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 |
Mingmei Yip has been a guest reader at Lady Jane’s Salon, the monthly romance reading series I help curate, on several occasions, and she joined us at the start of 2015 to share an opening scene from her most recent novel, Secret of a Thousand Beauties. She tells us a little bit about the historical origins of this book’s story here, but also stretches back into her own past to reveal how she set out on the writing path… a journey that takes a bravery and self-determination similar to that of the women she’s written about.
In traditional China, women were and sometimes still are considered men’s possessions and didn’t have much independence or freedom. A Chinese saying goes: “The worst thing that can happen to a woman is to marry the wrong man. The worst thing that can happen to a man is to enter the wrong profession.” Unfortunately, because marriages were usually arranged, many women ended up marrying the wrong man at the cost of any chance for happiness. Wary of a bad marriage, some decided to remain single for the rest of their life. These women would join small communities established for non-marrying women. They displayed this choice by tying up the hair in a long pigtail.
Most worked as maids, but some were more fortunate and could learn a traditional woman’s craft. One of these was embroidery, an art that has always appealed to me. Intrigued by these women and their sisterhoods, I decided to write about this small group of embroiderers—they are supposedly celibate, but of course many succumbed to desire.
Ghost marriage was another way women were oppressed in traditional China. Couples were often betrothed in childhood, or even before birth. Since only half of children survived to adulthood, many young women lost their fiancés. Because they had already pledged marriage, the cruel custom was to marry the woman to the dead man. As a practical matter, this meant she was a slave to her supposed in-laws.
19 January 2015 | guest authors |