Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea
Translated from Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow, and Dunya Mikhail. New Directions: New York, NY, 2009.
Reading Dunya Mikhail's lyrical and poetic memoir Diary of A Wave Outside the Sea is like diving into a watery, dreamy world. One must leave behind rationale, urges for temporal grounding and a reliance on facts. Mikhail pulls you into her impressionistic world like a strong tide, tossing the reader about with strong visuals, sensitive perspectives, poetic questions, snippets, and philosophic observations:Every sorrow and mistake adds up to a tally of daily ruination. And nothing is as long as memories' shadow
Not only does Mikhail's narrative content resist precise meaning, but her text resists a formal taxonomy. Even ir demarcations and definitions of memoir were as fluid as her verse, any critic would struggle to classify this Arab-American, Iraqi-born writer. It's true that the work is memoir, and if I could leave it at that, I would. For the most part, Mikhail resists narrative conventions of scene and anecdote: fictional techniques that memoirists usually employ. She uses verse to narrate the fragments into a blended whole.
In fact, the structure of this memoir seems influenced by the ancient Mesopotamian literary form of maqáma . The maqámát (plural) were a series of rhymed verses told orally in order to pass along knowledge. Seekers of knowledge had to journey in order to hear and learn from speakers. Its name (meaning "he stood") relates to the act of oration, standing to perform the verse. Mikhail might be reminding the reader of her birthplace's deep connection to forms of early literature.
The poetic form she employs is also similar to the Homeric epic poem. Actually, the tablets of the epic poem of Gilgamesh, which predate Homer, were found in a temple in the city of Nineveh--now contemporary Mosul, Iraq. The tablets are written in the ancient language of Akkadian (a cuneiform language) which was replaced by Aramaic, a language Mikhail's family still speaks. It is not peculiar then that a large part of Part One deals with the mythic story of Gilgamesh.
Memoirs about migration or integration often have similar themes: a difficult journey; a path of self-discovery; individual heroism, and issues of identity, marginality and alienation as well as nostalgia for the native land. For the Arab-American female, there is also an expectation by Western readers to address the status of women in Muslim society as well as right-wing eccentricities of the Islamic faith. But Mikhail is a Christian Iraqi and sets out with no such intentions of situating herself in a genre. She is certainly an immigrant, but she doesn't address issues of marginality and identity, nor does she defend or explain Arab stereotypes to a Western reader. Alienation is present, but it's due to the circumstances of war and censorship in the native homeland rather than the adopted land. In Mikhail's experience, war and censorship bring...