You Are Free by Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna has a knack for unsettling her readers. The stories collected in You Are Free are a testament to her ability to create and maintain an atmosphere of disquiet, one that adds to the ambiguous characters populating her stories. The people Senna centres her stories around seem perpetually uneasy and their behaviour—which ranges from being slightly worrisome to downright perturbing—is often a source of confusion to other characters and readers themselves. Like in her full-length novels, Senna hones in on race, racism, and racial identity. Her caustic social commentary is as piercing as it is unstinting. Senna spares no one and this adds to the murky tone of her narratives. As much as I love Senna’s writing, her short stories pale in comparison to her novels. The stories here are not as disturbing as Maria’s spiralling into obsession in New People, or as disconcerting as the narrator’s experiences in Symptomatic, or as compelling as Birdie’s story in Caucasia.

The first story is probably the most accomplished one, as we are introduced to a young couple who, as a ‘joke’, apply for their son to attend one of the country’s most distinguished private schools. When their son is actually offered a spot, the mother finds herself giving the school some serious consideration, while the father is adamantly opposed to it and wants his son to attend a local public school. What makes this story so effective is the increasingly creepy behaviour of the school’s member of staff. The other stories are less memorable, and many of them focus on new parents. I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook version of this collection and I can tell you that there are few things as irritating as an adult mimicking the voice of a whiny child crying for their ‘mama/mummy’. Anyway, the people within these narratives are varying degrees of terrible. Which was expected, but they did seem to share many of the same unlikeable traits, which made them rather samey. The short format also didn’t give Senna much time to flesh them out or to give them some nuance. I also could have done without the animal cruelty which seemed thrown in as an afterthought, or worse, for mere shock value. At times the character descriptions here verged on being lazy, which is quite unlike Senna (a character’s eyes are described as ‘asian’…). The focus on the parent-child and wife-husband dynamics had potential but ultimately the author prioritizes ambience over characterisation (also the lack of queer characters…). Senna is a fantastic author but this collection isn’t quite it…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Seeking Fortune Elsewhere: Stories by Sindya Bhanoo

“The memory of the past, the futility of the future, it leaves her breathless.”

Seeking Fortune Elsewhere presents its readers with a well-crafted collection of short stories mapping the paths of those who leave and those who are left behind. Set in America and southern India these narratives explore the realities of leaving one’s homeland behind, generational and cultural rifts, loneliness and connectedness, family and belonging. The first story, “Malliga Homes,”, which was selected by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for an O. Henry Prize, strikes the perfect balance between bittersweet and unsentimental. The narrator is a widow living in a retirement community in Tamil Nadu. She tells us that like most of the residents of Malliga Homes, she is there because she has lost her child to ‘Foreign’. Kamala, her daughter, is the one who pushed her into ‘joining’ this community. She lives in America with her husband and child and has not visited the narrator in years, and in fact, keeps postponing and delaying her next visit. The author captures the microcosm that is this community, where parent(s) seem to outdo each other when it comes to their children’s achievements and how close they are to them. The unaffected style really gives the narrative a rich sense of realism and results in a subtle yet resonant short story. Throughout this collection the author mines similar themes: characters struggle to reconcile themselves to their past actions or are forced to reassess the past; they may long and yearn for the ‘what-ifs’ of the roads not taken; they flit between hope and regret; they desire a place and a people they can belong to. The more effective stories are the ones that focus on a particular period phase of a character’s life whereas the ones that did not quite succeed in reeling me in were the ones that attempted to cover too much of a character’s life. In these instances, the author isn’t quite able to achieve the rich in detail storytelling that she showcases in her more concise stories, where we glimpse a day or a week in a character’s life (rather than their whole life).
Nevertheless Seeking Fortune Elsewhere is a promising debut and I really loved the author’s understated yet incisive writing style.

some quotes:

“We were in that stage of life and motherhood that is filled with fatigue, unimaginable to the young, forgotten by the old, unknown altogether to those without children.”
“The offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.”

“The time between childhood and old age passes quickly, leaving you feeling like your entire life is a double feature with no intermission.”

“What our children do, how much money they make, whether our grandchildren are bright or mediocre—all of this matters. It is a tragedy to have a brilliant child and a dunce of a grandchild.”

“[F]or all the space and privacy that America offers, it is a country that longs for life. You go for a drive and the road is endless.”

“He remembered the loneliness, the immense sorrow that came from going months without uttering a word of Tamil. There was no way for him to express certain thoughts, certain feelings, in the English language.”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Rouge Street: Three Novellas by Shuang Xuetao

Rouge Street presents its readers with three novellas by Shuang Xuetao which have been translated by Jeremy Tiang who once again has done a stellar job. The prose of these novellas is smooth and engaging, contrasting with the sometimes stark realities experienced by the characters populating these stories. The backdrop to most of these stories is Shenyang, which the author renders in gritty realism. The characters struggle to find stable employment and fulfilment as they attempt to navigate a perilous social and economic landscape. Many experiences or are close to people affected by poverty, addiction, and domestic violence. Some find themselves embroiled in murky businesses, while others attempt to make their dreams come true even when the cards are stacked against them. An element of magical realism reminiscent of the work Murakami comes into play in some of these narratives, lending an air of surreality to many of the events and scenes being described. The humor present in many of the character interactions also made me think of Murakami’s books, as Xuetao effectively incorporates humorous asides or funny lines into his otherwise bleak narratives. These moments of levity also add to the surreal, occasionally dreamy, atmosphere of these stories. The author’s insights into contemporary Chinese society also are characterised by an almost rueful tone, one that lends itself to his novellas’ subject matter(s). The family dynamics were lively and I appreciated how the author establishes generational gaps without resorting to the usual clichès.

What I struggled with was the shift in perspectives. I have never been a fan of shifts between 1st and 3rd povs, and here I sometimes had difficulties telling who was speaking and their connection to the other pov. To be fair, this issue I had may have something to do with the fact that I listened to the audiobook version of this collection. I think I would have been able to follow the storylines better if I’d read it for myself. I will probably revisit Rouge Street as I would like to gain a more in-depth understanding of its novellas.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Recitatif by Toni Morrison

A skilful and incisive short story by the masterful Toni Morrison Recitatif is the type of short story that seems made to be studied at school/college or discussed in a book club. The ambiguous nature of the central characters’ racial identities will lead readers to analyze every passage, trying to ‘find out’ the answers to a puzzle Morrison leaves intentionally unsolved. Our eagerness to understand this short story plays into Morrison’s social commentary. The reading experience of Recitatif is almost a prelude to the real story, the one that occurs outside of its borders, in which we study, examine, and argue, with others or with ourselves about the characters’ identities and the meaning behind Morrison’s choice not to reveal them to us. Long rambling short, this is the type of story that delivers more substance and depth once it’s actually over. Whereas I found the two full-length works that I have read by Morrison to be riveting and all-consuming, I found myself less immersed in Recitatif. I was more interested in the conception and execution of this idea than in the actual story. The story and characters, curiously enough, felt secondary to the literary device employed by Morrison. The alleged fraught friendship between these two women, one of them Black, the other white, pales in comparison to the fiercely complicated bond between Sula and Nel in Morrison’s Sula. We are given a glimpse into their childhood, where we learn they both have experienced some form of hardship and we later see them encountering one another as adults, except that they now find themselves on opposing sides.
Their complicity in the violence that other girls at the orphanage where they first met perpetrated against an older woman binds them together. While they both harbour guilt over this they disagree on whether the woman in question was Black or white. This will lead readers to wonder why that is. Which of them is right? And does that change anything? As I said, this is the type of story that is the ideal vehicle for generating discussions on race and racism in America. While I admired Morrison’s skill, I found that I was too aware of her presence in this story. That is, while with her novels her voice reeled me into her stories, here I felt more keenly her ‘hand’. As I was reading I knew that she was the architect behind the words on those pages.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I read this as I did find this to be a thought-provoking short story. Zadie Smith’s introduction adds another dimension to the story and I highly recommend you do not give it a miss.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Blood Feast: The Complete Short Stories of Malika Moustadraf by Malika Moustadraf

Blood Fest collects all of Malika Moustadraf’s short fiction. Set in contemporary-ish Morocco these stories explore fraught gender and family dynamics, highlighting the insidious nature of misogyny. Within these short stories, women are forced to marry men they don’t love, they are abused or mistreated by male relatives and struggle to retain freedom and independence in a patriarchal society. Many of these stories share a rather bleak outlook as they paint a depressingly realistic picture of domestic abuse and sexism. The men populating these stories are angry, confused, and guilty. They lash out against each other and the women around them. The results are not pretty and there are many upsetting scenes. We also read of how women themselves became perpetrators of misogyny, as mothers go on to police their daughters’ bodies, shaming them for the way they behave in a way they don’t/wouldn’t with their sons. There are also some lgbtq+ themes but these are only touched slightly and the author mostly interrogates heteronormative relationships. While I appreciated the issues Moustadraf explores within these narratives I found the stories unsatisfying. They have very choppy endings and are too short, lasting a few pages or so. The characters become devices through which the author can address and or exemplify a certain issue, and they often failed to convince me as ‘real’ people. There isn’t time dedicated to developing them and the stories consequently suffer from this lack. Also, I would like more variety in tone, subject, and style as many of these stories ended up blurring into each other. Still, I would not dissuade others from reading it and although it didn’t really work for me I found certain aspects of these stories to be thoughtprovoking. Additionally, despite its heavy topics this collection makes for a very quick read.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu

Like most other collections of short stories, Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is a bit of a mixed bag. Out of the 12 stories, only 2 really stood out to me while the rest blended together somewhat. The author uses fantastical elements to explore familiar themes and dynamics. I liked her use of magical realism and found that it suited her story’s subject matter. In the second story for example a girl on the cusps of adolescence sprouts wings. There is a story about an insomniac who receives visits from the Sandman. Another one features a haunted doll. Grief, guilt, and mortality are the running motifs in this collection. The author’s use of the absurd permeates her realistic scenarios with a sense of surreality. Her prose was not only compelling but interspersed throughout there were some beautiful descriptions and clever observations. Despite this, I did not find her collection particularly memorable. While I did find the first two stories to be touching and creative, the ones that followed played around with vaguely formulaic concepts that are very much staples of the magical realism genre. Additionally, some of these stories just came across as writing exercises (and they stuck too closely to the ‘how to write a short story’ formula). Still, even if I wasn’t blown away by this collection it was far from an unpleasant read and I will probably check out more by this author.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories by Tiphanie Yanique

“Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.”

How to Escape from a Leper Colony presents readers with a collection of interconnected tales that are a blend between the fantastic and the prosaic. Tiphanie Yanique’s prose is striking: her style carries playful, fabulist almost, undertones that perfectly complement the dreamlike quality of her narratives. This sense of surreality is further intensified by the use of repetition and recurring motifs. The characters populating these stories are often at a crossroads, caught between who they want to be and what others (or themselves) think they should be. The choices they make are not always for the best, and they often experience heartbreak, loss, desire, and shame. Yanique explores familial relationships, in particular the fraught bonds between children and their parents. Religion too plays a role in these stories, but each character has a unique relationship to their faith. Many of the stories revolve around characters who are attempting to find out a place where they belong. Death too is a recurring theme, particularly in those stories centred on a funerary home. While the setting remains unnamed and is only referred to as a Caribbean island (presumably Saint Thomas?), Yanique is still able to evoke a strong sense of place and there are some truly vibrant descriptions of the landscapes surrounding these characters. The dialogues too convey a strong sense of place as Yanique is able to capture different lilts and vernaculars. The only reason why I am not giving this a higher rating is that I believe this is the kind of collection that is meant to be re-read in order to be truly appreciated. I sometimes felt a bit disorientated by the way these stories were interconnected.
My favourite stories were the titular ‘How to Escape from a Leper Colony’ and ‘The International Shop of Coffins’. I loved how within these stories Yanique strikes a perfect balance between melancholy and humor. The unresolved nature of these narratives also added to the collections’ overarching magical realist tone.
How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a promising collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Edwidge Danticat and Mia Alvar. I definitely plan on reading more by Yanique!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho

Fiona and Jane is yet another one of my most anticipated 2022 releases that left me wanting. While the author is certainly a decent writer, I found myself dissatisfied by the friendship that was meant to be the core of her book. Their relationship did not feel complex or nuanced, in fact, it did not even come across as particularly credible. More page time is spent on the inane arguments they have with the wishy-washy men they have sexual and or romantic relationships with than their friendship. The majority of the book is all about characters bickering with one another (which i would have not minded as much if said characters had been realistic or if, at least, their bickering had been somewhat entertaining….).

This book follows two Taiwanese American girls Fiona and Jane as they attempt to navigate girlhood and later on adulthood. While the earlier chapters give us a glimpse into their family history, the later ones are more concerned with their dating lives. They either end up dating manipulative men or end up pining for emotionally unavailable guys. While Jane is queer, her sexuality is very much depicted in a way that left a lot to be desired. At first, some of the chapters imply that she’s a lesbian but then it becomes apparent that she’s probably bi, pan, or queer. Nothing wrong there but for the fact that none of the chapters really focus on her same-sex relationships. These are mentioned, or even appear briefly, but they are not given the same weight as the relationships she has with men. Maybe if the men she ends up entangled with came across as fully-developed characters, I wouldn’t feel so frustrated but they did not and in fact, they were very similar to the men Fiona is with. Rather than expanding on a particular moment in their lives, these chapters usually hone in on a series of silly arguments they have either with each other or the men they are with. These arguments did not always come across as believable and they struck me as staged. As Fiona often takes the role of self-victimizing quasi-hysterical woman, I did not feel particularly engaged in the highs and lows of her romantic life. It did not help that her chapters were narrated in the 3rd person while Jane’s in the 1st one. Because of this I felt distanced by Fiona’s chapters in a way that I wasn’t with Jane. That is not to say that Jane was likeable or a good friend. She was merely the less annoying of the two. At the end of the day only one chapter really honed in on their bond, and the rest spend more time recounting the horrible men they end up with. Their bond was by no means intense or fraught, and there was something very lukewarm about their dynamic. We are told that they are, allegedly, friends. But did this friendship really come across in the actual story? Not really. Early on Fiona does something quite unforgivable to Jane and this is never truly addressed by either party.
I would have liked more time spent on exploring their family dynamics and I think their inner lives could have benefited from being more developed too. We see them at dinners or parties having the same mean-ish conversations with their friends (who make cameo appearances), moaning about the men they are (allegedly) deeply drawn to despite the way they treat them and having exceedingly millennial concerns. I disliked certain plotlines, especially the one involving Jane’s guilt over her father’s death. His sexuality and death become her ‘sad backstory’, something to make her character appear deeper than what she truly is. You might argue that the reason why their friendship features so little in their chapters is that in their adult lives away from one another etc etc…but then why, when the two are once again in the proximity of each other, would you dedicate the chapter actually titled ‘Fiona and Jane’ to Jane’s relationship with a traumatized veteran?
I found both of the titular characters to be selfish, ridiculous in the way they paint themselves as the wronged party, boring (they lack drive and seem to have no real passions/interests), and petty. All in all, I found them to be singularly unlikable. The way Fiona and Jane is formatted too made their relationship appear all the more insubstantial. The book consists of self-contained chapters that can be read like short stories. This type of structure can and does work if in the hands of, say, authors such as Zalika Reid-Benta, Sang Young Park, or Patricia Engel, but here this mode didn’t work so well. The halfhearted attempt at nonlinearity felt pointless, especially since, with the exception of the first three chapters/stories, the rest all take place in an ambiguous time and I was never quite sure in what phase of Fiona and Jane’s lives we were. Doubtlessly, the string of dickish men they become involved with made these chapters rather samey. Additionally, with the exception of the first 3 chapters, Fiona and Jane did not have a strong sense of place.
I will say that the author does highlight the stereotypes attached to women with Taiwanese heritage (at one point one of them dates a korean guy who says taiwanese girls are more ‘promiscuous’ than korean ones). And, despite all of my criticisms, towards the structure of the book, the underdeveloped friendship between Fiona and Jane, I did find the first 3 chapters compelling. The first one is narrated by Jane and reminded me of Mariko Tamaki’s Skim. The second one, if memory serves, is about Fiona’s early years in Taiwan and we see how her grandparents try their best to shelter her. The third one is certainly hard-hitting as it shows how in their efforts to be ‘grown up’ Fiona and Jane end up in a potentially dangerous situation, this one made me think of T Kira Madden’s memoir. But the rest? Meh. They brought to mind Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw . While the two belong to different genres, they both feature thinly rendered millennial-ish characters who have stupid arguments with each other. The trajectory of these arguments did not ring true to life. The characters’ responses to the so-called betrayals also struck me as melodramatic and inconsistent. At one point Jane is insulted and enraged at Fiona after the latter asks her whether she’s had an affair with the man she’s currently seeing. She dramatically storms off but then we learn that Jane knew that he was cheating on her and she is the one who is now begging Fiona for her forgiveness. Surely when Fiona first accused her of being the ‘other woman’ Jane, the friend that up to this point had been painted as the more reasonable and forgiving one, would not have either felt a niggling of guilt over the knowledge that Fiona is right about the cheating, just wrong about the other woman’s identity, or understood that her secrecy and complicity over the affair had made her suspect in her friend’s eyes? No. None of this goes through her head. She just becomes rather hysterical and childish, like, How dArE ShE, wE aRe FriENds.
Another thing that annoyed me is how the author depicts queerness. I did not like the avoidance of words such as bi/pan/and queer. These are not bad words. No one is saying that Jane had to talk about her sexuality 24/7 or wear a badge but that when someone calls her a lesbian in front of a guy she’s into, she later ‘reassures’ him by dismissing him, on the lines of, Who? Me? A lesbian? Nah, you know Whatshisface, he’s full of it. As if ‘lesbian’ were an insult of some sort. While she’s confused over what she feels for this guy she has a kind of rebound relationship with a woman who is given very little page time in comparison to her male partners…why?!
It seemed that time that could have been spent on developing Fiona and Jane’s characters, their backstories, their fears/desires etc., is sacrificed in favour of wannabe gritty and realistic scenes involving their time with forgettable assholes.
It makes sense that some of these chapters were originally published separately. The work feels disjointed and directionless, the vapid discussions of the characters were boring and I found the whole book to be deeply lacking in humour. The sex scenes came across as cheesy because they were trying really hard to be edgy and real. The last few lines, where Jane is all like, I will write a book about us or whatnot, was just..unnecessary.
All in all, I did not care for this novel. If you are interested in books that actually explore the themes this book was supposed to, I recommend you check out Kyle Lucia Wu’s Win Me Something. If you liked Fiona and Jane, well, I’m happy that you were able to appreciate it more than I was…so pls don’t @ me.

my rating: ★★½

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The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

This is the first story I read by Zadie Smith that I actually didn’t hate. In fact, one could even say that I quite liked The Embassy of Cambodia. Smith’s adroit storytelling is characterised by a razor-sharp social commentary and a trenchant sense of humor. While I was overall able to appreciate this short story, I still do find Smith’s brand of satire to be a bit too mean for my taste. Her portrayal of her characters sometimes strike me as exaggerated, and she does seem to have a propensity for ridiculing the people who populate her works (regardless of the role they play in their story).

The Embassy of Cambodia follows Fatou, a young woman employed by a wealthy family based in Willesden, London. Unbeknownst to her employers, Fatou swims at the health centre that they are members of (using their membership). On her way to the pool, she walks past the embassy of Cambodia and occasionally catches sight of a shuttlecock going back and forward behind the embassy’s walls. We learn of Fatou’s friendship with Andrew, a fellow immigrant who is working a min. wage job despite his education. Together they talk about politics, history, and Christianity. The two for example discuss the possible reasons why in Europe very few people know, let alone speak of, the Rwandan genocide but seem ‘fixated’ on the Shoah. We also learn of how Fatou’s employers treat her, from their racist comments to the fact that they have her passport (meaning that Fatou is not free). While by the end of the story Fatou’s circumstances change, it isn’t sure whether her new path will lead to happiness or safety.
The Embassy of Cambodia was a quick and relatively engaging read. While it didn’t quite succeed in making me a fan of Smith just yet it did make me want to give the rest of her published works a second chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love by Huma Qureshi

With the exception of the first story, I just did not buy into the stories collected in Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love. These stories struck me as early exercises from a creative writing class. We have a few stories that try to have ‘ambiguous’ endings and a few attempts at using the 2nd pov or having a character address someone as ‘you’. The prose didn’t really match the direction of the stories, and the characters didn’t show much consistency. They all seem to be on the verge of a crisis and tend to overreact to normal family disputes (going so far as to commit matricide). Not only were the characters different shades of unlikeable but they just did not ring true to life. They were caricatures of sorts: the women often painted as hysterical, the husbands distant and unaware, their mothers hyper-critical and unsympathetic. It’s a pity as the author’s prose was far from bad, it just so happens that the characters and scenarios she wrote of, to be brutally honest, left me wanting. At times the author tries to go for this realism reminiscent of authors such as Jhumpa Lahiri, but then we also get stories that try to be creepy or fairytalesque but fall short of being either of those things and when compared to the stories of Shirley Jackson or Helen Oyeyemi, well, they didn’t strike me as particularly original or fantastical.
The relationships explored in these stories were very one-note and ultimately unpleasant. Nearly all of the daughters hated or were reproachful of their mothers, they are married to bland white men who lack critical thinking and seem wholly unaware of their privilege, the daughters/wives themselves are portrayed as hysterical, moody, and spiteful. Additionally, although I read this collection last week, these stories failed to leave their mark on me. I can vaguely remember that a few of the stories take place abroad and include scenes set during awkward dinners or whatnot. That’s about it. Ultimately, they just did not leave a long-lasting impression on me as a reader.

I’m sure many others will be able to appreciate them in a way that I was unable to. As things stand I will approach the author’s future work with caution.


my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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