Evelyn Shakir; Bentley professor wrote about Arab-American experience; at 71

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 2, 2010

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As a young literature scholar, Evelyn Shakir delved into the established canon. She wrote perceptively about the British Romantic poet William Wordsworth and read the novel “Emma’’ by his contemporary, Jane Austen so frequently that friends thought surely she could recite entire chapters.

Another world tugged at her own writer’s heart, though. In West Roxbury, she grew up in an area populated by the families of immigrants from Lebanon. More than 30 years ago, Dr. Shakir began collecting and telling their stories, particularly narratives of women who made the tapestries of their lives from cultural cloth spun from past and present.

“I don’t think there’s ever been much recognition of Arab-Americans as a part of the American mosaic, even though we’ve been here for well over 100 years,’’ she told the Globe in 2005. “Arabs have been thought of as an overseas, alien people, without recognition that we’ve been a part of the American family for a long time.’’

With a pair of books published in 1997 and 2007, she used short stories and nonfiction to give voice to Arab-American women and to help promote in the United States a new niche of world literature. Dr. Shakir, who taught writing for many years at Bentley University in Waltham, where she was a professor emerita, died of complications of cancer Sunday in the Boston Center, a rehabilitative care facility in West Roxbury. She was 71 and lived in West Roxbury.

As a doctoral student, she studied with the renowned literary critic Helen Vendler.

“Evelyn was a remarkable student in having both creative writing ability and scholarly writing ability,’’ said Vendler, who teaches at Harvard University. “It was a wonderful flowering of her creative writing in later years that enabled her to represent so powerfully her own experience as an Arab-American woman. She was a lovely person, and her death is a great loss to us all.’’

In “Remember Me to Lebanon: Stories of Lebanese Women in America,’’ a 2007 short story collection that won the Arab American National Book Award for adult fiction two years ago, Dr. Shakir “was very sensitive to the nuances of relationships,’’ said Pierce Butler, a friend and colleague who is writer-in-residence at Bentley.

“Even though I had seen many in draft form,’’ he said, “her stories were really a surprise when they came out, to see what a sophisticated awareness that was present, to see the subtlety and the persistence of her observation of people.’’

Dr. Shakir’s earlier work was perhaps more surprising. A decade before publishing her short stories, she wrote “Bint Arab,’’ for which she interviewed Arab-American women and added to their experiences the histories of her mother and grandmothers.

“This book is not a solo performance; many voices join in,’’ she wrote in the introduction to the 1997 book, which includes a section called “Collage’’ that is a quilt of quotations she gathered.

In part, Dr. Shakir used the book to chronicle the gradual shift among children of immigrants, principally from Lebanon and Palestine, as they moved from trying to erase their heritage through assimilation to adding the word Arab when describing themselves as American.

“Of course,’’ she wrote, “among ourselves we had always been Arab, bint arab (Arab daughter) for females, ibn arab (Arab son) for men.’’

“She found her metier, her life’s work, in an underrepresented group and one that allowed her to draw from her own deep roots in this community as both inspiration and motivation to open up a new area in world literature,’’ said Linda McJannet, an English professor at Bentley. “And she did it so well and never lost her critical objectivity. She didn’t become a sort of partisan or cheerleader. She did her homework and unearthed this whole community of people and writers.’’

Evelyn Catherine Shakir grew up in West Roxbury, the younger of two children. She graduated in 1956 from Girls’ Latin School in Boston, and received a bachelor’s degree from Wellesley College, where she studied English.

Dr. Shakir received a master’s from Harvard and a doctorate from Boston University, where she studied with Vendler.

“She always had ambivalent feelings on questions of identity,’’ said George Ellenbogen, her companion of 32 years and a professor emeritus of English at Bentley. “Growing up, when other kids ate white bread, she was embarrassed by her pita bread, by her parents’ pronunciation of words. Over the years, she began to explore her own identity.’’

That search started shaping itself into a calling in the late 1970s, when she helped transcribe the meeting minutes of an organization of Arab-American women to which her mother belonged. In the women’s voices, Dr. Shakir heard the past and present collide, sometimes with unexpected results.

“When I read her collection of short stories, they were just so funny and smart, and her own individual view of feminism upset our stereotypes,’’ McJannet said.

As Dr. Shakir wrote “Bint Arab,’’ she examined the lives of ancestors, including her grandmother Miriam, who had died before she was born. Because Dr. Shakir’s mother had died in 1990, she wondered who would remember Miriam.

“I remember her,’’ she wrote, “a woman I never knew, who died before my parents were married. With no children of my own to make the future real for me, I am always looking over my shoulder, trying to make out the shapes and faces of those who came before me.’’

Dr. Shakir also taught at other colleges, including Northeastern and Tufts universities. A senior Fulbright scholar, she taught in the Middle East at the University of Bahrain and the University of Damascus.

“She was a teacher who really allowed space for students to explore their own lives,’’ Butler said. Nevertheless, Ellenbogen said, she pushed students to do their best, even if that meant rewriting a paper four or six times.

“Evelyn would go over each sentence as if she was weaving very fine silk,’’ Ellenbogen said. “You got the sense of someone who edited 24 hours a day. She probably edited when she was fast asleep. Perfectionist is the closest I can come to describing her approach.’’

In addition to Ellenbogen, Dr. Shakir leaves a brother, Philip of West Roxbury.

A memorial gathering will be announced. Her family plans to receive visitors from 5 to 8 p.m. today in Kfoury Keefe Funeral Home in West Roxbury.