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Evelyn Shakir: Remembering a Writing Pioneer

posted on: Oct 23, 2011

Starting this year and every year moving forward, gifted Arab American writers will be able to say they received the “Evelyn Shakir Non-Fiction Award,” given annually by the Arab American National Museum.

Shakir, a life-long resident of West Roxbury, died of breast cancer in 2010 after a noted career as an author and academic that included being a senior Fulbright scholar, a teacher at Bentley College as well as in Lebanon and Syria and a writer of books that brought attention to the contributions of Arab American women.

“Naming the annual non-fiction award for Dr. Shakir is our way of honoring her and recognizing her multifaceted contributions,” said Dr. Anan Ameri, museum director. “She was one of the very early supporters of the Arab American National Museum … she was able to envision the important role of this institution.” Shakir won the museum’s fiction award in 2008 for “Remember Me to Lebanon: Stories of Lebanese Women in America.”

The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Shakir spent her early years on Washington Street and attended the Beethoven School. Her mother, who owned a textile factory on Grove Street, was also a founding member of the Lebanese-Syrian Ladies’ Aid Society, which was founded in 1917 and had a large presence in the Parkway. The women kept minutes in Arabic and Shakir’s translations of these minutes are now located at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library.

That early project was a foreshadowing of future projects which included her first book, “Bint Arab: Arab and Arab American Women in the United States,” published in 1997.

“This book really put her in a prime position in the Arab American community … as she listened to all these stories, she was fascinated by the narrative itself,” said the poet George Ellenbogen, Shakir’s companion of 32 years and professor emeritus of English at Bentley College. “She had her feet in two different cultures and she brought those two worlds together.” Shakir held degrees from Wellesley College, Harvard University and Boston University.

Ellenbogen spoke at the awards ceremony, held in late September in Washington, D.C., about Shakir’s legacy before the inaugural award was presented to Samir Abu-Absi, editor of the non-fiction winner, “Arab Americans in Toledo: Cultural Assimilation and Community Involvement.”

“I talked about Evelyn’s work and how she came to her interest in Arab American literature and culture,” Ellenbogen said. “I spoke to this year’s winner and was very moved by what he had to say … he expects that his daughters and granddaughters will one day read Evelyn’s work.”

At the time of her death, both Shakir and Ellenbogen were putting the finishing touches on their books — hers a collection of essays, and his a memoir. Ellenbogen is currently exploring the possibility of having them bound together and published as complementary commentary on two people with two different backgrounds woven together with themes of belonging, neighborhood and community.

Even after she retired in 2004, she continued to write about the Arab American experience. “After she retired she wrote wonderful short stories … they were just gems, so lucid and clear and funny,” said Linda McJannet, professor of English and Media Studies at Bentley College, as well as a friend and colleague of Shakir’s.

“All of her writing was just beautiful,” she said.

Another friend and colleague, Pierce Butler, a writer-in-residence at Bentley College, said that Shakir was a gifted writer, but wasn’t one to brag about her talents.

“What I liked about her scholarly work was that she had a wonderful sense of style … and that’s rare in an academic,” Butler said. “She did her work for its own sake … she was genuinely interested in writing fiction and in the Arab immigrant experience.”

Ellenbogen hopes this award is just the beginning of posthumous recognitions for Shakir and her work that could involve a visiting lecture series.

“We’re thinking of establishing something even larger … there are a number of people who believe that her contributions have been major,” he said. “She has shed light on a community that is often misrepresented by stereotypes and characterizations.”

Victoria Groves
Taunton Daily Gazette