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Stories of Others

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When I—as the daughter of Syrian immigrants who arrived in Texas in the mid-1950s—read Anis Shivani’s  storiesthe book called up my parents’ desire to acclimate to this new land while staying rooted in their cultural traditions. Anatolia and Other Stories allowed me to revisit the experience of existing “in between” countries and cultures. The book reminded me it is possible to belong to more than one cultural tradition.

Shivani tells readers in “Tehran” it is important not to turn “a blind eye to whatever outrageous violence has occurred the night before.” “Manzanar”—which revisits a Japanese internment camp in California during World War II—is a testament to Shivani’s not turning that blind eye, though more than half a century has passed since the camps were occupied. When his characters in the camp shared stories of what they had left behind, and when some died at Manzanar, never returning to their homes, I was stunned. These Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were “owned”—having lost the freedom to live “normal” lives. Some marched off to Manzanar were not Japanese immigrants, but merely ancestrally connected to Japan.

In “Manzanar,” the character Jim Hosokawa, after being sent to the camp, asks, “How was it we thought we could become fully American, unassailably patriotic American, and get away with the illusion for so long?” Then Hosokawa gives us the answer: “Forty-two years in my case.”

Jim Hosokawa, renowned Issei intellectual and community leader, founder of at least five literary journals for exile-minded Japanese over his lifetime, restrainer of hotheaded Kibei too enamored of the emperor’s charms, one-time manager of the most dignified hotel on the Seattle waterfront, importer of teas and herbs, exporter of machinery, shipper, wholesaler, middleman, broker, insurance maven, and icon of extreme moderation in all things worldly and Olympian; lover of … middle-of-the-road politicians, Mr. Roosevelt’s New Deal before it became old, improbable dances, and peace in the world; and the single most important moderating influence on the Japanese American Citizens League …”

Another Hosokawa line resonates powerfully:

Some profile. Forty-two years of forgetting and not wanting to remember, then suddenly, I’m forced to remember. Old Japan, mist-shrouded Kyoto temples, houses frail as matchboxes, narrow streets that one traversed with the head down … and always a profound silence, which prevented coming to terms with history.

After reading Shivani’s story, it was all I could talk about for days. It did what good fiction should: It triggered response, engagement and, in this case, conversations about how American citizens and resident aliens could be, and still are, arrested without wrongdoing. “Manzanar” boggles the mind—that such camps could have existed under our Bill of Rights. These stories offer what textbook accounts do not—the human component, the reality of personal suffering under the guise of a country’s “safety.” The personal component is showcased, highlighted, made haunting.

In “Dubai,” the first story of this collection, Ram, an undocumented Indian worker in Dubai who continued working despite his lack of documentation, finds that “[s]omething tells him he must leave Dubai before he’s made to.” We see Dubai through visceral descriptions as his story unfolds: “Not even Friday makes Dubai really slow down,” and “Already, well before noon, the most devout among the Emirati worshippers are making their way to the Grand Mosque, their flowing white dishdashas starched and sparkling, their headscarves tightly tied by the black aghal.”

“Gypsy” called up my childhood and its reminders of the immigrant cultures where fathers seek to marry off their daughters to men within their circle. In this story, the Rom (gypsy) father advises the young daughter, “They’ll visit to formally seek your hand.”

“I was thirteen,” the daughter reminds him later.

In my own story, I was 15 or 16 when “callers” came to pursue the daughter of a reputable Syrian-American man. Unlike me, the daughter in “Gypsy” marries; later in life, she finds herself alone, almost relishing the independence she initially craved, but had not been allowed.

A line in the story that spotlights the immigrant spirit of resilience and tenacity struck me. Uncle Vlad (not unlike my father and my uncles who immigrated to the United States from Syria) reminds us, “The Rom will go on until the end of time. We’ll figure out new ways to survive.”

Marian Haddad is an NEH recipient, writer and Pushcart-nominated poet living in San Antonio. Her latest collection of poems is Somewhere between Mexico and a River Called Home (Pecan Grove Press).