shining the spotlight on short story collections
How to Fare Well And Stay Fair
‘Still, wherever we are, there remains the MYTH, all defined, capitalized and italicized, built up from scratch into one of the most magnificent air castles between Heaven and Hell.’
Has a book ever taken you somewhere, not necessarily a place you want to go, but somewhere where you lose and gain hope in small measures and see things you’ve never seen before? Adnan Mahmutović’s new collection of stories gives us a glimpse into the world of the refugee, whom we might at times guess is the author or fail to recognize at all. Who is at times a woman, at others a man. Who does unexpected things like brutally attack someone, and is capable of much more, good and bad. Mahmutović does not want sympathy from his readers: ‘I will not offer you dull, simple stereotypes of the idea of a refugee,’ he writes in Myth of The Smell. Elsewhere he cautions, ‘Cry when you leave your country, if you absolutely must. If you’re an expat, please, don’t even think about it, but if you’re a refugee, make sure you do it out of sight of other cry-babies’ (How To Fare Well and Stay Fair).
Almasa is Mahmutović leading lady. She offers us Beckettian levels of degradation, nuance, joy, beauty, ugliness. In First Day of Night She is moving to the northernmost town in Sweden and has been granted a green card. She is De Niro in the train lavatory, she befriends some homeless drunks, flashes her breasts to get some booze for her new friends. She’s risky. She’s not what she’s supposed to be. She’s frustrating. She’s bereaved. She’s emotionally complex. She goes about things the wrong way. But she’s human. This is the crucial thing: no stereotypes, no sympathy. But empathy, yes. ‘There’s no escape from the past,’ Almasa muses. ‘The men turn and look at her, their eyes moist and small. Almasa thinks, I shouldn’t have taken so many painkillers, because her mind is either multiplying one single man, or maybe she is prejudiced and all Swedes still look alike to her, or maybe when people spend every second of their lives living and drinking together they become like one, their skin grows into each other, personalities don’t matter any longer, only the promise of long, strong swigs.’ This is a characteristic feature of Mahmutović’s writing: long swathes of sentences that start in one place and end up in another. It feels only barely under control, as though what he has to stay has no pause button.
Almasa is one of the most potent, though only one of the characters in this deep and affecting collection. In Gusul, Emina is confronted with the death of her mother. This is a humane, even sensual story, concerned with death and ritual. Emina, confronted with the way different cultures deal with the deceased, insists, ‘I’ve seen my parents gusul dozens of bodies. I could wash my mother with my eyes closed. I’ll sweep her into a cefin.’ There is so much to be overwhelmed by in this story and yet it is written with such sensitivity, for Mahmutović truly cares for his characters. I have to wonder which parts of this are not fiction. After you read this story, you will need a hug, a drink or a phonecall.
The emotion in many of these stories feels raw; Mahmutović manages to hold on to the emotion of the first draft, which is a beautiful thing. In Walking on Roofs we are taken back to the turn of the century in Japan in a fragile, descriptive, luminous, very short story about voyeurism, which is filmic and shows how well Mahmutović understands the plight of the loner.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Suicide is structurally different from the other stories – it is written as a six part play featuring different characters or usernames interacting on an administrated web chat. It highlights young suicide, a very real issue the world over, and the consequences as a group of teenagers talk about killing themselves and one of the girls goes onto attempt it. The dialogue is highly realistic and as a consequence very close to the bone. Almasa makes an appearance as the voice of wisdom and reason, and turns the story on its head in a way only she could.
I have the feeling that Mahmutović wants to talk, wants people to be open, to shout out, to forget stereotypes, loneliness and prejudice. Live and die. Die gracefully. Die kicking and screaming. Celebrate who you are, your culture, your background, your homeland. We all suffer. Find joy. Find love. There are moments of epiphany, like the one in Integration Under the Midnight Sun: ‘Then, Aziza winces. Only I see this moment. It is not even a moment. It is just our faces close to each other, like two leaves, moist and smelling bitter in the hot room, caressing each other without touching. Her lids open. She smiles and says, ‘Elhamdulillah.’ Then she dozes off again.’ Pure human connection.
Read a story from this collection here
About the reviewer:
Melissa Lee-Houghton’s first poetry collection, A Body Made of You is published by Penned in the Margins, and her second collection is due out in November 2013. She won first prize in The New Writer poetry collection competition in 2013 and has had work published in many magazines and anthologies, including most recently, Binders Full of Women, Tears in the Fence, Sculpted and The Reader.