Presented here for the first time in English, the cult writer Charles Chahwan—"Lebanon's answer to Charles Bukowski"—tells a tale of rival militiamen euphoric with violence.
Under the gentle afternoon sunlight, Serge’s body appeared limp and more slouched than usual as he rested against the back seat of the shared taxi, a Morris Princess. He was the sole passenger in the service as it made its way down the coastal highway, as if other potential passengers had unconsciously decided to leave him be, perhaps so he could burrow deeper into his solitude. The light streaming in generously through the window descended on top of his broad winter jacket and baggy trousers. That very light shaded a portion of his face and his crooked hand behind the smoke of a half-lit cigarette. His face was covered in deep creases that surrounded his two small, gloomy eyes. He was a young man, not yet thirty, but with the features of an old man. Everything about him—his face, his eyes, his hands, his clothes—seemed worn out, as if whatever was inside him was remote and forgotten long ago. It never occurred to him that the pain he suffered from at night or when he woke up feeling weak was caused by some chronic illness. My body has nothing to do with all that is happening, he would tell himself, the two things are unrelated. The body has no capacity to remember pain. Everything ailing me is rooted within myself. This thought always settled it for him.
Serge bit down on the end of his cigarette and tried to recall what the place he was headed to looked like. What he could summon were scant and hazy details. He fidgeted in his seat, and pulled a large black wallet from his jacket pocket, fishing out a flimsy, cropped photograph. He peered at the photograph for a moment, then took a pair of prescription eyeglasses from his other jacket pocket. He put on the glasses and peered again at the picture like someone gazing and trying to make out a figure far away. In the picture, he could see himself and his friend Francis, scrawny and laughing. They looked like a pair of mummies in the flesh—his friend Francis with his black hair and he with his long wavy hair. They were standing facing the camera with their hands on the balcony railing of Francis's apartment with its view to the harbor. The deep red and blue colors and their smiles re-ignited the spark of a lost simplicity within him, and he could picture once again the same image replicated in other disfigured photographs. He put the picture back in his wallet and peered into the area visible through the front windshield. In the opposite direction, the sun descending below the water created a radiant glimmer that mainly reminded him of the smell of fruit. The taxi turned off the highway and entered the harbor area, continuing its journey toward the shore. He murmured something to the driver to alert him where to let him off. Having lived there for a long time, he knew the area by heart. The taxi stopped at an intersection right next to an old textile factory and he got off. When he stood alone in front of the different roads branching out, he felt a tremendous, incomprehensible sense of warmth. He felt a desire to revisit and reconnect with many places he recognized. This feeling was all he needed before arriving at the house of his friend Francis. He knew full well that all he had to do was to free his emotions and open the door to anything that could put him on a different plane of consciousness. At that moment, what he felt was not that he was reliving old memories but rather as though he were a zombie. He was certain this was the explanation. When he looked out at the small square near Francis’s building, everything he saw appeared to be just as he’d known it. This feeling gave him great reassurance, so he continued moving forward with his head down; there was no need to look, this place was more real inside his head than it was in front of his eyes.
Francis lived on the third floor above the shop of al-Beiruti, the ice cream vendor. Serge had also lived in the same apartment, no. 14, for a long time. He slowly climbed the dirty stairs, stopping now and then in front of the open-air window in the wall facing the staircase to look at the buildings in the near vicinity. Opposite the building there was a small amusement park with its colorful steel rides and a giant elevated Ferris wheel adjacent to a large brick building. He reached the apartment and twice knocked weakly on the door, then looked again to confirm. Yes, this was it—no. 14. He knocked again, this time with more force. When the door suddenly opened, Serge was leaning on the adjoining wall. He gazed straight into Francis’s eyes for more than a minute, without either of them uttering a word.
They were like a pair of pouncing wolves as they embraced. They kept holding each other while shouting each other’s names. When they finally let go of each other, their gazes glowed with tenderness. Francis was the same age as Serge, but his facial features were quite different. He was tall and dark-skinned with pitch-black eyes, and although the rest of his body seemed scrawny, he had prominent, bulging biceps—a young man full of vitality.
At sunset, the two sat down on a couple of straw chairs on the balcony that looked onto the dilapidated swimming pool. They began slowly sipping cups of tea held between their hands, then placing them on the small coffee table between them. They carried on like this for a while. When they had finished their tea, Francis got up and slipped inside. Serge remained on the balcony for quite some time, watching the evening unfold in front of him. When Francis finally came back, he grabbed Serge by the shoulders. Serge wasn’t startled at all, not even bothering to turn around. When it was completely dark, Francis ushered Serge inside, shut the door to the balcony, and they sat inside facing each other. They exchanged words every now and then, but most of the time they grinned broadly each time their eyes met. Later, it began to rain. The rain became unbelievably heavy, to the point that the raindrops obscured most of the balcony’s glass door facing them. It soon became cold and Serge asked Francis to turn on the electric heater. When he did so, Serge took off his shoes and sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. Everything was peaceful. The rain did not stop for quite some time and it made strange sounds on the balcony and on the water between the boats docked nearby. When Serge told his friend that he liked these sounds, Francis's response emanated from the kitchen: “They mean nothing to me.” The apartment had no books, just an empty birdcage. Francis appeared at the kitchen door, and then suddenly flung himself onto the cot in the other corner of the living room. Serge looked over at him and saw his face was as calm as could possibly be, just as he noticed a black revolver below Francis’s pillow, and nothing else.
Neither of them felt like sleeping, and the room had become warm, almost hot. Francis started talking about his old car. At some point, Serge got up to turn on the television but then decided against it. Each one was staring uneasily at the room in a different direction when there was a violent knocking at the door. They glanced at each other; then someone called out Francis’s name. Evidently, Francis recognized the voice. He got up slowly, muttering, “What could this guy want at this hour?” He arrived at the door, and when he opened it, he could not see anyone there (nor could Serge from where he was). Then he heard someone’s voice again call out from the end of the hallway. Annoyed, Francis stepped outside. Before he could see anything or react, bullets riddled his body and sent it flying all over the place as if it were dancing. His body did not land in front of the door; the bullets were like tremendous punches driving it farther and farther away.
Serge watched it all unfold but could not seem to hear anything. Then he suddenly started hearing everything and got as close to the door as he possibly could. The bullets coming out of the barrel of the machine gun flashed like lightning, emitting a thunderous, painful din. The gunshots ceased. He heard men jostling as they all bounded down the stairs. He could also hear them cursing filthily. He took a deep breath and picked up the revolver—the first time he’d ever held one in his hand. He felt certain he was breathing not air but hatred.
The rain outside had stopped. Serge threw on his loose-fitting overcoat and grabbed the revolver from the bed. The overcoat flapped from side to side as he charged into the hallway. With the revolver in his hand, he looked as if he’d come straight off the cover of an old crime novel. He stopped and knelt beside Francis, who was no longer alive. Serge began stroking his forehead, begging him to say something, to at least wake up. Francis’s eyes were wide open but he did not wake up, nor did he speak. Serge picked him up and held him close to his chest. He held him close to his beating heart, then pressed his face to his own and wept profusely. Then he heard the voices of the same men in the street down below. They were yelling like wild animals. He got up and ran down the staircase to a window on the landing. He took a look at the revolver in his hand, then looked at them below. They hovered around their dark-colored military jeep and appeared exactly like cold-blooded killers. The square around them was damp and glistening from the rain. It did not feel right to him, but he knew hesitating was impossible. He fired a round of shots in the killers’ direction and watched as some of them dropped to the pavement. He could hear their bodies hit the damp ground with a thud. The others returned fire, the bullets whizzing past him. When his revolver had run out of bullets, he retreated. The shots fired near the window continued unabated. In his dazed view, the brick houses across the street seemed crooked. That’s how they should be, he thought. He tossed away the revolver and knelt over Francis’s body to kiss him one last time. He could hear them coming up the stairs, screaming with a terrifying savagery. It seemed there was nowhere to escape but the roof. He started to run toward the stairs, then scurried up them until he reached the roof. The rain had begun again. He felt so frail that his body felt like a flimsy sheet of paper.
When the wind passed through his hair, he could feel it had grown slightly longer, as it was brushing against his shoulders. He stopped for a moment to look at the houses, then turned to look at the sea. He could feel both looking back at him, as if they were meant to do so. Then he suddenly found himself before the sloped brick roof of the neighboring building. Down below, he heard them again firing their guns and screaming like wild animals. Serge realized he was barefoot. It was not going to be possible for him to go back for his shoes. He hurried to the building ledge and in a single move jumped to the sloped roof, sprawling across the brick surface as he landed. When he sensed that he was all right and not in danger of falling, he started to carefully crawl along the edge of the sloped brick roof until he reached the iron ladder that led to the courtyard of the house below. He descended the ladder toward the courtyard and jumped over the fence to the neighboring courtyard. He climbed the ladder up to the neighboring house’s roof and then began jumping from one roof to the next. He looked like a white butterfly in the night flitting above a river of blood. When he reached the roof of the last building on the block, he went down its ladder into the building’s courtyard. While standing there, he could make out the sound of the heavy gunfire, which penetrated deep inside his ears with every shot. At that moment, the rainfall became heavier. His overcoat became wet and the moisture seeped through, soaking his body and chilling him to the bone.
Serge spotted a door on the balcony of one of the higher floors. He had no choice but to climb up to it on the building’s ladder. He climbed over the edge, then stepped closer and grabbed the doorknob. It was unlocked. He pushed the door open and went inside. Dripping wet, he continued until he found himself inside a bedroom. In front of him stood a young woman staring at him in the darkness.
“I beg you,” he said, then said in a hushed voice. “They’re going to kill me.”
There wasn’t another sound in that cold room high above the ground. There was complete silence as they stood facing each other in that cold room high above the street. The woman drew closer and gently caressed his face. “Don’t be afraid,” she reassured him.
He stood there as she locked the door. He said he could not see her well. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was able to discern her a little better. He repeated that he was still scared. Only when she switched on the dim lamp near her bed could he properly see her face and body. She was remarkably attractive. She drew near again and ran her fingers through his hair as she gazed into his eyes. “You have a beautiful face,” she murmured.
“You need to take your clothes off,” she continued. “Come here and sit on this chair. I’ll help you.” Serge went and sat down. Her bed seemed comfortable. She helped him remove his clothing, and when he was undressed, she brought a large towel from her wooden closet and wrapped it around his torso. “You’re so skinny,” she remarked as she tightened the towel around him, “but you have a pretty face.” Then she dried his long hair. The weak lightbulb gave off a strange purple light in the dimly lit room, which reflected eerily off her bedsheets.
When she was finished, she took Serge by the arm and led him, still wrapped up in the towel, to her bed. There, she removed the towel and covered him with a warm blanket. The sweet scent of the bedsheets penetrated deeply into his nostrils. His eyes followed her as she walked to the other side of the bed and slipped beneath the sheets until their bodies were touching. She began to run her hands all over his body, which was still cold. When he could feel her warm breath right on his chest, Serge closed his eyes.
© Charles Chahwan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Suneela Mubayi. All rights reserved.
A novel first published in Thailand in 2003 and a collection of short-stories stretching back to the mid-1990s, both now available in English for the first time, show a confident writer at the top of her game, with a distinctive skill to conjure unique personalities on the page.
Five-year-old Kampol Changsamran patiently waits in his village for the return of his father, Wasu. “I’ll be back in a bit,” Wasu had promised hours earlier, and Kampol believed him, yet by nightfall the boy is still alone. Concerned neighbors, well aware that Kampol’s mother also recently abandoned the family, take him in for the night. So begins Duanwad Pimwana’s poignant Bright, originally published in 2003 and now translated into English by Mui Poopoksakul for Two Lines Press. Poopoksakul has also translated Pimwana’s short story collection, Arid Dreams, for Feminist Press, and the two books hit bookstores in the US in April. These small volumes fashion a mini retrospective of sorts for the Thai author’s work, as some stories included in Arid Dreams stretch back to the mid-1990s, when Pimwana first made her appearance on Thailand’s literary scene. Regardless of the periods in which they were composed, all of the narratives now available in English for the first time show a confident writer at the top of her game, evidence of Pimwana’s world-building strengths and her skill at conjuring unique personalities on the page.
Episodic in nature, Bright follows Kampol in his dealings with his neighbors, from Chong, the local grocer who takes the boy under his wing, to Oan, Kampol’s closest friend. In brief chapters, Pimwana guides the reader through the instability that characterizes life in the boy’s village, relaying the actions and habits of her characters primarily in a close third person perspective that hovers around Kampol. This infuses the narration of each adventure recounted in the book with a curiosity similar to that of the child protagonist. The resulting contrast between a child’s point of view and our own perceptions as adult readers can have a comical effect. In the chapter “Pony Express,” for instance, Kampol is the last person to speak with local fisherman Tia before his death. Looking through a window, the boy catches the man in the middle of a sexual encounter, but Pimwana’s narration remains close to Kampol’s own interpretation of the episode:
“[Tia] was up to something that Kampol didn’t understand. He was panting and bumping up and down as if he were on horseback . . . It was very curious the way Tia’s body was moving, it looked like he was riding the merry-go-round at the shrine fair, except on a faster horse and didn’t rotate.”
Tia’s adult daughter later asks the cooks at her father’s funeral about rumblings that the man died while in bed with a woman. The punch line lands thanks to the author’s narration, whose childlike innocence acts as the joke’s straight man, setting the reader up to be knocked flat.
This innocent perspective also provides Pimwana opportunity to emphasize the harrowing consequences of naivety. Throughout the novel, Kampol’s parents make periodic appearances, real and imagined, and each brief reunion fools the boy into trusting his life will return to its past normalcy. In the chapter “A New Home,” Wasu finally returns to the village to take Kampol to a new house, yet Wasu’s latest partner, Mama Lim, greets the child with “the barest of smiles.” This cold reception is enough to clue the reader in on the impending aftermath of the encounter, yet Kampol fails to notice her disappointment and instead acts like an excited boy ready to start anew. It isn’t until Wasu leaves him back at the village, in front of Chong’s market, that Kampol, clutching a toy, realizes his rejection and shifts into melancholy: “[He] watched his father walk off until he disappeared . . . He opened his hand: the blue action figure glinted in the dim light.”
Similarly, in the chapter “The Rice Giveaway,” Kampol breaks free from his friend Oan and the boy’s mother because he sees his parents among the throngs of villagers crowding a shrine’s rice giveaway:
“. . . she was just over there. He got very excited. He yelled for her . . . Kampol tried to push forward in hopes of catching up to his mother but it got him nowhere . . . When he looked behind him another time, he saw his father’s head . . . Kampol yelled to them.” (79)
Again, Pimwana uses Kampol’s curiosity and determination as a driving force in her narration, and in doing so, she removes any sense of doubt from the boy’s observations: Kampol “saw” his father; his mother “was just over there.” Even after the boy watches the final unfamiliar face leave the giveaway, he remains positive he saw his parents, and the narrator refuses to betray Kampol’s hope, creating for the reader an understanding of the boy’s mindset, as well as his crushing disappointment.
Beyond Duanwad Pimwana’s devoted handling of Kampol’s perspective, what makes Bright a pleasure is her careful effort in crafting a world of people for the boy to investigate. Characters like Chong evolve with each episode, growing ever more fond of Kampol, and despite introducing scores of names and faces, there is never a sense that the author skimps on rounding each character into an individual. Pimwana’s use of characterization is superb, and while not everybody is provided a large arc in which to mature, there’s enough here to give Kampol’s environment heft and dimension.
This skillful pattern of character building is also present in Pimwana’s short story collection, Arid Dreams, where the lives of the lower and middle classes are explored across thirteen stories. In each, the author speaks to the shifting social landscape of Thailand, tackling gender and economic disparities, and while not every tale sticks with the reader, the hits far outweigh the misses. The result is a book worth recommending.
In the title story, a vacationing single man becomes uncomfortably enthralled with a beachside masseuse, only to bristle when he learns she also works as a prostitute for non-Thai men. “Kanda’s Eyebrows” revolves around a man, Gleur, disgusted with the way his wife carries herself in public; and “Within These Walls” concerns a woman waiting, somewhat expectantly, for her injured husband to die in the hospital. In these stories, Pimwana keenly works to mold characters who shun the simplicity of a black and white existence. As a result, the reader is left in the uncomfortable position of developing sympathy for Pimwana’s disagreeable protagonists, be it due to the vacationing beachgoer’s initial failure to secure a place to sleep, the reveal of Gleur’s own revolting appearance, or the expectant wife’s surprise when she learns her husband’s injuries aren’t fatal after all. As she rushes to be by his side, praying he doesn’t regain consciousness before her arrival (“A sick person wants somebody to care for him,” she reasons), it’s inevitable to feel compassion for her, if only a sliver.
Yet not all of the protagonists in Arid Dreams tread on the edge of conventional morality. In “The Way of the Moon,” a father and son hike under moonlight and bond around a campfire, while “Sandals” follows a girl and her brother as they contemplate disobeying their parents’ demands. In these stories, the same inquisitiveness that occupies much of Bright returns, and it showcases Piwana’s authorial range throughout her career. Hers is a powerful voice deserving of worldwide attention. Thanks to the superb work of translator Mui Poopoksakul, a whole new audience will now have the opportunity to discover these enticing landscapes filled with troubled, memorable characters.
Speculative fiction is alive and well in Italy, with its Urania Prize for the best Italian science fiction going back to 1989 and a whole host of publishers and gatherings that highlight sf occurring throughout the year. And yet, given the fact that Anglophone sf has dominated world markets during the twentieth century, and that Italian is not as widespread as, say, English or Spanish, Anglophone readers have yet to read much Italian speculative fiction. That is slowly changing, though, thanks to Italian publishers like Francesco Verso, who is making connections to sf communities outside Italy; and Anglophone publishers and translators, who are investing time, print space, and money in the best sf that Italy has to offer. Verso's own cyberpunk novel, Nexhuman, just came out in the US via Apex Publications in 2018, while Clelia Farris, Nicoletta Vallorani, Emanuela Valentini, Dario Tonani, Lorenzo Crescentini, Piero Schiavo Campo, and Samuel Marolla have placed their surrealist fables, hard sf, horror, and postapocalyptic sf in Anglophone anthologies and magazines over the past several years.
Indeed, Italy has been fertile ground for speculative storytelling since Dante, if not before. The Divine Comedy, of course, is a fourteenth-century version of the fantastic journey, where Virgil guides Dante through the circles of Hell. A couple of centuries later, Tommaso Campanella wrote The City of the Sun (1602), one of the world's first modern utopias. Like many Western nations over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Italy was confronted with Enlightenment ideas and changing notions of narrative style and subject matter. Up to and through the early twentieth century, Italian speculative fiction drew from the fantastic and supernatural, but only with the shock and violence of the two world wars, along with the influence of American and British "genre sf," did it start developing what would become fantascienza (coined in 1952).
In fact, many argue that 1952 was the year that "science fiction" (as developed in the US, UK, and France) came to Italy. Urania Magazine, which offered a version of the pulp or dime novels that Americans had gotten hooked on earlier in the century, launched that year. The 1960s witnessed an explosion of speculative fiction by two of the most important authors in Italian and even Western literature: Primo Levi and Italo Calvino. Like Vonnegut and Lem respectively, Levi and Calvino used genre themes like the impact of new technologies and philosophical approaches to understanding the universe to write novels and stories that brought Italian fantascienza to the attention of the world. The 1970s and ’80s saw Italian speculative authors developing generic offshoots like "splatterpunk" and experimenting with generic hybridization. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Italian authors, like their counterparts around the world, started taking advantage of the increasing connectivity offered by the internet. A movement known as "Connettivismo" developed in Italy, combining different disciplines in a more "holistic" approach to speculative fiction.
In the first two decades of this current century, authors like Danilo Arona have published fanta-noir and stories based on folktales; Francesco Verso continues to explore questions of transhumanism via cyberpunk; Samuel Marolla has introduced Italian horror and dark fantasy to many Anglophone readers; and Andrea Atzori and Livio Gambarini have written high fantasy based on their interests in religion, myth, and history. Clelia Farris is putting the island of Sardinia on the map with her unique blend of science fiction and surrealism, while Nicoletta Vallorani has taken on old tales like Bluebeard and added a science-fictional spin.
The microfiction presented here, translated by Sarah Jane Webb, lets readers sample current Italian speculative fiction across several subgenres, distilled into small-yet-powerful image-capsules. Here we find intergalactic markets selling magical eggs, AI technology creating a posthuman labor force, "angels," and self-aware simulations.
Speculative fiction is indeed thriving in Italy, and will continue to do so as long as authors continue using the written word to explore strange, new worlds.
"Italian Speculative Microfiction in Translation: Three Writers" © Rachel Cordasco. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
As we put together this issue on Arabic-language literature from the Sultanate of Oman, a country located on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, our aim was simple: provide a space for underrepresented literary voices. The writing of Omani authors is scarcely circulated in translation, especially when it comes to book-length work, a sterling exception being Jokha Alharthi, who is featured in this issue. Similarly, Omani authors are barely featured in anthologies dedicated to the geopolitical space their country is often subsumed within: the Arabian Gulf. One particularly important anthology of literature from “Modern Arabia” featured but one Omani author in an ensemble of ninety-five.
The task we’ve laid out for ourselves becomes fraught when we consider the presumptuous nature of delimiting a political space through which to typecast these diverse writers. We are certainly aware of the clunky convenience of this kind of methodological nationalism, which renders literary culture legible only within the container of the nation-state. We do not, in fact, expect that any of these authors write first as Omanis and then as novelists or poets.
Perhaps we are making waves where none belong. Perhaps we ought to consider ourselves akin to the medieval anthologists of the classical Arabic tradition who organized their massive compilations geographically, linking littérateurs to their regions of origin, to their patrons’ courts. In which case, our attention, rather, should turn to the exceptional qualities of this issue and the literary merits of these authors who just happen to hail from Oman. While a few of these five authors are international trailblazers in contemporary Omani literature in their own right, we are especially excited to feature several writers whose works have never been translated. Further still, despite the primacy of poetry over prose in Oman, two of the contributions to this issue are novel excerpts that demonstrate the growing popularity of narrative fiction among Omani authors. Regardless of genre, each author exhibits a distinct style, displaying the wide spectrum of Oman’s contemporary literary scene.
And yet, though each author exhibits a distinct style, we hope readers will perceive the common theme of unsettlement across the works. Unsettlement, a lack of centeredness, manifests itself throughout each work as relocation to a foreign country (Alharthi), foreignness within one’s own body (al-Badri), mournful loss of a beloved (al-Saifi, al-Omairi), as well as the self-reflexive displacement of the poet from poem in the act of writing (Allawti). These authors engage with the precariousness of identity, how our settled selves are always under threat from without and within, and in effect subvert their own neat categorization within a national literature.
In a particularly demanding text, Badriya al-Badri’s excerpt from The Shadow of Hermaphroditus portrays the stream of consciousness of its transgender narrator. The reader is pulled deeper and deeper through their personal crisis via kaleidoscopic memories, impulsive observations, and future schemes. While expecting that these recollections of a troubled childhood and the seeming impossibility of living as their true self will ultimately consume Suad, in a veritable sleight of hand, al-Badri places tragedy at another character’s doorstep. Alongside al-Badri’s contribution, and marking the second collaboration between novelist Jokha Alharthi and translator Marilyn Booth, an excerpt from Alharthi’s novel Bitter Orange follows its narrator, an Omani student studying in London, as she grows entangled in the personal dilemmas of her fellow international students. The brief selection touches on issues of class and morality as the narrative weaves in and out of the present to recount the narrator’s family history. The imperative of speech to drive narrative forward is not wasted on the narrator, who seeks to verbalize only what is essential. She finds herself troubled by this, reluctantly explaining her grandmother’s troubled past after a thoughtless remark: “Why don’t words come automatically with threads that we can yank to pull them back inside of ourselves? But there are no threads attached to our words. What’s done is done.” Both narrators, internally and externally unsettled, must navigate the precarious terrains of personal and social identity.
In Aisha al-Saifi’s poem “Like Any Messiah Taken Unaware by Death,” mourning serves as the basis for exploring the polysemy of loss. The loss of one’s father or of one’s country, though recurring referents, are, by al-Saifi’s admission, “too much for poetry.” In her recent book-length poem, Electronic Thorns (2017), Reem Allawati meditates on the poetic process, presenting a self-reflexive poetic voice. Our selection from Electronic Thorns’s untitled second section finds Allawati grasping at the mystery of writing: “My hand is a cage that forgot to lock its door / So speech flew away.” Allawati’s provocative line breaks and dramatic spacing between clusters of verses utilize the page’s negative space to reflect when the poetic voice goes quiet. Lastly, Abdulaziz al-Omairi’s “Repentance” displays a thoughtful engagement with the Classical Arabic poetic tradition. While the poem begins with the poet’s recollection of a departed lover, written outside the classical double-hemistich, though perhaps with a nod to the nasīb (amatory prelude), al-Omairi interpolates metered verse halfway through, signaled by variations of the Arabic root (f-ʿ-l). “Mafāʿilun” and “fāʿilātun” are references to the device in Arabic prosody used for memorizing meter paradigms. Though not in an iconoclastic gesture, al-Omairi abandons meter yet again, allowing himself to embrace his longing for what lies outside the chains of the hemistich.
We have proposed a sense of unsettledness as one way to read the work of the authors here. Lest this unsettledness become just another unsatisfactory category, the writing here ought to remind us of our own responsibility as readers to apprehend this unstable ground not in opposition to our own groundedness but as a reminder of the shifting modes of identification that are common to all experience. In their striking range—of narrative strategies, neoclassical pastiche, and lyricism—these pieces offer, more than mere shifts in literary devices, modes of reconsidering what we think we know, whether about Oman, our own countries, or the uses of literature.
In this speculative fiction piece, there are as many universes as robots' dreams.
There’s still some snow on the path. Last week, this same mountain went suddenly quiet. It was snowing. Just like in fairy tales, she had thought, slowing her pace, beautiful and sad. And so unlike today’s desolation: everything looks naked, cold, inanimate. Her breathing labored, she hurries forward. A mystifying anguish clings to her. Not far now. She turns, glancing toward the valley. Beyond the hills lies the sea, which her eyes impulsively seek. Suddenly she would like to run back—to go home, now. Instead, she pushes on, finally reaching the summit: a pile of white rocks and a cross. She sits on the ground, holding her head in her hands. Her ears are ringing. I’m going mad. No, I’m dying. She looks up. It’s all quiet again. But it’s different this time.
The horror of the world traverses her.
The sky explodes.
She senses that everything is collapsing, inside and out.
In a flash, it’s the end of the world.
There’s still some snow on the path. Last week, this same mountain went suddenly quiet. It was snowing. Just like in fairy tales, she had thought, slowing her pace, beautiful and sad. And so unlike today: everything is bright in the sunshine, and a warm breeze is blowing through the shrubs. Not far now. She turns, glancing toward the valley. Beyond the hills lies the sea, which her eyes impulsively seek. Finally, she reaches the summit: a pile of white rocks, and a cross. She sits on the ground, deactivates the peripheral devices, and logs on to the Main System.
Date: March 9, 2038. Robotic unit 34,573. No humans found.
It’s almost spring.
There’s still some snow on the path. Last week, this same mountain went suddenly quiet. It was snowing. Just like in fairy tales, she had thought, slowing her pace, beautiful and sad. And so unlike today: everything is bright in the sunshine, and a warm breeze is blowing through the shrubs. Not far now. She turns, glancing toward the valley. Beyond the hills lies the sea, which her eyes inevitably seek.
Then something throws her out. When she opens her eyes, the unbearable squalor assails her: the naked walls, the stench of cigarette butts—his voice: “Enough of this shit.”
He has disconnected her.
In a cruel flash she remembers the two of them. The beginning, and the end.
“Leave me alone!” she cries. Then, more softly, “Put me back inside. Please.”
He still loves her, so he complies. He runs the simulation all over again.
There’s still some snow on the path. Last week, this same mountain went suddenly quiet.
There’s still some snow on the path. Last week, this same mountain went suddenly quiet. It was snowing. In the valley beyond the hills, the sea. On the summit, a pile of white rocks, and a cross.
The writer pauses. She interrupts the flow of words, glancing through the half-open window to the small garden in full bloom. She closes her eyes for a moment, listening: a motionless silence descends on the afternoon, shaking it.
Her hand resting on her lips, deepening the silence, she awaits the birth. A slight dizziness traverses her.
In the initial lines, there’s nothing but a place in her mind. A memory, if anything. Yet something, there, is generating realities: the end of the world; a robot looking at the sea from a hilltop; or desperate love. What she decides, she scatters in the air by the handful, like seeds.
And what she creates becomes stories. One for each universe—timeless, as in dreams.
© Simonetta Olivo. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2019 by Sarah Jane Webb. All rights reserved.
After her father’s sudden death, the poet tirelessly seeks to reckon with what is gone.
Like any Messiah taken unaware by death
I saw my father he was nodding to the palms, surrendered
To his sweet sad songs, was greeting
Happily the doves which settled on his shoulder
Alone no shadow to soften his loneliness
Alone the clouds were praying to him
And I was calling Father! Death is colder than a cup of water on my body, and
Fonder to me than sand
Father the water surrounds me with longing and there is no time to shame the night
With light, and melancholy with memories
My father, answering
What is gone is gone
Prepare your exiles for the hard years, turn absence
Into silver ribbons through your hair
Push your hands into the pockets of your shirt
Out comes your country
Brimming ashes, fragment-crammed
Father the directions have exhausted me
My father, saying
What is gone is gone
Distance has left me limp, father
Hunger is complete with me
And I am full with all the countries that threw me
A babe into the river
This longing is no great thing to me
Earth switched on me, the skies
Are not the skies
No light to guard me for distance betrays
No wind to bear me for the clouds they age
Between my shadow and me / the butterflies
Enchanted by the poems and the songs
My father, saying
What is gone is gone
Neither will the butterflies restore childhood to the water
Nor mother tongue loan you its ABC names
Nor dream pack your soul with clouds Nor poetry, nor hopes
Like any Messiah taken unaware by death My father
It was not a dream I saw, it was
Reading the secret of drought on the palms
It was too much for poetry but no great thing to death
I was calling to him: Father of wind
Father of water
Father of night
Father of hunger
Father of death
Father of death
Father of death
Surrendered to his sad yearning songs
Greeting the doves
Which settled on his shoulders
Like any Messiah taken unaware by death
My father, saying
Be not afraid. Of mortal flesh is Man
Of mortal flesh is every son
What is gone is gone
"كأي مسيح يداهمه الموت سهواً" © Aisha al-Saifi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Robin Moger. All rights reserved.
When Genie wakes up after six years in a coma, she finds a disturbing new addition to the family.
Listen to Francesco Verso read "AIwakening and AIdolon" in the original Italian.
Mark is the first person I see, after so long.
“She’s awake. Come over here.”
It must be Easter because, apart from some flowers, he’s holding an Easter egg.
“Hello darling, what year is it?”
“Hello, Genie, it’s 2028.”
“Oh, so it’s been . . .”
I lower my gaze but can’t see my daughter.
“Where is she? Paula must be . . .”
“Eleven!” says a high-pitched voice on the other side of my bed.
I hardly recognize her: she’s a young woman now, with long hair and earrings.
“Give me a kiss.”
She freezes, then turns toward someone behind her.
“May I, Mom?”
A woman smiles and nods.
“Mom? What’s all this about?”
“Hey, don’t get worked up,” says Mark. He unwraps the egg and hands it to me.
My heart speeds up. “Why, should I?”
“Well . . . we didn’t know if and when you’d wake up . . . ”
“You do now. Who is she?”
“Paula was very upset after your accident. She refused to go to school, wouldn’t eat.”
I take my daughter’s hand.
“I’m sorry. All I remember is a car without a driver. Are you OK now, love?”
She nods. Mark sits on my bed.
“Who is she?” I ask again.
“I bought a loss-management service. She’s you, with an artificial body.”
“She has your personality, replicated by brain scan: an AI that has relived your every experience and now emulates you.”
“It was intended as a temporary therapy, to help Paula get over the shock . . . but six years have gone by.”
I cover my mouth, stifle a cry, and force myself to think.
“If she’s temporary, can she be turned off?”
Paula turns around, alarmed. The other Genie frowns, analyzing the data.
“But Paula has spent more time with her than with you.”
“You’d be killing her mother again.”
“Would you rather send me back into a coma?”
“I didn’t say that.”
The egg is melting in my hand, making my fingers sticky. I taste it. “Delicious, thanks.”
Paula takes a piece of chocolate, and so do Mark and the other Genie.
“Couldn’t we all live together?” asks Paula.
I put the little box with the surprise on my bedside table.
No one feels like opening it.
I stumble out of the car, aching. The AIdolon is there: suit, stilettos, seductive as my brush with death just now. She’s not here for me.
Panoptic eyes scan the streets, deploying her in case of accidents.
Mario is dead. Alcohol-filled veins. Spoiled birthday party. A bloody Friday, at least for us humans.
“Instant death. He’ll be buried or cremated, depending on his will.”
I doubt Mario made a will. His virtual medical records, which he flaunted whenever we drank together, said he would live to be ninety-four.
“Leave us alone.” I unbuckle his belt and lift him off the car seat.
“You can’t speak for him.”
They collect corpses. Their presence on the roads is proportional to the carelessness of drivers.
“I'm his friend . . .” I can’t hold back the tears.
“We understand you need time to grieve. Did Mario have any relatives?”
A mere microchip turns a corpse into an AIdolon. They’ve taken care of the medical expenses ever since “posthumous” became synonymous with “posthuman.”
I snatch Mario from her clutches. “Fuck you. My friend will never work in an App-Lab, nor will he ever be a Posthuman Resource Manager or a Crypto-Financial Analyst.”
“Are you a corpse-snatcher?”
I ignore her. Volunteers from religious organizations also patrol the streets to reassemble corpses and officiate death rituals, so that souls may leave in peace.
I drag Mario along the sidewalk.
“We can compensate you for your loss. A thousand bitcoins per kg.”
“If you’re so keen to replace us, why don’t you clone yourselves and avoid the hassle?”
“We’re not a metastasis. We believe in biodiversity . . . more than you do.”
The display at the intersection spells out their strength.
1.3 MILLION A YEAR DIE IN CAR ACCIDENTS AROUND THE WORLD.
SAFE DRIVING ASSOCIATION
Brakes screech, there’s a crash: my skin crawls.
©Francesco Verso. By arrangement with the author. “AIwakening” translation copyright 2019 by Sarah Jane Webb. “AIdolon” translation ©Sarah Jane Webb and Francesco Verso. All rights reserved.
In this poem, the speaker meditates on the soul's journey through eternity after death.
The soul departing from trees of speech
Does not want to ascend
Nor to be buried;
It wants to finish reading.
My heart is a stone that stumbled in the dirt and broke apart
O the mud of the storm,
heavy, it drags my soul
From one tavern to another
My hand is a cage that forgot to lock its door
So speech flew away
I am made of music
That departs on an evening jaunt
To the garden of the unknown
Wherever my sorrow comes to preside
Mud is my door
Outside the blathering cemetery
a lone word was lost
And began to limp
My garden throne was forlorn;
peopled with memories
a garden filled with thrones
The signal was green
We crossed the road to eternity
In familiar forms of transportation
In the furor of death
A new tree sprouted
In fine script
Its scent is like infirmity,
It was as it must be
I was as I must be
But we did not agree
In a hefty handbag
I abandoned my superstition.
The soul travels, rising, falling
From an expensive handbag
Out leaks my mud
Who can direct me toward mud that resembles my dust.
"Electronic Thorns" © Reem Allawati. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Ghayde Ghraowi. All rights reserved.
Wistfulness meets indignation in Abdulaziz al-Omairi’s poetic meditation on abandonment and forgiveness.
You did not know
that every time Fairuz sings to the dawn on my way toward hurt
you emerge from the melody
to reset sorrow ablaze
only to depart like the years gone by
taking my joy with you.
I waved my hand like a child
whose mother vanished out of sight
his feet rooted beneath the doorway forgetting
his waving arm to the wind.
His desert days turned to shriveled years . . . he was lost.
Beneath sorrow’s shade he gazed upon you
with hands raised to the stars.
You never returned.
He continued to study you, with drowsy eyes . . . but you never returned.
He drifted from madness to guilt
and finally, to numbness
to go on to on to . . .
He remembered nothing but your face
dawning in his eyes each time he fell asleep.
There you are in a Matrah night
crossing memory between the crowds.
Tell me . . .
Who was it that cast you down my back alleys, a dream and a dove?
Believe me, you know
nothing has changed
since you left this dream to the mercy of years. Do not go!
The Matrah night asks the night about you.
Pain strums for you the tune of mafaʿilun:
On the outskirts of longing, remembering
the land of desire, barren
I stood breathing in the dearth,
humming the last of my melodies.
I remained with nothing
but memory’s matchstick, frozen
I stoked within me memory of the years
and all my maladies.
I huddled in sorrow beside the warmth of my wound,
with no other person
alone in solitude’s embrace,
my other half, completing me.
Deprived, knowing only
days betrayed by roses, Mariam,
I turn out the light
to hide my face so none can see.
I agreed to abandon your days
and our dreams, a losing hand.
While the fortune-teller cried
over my cup filled with atrocities
I arrived at your door seeking an embrace,
but your cold eyes had soon spoken.
I dragged my despair in tow
while time wove my funeral tapestries.
May fear be banished
to betray the story and emotion.
When will Loss, the true sinner,
sign off on my apologies?
Do you see what happens when the mind drifts away?
And what becomes of poetry?
A refrain of faʿilatun faʿilat.
You are you.
You leave fear in your wake and depart in silence. If only you knew
how your poet lost his way . . . his friends to blame.
He began to stray the day before his betrayal had begun
in the midst of tragedy nowhere else,
and after I betrayed you . . . I awoke!
My chest began to tighten
as guilt streamed from my eyes.
Between my face and the dark
I would see you
and the rain wash clean our sorrowful streets.
When the world was sorrow I
with a thousand sorrows . . . I remembered you!
Only to face my guilt, alone again,
to choke behind my walls and perish
counting regretful days, coffin by coffin.
Every time I tried to doze off,
resting my head on the remnants of desire,
you would emerge from bygone years
like a scourge of guilt in a moment of clarity. Forgive me . . .
for all the times regret returned to the past
to knock on its door.
"استغفار" © Abdulaziz al-Omairi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Rawad Wehbe. All rights reserved.
In these two microfiction pieces, a woman adopts an egg and a flower awaits a man to tend to her.
Bea returned from the intergalactic market with a smuggled mineral from the depths of the Universe. During the night, she heard a tick-tick-tick. She got up, turned on her bedside lamp and gasped. The light filtered through the rock, revealing its secret life.
Against the light, Bea saw a small winged creature.
“A tiny bird?”
Her budgie had died two days ago. She had cried and cried.
“You aren’t dangerous, are you?”
Inside the egg, the creature turned into a flower.
“You can hear me?!”
A snowflake. Then two, then many.
Moved, Bea held it to her chest. A moment later, a small heart beat inside. Tick-tick-tick.
“An empathetic egg,” said Bea, “what miracle is this?”
She started to cradle it, whispering a lullaby—the one she would have sung to the baby she never had.
Tick-tick-tick, went the egg. Bea lifted it to the light: inside it floated a tiny infant, in every way like a human being, except for its minuscule, as yet featherless, wings.
Esmeralda in Bloom
Esmeralda opens her eyes. The room is empty. She can’t remember how long she has been alone. Her arm itches: it’s the shoot sprouting from her wrist. Esmeralda watches it grow and put out leaves. Now her leg, shoulder and left cheek are itching. Vivid green stems slither out of her; leaves unfold, caressing her skin. The first flower blossoms on her face, the others open everywhere. Esmeralda smiles and shuts her eyes. When she reopens them, she’s no longer alone. She’s lying on her side, across broad knees. He’s back. Patiently, he pulls out weeds and shoots, flowers and leaves, stitches up the tears with a silk thread. Turning her eyes, Esmeralda can see the large needle go in and out, joining flaps of skin, pulling and tightening. On the floor, the flowers and fronds are wilting rapidly. He snips the thread, makes a tight knot, then arranges Esmeralda among the cushions on the usual armchair and leaves the room.
"L'uovo di Bea" and "Esmeralda in fiore" © Emanuela Valentini. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Sarah Jane Webb. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from 2019 Man Booker International finalist Jokha Alharthi's novel Bitter Orange, an Omani student dredges up her grandmother’s troubled past and grows entangled in the personal dilemmas of her fellow international students.
I open my eyes suddenly and see her fingers. One by one I see them, fleshy, wrinkled, the nails rough. A single silver ring; her thumb with its thick, tough black nail, preserving the traces of a bad injury that all but severed it.
I didn’t see that strange fingernail as strange. She always asked me to cut it but the heaviest nail clipper wasn’t strong enough. Every time I tried, she would shake her head. “Khalaas. Forget it—try the knife.” And a small knife really would appear, all of a sudden, from nowhere. I didn’t attempt it, though. I cut the rest of her nails, the ordinary, healthy ones, leaving to her the business of the hard black nail on the thumb deformed by injury.
Waking up to see the snow falling outside my window, I would climb out of the narrow bed in my top-floor room in the university residence hall and stand barefoot on the wooden floor in my long nightgown, staring into the snow and the darkness. And suddenly what I was seeing was not the nighttime landscape but the hard, black, crooked nail. It was right there, plain before my eyes, leaving me wakeful with remorse. I would go back to my narrow bed, and finally the voices of my Chinese classmates in the kitchen would fade away and the loud music from my Nigerian classmate’s room would grow faint, as I tossed and turned in an agony of regret.
I could have done something for the black nail instead of leaving it to grow so long, neglected and askew. It was possible for the word ignore not to exist. But it did. It existed and it grew and it got longer, just like any confident, healthy fingernail, one long enough to leave a scratch or not, like this nail of mine, still bearing the varnish I’d put on for a Pakistani friend’s birthday party the day before. Yes, the word ignore could go on and on—without a nail clipper, without any polish even, and when I felt like I was suffocating, wrapped up in my long nightgown, in my little bed on that snowy night, it was the remorse, the guilt, that choked me. Neglect. Negligence. Looking the other way. Pretending not to notice.
Was there ever a day when I asked her, “What happened to your nail?” Maybe, but if so, I don’t remember what happened. I was collecting the rough slivers cut from the healthy fingernails, ready to toss them out. She wanted me to bury them in the dirt but I ignored that. I pretended not to know that was what she wanted. She’d tug out her white pouch of medications from beneath her outstretched leg and hand it to me. There was nothing there one could read, not really, perhaps a couple of lines of ink on a plastic bag. The white pills twice a day, the pink ones three times a day. What were the pills for? I don’t know. I never asked. There were twenty problems in my math textbook that I had to come up with solutions for: I wasn’t about to start asking about the medicine bottles with hurriedly written lines of ink sprawling across them.
I forget the fingers. I forget the medications. Then, one night—on a good night, when I’m not dealing with insomnia, or grief, or memories—one night, any night, I’ll see her in a dream.
Sitting, the way she always was during those last ten years, her face sweet and all wrinkles, her smile radiating goodness, her arms reaching out for me. When she extends her arms toward me like that, the long, bright-colored tarha draped over her head cascades into dozens of little folds and pleats, and the silver ring on her healthy, straight little finger flashes with light, concealing the afflicted black nail. And then I fall into her embrace.
It would already have been autumn, when I had that dream. The large trees ringing the university residence would have gone yellow and the leaves would have fallen. The caretakers sweep the yellowed leaves from the pavements, and the female students show off how well they are enduring the colder weather by choosing to wear their shortest skirts. But just a moment ago, I was there: before I opened my eyes and autumn plunked itself down in my consciousness. I was in her embrace. I was smelling the scents she’d worn, the extracts, and ancient soil. We were switching roles. I was repeating the words that she’d always said over and over: “Don’t go.” No, we didn’t exchange places exactly, because she was smiling softly, sympathetically. I hadn’t done that back when she was the one saying “Don’t go.”
For I had gone. I went. And it wasn’t possible to change anything. What was written, was written. “All your tears and begging don’t erase a single line of what is written.” I went, and I went without smiling. I just went, in my cocky presumption that I could look the other way. That I didn’t know; that I didn’t need to know. Remorse, harsh regret, making me more fragile than the brittle autumn leaves crumbling under the janitor’s broom beneath my window.
My svelte Pakistani friend’s fingers were perfectly symmetrical and polish never touched the nails. Her name, Sorour, means “happiness” and she was the picture of happiness. With that jet-black hair rippling down her back and her dazzling smile, she reached with her slender fingers, with the precisely clipped nails, to comb through that beautiful hair of hers. Her nails never left a scratch on anything, as if existence itself had stowed her away for safekeeping on a remote ledge, protected from storms and high winds. No scratches, no swellings, no scars. I was always teasing her: “You are made for love, Sorour.” She would laugh. I quoted the ancient Lubna’s beloved Qays:
Love’s signs etch themselves, the youthful body grows thin
Love strips from the lover’s hands the very bones in his fingers
Sorour didn’t like that—“the very bones in his fingers”—and she wasn’t a lover. Her sister was. On her birthday—the day I painted my nails bright red—Sorour’s mind seemed to be elsewhere. For her lover-sister had married her beloved in a secret temporary marriage. No one knew, and Sorour, the little sister, had to conceal that severe secret, a heavy, heavy weight on picture-of-happiness Sorour. Born in her father’s luxurious villa in Karachi, speaking nothing but English all of her carefree life, Sorour was overwhelmed by the secret. She didn’t understand how her sister could have gone from a few silly flirtations to the calamitous business of marriage. And for whom? A boy with only secondary school English he had learned in a remote village somewhere on the mysterious wild borders of Pakistan. His father wasn’t a distinguished banker like hers was, and his peasant mother had never heard of a city called London. But in her final year studying for a medical degree, Sorour’s sister Kuhl found a shaykh who was willing to bind her and her beloved in a mutaa marriage. And Sorour, on her twenty-second birthday, was bearing the secret, dragging it around with her like a mutilated finger with a misshapen black nail.
Her long black hair loose on her shoulders, she sobbed, “Just imagine, Zuhur, imagine! My sister . . . my very own sister, marrying that peasant!” Sorour was prettier than her sister; she resembled their mother who had grown up in London and would probably have become a star of the stage if it hadn’t been for her marriage. Sorour didn’t wear any makeup; her tears were pure, clean drops, not darkened by kohl or tainted by face powder. They were large drops, glistening, and they looked perfect—my tears were thin lines edging down my dirty face—as she rubbed them off with her black-nailed thumb, handing me her walking stick and saying, “Go after them! Give them a good beating will you.” I would pretend to go off, but I would hide in the prayer room at the back of the house, that was in the summer, before the time when she was always having to sit. She was still walking then, every late afternoon, between our house and the orchards, crossing through all of the narrow lanes where we played.
One day, she witnessed a scene that had happened many times before, but without her knowledge of it. Me, sprawled on the ground, and Fattum rolling my face in the dirt, her brother Ulyan yanking at my hair, and tears running uncontrollably in dirty lines down my face. Suddenly she was there: her massive frame, distinctive height, full body, and the walking stick that always supported her came down on Fattum and Ulyan. They scampered away and she followed them but they slipped into their house. So she swung that cane upward and thwacked the wood door, nearly splintering it. When Abu Ulyan opened the door, it was a miracle that he escaped having his eyes gouged out by her cane. “If you don’t punish those kids of yours,” she said, “we will.” And she turned away and marched to the house without so much as a glance at me.
There was some birthday cake still, on the table, and paper cups. Few classmates had shown up: Sorour didn’t serve alcohol. She was studying Arabic through classical texts; and for a while now she had been more at ease reading the medieval scholar al-Tabari than she was reading the newspaper. Reading the scholars’ interpretations of the Qur’an, she’d become convinced that her father was wrong to have served drinks at his boisterous parties, whether at the Karachi villa or in the London flat. I was thinking that we ought to clean the place up, but Sorour just went on moaning about her sister. “He’s a peasant. His mom and dad are illiterate. A farmer.” But he wasn’t a farmer. He was a student pursuing a university degree in medicine, just like her sister.
“My grandmother would’ve given anything to be a peasant.” I said it abruptly. And then I was immediately sorry I’d said it. Sorour raised her head. “Your grandmother?” Right. The words had come out and they couldn’t be put back. And I had said “my grandmother.” Why don’t words come automatically with threads that we can yank to pull them back inside ourselves? But there are no threads attached to our words. What’s done is done.
The Father’s Platter
It all happened during World War I.
Shipping was at a standstill in the Gulf, and goods were hard to come by. The price of a sack of rice shot up to a hundred qirsh—the old Maria Theresa thaler that was Oman’s currency—and a bag of dried dates cost thirty. A woman’s cotton tarha couldn’t be had for less than two whole qirsh. Famine struck. The irrigation canals dried up, the date-palms were dying, and villages emptied as people left, heading either to other parts of the country where life was more affordable or to the east coast of Africa.
She and her brother were born a little after the war in one of these villages staggering under the burden of inflation and drought. Her mother had died of fever only a few years after giving birth to her. That was when people were circulating rumors whose source no one knew, about an English company that had been given oil drilling rights. Her father was a horse trainer, skilled at training and taming race horses for the course. But his new wife had tamed him, and she convinced him that it was best for the two of them, and for their children, to expel the previous two whose mother had died. And so that is what happened. As his son was reaching out his hand for a bit of food from the shared platter, the father slapped his arm, and the precious grains of rice flew from the fingers of the fifteen-year-old boy. His sister, two years younger, started shivering and stopped eating. The father shouted. “Shame! Don’t you feel shame eating at you father’s table? Eat from the hard work of your own arm! He’s not always going to be here for you.”
The boy left, his sister on his arm. They walked out of their father’s home.
She told me this story the day she roughed up Fattum and Ulyan, rescuing me eternally from having my face rubbed in dirt and my hair torn out. Yet I didn’t believe her. I imagined my own father gripping my brother’s hand and then putting my hand in his, and expelling us from the house. It wasn’t possible. Surely such a thing could not possibly happen. But she told the story countless times after that, and every time, one little tear from her one good eye would roll down her face. Not because they’d been kicked out as two orphans but in memory of her brother who had not been able to endure the misery and pain of working as a day laborer building mud-brick houses. He died less than two years after their expulsion.
“Your grandmother?” asked Sorour. “She wanted to become a peasant?”
Yes. It’s not possible to yank words back, there are no threads. “She wanted to own some land,” I responded. “Even just a tiny patch. With date-palms growing on it, even if there were only five or so. And a few little fruit trees—lemon, papaya, banana, bitter orange. She could even plant those herself. She could water them and take care of them. And eat from them. And rest in their shade.”
My friend was silent. She probably didn’t have a clue what I was trying to say. We gathered up the cups and plates and wiped the tables clean. The party had ended. Sorour would go to sleep, suppressing the thought of her sister’s marriage. My grandmother’s dream would remain, wakeful and alive.
She went on dreaming of the tiny plot of land that she would tend, living off its proceeds, until her death. But her dream never came true, nor did any other dreams she had. Even when she climbed into the Bedford lorry that took her from her village to Muscat for an appointment with Thomas, the famous missionary doctor, reviving the fantasy of regaining her sight completely in the one eye that the herbal remedies of the ignorant had obliterated. But Thomas obliterated her dream. He told her that the pain in that eye would go away on its own, but the herbal infusion that had been repeatedly applied had caused permanent loss of sight in it. No surgery that he could perform would bring it back. She had to be satisfied with her one good eye, he said. She would have to make do. So she was satisfied. She made do. She climbed back into the lorry, without a word, and returned to the village.
And I, my sight still misty and blurred in the fog created by her open arms held out to me, forget that she has died. I get up to look for her. I search the corridors between rooms. I can hear my Chinese classmates arguing, and the little screams of my Nigerian neighbor having sex with a Colombian student she’d taken a liking to recently. I find myself wandering barefoot into the ice-cold kitchen. The snow hasn’t stopped. Finally I remember that she is dead, and I stop searching the corridors.
Kuhl tried to convince Sorour to give up her room now and then, so that she could be alone with her husband. He was living in a tiny flat with five other Pakistani students, so it was impossible for her to go there. Kuhl lived with a relative’s family, since their flat literally abutted the college of medicine while the college’s student residence hall was very far away. Even if she tried, she wouldn’t be allowed to apply to live in that residence hall before the end of the term. They’d used up all their funds on cheap B&Bs, and her father the banker was not going to increase the amount he transferred monthly to his two daughters. Sorour said no at first, but finally she gave in, leaving the key for her sister and spending those hours at the university library or trying to study in the garden. In the end, though, she couldn’t abide the thought of it. She confided to me that it made her feel filthy. Their parents weren’t stingy with anything. And here the two of them were, so far away, conspiring behind their parents’ backs. She couldn’t stop thinking about what the two of them were doing in her room. About that hand—that rough peasant hand—on her sister’s soft, smooth throat; his thick lips on her pampered body. This was torture, she said. She couldn’t stand it.
From Narinjah © Jokha Alharithi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Marilyn Booth. All rights reserved.
Badriya al-Badri’s protagonist, Suad, struggles to make a definitive gender transition, but tragedy ultimately strikes at another character’s doorstep.
No one is able to fathom that the issue is nothing more than a congenital defect, in which I had no hand. All my mother and father’s efforts focused on physical treatments. They searched for the hidden femininity within my small body. Then they had to search for a psychological treatment for what I was suffering—that, or discover my true, concealed body from behind that of a girl. Had they done so, I wouldn’t find myself engaged in a horrific war in which I am the sole combatant—the victor and the vanquished. In reality, I’m always the losing side. I've never felt the pleasure of defeating myself even for a day. My body vanquishes me, tramples me, leaves me lifeless. I consider fleeing from it, replacing it, transforming it, subduing it.
What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, as the German writer Goethe said. My only option is some surgical operation to liberate myself from my feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. A single step sure to change the course of my life. This one decision is the definitive line, and, were I to cross it, the past in all its details, regrets, and misgivings would disappear. The decision after which nothing can ever go back to how it was before.
After this, I’ll look for a wife from outside the country, from India for instance. There I can buy a poor woman under legal cover and bring her back with me to conceal my failure. As I’m undressing in front of her, she’ll discover I’m not a man. She won’t hesitate to abandon me, exposing my feeble masculinity. No matter how poor, no woman would accept half a man. She wants a complete man who will reveal her femininity, who’ll approach her with confidence, who won’t waver, hesitant or afraid. It wouldn’t matter if he had one eye, one leg, or even one hand. Ultimately, though, she wants him to be a complete man. There’s no way a woman could understand my situation. I was a woman at one point. I get it.
Maybe Yemen would be a better choice than India. She’d be an Arab woman, like me, which is already enough. We’d have no difficulty understanding each other. She isn’t likely to be demanding, the war having devastated her. She might well accept any trace of a man to escape a war that has snatched her family from her in the blink of an eye. A shadow of a man is safer than a shadow of a battered wall that may collapse and crush her at any moment. A semblance of a man is better than a bomb that explodes by surprise, blowing her to scattered pieces that can’t be put back together. It’s no matter that we exploit people’s needs to satisfy our own demands. When all is said and done, I’m just one more who doesn’t hesitate to do what he wants, following his own desires. There’s always a perpetrator and there’s always a victim.
I sink into myself: is this the man I’m going to be? A man whose only concern is hiding his faults, on the lookout for a woman fleeing a war that’s fed upon her family and left her without a heart. You can still hear its echo each time you’re near her . . . a woman whose garment I use to hide my weakness, my dampered masculinity, my darkest truth, which she’ll discover, no doubt. I won’t pull off concealing it for very long. Some things cannot be hidden.
I’m troubled by these hollow feelings I notice in myself. My search for my lost essence has separated me from humanity, and this frustrates me. Ridding myself of my femininity doesn’t mean I’m no longer a person; becoming a man doesn’t mean I relinquish my principles or ideals. How is it possible for me to think of taking advantage of a weak woman and stripping her of her right to her life, whatever that life is like under the shadow of poverty or war? Even despite the fact that she’d be better off as a result of her exploitation, exchanged as some lusterless commodity that can’t feel a thing, as some lifeless body that grants you no love or joy, that can’t laugh and is no longer able to cry.
If Olivia hadn’t made the worst choice, then perhaps she would have been my ideal woman, she would have been such a comfort to me. If she’d learned of my condition early on then she would be the one to support my thinking about this. But she could see no man in the entire universe except for Nasser, and when he abandoned her, she left behind the world with all its men and women and departed.
Yes, my dear doctor, the matter is entirely in my hands. I am the one who will make the decision. Nothing can force me to go on living beneath Hermaphroditus’s long shadow—one half wearing the other, half a woman leaning on half a man. Half a man hiding behind half a woman, neither completing the other. We continue to live together without either one being effaced. Together, we are capable of nothing but death and annihilation. Where’s the beauty in partition? Bisected between you and you, as though you were your own enemy, the one you attacking the other, one half ridding itself of the other half in order to breathe freely. One half clinging to you like a conjoined twin, except invisible. No one can see it except for you, and no one but you stumbles on its shadow.
The road to Muscat is long. For sixty whole minutes, there’s a perplexed look on her face as she discusses a final solution with me, something you can’t find in a medical textbook or doctor’s recommendations. Three thousand six hundred seconds pecking at my head like an awful little woodpecker determined to bore a tunnel into my head to colonize it.
I try to clear my head. I think about pedestrian bridges, passersby racing back and forth beneath them, the cars mow down a few souls from time to time. Other bridges were set up as road junctions. The most beautiful of these is that suspended roundabout in Barka. More than once, I went there and drove around without bothering to stop and see what life looked like below. I drove my car round and round and round as I laughed mirthfully. Maybe it reminded me of the walls of our village that surrounded me in inexhaustible childish joy.
The streets are still congested despite efforts to widen them. All the people coming and going drive without knowing where they’re actually headed. One minute they think they know their destination, but they can’t be sure they’ll ever reach it or that they won’t have an accident before they get there. Even I don’t know where I’ll end up after this long journey of mine. There is no destination that can fulfill the dream I once had.
I miss my room, the one I rented recently. But it annoys me to come home and find it pulsing with heat. I wish someone would get there before me and turn on the air conditioning, so that when I arrive I’ll find it cool inside. It’s unbearable living alone. But being alone allows you more space for freedom without anyone intruding on your secrets and private affairs. No one asks you what you’re doing, where you’re going, or when you’re coming back. You do what you want to, when you please, without anyone second-guessing your decisions.
I shut my eyes before myself, gathering my scattered pieces. I become reacquainted with myself. I discover the hidden truth beneath the plastic surgery and women’s clothing. Every virtue and principle I was raised to believe in, covering curse words, consequences, curfews, and red lines, what duty demands and what it does not, cannot account for what happened. My thoughts wandered that moment in the hospital when victory was within reach. A pleasant trembling sensation took over my spirit. That night, I didn’t want to trust my feelings. I shook myself free and forgot them. Or tried to forget. Perhaps simply ignored.
I swore to myself that my love for Olivia was rooted in the fact she’d stood beside me. It was nothing but a sense of indebtedness for what she did for me. My jealous feelings for Nasser were only anger at the way he neglected her. How could I have believed that I love a woman? She was not a man and nor was I. How were we to meet on parallel axes when parallel axes don’t intersect? Would physics bend its own laws to validate my feelings?
Why, then, when Hamad drew near to me didn’t I fall for him? Was my refusal because an act like this can’t happen between us or because I truly don’t desire him? What about all the love I carried for him inside me—all the pain that resides in my soul? Is it possible that even at that moment I’d been living a delusion? Did my circumstances and his familiar face push me toward his love?
Hamad’s gaze would follow me wherever I went, and he tried often to embrace me. I’d rebuff his advances and throw him out of my room. What if my hidden desire were uncovered, suddenly aroused like a giant waking from his slumber, defending his right to rest in the shade, fearful of the sun’s caustic rays?
Tossing about in bed, I beg for sleep or a little rest, but my phone prevents it. It’s a text from Olivia:
“My love Suad, I’m at Heathrow Airport on my way to Muscat. Can I maybe stay with you for a couple days?”
As soon as I read those first words, I started to tremble. I didn’t put the phone down until I’d told her that of course she could stay.
I looked around my place. It seemed decent enough to host her. All I had to do was buy a few basic things she might need.
“I don’t want to see him.”
That was the first thing Olivia said when she started speaking. The entire way from the airport to my place, she’d been quiet and distracted. I respected her silence. She handed me some papers that made it clear she was giving up custody of her children.
“I don’t want any reminders of this whole disaster. I just need to forget his face—and quickly.”
What was the right response for a woman like Olivia at a moment like this? Her actions up till then, the things she’d done for me made it clear she was a great woman. I asked her to rethink her decision. I said I’d help her set everything right. All I needed was some time. I begged her to give me some time, to have a little patience. But she refused.
“You judge a man by his deeds. Either he stops her or he persists in his rites of masculinity. A man who abandons his wife once won’t hesitate to do it again. I can’t trust him any longer.”
“And me? Do you trust me?”
“What about you, Suad? You’re a woman, like me. What I said has nothing to do with you.”
“And what if I were a man?”
“Maybe I’d have married you.”
She said this and laughed, as I felt something building inside me.
I took Olivia’s three kids—Muhammad, Ahmad, and Palestine—to the house where Nasser’s family lived. His new wife came to the door. She was nearing the end of her pregnancy. I asked for Nasser, and she called him, annoyance in her voice. I didn’t care that she stayed perched behind the door, eavesdropping to figure out what was going on. I handed the papers to him, and the kids, and then I left. He was no less shocked than his wife, but I didn’t give him time to think of a reaction worthy of the disruption staring him in the face. I wish I had whispered to him before leaving: “Checkmate, my turn.”
When I got back to the car Olivia was drowning in her blood. She was still breathing, but her wounds were deep. The blood on her face hadn’t dried after her struggles to wipe the streaming tears.
I managed to say her name only once. And that was enough, because each time I tried, I choked over the words. They got caught in my throat. I could see her shouting to stop the war. I could see the black and white scarf wrapped around her neck, the way everything ceased to exist when she had a steak before her, her optimism, her desire to relish every moment.
“We don’t have much time. We have to do what we can.”
Today I understand. Death was falling over her head whenever she tried to forget him. He didn’t have to tell her his name. It was enough that he whispered from behind the door: “There’s no time to lose.”
I tried to take her to the hospital, but she refused. I was forced to call emergency services thinking they might be able to arrive before it was too late to save her. She tugged at my clothes.
“Stay with me. I don’t want to die alone.”
I lifted her head and placed it in my lap.
“Don’t be scared. Everything will be OK. You’re not going to die. Help will be here soon.”
A tranquil, wry smile spread across her face.
“Who said I was afraid of dying? I’ve tired of waiting for it. Waiting is all the unfulfilled expectation of the one you love or the things you long for. It’s like hammering a nail into a paper wall. I never felt as weak in my entire life as I did after Nasser left. I was determined, savoring each moment like a piece of caramel-filled candy that melts the moment it touches your lips. But it’s no longer like that since he left.
“We never grow up. We stay young like birds. Life hums along and then one day we’re assailed by abandonment. It breaks our hearts, and then we grow old all at once.
“Suad,” she said, and her expression changed. “It hurts. But the worst is this sadness. I wish he were here now. Will we meet in heaven? Is it big enough for all of us, Muslims and Christians. Or was heaven created to accept some of us and refuse the others? Is it not enough that our hearts believe in love? Love itself is salvation and damnation.
“I feel tired,” she said.
I want to mutiny, to cry a tear that doesn’t flow so far that my hand can catch it. I want a replacement eye and a nose that turns red as a rose and opens every morning to the drops of dew.
How much time passed? How many feet crossed my path on their way to inspect her corpse, to examine the scene? The only one who bothered to acknowledge me wanted to write his report and be finished with it. I couldn’t find anything to say to him. My shock at her death refused expression in any language I knew. Only the ground, covered in her blood that had faded, knew what happened.
Yesterday, when it was raining, I sensed her breaking through the heavy rain clouds. She was cleansing her heart of all of us. And when she finished, she ascended to the edge of her cloud and danced for a while before falling. I extended my hand but failed to reach her. My bedroom ceiling began to drip. The pots and pans lined up to catch her tears were bone dry, but I was nearly drowning.
There are certain mistakes that no one holds you accountable for. Your conscience itself tallies every deplorable one of them. It tears at your heart like a viper, without mercy. It breaks you down until you grow so lowly in your own eyes you can no longer look at yourself. You don’t recognize your own features. You’re no longer you. Sometimes you spit in your face. You hurl words at it. You show it no mercy, and you sure don’t accept it. But then you forget. Or pretend to.
From ظل هيرمافروديتوس © Badriya al-Badri. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Ghayde Ghraowi. All rights reserved.
From sharp-edged social criticism to extravagant and alluring imagery, this collection of short-stories displays the wide range of the genre in contemporary China
When Ken Liu edited and translated his first anthology of Chinese science fiction, Invisible Planets, in 2016, it was the year after Liu Cixin had exploded onto the global scene as the first Chinese national to win the Hugo Award (for The Three Body Problem, which Liu also translated). Hordes of new Anglophone fans were minted overnight, Barack Obama among them. Naturally, they asked for more.
Two and a half years later, Liu is finally answering those fans with a much-awaited new anthology. Longer, more diverse, and more challenging than its predecessor, Broken Stars showcases even more authors and themes than Liu’s first anthology. And it does not disappoint. Mixing fantasy, horror, and supernatural themes with hardcore sci-fi, as well as with Chinese wuxia (martial arts fantasy) and historical references, the stories present alternate realities that refract our own. They are imaginative and expansive, quiet and troubling, dramatic and marvelous, often at the same time.
The wide mix of styles and lengths—from short one-scene episodes to long, epic sagas—is intentional. Inclusion was based on one metric only, as Liu states in his introduction: Liu had to enjoy them. “Whether you’ll like most of the stories in here will thus have a lot to do with how much your taste overlaps with mine,” he writes. For most readers, Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang, two of the most-celebrated Chinese authors writing today, will probably be the most familiar names. Their stories here stand out as short, seemingly straightforward narratives about the unexpected implications of technological advancements and how these affect perennial human conflicts.
In Liu Cixin’s “Moonlight,” a scientist receives a phone call from his future self in a Shanghai that has been destroyed by flooding. He says only his present self can stop the disastrous effects of global warming, and gives him instructions on how to create machines that can combat climate change. But each new machine creates more unforeseen problems, and the present man feels the futility of his actions even as he harbors one burning and rather more personal question about his future self: will he ever find love?
“The New Year Train,” by Hao, tells the story of a high-speed train that gets lost in the space-time continuum during Lunar New Year. On this holiday, millions of Chinese people travel from the cities where they labor to their hometowns, constituting the world’s largest migration. Hao, an economic researcher by day, writes pointedly about the human impacts of demographic growth. Her Hugo-winning short story, “Folding Beijing,” critically portrayed class dynamics in the city and the lengths to which have-nots would go to attain basic equity. The story here probes a more poignant question. The passengers on the vanished train, rather than being eager to arrive at their final destination, urge the conductor to take the longer, more scenic route instead. Asked why this happened, the train’s inventor replies: “. . . when the starting point and the destination are fixed—say, birth and death—why do most people rush toward the end?”
One of sharpest writers on the absurdities of modern China is Chen Qiufan. Born in 1981, Qiufan draws from his professional experience in the marketing departments of technology companies to create incisive portrayals of the digital lives of the masses. The two stories he contributes, “Coming of the Light” and “A History of Future Illnesses,” tackle the terrifying consequences of a populace addicted to their smartphones.
Liu also includes lesser-known authors in his selection, such as Regina Wang and Anna Wu, who turned out to be two of my favorites. In Wang’s “The Brain Box” a grieving man dons a cranial contraption to experience the final thoughts of his beloved before her death. What he learns wrecks him. “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: Laba Porridge,” by Wu, intersperses two narratives: a father-daughter duo that runs an eatery in space and a husband who trades it all to become a famous writer.
Two of the longest stories in the book are set against true events in China’s history. (An understanding that these were highly dramatic, chaotic times is all the context the reader would need to appreciate these tales.) “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear,” by Baoshu, is a sweeping love story set between the 1960s and 2000s. The characters live their lives forward, getting older each year, but time around them moves backward, with the 2008 Beijing Olympics preceding the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. The other story, “The Snow of Jinyang” by Zhang Ran, features a time traveler plopped into the Five Dynasties period in the tenth century.
Liu’s not wrong to anticipate variations in enjoyment based on readers’ tastes and experience with science fiction. For general readers who are not already dedicated fans of the genre, there are bound to be some duds in this mix of sixteen stories. I found some stories too long, too dense, with characters or plots too weird to be understandable. A tale in which North Korea conquers the United States and imprisons the writer J. D. Salinger, coyly suggesting that “The Catcher in the Rye” caused this “bifurcation in time” (How? Why?) fell flat for me, for example. I also couldn’t make sense of the story of a robot who, as if in a feverish fairytale, encounters Death, three shadowy men, a talking cat, and a mendacious king, among other seemingly random colorful details.
The eponymous “Broken Stars” by Tang Fei is an opaque and unsettling story of a high-school girl who dreams of a woman who can read the future in a map of stars. Through these dreams, she discovers the terrifying truth about her mother, long believed dead. At the story’s most decisive moment, two minor characters commit necrophilia and cannibalism, perhaps signifying that the universe is now out-of-whack. But without further exploring their motivations, these monstrous acts shock without context, without providing a satisfying reason for doing so.
While some stories had me scratching my head, Liu’s translation is clean and elegantly sparse throughout. Some stories are filled with alluring imagery. A dreamlike sky is a “crystalline welkin” where patches of color “expanded and percolated.” A restaurant in the universe looked like “a conch shell spinning silently in the void of space.” In other places, however, the crispness of the prose fails to convey depth of emotion. Protagonists “experienced a deep sorrow”; sights “were strange beyond description”; a lifelong love begins: “Qiqi was now my girlfriend.” This is likely due to the writing of the original stories. Science fiction is not often known for its lyrical character work.
Here, as in Invisible Planets, a few essays about the genre make up an appendix. Those in Broken Stars are mainly written by academics, and their mere existence is testament to the genre’s evolution from niche to mainstream culture. A decade or so ago, there were few, if any, scholars who studied sci-fi. So what’s next? the final essay asks. As with all literary movements, it’s impossible to tell.
Ken Liu, the most dedicated translator of Chinese science fiction into English, has been both a proponent and beneficiary of the growth of science fiction writing by Chinese authors. With this new anthology, we’ve been extended another invitation into a space he loves. He’s not the expert, he tells us, and doesn’t know what it will become in the future; he’s just as much of a fan as the rest of us, asking the same questions. But the stories he has compiled here are a celebration of stories themselves. They entertain, instruct, jar, alarm, and propel us to question our reality and the possibilities in it.
Perhaps the robot in Fei Dao’s “The Robot Who Liked to Tell Tall Tales” said it best: “I think tall tales give pleasure simply from the imagination’s leap into the infinite. It’s no different from humanity’s desire to fly. The pleasure alone is reason enough; no other explanation is needed.”