The day before the 2010 midterm elections, I sat down with Reza Aslan at his home in Los Angeles to discuss poetry, politics, and what comes next. In the most literal sense, “next” for Aslan is, in large part, centered around the publication of the groundbreaking anthology, Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. As controversial as it is revelatory, the anthology marks a new phase in the life of the scholar and artist who, perhaps unenviably, is one of the most recognizable commentators on the modern Middle East (a term that Aslan is quick to point out is a Western invention). Through his appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, not to mention mainstream news outlets (after we spoke he was on his way to record an interview with Australia’s Insight news program), Aslan has become something of a celebrity. As I was reading Aslan’s books to prepare for this interview, I was stopped no less than five times by people who can only be described as fans. Most of these people had read his books, but all knew him from television. As we spoke, the subject of social media came up repeatedly, both in terms of the implications it’s had on his own career and, on a deeper level, how notions of borders and identity are shifting as the demarcations between local and global are increasingly blurred. I wondered what possibilities and challenges these issues offered Aslan in his new role as an anthologist.
Aslan describes Tablet and Pen as a “pivot” in his career’s mission to “build bridges between peoples of the West and the Middle East,” and while that is true, it’s equally important to note that the book can also be seen as an entirely new way of envisioning the anthology form. As opposed to the usual compendium of poems and stories whose sheer critical mass is meant to signify the historical importance of the anthology’s subject, Aslan has created a book that functions more like a novel.