Criss Cross Cultural
Writer Kim Jensen Fuses the Personal With the Political and Confronts Literary and Cultural Dogma In the Process
Should Baltimore author Kim Jensen ever meet Harold Bloom in a cocktail party, she might receive a chilly reception. The young author might be pointed out to the eminent cultural critic early on, and he’d avoid her thereafter. Or perhaps Jensen, an activist at heart, would charge across the room to chat up the Yale prof, much to his consternation. Or, maybe the two would merely chat amicably in between bites of their crudités and foie gras. They’re both adults, after all.
Still, it’s amusing to fantasize about these two ideologically polarized opposites meeting. Bloom has railed over the past two decades against the re-evaluation of literature through politics and ideology—“politicized reading,” as he puts it. Interpreting literature through feminism, multiculturalism, New Historicism, or any other non-aesthetic-based perspective utterly fails to capture the full resonance of great works, he has argued. Worse, such ideologies offer only weak foundations for new work.
For Jensen, international politics intertwines with literature such that the two can’t be separated. “You can’t deny that Western literature for many years viewed the relationship between politics and culture through rose-colored lenses,” she says. British colonialism, for instance, is the anonymous benefactor behind Victorian literature.
Jensen’s first novel, The Woman I Left Behind (Curbstone Press), explores societal differences through the conflicting politics it engenders. It is a romantic tale of a Palestinian refugee and Californian literature student falling in love, and how the nearly imperceptible cultural differences between the two both fuel their attraction and undermine their bond.
“As I developed the characters and what was driving them toward love and conflict, it became important to look at how their culture and history affected the most intimate aspects of their lives,” Jensen says. “You have an entire history propelling each of them.”
At first glance, you might assume that Jensen is a typical California blond surfer gal herself, albeit one transplanted to Baltimore. She sits enjoying a cup of tea in her white and light lime-green dining room as the winter morning sun shines through the curtains. The walls are hung with the vibrant paintings of her husband, Zahi Khamis, a Palestinian artist who has shown locally (and on the web at www.zahiart.com).
Five years ago, the two moved to Baltimore from Oakland, Calif., finding a sprawling two-story fixer-upper in a quiet neighborhood just off of Northern Parkway. It was a home that their neighbors assumed would be torn down and replaced with a new prefab.
“We were Californians in our heart, bodies, and souls, and had no desire to leave Oakland at all,” Jensen says. The high costs of real estate drove them from the Bay area, however. Baltimore was an affordable city, and closer to Khamis’ family in the Middle East and London. “In some respects we have found Baltimore to be the Oakland of the East Coast,” she says.
And while Jensen is laid back, she has a hearty jutted-jaw look of determination to her, and she does carry a vociferous passion for politics—particularly when railing against the Bush administration’s militaristic tendencies in Iraq.
That awareness pulses through her writing. Left Behind’s romantic pair, Khalid and Irene, are both adrift and ill at ease with their placid Southern California environs in the early 1990s. He’s an angry but charismatic Palestinian refugee who lost his parents in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war; she’s a literature student and part-time waitress who migrated from an affluent Pennsylvania suburb. They meet at a campus apartheid demonstration. After some fumbling conversation about a shared acquaintance, they flirt through a shared language of oppression:
Khalid leaned over and asked Irene, right in the ear: So how does it feel to be a member of the race that rules the world? Irene took his confrontational question as a sign of growing intimacy, a sort of come-on. But it was the kind of pick-up line that needed the perfect response. I don’t know, she smiled back, how does it feel to be a member of the sex that rapes, oppresses, and causes all the wars in the world? He shook his head and said nothing, but smiled.
For Khalid, the journey to the California campus was an arduous one. Khalid’s upbringing was so turbulent that once he escaped the Middle East he quickly changed his name from his childhood moniker, Sayeed, to distance himself emotionally from his troubled years. Sayeed grew up with an aunt in a village north of Jerusalem, Tel Zahara, playing amid crumbling houses, rusted cars, and other artifacts of war. Israeli soldiers forced him to leave this village when he was 15. He stayed with relatives in Beirut, though that city was scarcely safer. He watched his two childhood friends die in a seemingly senseless bombing. Eventually, the family fled Beirut, and by the time we meet Khalid in Left Behind, he has made it to California thanks to an arranged marriage.
California may seem like a tranquil respite for the battle-wary, but for Khalid it only heightens the disparity between the worlds. Khalid “is intensely aware of his past suffering, as well as his people’s suffering. It is a contradiction for him to see how easygoing Americans can be, in contrast with his own awareness of the injustice endured by the Palestinians,” Jensen says.
Within weeks of their meeting, Khalid and Irene are living together. They share a love of poetry, nature, and conversation, as well as a curiosity for each other’s worlds. She exposes him to the Western music of liberation—Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday. He introduces her to Arabic language and cuisine.
To Irene, Khalid possesses a sense of certainty and passion that sets him apart from SoCal’s laid-back zeitgeist. “Khalid’s mind was like a tightly wound fist, smashing its way through the universe. He was anything but ambivalent,” Jensen writes.
And like any new close-quarter companions, they squabble and chafe against one another. Just as their cultural differences accentuate their relationship so, too, does it add an extra layer of friction.
One evening, one of Khalid’s friends visits. The three sit in the kitchen drinking coffee and whiskey talking politics.
When the guest asks if he could have a banana from the fruit bowl to fend of a case of sudden low blood sugar, Khalid eagerly consents. Irene, however, protests that she had been saving the aging banana for bread—and offers an orange instead. Although the guest opts for the orange, Khalid insists he take the banana. “Whatever is ours is yours,” he confides in Arabic.
After the guest leaves, the two engage in an angry exchange:
Where I come from, we don’t do shit like that. It’s shameful! he tells her.
Where I come from, we don’t get so bent out of shape over a banana.
The argument quickly resolves into the cultural differences, though they also use these differences to avoid the larger issues of intimacy.
The Woman I Left Behind is an extension of a short story, “Some Little Known Facts,” which won the Raymond Carver Prize for Short Fiction in 2001. What with the subsequent events following Sept. 11, cross-cultural communications has grown even timelier.
As the world gets smaller through electronic communications and cheap air travel, previously isolated cultures are coming into more direct contact, and finding their ideals to be incompatible. Political theorists such as Samuel Huntington see only conflict ahead as a result.
“My book proposes an alternative vision” to Huntington’s perspective, Jensen says. Conflict is not inevitable. The hatred that Middle Easterners may feel for the U.S. may spring more from its blunt militaristic interventions than any sort of abstract clash of cultural values.
“This is not a symmetrical conflict by any means,” Jensen says. “Ordinary people of the Arab world have been victims of Western colonialism, aggression, and shameless exploitation. You can’t bomb people into understanding and democracy.” As to underline this point, TV news stories and conversations about the Gulf War float through the background of the novel.
For Jensen, the global information highway runs two ways. She says the tone and imagery of Arabic authors heavily influence her. Since moving to Baltimore, she has started teaching Arabic literature at the Community College of Baltimore County’s Essex campus. Along with her husband, she has translated poems by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish.
“Arabic culture is infused with poetry,” she says. “People on the street may quote a line of poetry or weave proverbs into [their conversations].”
Nonetheless, when most Westerners think of the Middle East, they think about how much of a political quagmire it presents. And with The Woman I Left Behind, Jensen hopes we can begin to find some common ground. “What I was ultimately trying to say [in the novel] is that a central question faces us: How do East and West resolve problems without resorting to war, occupation, and violence?” she says.
As for Bloom himself, Jensen certainly holds no fiery animus against the man. The two do, after all, share a love of literature and imaginative writing.
“If I saw him at a party I might smile, introduce myself, and strike up a conversation,” she says. After all, peace begins at home.
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