Adrienne Unger on Pauline Kaldas

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Looking Both Ways
By Pauline Kaldas
Cune Press, September 18, 2017
160 pp. Paper. $19.95
ISBN 978-1-614571-98-8
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 Sum of My Parts: Pauline Kaldas Reflects on Ideals and Identity of Egyptian American Duality and Assimilation

In recounting the words of a radio announcer, who in the days after September 11, 2001 said there is no place for a hyphenated American, Egyptian-American Pauline Kaldas’ response is to “settle myself on that hyphen, looking in both directions.” Thus is the quandary in which the author of this meditative collection finds herself — uncomfortably perched within this grey area between her Middle Eastern past and American future, while still trying to make them both fit into the same space each and every day. I say American future because it is the hope of many US citizens with non-European heritages to reach a point in their lives where their ethnicity becomes mundane, where their palatable “otherness” disappears. Faced with this daily audition to prove worthy of the Yankee Doodle Dandy status more Waspy brethren inherit, it’s a difficult exercise to engage in without falling into an unconquerable despair.

The dialogue about what it means to be finally accepted as American can be dominated by the Black-White-Hispanic dynamic; so to have a story from a perspective outside of this box is as welcome as it is overdue. Kaldas immigrated to the US as child with her parents after Egypt’s six-day war with Israel. They were like other middle-class Egyptians who made the difficult decision to leave in the wake of what they saw was the failed promises of the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime. New immigrants, but same story of crushed expectations.

The strongest passages in the book dive head-on into the struggle of trying to maneuver in different worlds. For example, the section, “A Dictionary, a Bible & a Romance Novel” shares how three unlikely books helped Kaldas decipher her 5th-grade world; in “The Package”, a poorly packed box bridges three worlds, if only for a moment; and in the goofy humor of “The Camel Caper”, Kaldas unapologetically fights for a giant camel when it gets pinched from her front lawn.

Kaldas does an excellent job bringing the reader to her Egyptian family throughout the book. She opens with the story of the origins of her name. This passage could have been a tad shorter, but taking several days and two extended families to come up with a name is serious business, so who am I to judge.

There’s also tension throughout the book as Kaldas follows the growing violence in Cairo from afar. Her attempts to locate various vulnerable relatives in the city pulses from the page. And because Kaldas and her husband continued to travel back to Egypt, even living there for a three-year stretch, you clearly feel her foreigner status flip-flop as it does in the US. Chapter by chapter, Kaldas battles to gain her cultural footing. It’s a struggle she undertakes because, like all minorities, she values the duality of her existence and wants the rest of the world to do the same.

Although there were other defining moments where Kaldas opens the door to important issues, she doesn’t follow through. She skims over topics like being minority Coptic Christian or how she “had become exotic and sexualized” in graduate school. The latter, in particular, needed expanding because the statement is too loaded to be dropped without further explanation. She also introduces the reader to her friendship with other Middle Eastern students and how it helped her survive college, but we only get a few lines at best about such crucial connections. Like these and other tidbits left behind in this collection, I wanted much more.

And if her life wasn’t “interesting” enough already, Kaldas fell in love with and married an African-American student whom she met in college. She and TJ marry and have children. Their nuclear family is well represented throughout the text, but his side of the family is all but absent. This is an omission with which I was unhappy, not so much as it could be viewed as an unnecessary erasure, the heart of her story does rest with her family, but more as another missed opportunity. There’s got to be at least one lively tale to tell about dinner with her in-laws that deserved an essay, and I was very sorry that it wasn’t within these pages.

This piece of creative non-fiction is more reflection than memoir in both style and content. The story floats back and forth along the timeline and the passages read like essays that have been ordered together. This is not necessarily a bad thing to be, however what is missing from the collection is the single unifying narrative arc that moves the reader to the takeaway: the author’s revelation about herself and her world. What is it all about? What does it all mean to survive this journey? As a reader, we don’t have to agree or accept what her conclusion is; the ending is hers; we are voyeurs tagging along. Yet, as hard as it might be, Kaldas needed to make a more definite choice about the meaning of her journey. We needed to learn not just that she made the trip, but the meaning of her journey. Then, if nothing else, we can commiserate, or argue, and most importantly understand that her odyssey, and by extension our own, was worth it.

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Pauline Kaldas is the author of Looking Both Ways, a collection of essays, The Time Between Places, a collection of short stories, Letters from Cairo, a travel memoir, and Egyptian Compass, a collection of poetry. She also co-edited Dinarzad’s Children: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Fiction. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Hollins University.

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Adrienne Unger is the Program Coordinator for the Humanities Institute at Stony Brook at Stony Brook University (SUNY) in New York. She received her MFA from George Mason University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chautauqua, The Harvard Review Online, Passager, The Southampton Review, FLARE: The Flagler Review, Oberon, and Alehouse.

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