On Jan. 25, laughter mingled with a touch of sorrow in the Community Foundation Theater as the Department of English welcomed back author and assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin College Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine for a reading from his story collection Dearborn.
Abou-Zeineddine was an English professor at Kenyon from 2016 to 2018, and he recalled Kenyon as a very dear place to him. He commented that when he came back in the summer of 2019 to teach for The Kenyon Review, he almost burst into tears when Professor Emeritus of English and Editor Emeritus of The Kenyon Review David Lynn greeted him with the words, “Welcome home.”
In the introduction to his reading, Associate Professor of English Pashmina Murthy said, “Dearborn exists on two continents: It is suffused with nostalgia of memories of growing up in villages along the border of Israel and in the mountains, and the life in Lebanon before [the] civil war. Rich evocations of community in Dearborn are also fractured by differences between early immigrants and newer arrivals, while the [book] is an ode, a love letter to the city in Michigan.”
Abou-Zeineddine began his reading with a brief description of the demographic background of Dearborn. “Dearborn has the highest concentration of Arab Americans with approximately 100,000 residents of Arab descent, and it is often commonly referred to as the capital of Arab America,” he said. When Abou-Zeineddine and his wife first moved there in 2018, he found it strange and special that even in an American city, most grocery stores and coffee shops on the east side of town were owned by Arab Americans. He said that he didn’t know whether to speak Arabic or English in these establishments, encapsulating the theme of conflicting identities present in many of his stories.
Abou-Zeineddine then read an excerpt from “Speedoman,” one of the stories in the collection. He explained that the story is told from two alternating points of view: five husbands and their five wives, both of which adopt first-person plural perspectives to recount the arrival of a mysterious Speedo-wearing man at a community pool. He told the audience that he would signal the shift of narration during the reading. As the reading started, his voice was warm and clear, humorous but touched with an ardent care. Abou-Zeineddine explained that the story was inspired by a moment when he and his wife were looking to join a local gym and found out the swimming pool was gender-segregated, with all the men staying in the jacuzzi while women stayed outside in the swimming pool.
The event ended with a Q&A session where the audience was eager to dive deeper into the story from all angles, including the layer of unreliability of “Speedoman’s” interwoven narrative voices, the absurdity and historical contexts carried within the comedy and the ethnographic research Abou-Zeineddine conducted for each story. Abou-Zeineddine answered all the questions with great enthusiasm, letting the audience in on his life in an Arab American community and the details of his creative process.