‘The House of Youssef’ by Yumna Kassab

Fiction – paperback; Giramondo; 2019; 275 pages.

What an unexpected treat Yumna Kassab’s The House of Youssef turned out to be.

Shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, this short story collection revolves around Lebanese immigrants living in the western suburbs of Sydney.

It is divided into four parts: the first, Motherland, offers little glimpses into the lives of families making their way in life, some of which are only a page or two long; the second, The House of Youssef, is a series of stories focused on the downfall of one Lebanese family told from multiple points of view; the third, Homing, is a longer 30-page soliloquy of an old man looking back on his 37 years in Australia knowing that he will never return to his homeland; while the final, Darkness, Speak, takes the form of a letter from a Lebanese mother to her Australian-born daughter, sharing her insights into what it is like to bring up a family on the other side of the world.

Recurring themes

There are many recurring themes — mainly the joy and heartaches associated with births, deaths and marriages — throughout the collection, but the overriding focus is on what it is to be an immigrant raising children born in a new country and the challenge of passing on traditions, language, values, religion and culture to the next generation who may never step foot in your homeland.

Many of the stories clearly demonstrate the tensions that arise between the generations when parental expectations — about marriage, education, friendship, work and so on — are not met. There are a lot of stories about both men and women being expected to marry early and produce children, of not bringing shame upon the family, of working hard and earning money to better themselves rather than wasting it on ephemeral things. Everything, it seems, is about saving face.

There’s an emphasis on difference and “Othering”, too, as showcased by a wonderful one-page story, Covered. This is about 16-year-old Amina donning a headscarf for the first time, and the very many varied reactions this evokes — from her relations, her school friends, her teachers, her neighbours — which reveals that such an “issue” is not black and white, cut and dried.

Her uncle said about time. You should have put it on three years back.
Her mother said you will grow up to be a good Muslim woman.
Her schoolteacher thought couldn’t this have waited till she left school? Why do they oppress their women in this way?
Her swim coach said her competitive career was over.
Her neighbour thought her father is a brute of a man. They’re always crying next door.
The mosque girls said the robes don’t make the monk and she’s a total slut anyway.

There’s the issue of terrorism and how this prejudice impacts young Lebanese men in a story entitled 9/11: Before and After. In this short tale, a teenage boy discovers that he is no longer seen as an Australian but a potential terrorist by way of his religion and his dark looks — and this curtails the way he lives his life.

Before 9/11: he had been a bearded young man going to university. He had prospects, he had a future. He prayed five times a day, he fasted, he gave from his small income to the poor, he did not drink or smoke.
Post 9/11: he was a man of Middle Eastern appearance. He wasn’t very religious, he no longer prayed, he no longer fasted, he no longer gave to the poor. It was easier this way, safer. He worked, paid his taxes, he ventured no opinion, online or in person. He kept to his family and his friends. He went to places he would not stand out. His imprint on the world was minimal.

Some of the stories are startling in their emotional impact, the anger, the sadness, the melancholy they evoke. One story, Births, Deaths, Marriages, has a stunner of an opening line:

The day he killed his wife, Mohamed goes to visit his cousin.

Other stories have remarkable passages about displacement and what it means to belong.

What is a home? Is it a house? Is it a place? Is it where you are born? Is it where you will be buried? I have spent more of my life here than there but this land is not known to me. It is strange. It does not enter my dreams. Its people are different to me. My children understand them but I do not. They tell me it is my country too but it is not enough to be told you belong somewhere.

Sparse prose

As you might be able to tell from all the passages I have quoted here, the stories in The House of Youssef are written in distinctive, economical prose, with nary an adjective to be seen, but the rhythm and cadence of the sentences and the carefully chosen words give Kassab’s work a strangely beguiling power. I felt myself in thrall to the beauty of her writing and the emotional intensity of the stories.

This is a remarkable first book. I’d love to see her pen a novel next. I would be the first in the queue to buy it!

This is my 2nd book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 14th for #AWW2020.

12 thoughts on “‘The House of Youssef’ by Yumna Kassab

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