Reza Aslan talks to Guernica about putting together his new anthology, Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. The book is an attempt to build understanding between the Middle East and the English-speaking world, as well as an attempt to further our understanding of literary history. Aslan has faith in the universalism of this history:

I truly do believe that art is the universal language. I’ve spent the last ten years trying to build bridges between the peoples and cultures of the West and of the Middle East, trying to educate Americans about Islam and about Middle Eastern cultures. Yet anti-Muslim sentiment is even higher today than it was after 9/11. So, it’s hard not to feel like a failure.

But furthermore, he argues that the act of anthologizing itself is a political and historicizing act, and that it's not simply the content of literature itself that might help to build understanding, but the expansion of historical narrative:

It’s like history, right? I mean the anthology is sort of like writing a history, and in this case I very much see it as sort of a literary history of this time. And you know history is all about what you decide to put in and what you decide to leave out. That was very much a part of this. Now I tried to be very fair about it and the first thing that I did was just collect thousands of pieces. And read them. That’s all I did, is just read read read read. Then I felt as though this overarching narrative was coming along on its own. But there are a number of pieces I could have inserted into the collection that would have veered it one way or another and chose deliberately not to do so. But yeah, you’re right. All anthologizing is by definition a political process, but it’s a political process because it’s the creation of a history, and all history is political.

The interview sheds a new light on the ol' "does poetry matter?" question.

Originally Published: January 17th, 2011