April 12, 2012 — When is a piece of writing considered a novel and when is it a biography? Some of the world's leading female writers who focus on the Middle East and South Asia will address these and other questions Monday at a symposium at the University of Virginia.
After opening remarks from College of Arts & Sciences Dean Meredith Woo, Deborah Baker, a U.Va. alumna, will discuss her latest book, "The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism," which was one of four finalists for last year's National Book Award in Non-Fiction.
Farzaneh Milani, who chairs the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, said Baker's book is a wonderful example of how books can blur the line between one genre and another.
"When I read 'The Convert,' I thought 'This is the biography of a biography by an acclaimed biographer.' I think the story of how protagonist Margaret Marcus is transformed into Maryam Jameelah is captivating, but so is the parallel autobiography of the author, which is woven into the fabric of the book," said Milani, the symposium's organizer.
Baker stumbled upon the subject of "The Convert" in a library while doing research for her next book and became fascinated by the story of Maryam Jameelah, who eschewed her Jewish upbringing and Western trappings for life as a Muslim in Pakistan.
The conference, "Alternative Biographies in the Middle East and South Asia: The Porous Boundaries of a Genre," takes place in the Dome Room of the Rotunda from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There will be a two-hour lunch break at noon, and the event is free and open to the public.
In addition to Baker, the morning session will feature Marie Ostby, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English, whose discussion is titled "(Dis)Embodiment and the Arab Spring: Facebook, Twitter, and Intertextuality in Iran and Egypt."
Milani said Ostby's talk promises to be fascinating. "She is a brilliant student doing pioneering work, cutting-edge scholarship on new media. She'll talk about how social media was used during the Green Movement in Iran and the Egyptian Revolution."
During the afternoon session, Shahla Haeri, an associate professor of cultural anthropology, will present "Imagining Biographies of the Queen of Sheba."
"Haeri will build on the reference to the Queen of Sheba in the Koran and discuss widely different biographies of this wise female king," Milani said.
Afterward, the Iranian-born and French-educated writer Saideh Pakravan will deliver a talk, "The Biography of a Movement: Before the Arab Spring, There Was the Iranian Summer."
Milani said the symposium is not only interdisciplinary. "It goes beyond geographic boundaries. It is transnational in the best sense of the word," she said.
The symposium is co-sponsored by the Department of Middle East and South Asian Languages and Cultures, the Center for International Studies, the Center for South Asian Studies and Studies in Women and Gender.
Milani's department will follow up this symposium next spring with another, titled "Unveiling the Self: Women's Life Narratives in the Middle East and South Asia," with support from the Page-Barbour and Clay foundations. The 2013 conference is being co-sponsored by Loughborough University in England.
— by Jane Kelly