2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Giramondo Publishing, Literary prizes, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Yumna Kassab

‘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.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Joanne Ramos, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Farm’ by Joanne Ramos

Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury; 336 pages; 2019.

I had no intention of reading Joanne Ramos’s debut novel The Farm, but then I joined a book group here in Fremantle, my new adopted city, and this was their June selection. We had a mighty fine discussion about it on Saturday.

Admittedly, with so much else going on in my life — flat hunting, job hunting, buying furniture, opening a bank account, sorting out an Australian mobile number and so on — my mind has felt too overloaded to read lately. I simply haven’t had the focus and within about 50 pages of this book I considered abandoning it. But, of course, that would mean not being able to go to the book group and, because I was keen to meet some bookish locals, I persevered. The effort was worth it.

The Farm is a dystopian story that’s set just a little in the future. It’s about a powerful American company that has outsourced pregnancy by offering women too busy, too infertile or too old to have children the chance to buy a baby via a surrogate. The surrogates, known as Hosts, are hand-picked and then housed in a secure facility — Golden Oaks, aka “the farm” — where they receive the very best medical attention, albeit with strict limits on their personal freedom and little to no contact with the outside world.

Upon safe delivery of a baby to their Client (who is usually anonymous), the Host receives a substantial sum of money. Consequently, most of the Hosts come from poor ethnic minority backgrounds and the majority are immigrants, mainly from the Philippines.

A female-centric story

The entire story is seen through the eyes of women (indeed, men are barely mentioned in this book) and each of the four main characters takes it in turn, in alternate chapters, to tell their version of events. These are:

  • Jane, the young Filipino woman seeking a better life by becoming a Host;
  • Ate, a 67-year-old Filipino woman working as a nanny to support her family, including a disabled son back home, who is secretly choosing women and putting them forward as potential Hosts;
  • Mae, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, who is the powerful and driven executive from the company that runs Golden Oaks; and
  • Reagan, an intelligent white American graduate, who’s decided to become a Host to make enough money to be independent from her father.

Through these wildly different characters Ramos is able to explore different perspectives on surrogacy (though we don’t hear the Client’s perspective except through the lens of the company representing them), babies and motherhood.

In this dystopian world she gives us a glimpse of what life would be like if babies became commodities and poor women were reduced to renting out their wombs for profit. She shows how economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots not only puts pressure on poor women to do things they would otherwise not need to do but gives rich women the false illusion that money can buy them happiness. And she shines an important spotlight on the immigrant underclass who are often trapped by circumstances beyond their control.

As one member of my book group said, The Farm is like a reimagining of  Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in a capitalistic free market economy. I think that summation is pretty good.

Slow start but becomes a page turner

Style-wise the prose is relatively “flat” but the story moves along at a clip — once you get past the first 60 or so pages — and becomes something of a page turner.

It’s suspenseful and thought-provoking, but it’s also got a vein of dark humour running throughout it. Sadly, I thought the ending a bit weak, particularly as you don’t necessarily find out what happens to all the characters.

But as a novel of ideas — and of talking points for book groups! — this is a superb piece of general fiction with lots to say about race, class and inequality.

& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Mexico, Publisher, Setting, USA, Yuri Herrera

‘Signs Preceding the End of the World’ by Yuri Herrera

Signs-preceding-the-end-of-the-world

Fiction – paperback; & Other Stories; 114 pages; 2015. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

At a time when the world seems increasingly more divided between people who are free to travel around the world, seemingly on a whim, and those who cannot, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World is a timely story about illegal border crossings and people smuggling.

This short, sharp and occasionally violent novella focuses on Makina, a young Mexican woman, who crosses the border between Mexico and the United States in search of her brother, who had gone there to “settle some business” for an underworld figure. She carries two messages with her — one from her mother, and one from Mr Aitch (presumably some kind of crime boss) — but her journey is not straightforward.

Along the way she must fight off lust-filled young men (the way she deals with them is quite extraordinary) and gun-toting policemen who patrol the border. But that’s only half her problem: the other half is trying to find her sibling in an unfamiliar country based on sketchy details and few resources — she has no money, no change of clothing, nowhere to stay.

She asked the way to the city and they told her Over there (finger pointing to where the sun comes up).
She asked farther on for the way to the suburb and they told her There’s four with that name, but maybe she wanted the one by the bridge.
She asked farther on for the way to the bridge, but they told her she didn’t want that suburb but the one with the zoo.
She asked farther on for the way to the zoo and they told her it was near the statue of a man in a frock coat.
She asked farther on for the way to the statue of the man in the frock coat and they said Can’t you see, it’s right behind you.
Then she asked for the way to the street written down and they said This is it.
She asked for the way to her brother, perhaps too urgently, and they shrugged.
She asked finally for the way to the promised land and that person looked annoyed before responding.
There was still some light in the sky but it was turning dark, like a giant pool of drying blood.

From the above quote, you can see that much of the prose reads like poetry. It’s very stripped back and to-the-point, but without sacrificing beauty or power (clearly a triumph of translation). It plays with language, too — all the underworld figures, for instance, are named after letters of the alphabet, so that you get Mr Aitch, Mr Double-U and Mr Q, and there are “invented” words, such as “verse”, which means to exit — which the translator explains in a highly readable and intriguing note at the end of the novella.

And while Signs Preceding the End of the World is mainly an adventure tale, this is also the kind of book that has layers of deeper meaning — about immigration, patriotism, the black market, exploitation, prejudice and war. In many ways it would make a terrific companion read with T.C. Boyle’s wonderful novel, The Tortilla Curtain, which examines similar issues. Like that book, it looks at what it is like to be a second-class citizen in (supposedly) the world’s richest country — and it doesn’t pull its punches:

We are to blame for this destruction, we who don’t speak your tongue and don’t know how to keep quiet either. We who didn’t come by boat, who dirty up your doorsteps with our dust, who break your barbed wire. We who came to take your jobs, who dream of wiping your shit, who long to work all hours. We who fill your shiny clean streets with the smell of food, who brought you violence you’d never known, who deliver your dope, who deserve to be chained by neck and feet. We who are happy to die for you, what else could we do? We, the ones who are waiting for who knows what. We, the dark, the short, the greasy, the shifty, the fat, the anaemic. We the barbarians.

The story is also ripe with metaphors — the underworld is a constant refrain; the story begins with a sinkhole opening up and ends with a visit to a tunnel — and could be read as an allegory. But for me, it was just a wonderfully rich and tension-filled read.

I also loved the muscularity of the prose. I loved its feisty, determined protagonist. And I loved its themes — epic, biblical, universal — about journeys and belonging and culture. Yet it’s not an easy book to like: it’s confronting, sometimes brutal, often sad and constantly unsettling.

You can find other excellent reviews of Signs Preceding the End of the World at The Guardian and Bookslut.

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, India, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Sudha Murty, USA

‘Dollar Bahu’ by Sudha Murty

Dollar-Bahu

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 142 pages; 2007.

Sudha Murty’s Dollar Bahu is a rather sweet, if overly moralistic, novella that explores the age-old notion that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Written in basic, simplified prose, it reads very much like a fable about what happens if you value money above all else.

An Indian way of life

It tells the story of a middle-class Indian family: Shamanna and Gouramma and their (spoilt) daughter, Surabhi, and two sons, Chandru, a software engineer, and Girish, a bank clerk.

When the company that Chandru works for posts him to the United States on a two-year secondment, all the family’s dreams, it appears, have been answered. Not only will Chandru be able to send money home that can be used to add an upper storey extension to their modest house and finance Surabhi’s marriage, it will also elevate Gouramma’s social profile, because having a son in America is something to boast about.

She [Gouramma] would dream about the Dollar, that magic green currency, which could change her house and fulfil her dreams. It was the Dollar, not Indian rupees, which could elevate her into the elite circle at social gatherings and marriage halls. The Dollar was like the Goddess Lakshmi, with a magic wand.

While Chandru is in America, Girish marries a teacher, Vinuta, whose dreams to become a singer have been thwarted by lack of opportunity and finances (she was orphaned as a young girl). As tradition dictates, the couple lives with Girish’s parents. Vinuta, keen to make a good impression, works tirelessly to keep the family home in order, but she is soon taken advantage of by her mother-in-law. She’s ground down by a heavy workload, treated badly and never spoken to warmly.

Yet when Chandru, having secured a green card, returns to India for just three weeks  to marry an Indian girl, his new wife, Jamuna, is feigned over and treated as if she’s a goddess. That’s because she comes from a rich, respectable family, whom the social-climbing Gouramma views favourably. Gouramma adores her new daughter-in-law — the “Dollar bahu” of the title — but the feeling is not mutual. This does not become clear until Gouramma visits Chandru and Jamuna in Florida, many years later, where her eyes are opened up to the ways of the world…

A morality tale about greed

At its heart this is a book that explores greed, prejudice and respect (or lack thereof) for other people. It dissects the differences in values and customs of both America and India, albeit rather simplistically. But this is not a novella that is interested in nuance or shades of grey: it’s completely black and white and as blunt as a spoon.

At its most basic it paints America as a rich but soulless country, where family ties and personal connections are not important; and India as impoverished and slightly backward but where the traditional values of family and marriage are sacrosanct.

Yet the message of the story, neatly summarised by Shamanna (who has never left India), does ring true:

“… nothing is absolute in life. America has a set of advantages and disadvantages. Similarly, India has its own. You cannot have the best of both worlds. If you have a choice, choose a country and accept it with its pluses and minuses and live happily there. Staying in America and dreaming of an Indian way of life, or living in India and expecting an American way of life — both are roads to grief.”

Dollar Bahu is wholly predictable, the characterisation is poor and one-dimensional (the nasty mother-in-law, the greedy daughter, the stuck up daughter-in-law, the wise father and so on)  and a little too reliant on cultural stereotypes to be anything other than a light read. It feels like it’s aimed at uneducated Indians, warning them that America is not the paradise they might expect it to be — or perhaps I’m simply reading too much into it.

Ultimately, I found it quick-moving, easy to read and enjoyable in that frothy I-don’t-want-to-think-too-much-about-it mood that occasionally strikes my reading life. I devoured it on a three-hour round train trip and liked the way it dropped me into an unfamiliar — and colourful — world of fixed marriages, saris and religious festivals…