Ambivalence and the national imaginary: nation and canon formation in the emergence of the Saudi novel
Aplin, Thomas Michael
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Recent years have seen a surge of scholarship that foregrounds the relationship between the novel and the nation. The postcolonial condition of much of the Arab world has made the Arabic novel a compelling case. For historical reasons the focus has tended to be on the literary production of North Africa, the Levant and, to a lesser extent, Iraq. This thesis aims to redress the balance while interrogating certain assumptions about this relationship. Its main contention is that the early Saudi novel, as a unique case study, complicates traditional categorisations of the novel in Arabic, either in terms of a set of discrete, national traditions or as a monolithic, regional tradition, i.e. ‘the Arabic novel’. I argue that the ‘Saudi’ novel and its canonisation reflect, and were shaped by, the inherent ambivalence of the nation space and Arab discourses of national identity. This ambivalence gives rise to a third or liminal space of literary production. The thesis revolves around two axes. Firstly, it traces the emergence of the novel in Hijaz, from the 1930s through to the late 1950s. Although the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932, for a long time Hijaz retained a sense of its own distinct identity, countering the dominant Najdi-Wahhabi narrative. The close reading of selected texts explores how they express both a strong sense of Hijazi identity and a deep ambivalence towards ‘the Saudi nation’. The salience of ‘the woman question’ in Arab nationalist discourses makes gender a key consideration. The territorialising impulse present in much men’s fiction is shown to be absent from the Saudi women’s novel that emerged between the late 1950s and mid-1970s. Aside from exemplifying the genderedness of nation, this contributes to an explanation of the marginalisation of Saudi women’s novels from the canon. Secondly, the issue of novel and nation is linked to the critical discourse on the Saudi novel and its canonisation. Through an analysis of the literary articles that appeared in the pages of Hijaz’s early press, I trace the origins of a nationalist, ideological concept of the novel and its function that privileges the canonical realist novel for its mimetic representation of the writer’s national social reality. The result of this is that histories of the Saudi novel often present a teleology that is unable to adequately explain its construction or account for its liminality. The thesis offers a more nuanced understanding of the dynamic relationship between the novel and identity, as well as the novel’s construction in the Arabic context.