It’s not all “Reader, I married him” but plenty of contemporary novels are preoccupied by the idea of storytelling, and often one voice does speak to us directly even now.
In Tabish Khair’s Just Another Jihadi Jane, the storyteller’s direct address appears regularly and spiritedly.
“Yes, well, if you insist, I shall take another cup of coffee. Did I tell you that despite all the Islamic sisterhood on display in Hejjiye’s orphanage, we were divided into groups that bickered over how to brew our coffee and tea? We never agreed on just one way to make it.”
The story begins when the girls are young, with recollections of their meeting, which each girl remembers differently; dissent figures from the start.
The novel is rooted solidly in women’s experiences. The direct address is to a male listener, however. (The novelist, another storyteller.)
“Even you observed me on the sly. No, don’t get flustered. There is probably nothing wrong with noticing a woman. Who knows? I guess it depends on what is in the man’s heart. I did not point this out to accuse you; I just wanted you to know that I know. I know that men notice me.”
This adds a playful note to a novel which is preoccupied with more serious themes, including the nature and extent of fanaticism. (This is not an observation of one of the girls, but of a teacher, Mrs. Chatterjee.)
“I used to find her ludicrous. I don’t know why, now. I mean, she was fanatical about her poetry, but then I was fanatical about my religion, as were my Abba and Mohammad and all my mosque friends. She was an extreme admirer of her Romantic notion of poetry, in the same way that Wahhabis are extremist admirers of their notion of Islam. How could I see the fanaticism in her absolute love for Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley and find it ludicrous, but take my own fanaticism so seriously, so unconditionally?”
Also serious, also unconditional, is a profound and relentless desire (and quest for) change. This sets Ameena apart, not only from others (as described in the following passage) but from the storyteller as well.
“That perhaps was the difference between her and Mohammad. Mohammad had exactly the same opinions and sometimes even the same words. But the words did not leave him bitter and restless; they left him feeling good and righteous. Again and again. Ameena would conclude by lamenting her inability to do anything to change the world.”
Always, there is the pull of tradition. The concern that despite a yearning for change, convention will triumph.
“Was this how I was going to end, another version of my Ammi? Was that all I could do with my life in this world, where there was so much that called out to be done? Was all my reading and piety to end in a kitchen, denying the role that a woman of true faith had to play in this life, of which all of us, men in their ways, women in theirs, would have to submit a full account to Allah?”
It’s clear throughout just how much variation there is amongst any given group of followers. Even readers unfamiliar with the religion can grasp that there are as many differences as similarities, as in the storyteller’s recollections of an Eid Millan enjoyed in London.
“I had not grown up in a family that celebrated festivals in what you might call a ‘cultural manner’. With a few token exceptions for the sake of my Ammi, we had observed them in a kind of bare, denuded style. (Salafist, you say? Well, maybe, if you want to give it a tag.)”
But despite the desire to categorize, to classify, this remains one woman’s story.
“You smile. But you are a man. I don’t know if you believe in God or don’t, let alone the extent of your faith, but trust me, no man, not one Muslim man, no matter how believing, how faithful, how orthodox, has to face a third of the difficulties that orthodox Muslim women encounter in the West.”
Rajni Mala Khelawan’s Kalyana is also preoccupied with women’s experiences in the world.
Given that it is set in Fiji, readers might expect postcard-styled images. “I could hear the sage blow the conch shell in the distance, and the water wash up against the seawall, and the pundit blow on his bansuri, and the frogs croaking in the stillness of night. I heard the strum of an enormous sitar, and the quiet hum of the harmonica, and the howls of the wind, and the echo of a charmer’s flute.”
But in Kalyana, this description is followed by a scene of devastating cruelty.
This kind of scene is infrequent in the novel, but there is an undercurrent of disrespect and prejudice (although our narrator is privileged, as a lighter-skinned girl in a racialised society, so she escapes much of this).
“Unlike many of the Indians in our village, I had chestnut hair, lightly tanned skin, and light brown eyes. My mother would proudly declare to relatives and guests that I looked just like my father.”
Looking like her white father is an advantage in this society, but she craves connection in his absence.
Her mother, too, looks beyond her known territory for inspiration, finding the news of women in North America (burning their bras, protesting unequal treatment) particularly heartening.
“I remember now the delight in my mother’s eyes, delight at the thought that women everywhere were capturing opportunities, making waves, taking stands.”
Kalyana does not recognise the significance of these events for her mother when she is a girl, only understands later. At the time, however, she finds inspiration elsewhere – somewhere readers know well; her love of the library and the books therein is deep and lasting.
“At first, I only chose the books that were wanted by others, but later I sought out those books that were unwanted and unread. I thought that they also deserved to see the world outside this library.”
Although a powerful message exists at the heart of the novel, Kalyana is sometimes over-earnest in its pursuit of it. Attentive readers could have recognized the mother’s delight if it had been shown in a scene (rather than explained in a recollection as above) and would not require additional hand-holding.
Nonetheless, in a political climate which seems to emphasize divisiveness and discrimination, perhaps such concepts need to be spelled out more clearly after all:
“For there was a greater truth: every life, regardless of skin color, place of origin, birth rights, status, and, yes, gender, was entwined with pain and suffering. There was no escaping it. But if we tried to stand tall amidst the chaos and to contemplate, looking inward, we could perhaps learn the lessons and look beyond into a brighter future.”
Whether brighter or not, Connie Willis’ Crosstalk is preoccupied with the future as well, particularly the ways in which technological advancements have impacted communication and identity, the breathless dance between information and curation.
“Baying hounds and shouting mobs all blurred together into a dull roar, the individual voices impossible to identify in the general din. But she could hear every single voice, even though there were now scores of them, railing at her at once, talking over one another.”
Laurence Scott’s musings in The Four-Dimensional Human resound: how does being plugged-in change us, reshape us?
It becomes overwhelming for Briddey. “They poured over her, a torrent of inchoate thoughts and emotions.” And, yet, she is tempted to undergo a medical procedure which invites still more “data”, a procedure pitched to couples as a means of gaining greater intimacy.
Full-fledged emotional contact is the goal, but the process is not streamlined.
“’Those initial, sporadic contacts may be felt by only one of the partners,’ Dr. Verrick was saying, ‘and they can take a variety of forms – a momentary awarenss of your partner’s presence or a feeling of being touched or a sense of happiness. Or more negative sensations. Fear or a prickling of the spine or a sense of being intruded on.'”
And, then again, procedures do not always occur as planned. And, as anyone who’s watched “True Blood” (or read Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series) knows, telepathy is not uncomplicated either.
“People always think being telepathic would be like some cute romantic comedy where you could find out secrets and use them to get what you want. Or find out what your enemies are up to.” You can hear the “BUT” there. Connie Willis is preoccupiedy by that “BUT”.
She is also concerned with the way in which ideas are transmitted across time. Readers of her Hugo/Nebula-winning novel Doomsday Book will recall Kivrin’s difficulties with communication (both within and between time periods), and how she, too, appears to be hearing voices, when she is actually recording and transmitting her experiences of time travel so that her co-workers can learn from her experiences.
In Crosstalk, however, characters want to hear voices (even when it’s arguably poor judgement) and don’t want to hear them (unless circumstances are viewed as perfect).
“I got to thinking about Joan of Arc’s hearing voices and decided to see if ther were any other saints who did. They were – Saint Augustine and Saint Brendan the Navigator and your very own Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick.”
Connie Willis, suitably, arranges Crosstalk so that it is nearly entirely presented in dialogue or direct observation, and although it does feel a little too formal at times to be believable office banter, the pace of the novel moves more quickly than its girth might suggest. The idea is certainly relevant, raising all of the right kinds of questions.
“It’s a paradign shift, all right. In the wrong direction.”
Or, is it? Even Briddey finds refuge in the stacks.
“And we’re safe from the voices, Briddey thought, looking around at the book-lined walls. Even though she knew it was the readers’ thoughts and not the books that screened them, she felt even safer here than she had in the Reading Room.”
In Bakhtiyar Ali’s I Stared at the Night of the City (Trans. Kareem Abdulrahman), storytelling is not necessarily a safe haven.
“I am an honest person, and so you should know from the start that my intentions are not honourable. I, of course, know where to begin and where to go next, but you know nothing of this – and that gives me infinite delight.”
Isn’t that interesting: honest but not honourable? Readers are immediately off-kilter: “Do not treat me as a virtuous storyteller.”
At first, I wondered if this cover illustration suited the story; I was expecting something bold and starkly outlined, a pair of characters at the forefront of an adventure, the setting a formless backdrop.
In fact, there is a sense of being overwhelmed, almost immediately. “God alone knew how many stories were born and perished in my head every day.”
Then, I recognized the wave pattern behind the figures and forms. “This book, which begins simply with Magellan’s story, is in fact more intricate, more multi-dimensional and more interlinked than might at first appear.”
The chapter headings situate readers, in terms of voice (or time, or place) but there are so many things going on that it’s a rush of activity.
“Don’t forget that our book is full of digressions, of untimely questions that force us to retreat to our rooms, lock the doors and mull them over by the dim light of a candle.”
I Stared at the Night of the City is more Tristram Shandy than Alexandre Dumas, more Rabih Alameddine than Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Readers must be prepared to make an investment. And, even so, they will sometimes fall short. “What kind of readers are you? Are you impatient and shortsighted, or do you just forget things from one chapter to the next?”
The storytellers will, however, guide readers as often as they chastise them. “You shouldn’t assume that these are the fictitious feelings of a man not normally interested in poetry but using it now to describe feelings that cannot be put into ordinary words. These were truths I lived with, and witnessed.”
But this is not necessarily an advantage, for readers must recall the declarations made earlier (in those other chapters which may have been forgotten as readers turned the pages).
Musings upon Kurdish identity, the “blood and dreams” of a failed revolution, the difficulties transitioning from life as a mercenary to living as a lover, a bricklayer’s building of “secret shelters and dark prisons”, the weaving of carpets: I Started at the Night of the City situates the reader at the centre of a narrative whirlwind.
Sarah Moss’ The Tidal Zone is also openly preoccupied with the importance of storytelling, considering how we construct the narratives of our lives, what shape specific events take against a back drop of everyday details.
“Stories have endings; that’s why we tell them, for reassurance that there is meaning in our lives. But like a diagnosis, a story can become a prison, a straight road mapped out by the people who went before. Stories are not the truth.
Begin with brokenness. Begin again. We are not all, not only, the characters written by our ancestors.”
Adam is preoccupied with ancestry, with the past as it impacts the present which is still being written. He is looking for explanations for what endures and what is lost.
Mixed with the talk of his everyday life as a stay-at-home father of two girls, are glimpses of the life of an artist whose work is connected with the devastation and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in WWII.
“Suddenly, but not really. There is always a beginning.”
When he traces the events which led to the bombing of Coventry, it’s clear that the losses were not entirely unexpected. Some key personnel could have predicted them, could have informed ordinary people who might have made different decisions in light of the raids.
Similarly, when Adam and Emma’s eldest daughter collapses on the field at school and stops breathing for a spell, one can see elements of risk when one looks back. But, when assembled, do they create a story? And whose story?
“It is normal for children to die. Look at Syria, at Palestine, at Eritrea and Somalia. Look at the tidelines of beaches in Italy and Greece. Look, while we are on the subject, at certain parts of Chicago and Los Angeles. The nurses’ world, the hospital version of normality, is true and what most of us here and now regard as ordinary life is a lie.”
Is there a narrative to be recognized, studied, understood? There is a certain appeal to that idea. But, it depends upon the details in the story.
“We all believe in patterns we do not see. We are all following magic ravens, even when we are lost. Otherwise, there would be no story.”
Whether or not we want a story often depends upon the outcomes. What about this one: “Once upon a time, her body made a mistake and ended itself.”
That’s one ending. And hasn’t it already been said that there is always a beginning? So there must also be an ending. “Fiction is the enemy of history. Fiction makes us believe in structure, in beginnings and middles and endings, in tragedy and comedy.”
Unless there is neither a beginning nor an ending. Only magic ravens which look like beginnings and endings and middles.
Have you been reading any books that talk back to you directly? Or in which storytelling plays a major role?
Which of these do you think you’d be most likely to enjoy?