Iraqi American writer and award-winning poet Dunya Mikhail was born in Baghdad. She recalls her classroom windows shaking from explosions, running down to lower levels of her home when she heard sirens, and ultimately fleeing Iraq during the Gulf War — many of her written works reflect war and loss.
Zeina Arafat, a Palestinian American, writes about what it’s like to be a bisexual person of color. Her 2020 novel, You Exist Too Much, is fictional, but she is a queer Arab American woman who understands feeling caught between cultural, religious and sexual identities.
These Arab American writers, and 13 other prominent authors, are featured speakers on the Center for Arab American Studies new podcast Seen Jeem, which is a dedicated space for them to discuss their lives, writing, process, and to read excerpts from their work. The podcast recently released its first episode — it features Mikhail — and weekly installments will follow.
“The Seen Jeem podcast gives us the opportunity to have in-depth conversations with artists who address challenging topics in their work,” said Center for Arab American Studies Director Sally Howell. “We are sharing voices from Arab communities, but this is an opportunity for everyone to learn through the power of storytelling and literature.”
The podcast casts a wide net to purposefully gain a variety of perspectives that represent different Arab American experiences. It also features a range of creative writing mediums like graphic novel, poetry, short story, memoir and fiction.
Creative Writing Assistant Professor Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine said the project, which is supported by a U-M Presidential Arts Initiative grant, explores universal themes — like family dynamics, identity, loss, belonging — but filtered through an Arab American perspective and expressed through published writing.
Abou-Zeineddine said the podcast strives to document Arab American literature at this moment in time because it’s an area of literature that’s gaining traction and attention.
“These authors are on the forefront and are big names in the field. The podcast will help document the evolution of Arab American literature, so that people in the future can listen to these authors speak about their works in their own words,” Abou-Zeineddine said.
He said the podcast will also benefit today’s UM-Dearborn students. “I’m teaching courses that include the works of some of these writers. When we get into class discussions, we will have, through the podcast, an intimate glimpse of the writing process from the authors themselves.”
Abou-Zeineddine and Howell — along with Arab American National Museum Director Diana Abouali and Arab American National Museum Research and Content Manager Matthew Jaber Stiffler — conducted the podcast interviews. The Arab American National Museum was an instrumental partner in the project.
The museum founded the Arab American Book Award 15 years ago to honor the growing number of books written by and about Arab Americans. Many of the writers featured on the podcast have received the award.
“The field of Arab American literature has grown so much in the last decade. We wanted to showcase the diversity and strength of the writers,” Stiffler said of the podcast partnership.
With these podcasts, the overall goal is to share insight into the diverse Arab American experience with a national audience. And Howell asks, “what better way to do this than to hear from the writers who reflect upon, share, and even shape this experience every day?”
“The Arab experience is an important part of our society and many Americans really don’t know about it. So we want to provide ways to educate the public,” she said. “One of the best ways to do that is to provide a platform for people to share their stories.”
The Seen Jeem Podcast is funded by the University of Michigan Arts Initiative and the Ford Community Development Fund..