’s characters are invented, but because they recall stories of her own ancestors as well as some of her own experiences, the two books are legitimately comparable. While there are differences in ethnicity and location, each focuses on themes of identity, belonging and personal growth, in particular for contemporary Indigenous women. For example, the family’s matriarch, reminiscent of Abulhawa’s own grandmother, survives the journey to Gaza where, along with her brother Mahmoud, she sets out to recreate the village that she left behind.

Eventually the family scatters. While Nazmiyeh remains in Gaza with her sons and granddaughter Alwan, Mahmoud immigrates to America where he lives with his granddaughter Nur. After his death Nur is left to fend for herself, much like Abulhawa herself had done, moving through various foster families and homes. Ultimately, Nur’s career as a social worker enables her return to Gaza. There coincidence brings her into the Baraka family circle where, no longer rootless and depressed, she feels finally at home. No less important, Nur brings with her the notebook that she had filled many years before with the help of her grandfather Mahmoud. Symbolic of the power of storytelling for a population yearning for their homeland, Nur’s writing contains in words the birthplace that Mahmoud never forgot after he left for America.

2. Abulhawa and Mailhot: Life Stories

Abulhawa’s work speaks to the collective memory that connects Palestinians with their fractured homeland as well as with refugees who are waiting in the Diaspora to return. Yet her life, she says, has been an “un-Palestinian” experience, because she has not been surrounded by a large family (2012: 15). What she has come to regard as the “basic truth” about her collective identity is this: “dispossessed, disinherited and exiled,” she writes, those attributes constitute the darker truths of her inheritance (Ibid.: 15). In the end, though, she concludes, what it really means to be Palestinian is “to resist” (Ibid.).

Similarly, Marie Terese Mailhot claims her singularity. Refusing to allow her book to be treated as a “historic text or relic,” she delves into how “trauma” and “genocide” have impacted her life, but does not want that it is generalized as the experience of all Native women (Chung, 2018). Nevertheless, she explores, like Abulhawa, how her ancestors have played into shaping who she is today, and how that reality might be passed on to her sons. Mailhot also refuses to be labeled. Whether as an “at-risk youth,” or, more recently, “successful Native woman writer,” such markers, she asserts, lead to generalizations, stereotypes that lump all Native women into a single, homogenous whole (Castaneda, 2018). Like Abulhawa, she writes to “actualize the truth” (Mailhot, 2018). Claiming that “her story was maltreated,” she strives to clear up those misunderstandings (Castaneda, 2018). Most importantly, she seeks to “interrogate the worst parts of [her]self” in order to deal with intergenerational trauma (Ibid.).

Acknowledging her father’s abuse, she recognizes that her father was also a well-known painter and her mother a prolific poet. From her mother she learned that she was “born to Thunder,” meaning that she bore “a lineage of desire and compulsion,” but also “beauty and power,” all inconsistencies that she inherited from her father (Mailhot, 2019). In short, Mailhot believes that she will always have a propensity to disrupt things, but out of that disruption might come some good (Ibid.). “It was a gift” that she came eventually to accept, “a mother who believed a disruptive woman is a gift” to the wider world (Ibid.). From her mother she also learned that the natural world constitutes a family, a relationship that she lost after her mother’s death. “I stopped believing in our power,” she recalls, “in our creator, and in our ancestors’ looming spirits” because all of that she experienced through her mother (Ibid.). It was not until she spoke out against racism, she concludes, that she felt the reappearance of her mother’s spirit and with that the return of her relationship with nature (Ibid.).

Like Abulhawa, then, Mailhot’s identity as an Indigenous woman is connected to her impulse to resist. It is what ties both women, too, to their communities. Resistance entails for both of them the desire to set their records straight. With that also comes the responsibility of being there for their communities, using their success to better the lives of others. “A lot of people of color, a lot of Indigenous communities,” writes Mailhot, “are collectives” (Castaneda, 2018). No matter how successful the individual, “they are only ok if their family is ok, if their community is ok” (Ibid.). Success in this way takes on a very different meaning than in the capitalist world view. “Succeeding means you bring up others,” writes Mailhot, an obligation she fulfills by teaching as well as helping out her family and her community by sending them needed money (Ibid.).

As Indigenous writers, both women are connected to the land along with their people and history. Born into a family of refugees who lost their land to Israel during the 6-day war in 1967, Abulhawa spent her early years in Kuwait, then attended boarding school in Jerusalem before leaving for America where she completed a graduate degree in neuro-science. She cut short a successful career in biomedical science to become a full-time writer (Abulhawa, 2019). Despite growing up in many different homes—some with family, some in foster care, and sometimes at institutions, her heart, she says, remains in Jerusalem, where all of her ancestors are buried (Ibid.,2012: 14).

Hailing from a family of fellaheen, farmers who live close to the terrain, Abulhawa comes to her attachment to the land partly through inheritance (Ibid., 2017: 60). “Palestine is the landscape of my DNA,” she writes. “My lineage sings in her rivers. Her soil holds the bones and prayers” that belong to its people (Ibid.: 62). From her grandfather Atiyeh, she claims his stubbornness and love of the land. From her teta (aunt) Sarah, an “illiterate, badass hijabi” with whom she lived as a youth in Kuwait, Abulhawa inherited her “subversive” streak and her feminism, though, she claims, Sarah had “never heard” of that “concept” (Ibid.). Both family members would become inspiration for her books.

After ten years as a medical researcher, Abulhawa left to become a storyteller. “Someone stole my story,” she asserts, “and retold the truth of me as a lie” (Ibid.: 59). Not only was her story stolen, that act of theft erased her identity as a Palestinian woman. Recovering her story becomes a source of resistance, “the stuff of [her] intifada,” she explains, an assertion of her presence; it is an “act of decolonization” that reclaims her stolen history (2012: 16; Aldohalli, 2017). Despite being denied entry the last time she attempted to return, Abulhawa claims the terrain of her homeland through story, through the very fact of existing she resists the lie (2017: 63).

3. “Reciprocal Communalism”: Solidarity among Place-Based Communities in a Changing World

Although tribes tend to be place-based, focused on the local, Simpson explains that Indigenous resistance includes the global, thereby tying together networks of colonized people around the world (Simpson, 2017: 57). Rafeef Ziahah’s “We Teach Life, Sir,” a poem that went viral during the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza, offers insights into Daniel Health Justice’s theory of “kinship,” (Justice, 2008: 148), a pathway, he explains, that is “about life and living” (Ibid.: 148), an impetus, too, that drives texts by writers in this essay. Ziahah’s poem serves as proof that what Simpson calls “everyday acts of resistance” (Simpson, 2017: 194) contributes to sumoud (steadfastness).

Speaking to those who favor an ahistorical stance towards Gaza’s suffering, Ziahah refuses to contain her voice within “sound-bites” (Ziahah,2017: online) that limit words, choosing instead to challenge simplistic responses to Gaza’s plight. In answer to “Ms. Ziahah, don’t you think everything would be resolved if you / would just stop teaching so much hatred to your children,” she replies: “These are not two equal sides: occupier and occupied” (Ibid.).

There is but one narrative, the attempted crushing of a population who nevertheless survives by telling its own story. Looking inside her culture for alternate versions of her history, Ziahah refuses “a TV’d massacre” (Ibid.) of her body that might slice it into tightly controlled “sound-bites” (Ibid.). In the words of Leanne Simpson: “It is through our bodies, as relationships bundles, that we reproduce, amplify and celebrate Indigeneity” (online: 2015). Moreover, Simpson argues that “living is a creative act” (2017: 23), the very opposite of consumerism symbolized by the reference to TV in Ziahah’s poem. For Simpson, a good life involves “self-determined making or producing at its core” (Ibid.: 23), a process that depends on networks of relationships to succeed. Ziahah agrees: refusing commodification of her body—and in a larger sense her people, too—she vows that “after [Israelis] have built their settlements and apartheid1 walls” (2017: online), Palestinians will continue to “teach life” (Ibid.) in defiance of all attempts to silence them.

Riffing on this theme of kinship and community, Daniel Heath Justice concludes the following: “Kinship—in all its messy complexity and diversity—gives us the best measure of interpretive possibility, as it speaks to the fact that our literature, like our various peoples are alive. The decolonization imperative gives us hopeful purpose for our ‘going on’” (2008: 166). In many ways this focus on relationships as a defining factor in the longevity of a culture speaks to ways that love of the land, of family and of nation inform Indigenous literatures covered in this work.

Both Mailhot and Abulhawa tell stories that connect past to present in order to ensure a better future. “Things felt continuous when I think of my gifts and heritage” (2018: 14), writes Mailhot. “I was part of a continuum against erasure,” she concludes, “part of a lineage of women” (Ibid.: 112) who give her hope. As Leanne Simpson notes, Indigenous bodies are connected to “complex, nonlinear constructions of time, space, and place” (2017: 82) that survive through reciprocal obligations to human and non-human communities. In this way, both writers included here address the intersection of ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies, two fields of inquiry that explore kinship as not only connection to other humans but also to the land. This study relies on ecocritical theory to explore the process of writing nature, place and self among selected Native American and Palestinian writers. They join a larger body of Indigenous writers who ask: How do place-based communities locate identity in a changing landscape from which they might have been removed? If, as Simpson claims, resurgent organizing is inherently connected to the land (Ibid.: 178), then how do communities that are scattered still manage to resist?

In order to provide answers to that question, this study builds on Steven Salaita’s The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan (2006) as it explores some common themes: 1) reciprocal solidarities, Salaita’s term that extends Justice’s notion of kinship for providing an international context for connections; 2) alternative ways of being to resist colonial oppression; 3) continued attachment to lands no longer under indigenous control.

According to Salaita, “reciprocal communalism” is a process which focuses on Indigeneity rather than on postcolonial or postmodern perspective. Forging “interethnic” comparisons, reciprocal communalism “move[s] beyond dialogue into a more defined cross-cultural political consciousness (Salaita, 2006: 21). Palestinian and Native American writers reflect different cultural contexts, but what draws them together is a vision of interconnectedness as well as concern for Indigenous issues.

For both writers included in this essay, place includes allegiance to the land, what Simpson calls a “peopled cosmos of influencing powers” (2017: 22). Nevertheless, because of forced relocation and removal, a majority of Native Americans lives away from their ancestral lands. As Simpson notes, given the impact of settler colonialism, many Native people are in a constant state of relocation in order to make a living (Ibid.: 197). Faced with providing for her family, Terese Mailhot describes moving several times. Initially, she left home because “welfare made [her] choose between necessities” (2018: 6). Quite simply, Mailhot left, she says, “because [she] was hungry” (Ibid: 7). After relocating several times herself, Simpson sees such moves, if “imbued with agency, as resurgence” (2017: 197). Moreover, she sees division between reserve and city as artificially imposed, all the more superficial as she claims all as Indigenous land (Ibid.: 81). While Justice, too, laments that Indigenous populations are becoming increasingly separated from their homelands, like Simpson, he sees this change as positive because it creates opportunities for new affiliations and possibilities” (2018: 65).

Moreover, new technologies, Justice claims, make possible a “wide range of alliances across time and space” (Ibid: 65). For Palestinians, who have also suffered exile from their homelands since the Nakba2 (catastrophe of 1948), the internet has been a unifying factor in their struggle. In Gaza Writes Back, Refaat Alareer explains that social media has created what he calls “Virtual Palestine” (Alareer, 2014: 533), a coming together of bloggers, writers and social activists committed to breaking down apartheid walls. “Because memories shape much of our world,” he says, storytelling becomes an “act of resistance” (Ibid.: 534).

4. The Novels: For Indigenous Peoples in the Diaspora, Stories Matter

4.1. Writing as resistance: Everyday acts of defiance

For many Palestinians forced to leave in 1948, Gaza became their home. Although Resolution 194 passed by the U.N. guaranteed the “right of return” to refugees displaced by violence, Israel continues to bar people from returning to their homes. For the Baraka family at the center of Abulhawa’s novel, forced to flee from their village to Gaza, life became a struggle, but not a hopeless one. Many of the old ways endured, not all ties were broken, and, notwithstanding what new horrors they faced, the family persevered. Despite the growing menace of illegal settler colonies and guard towers, the Barakas joined others who made the new environment their home. Sustained by the banality of daily life, they maintained a sustainable diet from the sea (Abulhawa, 2015: 125). When Israel cut that lifeline too, by barricading the Gaza Strip, the Barakas, along with others, built tunnels underground. “Like story lines, that history wrote, erased and rewrote” (Ibid.: 141), claimed Khaled, the family chronicler, the tunnels’ trajectory was very much akin to the people who travelled through them.

“When one is uprooted from ancestral lands,” writes Justice, “the next landscape under siege becomes the body and its identities” (2008: 160). For Palestinians living in the Diaspora there is no legal right of return. For those in Gaza and the Occupied territories there is restricted mobility. Nevertheless, like Indigenous people elsewhere, Palestinians employ cultural resistance as a means to leverage their right to resist.

“Memory and imagination” are important, declares Justice, but so too are “relational rituals” (Ibid.: 165) that bind the people together. Food is often a favored mediator that connects individuals within a group. Food preparation becomes in Abulhawa’s novel a connective bridge that brings together a community forcibly displaced to Gaza. At the center stands the beekeeper’s widow, a lively woman whose familiar dishes bring people together despite war, displacement and loss of good that they left behind (Abulhawa, 2015: 47). No matter their previous status, war reduced all families to an equal rank, giving rise to a “subculture” marked by “adamant pride, defiance” (.: 49) and recreation of their old homes, physical places to seek refuge but also symbols of sumoud. Within weeks of moving into “a refugee’s life” (Ibid.: 47) the widow had set down roots by planting familiar herbs. While other women mourned for all they lost, and wanted only to go home, the widow began to “suffuse the air with a smell of normality” (Ibid.: 48), an act of everyday resistance, as Simpson calls it, that would dash any lingering despair. Soon familiar smells of “onions, rosemary, cinnamon, cardamom and cilantro” (Ibid.: 49) infused the air with memories of home but also hope that life will go on, nourished by the widow’s care for her community. As Abulhawa claims, “tears always dry up and turn into something else” (Ibid.: 58), in this case not only into the banality of daily living but also collective struggle. As the “tug of life’s sustaining banalities pulled them from their cots” a “subculture” arose, based on “pride, defiance, and an “unwavering insistence” (Ibid.: 48) that the culture would go on.

For Native people, too, writes Daniel Justice, the very presence of Indigenous texts is a “rebellion” (2008: 155) against absorption into Western culture. Unwilling to let go of the past while at the same time marked by change, both authors use their voice to protect collective memory that defies dispersion and accommodation. “Through craft,” explains Mailhot, “we reassemble what remains of ourselves through language” (2018: 140). It is in relation to her people that Mailhot endures, as meaning is derived mainly through community. As Justice claims, literary expression in its truest form denotes the ways in which relationship exists” (2018: 150), value that is derived from a web of interdependency that, in turn, promotes kinship in all its varied shapes.

Through the writing process, Mailhot explains, “we imagine, create, tell, reprise, contradict, refuse, estrange, assimilate, and determine” our “existing story” (2018: 140), in all its different forms. According to Justice, it is this “storied expression of continuity” that accounts for the “decolonization imperative” (2008: 150) of Indigenous literature, a function that challenges, too, stereotypes that relegate the Indigenous to the past. By rewriting history, he concludes, “we […] mobilize our future” (Ibid.: 150), a task which is taken on by Native and Palestinian writers.

In Susan Abulhawa’s The Blue Between Sky and Water, Nur, the granddaughter of the Baraka family, grows up in exile, alone and longing for her roots in Gaza. From her grandfather, who raised her until he dies, she “learns that ‘stories matter’” (Abulhawa, 2015: 69). Words have power, Mamdouh tells her. “We are composed of our stories” (Ibid.: 62), he explains, thereby including her in a collective history that celebrates memories of place.

Unwilling to let go of the past, while at the same time marked by change, Mailhot and Abulhawa use their voice to protect collective memory that defies dispersion and dispossession. Through writing both undo damaging stereotypes that are perpetuated against the people. Indeed, the texts I have chosen are examples of complexity rather than representative of their genres. In Abulhawa’s narrative, the Baraka family flees Beit Daras in 1948, only to undergo the ’67 war followed by the Israeli attack of 2008. In between they suffer depredations of the ongoing Nakba that deprives them of family members as well as the means to live a decent life. Nevertheless, in a world that wants to see Gazans only as “terrorists,” Abulhawa shows how they endure. “Only Allah can know the unknown,” declares Um Mamdouh. “But if Beit Daras does not surrender, this land will rise again, even if the war is lost” (Abulhawa, 2015: 24). Her words gave hope to refugees who had lost everything, some even family members and friends. After the 2008 bombing that produced “serial burials as bodies were recovered” (Ibid.: 154), Abulhawa writes that the banality of daily living, what Simpson calls “everyday acts of resistance” (2017: 194), brought the people together into a “reconstituted community” (Abulhawa, 2015: 154) that managed to endure.

According to Justice, colonialism consists just “as much about symbolic diminishment” (2018: xviii) of Indigenous people as displacement. As Ramzy Baroud observes, Gazans, like all Palestinians, return quite quickly to “normal” (2019: online) life after each bombing siege. Understanding that “embracing life is in itself an act of resistance” (Ibid.), as Baroud claims, Abulhawa’s characters speak to the ways that love of the land, of family and of nation informs Palestinian struggle. Refusing to be diminished, the Baraka family lives out Baroud’s assertion that Palestinian ‘sumoud’ (steadfastness) has turned out to be far superior and a more powerful weapon “than any of Israel’s bombs” (Ibid.).

Referring to their endurance, Baroud credits Palestinian “relationship with this land [that] cannot be dictated or terminated by violence” (Ibid.). While their strength might eventually prove the colonizers undoing, what happens when Palestinians are in exile from their community and the land? After Mahmoud dies, Nur finds herself adrift, “hurled so far that nothing around her resembled anything” (Abulhawa, 2015: 89). “History took us away from our rightful destiny” (Ibid.), writes Abulhawa, a rupture that Nur knows too well. As opposed to her family still in Gaza, Nur falls into the role of an exile in America, an individual who never fits in.

According to Daniel Justice, it is through “kinship and balanced relationships” (Justice, 2008: 159) that communities endure, an unfolding lifestyle not possible for Nur until she goes back home. Shuffled from one foster home to the next, Nur nevertheless takes Mahmoud’s stories with her. Akin to what Justice calls “a storied expression of continuity” (Ibid.: 150), Nur’s memories resist acculturation until she is finally reunited with her family. Mailhot, too, refuses to disappear as she offers up her life to challenge the stereotypical accounts of those in power. It is her obligation, she claims, as a Native author, to humanize her characters, and subvert the stereotypes “perpetrated by colonialist agendas” (Mailhot, 2018: 5).

4.2. Writing as refusal to disappear: setting the story straight

Rather than retelling “moral tales or ancient ones,” Mailhot prefers to write how “story was always meant to be for Indian women: immediate and necessary and fearless” (2018: 5). Here she lays bare why the contemporary is so significant in her writing. As Justice claims, because the public remains vested in viewing Natives as “historical artifacts” (2018: 56), writing the present, as Mailhot does, signals a refusal to disappear in the past. “I won’t be an Indian relic for any readership” (Mailhot, 2018: 126), she vows. Though she feels “pulled in” (Ibid.: 134), at times, to be that romantic image, she resists. In this way she moves beyond “survival” (Ibid.: 7) which, she says, is a condition that Native people claim. Instead, she opts for “resilience” (Ibid.), a way of being akin to what Palestinians call sumoud, but which, Mailhot writes, Native people feel is more often ascribed to white people. Nevertheless, Mailhot believes that she knows better. From her grandmother, who, she claims, “transcended resilience and actualized” (Ibid.) what Indians are not supposed to know, she learned that her people are “unmovable” (Ibid.), a condition she achieves by discarding linear time.

Casting blame on literary critics, rather than the writers, Mailhot charges that Native memoirs are “being mishandled to essentialize” (2018: 125) Indigenous women’s art. For example, she continues, the “genre-marketing” (Ibid.) of this field leaves readers believing that all Native Americans are connected to the earth in a way that makes unheeded generalizes about their work. The “generalizations” these critics use to refer to Native spirituality, she concludes, seems “misused to form bad opinions about good work” (Ibid.). For these reasons, Mailhot strives to explain how her “story was maltreated,” and why her book should “stand apart from some of the identified themes within our genre” (Ibid.: 126). Because such notions as unchangeability are rooted in Euro-western views of the Indian as primitive, she refuses to promote discourses that locate Indigenous people outside of the flow of time. Her memoir, then, complicates many of the themes associated with ecocriticism.

Rather than privilege attachment to a specific land base, Mailhot subverts the stereotypes that tell her she must write her story in a certain way. “Isn’t that my duty as an Indian writer” (2018: 82) she asks her readers, thereby joining other writers who ask the same. According to Ella Shohat, an important element of colonialism is “distortion and even the denial of other narratives (1997: 44). In both the New World and Palestine, writes Anna Ball (2012: 18), imperial power justifies its use of force through the metanarrative of the colonized as Other, an image that erases Indigenous claims to the land. In short, those with access to power generally write official history.

In the absence of everything but words, writing for Mailhot and Abulhawa becomes resistance. In a message sent in 2017 to Palfest3, when for medical reasons he could not attend, Mahmoud Darwish discusses this issue of personal responsibility in the wake of gross injustice. Included in This is Not a Border, a collection of contributions to the Palestine Festival of Literature, Darwish reflects on the writer’s role, consisting, as it does, of “a search for truth” (2017: 7), a quest that takes on particular meaning for Palestinians who, he claims, have been erased from the history of their own country. In “Once Upon a Time in Jerusalem,” Abulhawa explains how she left a lucrative career to become a storyteller. Because “someone stole her story,” she explains, and “retold the truth of [her] as a lie” (Abulhawa, 2012: 61), Abulhawa found solace in setting that record straight. In The Blue Between Sky and Water, she sets straight the truth of the history of Deir Al-Hawa, her “namesake” and “the landscape of [her] DNA” (2012: 62). Mailhot, too, felt the need to tell how her story was “maltreated” (2018: 126). For both, words lay the foundation for liberation, a counter narrative that belies the official story.

By weaving together unorthodox perspectives into multi-layered narratives, both Abulhawa and Mailhot offer complex versions of their stories. “Complexity challenges manipulation” (Justice, 2018: 27): Justice’s observation applies to both texts covered in this essay. Both writers center kinship relations throughout their texts, thereby creating interconnected networks that defy individualist Western models. “Kinship isn’t just a thing,” Justice explains, “it’s an action network of connections, a process of continual acknowledgement and enactment” (2018: 42). In both texts, relationships guide the protagonists’ understanding of who they are meant to be.

In his analysis of Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Justice focuses on several questions that are meant to guide the reader’s understanding of kinship. His journey through the complex web of connections forms a useful method, too, for analyzing this essay’s selected texts. Both take place in different worlds—Palestine and Indigenous America. But they have much in common. Terese Mailhot in her memoir and Abulhawa in her fiction trace the ways that stories shape the trajectory of their lives.

At the core of Mailhot’s memoir is her struggle to find ways back into relationship with her family both in the traditional sense as well as with non-biological ties that she creates along the way. How to find her way out of loss forms the core of her life-long struggle. A woman for whom her birth family did not provide the comfort that the fictional Nur found with her relatives in Gaza, Mailhot, by becoming a “woman [who] wield[s] narrative” (2018: 86), weaves the best parts of her father’s life with her own. “More than a drunken father or monster” (Ibid.: 116), Mailhot gleans from her inheritance a self that is more than loss. “I’ve exceeded every hope” (Ibid.), she proudly writes, a self-definition that acknowledges the capacity to grow. Refusing to deny the impact of losses on her life, she strives to “give [her] experience the framework it deserv[es]” (Ibid.: 129). On the other hand, by refusing to configure her humanity only in terms of absence, she writes her life as “more than raw, or brutal” (Ibid.) or any of the other stereotypes that, she says, keep Indigenous literature “anchored” (Ibid.: 131) to injustice. As such, she refuses to be part of the “zeitgeist of Indian” (Ibid.: 130) in this century.

An abuse narrative (Ibid: 131) that is not only about abuse—what Mailhot creates is a complex story about an exceptional woman who is misused, but out of that learns to write her truth. Unafraid to write the painful parts of her past, Mailhot believes that the “closer [she] comes to a singular truth, the more [she] render[s] in the telling” (Ibid.: 132). In doing so, she hopes to leave the worst parts of her past behind. Moreover, by examining her pain in order to move beyond it, she breaks free of the mishandling of Native memoir that marks Indian women as “too symbolic and never real enough” (Ibid.: 83) to encompass the complex features that make up Mailhot’s whole. Moreover, as Justice notes, memoir, as well as other forms of nonfiction writing, have long been the favored means for Indigenous literary expression, and so “offers important insights into ways Indigenous writing works in the world” (2018: 116). For Mailhot, this kind of writing stands out as “something vulnerable in a sea of posturing” (2018: 128), offering her a means to crack open her life in such a way that it can end up whole.

Returning to the central question of this essay, if becoming human means extending kinship networks to include the land, what happens when writers like Mailhot want to move beyond what she considers romantic notions about the ways that Native people are connected to the earth. According to Simpson, nationhood radiates in both directions, outward but also inward to include the inner workings of the mind. Forced to leave for financial reasons, Mailhot finds another home inside her, a “terrain” (2018: 130), she calls it, composed of all that she experienced in the past. “It feels colonized to say I explore or discover,” she writes, “but what other word could I use” (Ibid.). Appropriating the colonizer’s language, she declares her education at the American Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) a “renaissance” (Ibid.: 115), a rebirth in which she learns to frame her life to suit herself. At IAIA, she finds kinship among other Indian writers. “We smiled at each other,” she remembers fondly, “as if this was a sovereign land and we belonged” (Ibid.). Although, she explains, “we become the land after we are buried in it” (Ibid.: 73), she steers clear of stereotypical images that would connect her to the earth. “I’d like to be buried in a bone garden” (Ibid.), she admits, thereby expressing a desire at some point to return home. In the meantime, though, she plans to explore other homelands—the desert, which she called him at the time of this writing (Ibid.: 88), but also the interior space of her imagination that she mines to write her stories.

After graduation, Mailhot continued to look within herself for what would become her homeland. In so doing, her words create an interior space that feels like a familiar country. She proves that stories can cast out the poison, heal the spirit, and return the teller to who she was meant to be. Rather than allowing herself to be determined by colonial narratives of deficiency, Mailhot finds a new story within herself that she feels proud to tell. Susan Abulhawa’s novel, on the other hand, presents a fictional analysis of the ways that kinship shapes young Nur’s self and identity, and how the context of those relationships determine the woman she is meant to be. By moving from being shaped by individualism in the Western sense to learning what it means to be a good relative, Nur accepts the responsibilities that are inherent in that privilege.

Nur’s gradual understanding of her place within the Baraka family, and the reciprocal responsibilities that come with such awareness, serve as a central concern of this multi-layered novel. Growing up without a family in America, Nur describes herself as “made up of a bunch of pieces from different places,” a precarious whole that threatens to rip apart” (Abulhawa, 2015: 103) if she acts outside the norm. Sensing that she will never fit into mainstream society, Nur makes up her own rules for how to live her life. When her training as a social worker specializing in early child-hood trauma takes her to Gaza, Nur immediately feels at home. Finding that the family of the child that she came to study is indeed her own, Nur is overjoyed. “She came to watch life up close,” observes Khaled, the child who is confined to a wheelchair due to trauma caused by war. “That’s why she came,” Khaled repeats, “for the dew of family caught on her skin” (Ibid.: 179). As for Nazmiyeh, she believed that “time had folded on itself” (Ibid.: 97), thereby closing the family circle.

Nur’s joy, though, is short lived. Torn between the connections that she has always craved and obligations that familial ties bring with it, Nur becomes perplexed. Teta Nazmiyeh, the matriarch of the Baraka family, serves as Nur’s guide as she struggles to make her choice. “Grounded in an ancient earth” (Ibid: 123), as her clan is known, the Barakas enfold their newest member not only in their human arms but also in the land.

Nazmiyeh teaches by modeling how to (and how not to) behave in accordance with social norms. Very much like Nanabush, the Nishnaabeg trickster, described so well by Simpson (2017: 32), Nazmiyeh comes with contradictions. Known as the “prettiest girl in all of Beit Daras” (Abulhawa, 2015: 9), she admitted to being the “baddest, too” (Ibid.: 10), a woman whose charm could “melt a heart,” but also inflict a “poisonous stink” that forced those around her to “acknowledge what lay unsorted in their hearts” (Ibid.: 10). Moreover, adds Daniel Justice, such “transformer beings” are known to disrupt established order (2018: 92). As a young woman, Nazmiyeh had the power to “undress decorum” (Abulhawa, 2015: 10), a crassness that both “intrigued her friends and embarrassed them” (Ibid.: 92). She would continue this behavior throughout her life whenever she felt it needed. At the same time, she strove to preserve the kinship bonds that kept her culture whole.

When Nur discovers that she is going to have her lover’s baby, Nazmiyeh tells her that what she does in her “birthright land” (Abulhawa, 2015: 242) affects her family. According to Islah Jad (2018: 26), the signing of the Oslo agreement, which established the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a quasi-ruling party, led to such divisions over the role of women in society. Some argued that kinship and communal structures “empower and disempower women simultaneously” (Ibid.: 27) by offering a more culturally specific approach to women’s rights but at the same time confining their role to that of bearers of authentic culture. Others, arguing in favor of citizenship rights, called for women to break away from the “stranglehold” (Ibid.: 27) that they believed communal forces held. What might to many Western feminists, too, might seem like a prison of obligations and traditions becomes for Nur the choice that she must make in order to belong. In the end Nzinga arranges a grant for her through South African government offices, a position Nur accepts to protect the family whose strong female members provide a safety net she has never known (Ibid.: 266).

Mailhot and Abulhawa approach the question of kinship differently for, as Justice notes, there is “no singular, prescriptive model” (2018: 83). For Abulhawa’s Nur, kinship exists as biological relationships with her family. Exiled from a place of no return, a mythic place of desire that she knows only from family stories, Nur does not feel whole until she is reunited with her Gaza clan. On the other hand, her kinship with Nzinga draws from cultural commonalities that prove meaningful and enduring. For example, when Nzinga meets Nur’s grandfather for the first time, she is surprised that he refers to her as “my daughter” (Abulhawa, 2015: 92), an African linguistic term that refers to strangers as relatives. Moreover, Nur later recognizes her own African genes when she notes that “we [her family] all had brown skin and curly hair” (Ibid.: 224), a legacy perhaps of African roots.

Being part of the family that she had always wanted gives Nur a sense of wholeness. In order to be part of that circle of relations, though, she finds that she must give up part of who she was before. For Mailhot, family was not a happy story. As she ponders the nature of her father’s abuse, her mother’s “transgressions” (Mailhot, 2018: 139), and the impact both had on her, she comes to a conclusion: “I knew if I wrote it I could know it” (Ibid.: 130). After writing it, then revising it over and over, “it felt true” to her, “or as true as words can be (Ibid.). Later, she weaves positive aspects of her heritage into her personal story: “My mother insisted that I embrace my power” (Ibid.: 3), she claims, a parental gift which is the flip side of her mother’s flaws. Reflecting on her father, a talented painter who was also an abusive alcoholic, she moves beyond his dark side to recognize that his work, what she calls a “testimony to his being” (Ibid.: 86), has been passed down to become her legacy, too. Only then does she experiences what she calls a “renaissance” (Ibid.: 139), an ability to move on.

Conclusion: On Complicating the Meaning of Kinship, Place and Belonging

Recognizing the complexity of relationships, both writers eschew any effort to romanticize their lives. Labelling herself a traditional storyteller, Mailhot ascribes her work to “something on a continuum, so far reaching you it comes from an inhuman place” (2018: 7). “Story is inhuman and beyond me” (Ibid.), she adds, something that she does not feel Westerners can comprehend. In this instance, Mailhot claims kinship with the not so human world, though, she says, she “avoids the mysticism of [her] culture” (Ibid.: 107) when referring to the land. All “things were created by story” (Ibid.), she explains. All elements of nature “run through us,” she continues, “the words were conjurer, and ideas were our mothers” (Ibid.). In this way, she names relationships as storied part of the collective understandings that are woven throughout the writing of both authors.

According to Simpson, three elements form the “spine of Indigenous resistance”: “intense love of land, of family, and of our nations” (2017: 9). In their writing, Mailhot and Abulhawa carry out that very statement, but they do so with a twist that foregoes simplistic claims. As Simpson notes, under the impact of settler colonialism Indigenous mobility has been common. Rather than a hindrance, though, to Indigenous resistance, she views “mobility imbued with agency as resurgence” (Ibid: 197). In this vein, Mailhot reevaluated where to live based on the reality of her needs. “Life is a running thing for me” (2018: 121), she explains, perhaps because she found her roots in words.

For the Baraka family in Abulhawa’s novel, mobility was a consequence of forced expulsion, the Nakba of 1948, during which they fled along with others to the Gaza Strip, a place which eventually became their home. Their links to Beit Daras, though, remained unchanged. According to Justice, Indigeneity is defined as those who “belong to a place” (2018: 6), people who by virtue of their longevity on the land have the right to live there. What happens then, when, as Abulhawa writes, newly arrived settlers “uproot Indigenous songs, and plant lies in the ground to grow a new story” (2015: 59). Despite this menacing encroachment, she adds, the Baraka family and those around them continue to live their lives.

Mailhot, too, now finds happiness by embracing the mundane. “I never foresaw any of that for myself, like normalcy,” Mailhot says. “It’s really staggering. It’s very interesting to me. Because I had never seen it” (Lederman, 2018: online). From what Simpson calls “everyday acts of resistance” to the poem that went viral by Ziadah—“We Teach Life, Sir” so that the rest of the world does not have to—all speaks to what Baroud designates sumoud, “steadfastness” (2019: online) that has allowed Indigenous peoples to carry on despite the odds. Writing on social media, Susan Abulhawa calls on Palestinians in “the 48” (Palestinian citizens of Israel), who do not “endure the disorienting, unsettling and at times soul-crushing experience of exile” to refrain from “defining the identities” (2019: online) of those who do. Through their writing, both authors complicate the meaning of kinship, place and belonging. In so doing, each makes a claim, too, for the right to self-determination, both of their own position and that of their people. “Indigeneity is not the exclusive purview of those who get to live where they belong” (Ibid.), states Abulhawa, thereby responding, like others in this paper, to unwanted impositions of outside definitions, no matter what the source is.

  1. 1Written by Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley, the authors of Beyond Occupation: Apartheid, Colonialism, and International Law in the Occupied Territories (2012) examine Israel’s establishment of an apartheid regime which oppresses the Palestinian people. See also Susan Abulhawa “A is For Apartheid or Annapolis” (November 28, 2007).
  2. 2Although they fought against it, Palestinians ultimately lost the war with the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, a move interpreted as a new phase of colonialism. According to Honaida Ghanim, an anthropologist living in Ramallah, by the end of 1948, Zionist forces had banished 750,000-900,000 Palestinians, destroyed 531 cities and villages, and appropriated the holdings of those who fled (2014:425). After what is now called the Nakba (catastrophe), Israel set about limiting mobility and the right of return, both of which turned Palestinians into strangers in their own homeland.
  3. 3The Palestine Festive of Literature began in 2008 as an effort to bring international writers to Palestine. Organizers saw it as a means to break the cultural blockade imposed by the Israeli Occupation. It affirms the power of culture as today it continues to bolster links between Palestinian artists with the rest of the world.