Yes, it’s been a long while since I’ve posted a review. I’m genuinely sorry. I haven’t been able to get much reading done for the blog lately. But I have read this collection of short stories for a blog tour. And it’s not even Canadian! (gasp!)
There are several cool things about Masha’Allah and Other Stories. The main one, aside from the stories, is that it’s published by Heyday (in CA), “an independent, non-profit publisher and unique cultural institution.” That’s exciting, eh? They promote “widespread awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas,” and state, “Through our well-crafted books, public events, and innovative outreach programs, we are building a vibrant community of readers, writers, and thinkers.”
I think it’s amazing. They have over a page of major supporters who’ve provided funding for their publications and programs, and another page for those who support their James D. Houston Award, of which Mariah K. Young is the first recipient.
It’s not Young’s first award, though, and it’s easy to see why. The nine stories in Masha’Allah are well-written and well-crafted; they are compassionate and astute portrayals of cultural diversity, glimpses of lower-middle-class citizens in East Oakland who are working hard in their own ways to overcome their limitations and achieve their goals.
The collection begins with a two-page story called “Mr. Felix,” in which a young kid and his neighbours stand on the curb and watch the funeral procession of a well-known criminal pass by. Even in two pages, what little is narrated is so telling that one has a strong sense of the tightly-knit neighbourhood, their culture, a time in the past, and of what might be the future for the narrator (you hope not), as seen only in a subtle choice.
At first, and as many stories can, “Mr. Felix” leaves you with an abruptness that makes you question the point, or the brevity, but like many short stories, when you give it some time, you can hear what else its saying. While I do think it works as is, then, I still feel this particular story is only a taste of what could have been a longer one—yet thinking on this further, the fact that we come upon this scene and this scene only here makes me waver: perhaps it’s precisely this snapshot and how it’s cropped that makes this story more effective. And we are, I think, awarded a further look into the neighbourhood’s characters in another story, called “Studies in Entropic Beauty.” It too is strong, but even with its length it didn’t stick out for me as much as the first story.
In “Litters,” which takes place in rural Patterson, not far from Oakland, Della Marino learns the true story behind her cousin’s abrupt leaving and rebels against her mother’s practice of unethical dog breeding. This story is all powerful imagery, and we have as much sense of the characters and setting as we might in a novel. I could sense something, perhaps emotion, underlying the writing, something betrayed only by the sharpness of the details, and that might have stemmed from the author’s own observations or imaginings of low-class dog breeding for money, perhaps also her own feelings towards dogs. But I could also sense a writer’s licence and daring to make not only herself but also the reader uncomfortable. This didn’t feel at all forced. And it’s true, I found this story difficult, tense, to read because it’s so effective. It is thus one of my favourites.
In the title story, a tautly-written and fast-paced piece, a young woman dreams of becoming an Arabic translator, while her uncle experiences a stereotypical fare: a pregnant woman suddenly about to give birth in his car. And this is not the only common situation in this collection, but what Young manages with her writing is to remove the triteness and weave around these real-life occurrences the meanings that can be found in them. This story, like the others, explores not only culture but class: the uncle’s fare is a wealthy woman who screams in protest when he wants to take her to the closest hospital: “Don’t you dare take me to Highland! I’m not giving birth next to some junkie in the waiting room!”
We also find out that Masha’Allah means “What God wills” (or “God has willed it”). In an interview, Young said,
All of the stories revolve around work, and all of my characters, regardless of where they come from or who they are, are all bound by the sense of what they think they can do with the opportunities before them. Sometimes they accept their fate, sometimes they resist it, but they all make choices to try and push for something better for themselves, their families, their futures. All of the stories are about labor and love, but they are ultimately about how people negotiate their options in life, and how they both make do and press for more. I felt the phrase “Masha’allah” summed up that sense of both acquiescing to a higher power, but also working around it or against it in the hopes of something better.
“One Space,” another of my favourite stories, is narrated in second person, an usual point of view we’re yet seeing more of these days, and though it can be a difficult form, Young succeeds in fitting us in the shoes of a young man from Poza Rica, an illegal labourer who competes for odd jobs so he can send money home. He lives with other workers in undesirable conditions, and his life revolves entirely around the goal of finding enough work each day to survive as well as save for his family. Cracks are beginning to show in his resolve as he tires, and are tested one evening when his wife doesn’t answer the phone back home even though the call has been planned.
I marvelled at this story, at the masculinity of it, both in character and in mood, portrayed so aptly by a woman who has likely never experienced such a life yet could relay it so vividly as to make us empathize and understand. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition to a rather “feminine” story called, “Chinta’s Fabulous Traveling Salon,” definitely another favourite. A hairdresser who dreams of having her own salon has a second job cleaning houses for her real estate agent sister before their showings. What her sister doesn’t know is that after Chinta cleans the houses, she uses them as her secret salon: “she put the word out to her compadres and the handful of people who have become her regulars: she’ll be in the lower Fifties today doing a house, and if they need a cut, she’ll be free in the afternoon. Chinta’s Fabulous Traveling Salon is open at the brown house on Fifty-third Street, this afternoon only.”
This story is a fun one, the air charged with danger as Chinta’s friends enter the house that’s for sale and she proceeds to cut and style, hoping to finish before her sister arrives. The dialogue is light, the vernacular humorous.
“Where you at today?” David says. Chinta can hear the clicking sounds of office work in the background. “You doing the thing?”
“You know it.” Chinta turns off the vacuum and lets it slide out away from her before pulling it back into place. “I’m at the corner of Fifty-third Street off International. Come through around six.”
“That don’t work for me, girl,” he says.
“I guess you outta luck,” she retorts. “And some bootsy barber can mess you up again.”
David does that nasally chuckle—quiet in the office. “Fine. I’ll gun it back to the town when I get out. You better touch my fade up right.”
She smiles. “Come through and I got you,” she says.
What is best about this story, though, is the sparkle in Chinta’s demeanour as she does what she truly loves, cutting and styling, bantering back and forth with clients, raking in the tips. Chinta is a character who, unlike the protagonist in “One Space,” is going to emerge from obstacles unbroken.
In each piece the focus is a person’s occupation, what they do and how it affects not only them but others. The labourer working for his family and to survive in the city; the girl who vows not to work any longer with her dog-breeding mother; the kid whose main obstacle in navigating life is his hard-to-pronounce last name; Chinta with her haircutting; the chauffeur and his niece aspiring to be a translator. It was Chinta I related to most as a freelance editor, and it was her dream, her creating her own options rather than letting herself be limited, the joy she had doing work she loved and making clients happy, that made me reflect on my own occupation, how I fortunately, contentedly, finally spend my days at home. I thought about what I’ve done to get here, what my work means to me (much happiness and satisfaction), and what it means to others (relief, confidence, also satisfaction). We may not be what we do, but it does take up such a huge part of our lives.
What really makes these nine stories, though, even more than their interesting cultural diversity and storylines and their well-rounded characters, is their clarity, their truth. What I noticed most about each piece was the odd sensation that I was familiar with what I was reading, the cultures, the people, the way they spoke, the city, their experiences of driving a cab, learning Arabic (I even recognized some words and knew their meanings, since Arabic is quite close to Maltese), standing with others who are competing with you for labour, growing weed—things I’ve never before come close to experiencing first-hand. This is what happens when a writer “storifies” what’s in front of her. When the leap from reality to her imagination, to her craft, and ultimately to us, is not at all far.
Special thanks to Natalie at juliadrakepr.com for sending me Mariah’s book and asking me to be part of her blog tour.