photo: Omar Nakib
One of the persistent themes in Mai Al-Nakib’s short story collection, The Hidden Light of Objects, is the way that we use stories to shape our own lives and identities, a common thread across decades and borders. Though her stories are not fantasies, there’s a slight trace of the surreal to them, especially early on, as if naturalism were given the tiniest of nudges. In this guest essay, Al-Nakib tells us about another Middle Eastern writer whose visionary prose has helped shape her own.
Ghassan Kanafani was an artist before he was a writer. This shows in his writing, which privileges vision above all the other senses.
I came to Kanafani late. I was a graduate student when I first read Men in the Sun. The sparseness of his language struck me, but I didn’t really notice the visual aspect of his style. Perhaps it’s because I was busy reading for content, overwhelmed by the political weight of his words. I remember the heat of a strange guilt rising up my neck as I learned that the three Palestinian men, who would die together in an overheated water tank, were desperate to be smuggled across the desert into Kuwait. Kuwait—that’s where I’m from. It turned my mouth sour to read those famous last lines of the story, “Why didn’t you knock on the sides of the tank? Why didn’t you bang the sides of the tank? Why? Why? Why?” The first time I read Men in the Sun—a short novella or, as I prefer to think of it, a long short story—I was busy feeling the anguish Kanafani no doubt wanted his readers to feel, anguish over a lost cause, over wasted, wretched lives, over betrayal and corruption and injustice. In the depths of that anguish, however, I overlooked what I now see as Kanafani’s characteristic visual aesthetic.
Let me give you an example. In a scene in the second chapter, one of the three men who will die in the sun, Assad, is negotiating with a smuggler who folds yellow papers as he “look[s] up at him from under his heavy eyelids.” Those yellow papers seem innocuous and we pass over them quickly, reading on to learn whether Assad will fall into the trap of this lizard-eyed man. But the narrative slips from the present scene into Assad’s recent experience with another cheating smuggler, who had tricked him into trekking across the desert into Baghdad on foot, when he had initially promised to take him there by lorry. The yellow papers transform into “yellow slopes” of desert:
“He crossed hard patches of brown rocks like splinters, climbed low hills with flattened tops of soft yellow earth like flour. […] The horizon was a collection of straight, orange lines, but he had taken a firm decision to go forward, doggedly. Even when the earth turned into shining sheets of yellow paper he did not slow down.”
9 February 2015 | selling shorts |
photo: via Bloomsbury
As I’m reading through Eliza Robertson’s debut collection, Wallflowers, the stories that stand out in my memory are often those where the characters find themselves grappling with profound emotional losses, like the young narrator of “Ship’s Log,” whose attempts to dig a hole to China from his grandparents’ yard in Ontario barely overly his grief and fear at his grandfather’s death, or the narrator of “My Sister Sang,” listening to the black boxes from crashed airplanes, or Natalie, the protagonist of “Where have you fallen, have you fallen?” whose story is told in reverse chronological order.
These stories, and others in the collection, show Robertson’s formal playfulness to strong effect. In this essay, she discusses how Jonathan Safran Foer pushes language even further—beyond the written word, even—to arrive at the right way of hitting his story’s emotional register.
My PhD subject is prose rhythm. I’ll spare readers the gory details, but rhythm has led me to think about voice—how we use that word so often we have forgotten it’s a metaphor. “Voice of a generation.” “New voice.” “A voice piece.” (Which often translates to: the characters talk funny.) From here, if you will follow me down the wormhole, I started to think about how the term “voice” is premised on utterance. Don’t get me wrong: I talk about voice in fiction too. I will continue to talk about voice. But I wanted another word that included silence, whitespace and punctuation. Enter rhythm. Enter also “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease” by Jonathan Safran Foer.
The title summarizes the story very well. It is a primer for the silences and emphases (read: punctuation) organic to the narrator’s family communication on love, the holocaust, and yes, heart disease. The sentiment emoted by these symbols is so much more urgent—even vital—than what could be relayed by words. That is: the symbols undercut, footnote and italicize what is spoken.
For example, in the following passage, the silence mark, □, represents an absence of language, and ■, the “willed silence mark,” represents an intentional silence— often employed in response to questions you don’t want to answer. As seen here:
The “insistent question mark” denotes one family member’s refusal to yield to a willed silence, as in this conversation with my mother.
“Are you dating at all?”
“But you’re seeing people, I’m sure. Right?”
“I don’t get it. Are you ashamed of the girl? Are you ashamed of me?”
12 October 2014 | selling shorts |